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Stop, collaborate and listen! Blogging goals for 2015 January 25, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, blogging, internet.
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One of my goals for this year is to post a lot more on this blog, and to do so with a bit more coherence in terms of content and aims. Last year was my year of speaking up. I made a conscious choice to talk more, to join conversations online, and to ignore the little voice saying, ‘but why would they want to speak to you?’ and just see what happened. The result was a whole bunch of new friends, some really interesting conversations, and the courage to raise my voice in situations where previously I would have kept quiet. So I want to build on this and approach blogging — and the entire online conversation about books, media, writing, reviewing and stories — with my intentions laid out clearly from the start.

These intentions can be summed up rather handily with the phrase ‘stop, collaborate and listen’ (with apologies to Vanilla Ice and good taste, I guess). It’s not as silly as it sounds.

Stop
This is probably going to be the hardest element of the three. The current culture of the internet communities in which I hang out is primarily one of passivity: passively reblogging and retweeting other people’s words without engaging or reflecting to any great degree. This is something that is very hard to unlearn. This is not to say that reblogging or retweeting are terrible things in and of themselves: it’s crucial to get other people’s words and perspectives out there, and there are many occasions in which spreading news and information quickly is of critical importance. But I sometimes worry that we’ve sacrificed context and reflection for ease of dissemination.

So when I’m talking about stopping, what I really mean is taking the time to stop, think, and evaluate the wider context in which particular tweets and posts appear. Can I guarantee that the information being spread is correct? Do I have the time to investigate the truth of any given post? Do I have the time to investigate the context in which it appears? Is the poster or source someone whose voice I want to amplify? If not, is there someone else saying the same thing who is more deserving of what little amplification I may provide? Are there multiple people saying the same or similar things, and would the information benefit from adding their voices to the mix? Would a post benefit from additional commentary by me, and do I have the time and ability to provide such commentary? These are all things I’m trying to stop and consider before hitting the reblog button or firing off those 140 characters.

Essentially what I’m saying here is that if I don’t have time to stop and investigate the wider context of something, I don’t have time to hit retweet, reblog or share.

Collaborate
One of the things I love the most about the internet is that it has opened my eyes to myriad, diverse perspectives. I can talk and listen to people from all over the world, people whose life experiences are different to my own, and who carry these experiences with them when telling their own stories or reacting to the stories of others. I am only one person, and no matter how much I listen to and empathise with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different to my own, I can only bring my own perspective to any given piece of media or any given situation. And I think our understanding is enriched and deepened by seeking out a broad range of people and listening to what they have to say.

It is with this in mind that I want to work harder at finding opportunities for collaboration in writing and reviewing. In some situations, co-reviewing might be the way to go, although it remains to be seen whether my blog (read on a good day by about fifty people) is an appropriate venue for such reviews. I also feel very strongly that I should be hosting guest reviews or interviews, but again, my limited reach might be unhelpful in this regard. However, I wanted to at least raise the possibility and say that yes, I am very interested in opportunities for co-reviewing and hosting guest bloggers, and please do get in touch if you want to participate.

There is one other form of collaboration which is a bit more passive, but certainly more achievable by me at the moment. I’m talking about linking to and sharing the words of others. I want to make regular link posts a feature of this blog (probably with a mirror at Dreamwidth). One of the features I admire most in my favourite review blogs is the provision of multiple links to other reviews of the same work so that readers can get a wide range of perspectives and thus a bigger picture of the conversation going on around any given text. That is definitely something I will be incorporating into this blog.

Listen
This is probably the most important goal of all, and it is ultimately all about context. I want to stop and think before sharing the words of others or adding my voice to the conversation, and I want to work with others so that the conversation is enriched by a multiplicity of perspectives, and this involves listening and investigating the wider context. This means finding a balance between the source and the words or actions themselves. I will continue to give more weight to praise and criticism by reviewers praising and criticising depictions of things they themselves have experienced. But I will give even more weight to the words of writers and reviewers who work hard to amplify marginalised voices, who act as mentors, who offer kindness and support, who take abuse and harassment seriously, no matter the target, and who welcome conversation, collaboration and the space for dissent and a diversity of opinion.

That’s why listening is so important. Whereas last year I was trying to find the confidence to speak, now I want to find the patience to listen. My impulse has always been to leap right in, as I feared missing out on important conversations if I didn’t react in real time. But the words will all still be there, and I will still have my spaces in which to respond to them. Listening will allow for a more thoughtful response.

Conclusion
I want to reiterate that these are goals and guidelines for me, and for me alone. If others find them helpful and want to make use of them, feel free, but I intend no prescription here. But I talk so much about judging people by how well their actions match their stated intentions that I thought laying my own intentions out here would give me a bit of accountability. We’ll see if I live up to these lofty intentions of my own at the end of 2015, at which point I will pause for reflection and, if necessary, adjust or rework my goals. For now, however, they seem like a good place to start.

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Fell from my heart and landed in my eyes August 25, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, music, reviews.
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In matters of music, I tend to be so behind trends that I’m left chasing the dust of the bandwagon. And while I’m happy to throw myself with glee towards the latest manufactured pop act, if a singer has indie credentials and favourable reviews in the music press – in short, if he or she is the festival darling du jour – I am skeptical.

Hence it taking me two years to bother listening to Florence + The Machine.

Her very ubiquity turned me off. It was not until one friend made a playlist that included ‘Cosmic Love’, and another gave me the whole Lungs album that I realised what I’d been missing. I was hooked. I listened to the album seven times in a row last night, and then went back and forth replaying the four songs that really sang to me: ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, ‘Drumming Song’, ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’.

I wasn’t at all surprised at the suddenness and depth of my love. My favourite music, the stuff I really cling to and identify with, could all be termed ’emotional, quirkily black-humoured, usually ethereal female vocalists’: the soaring voices of the female guest-vocalists of Massive Attack, The Knife, with their way with dark words that enables them to interweave Vikings, ‘Scandinavian socialism’ and misogyny in one song, and the rich grief and strength of country singers like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

The music of Florence + The Machine possesses these qualities in abundance. I’ve seen her described as a kind of musical Angela Carter, and I think the description is very apt. Her songs are a kind of dark fairytale, a metaphorical maze of mirrors and animal imagery. She sings about woman as body laid bare, not just naked but dissected, cut open and reduced to its component parts. And she does it with such compassion, beauty, sorrow, jubilation and power that I’m left feeling like I’ve been run over by a train after listening.

I feel that ’empowering’ is a complicated word and should be used with care, but I know of at least a couple of friends who found Florence’s music to be a source of strength at difficult times in their lives, and I personally found two songs in particular extremely empowering, whatever that word means. They are ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’, and to say that they reflect my own personal experience would be an understatement. You may recall that when I write about music, I tend to look for connections between songs, and in particular identify two songs as being a linked pair in some manner. I feel very strongly that, at least from my perspective, these two Florence songs are a linked pair.

It may be obvious when you listen and look at the lyrics that to me, ‘Cosmic Love’ is about loving someone who is deeply inappropriate and hurtful, while those of ‘Blinding’ are about waking up from that love and walking once again in the daylight and the spring and the sunshine. That’s what they say to me, but I have a particular set of experiences and a tendency to seek the words of others in order to mythologise these experiences and give them voice. I would not be so presumptuous as to declare that that is what the words mean to Florence or to other listeners.

There are so many other words and stories behind these songs. There is addiction (which doesn’t necessarily have to be to a person). There are Russian fairytales. There is Snow White and Persephone (and Florence is by no means the first person to make this connection). There is so much feeling it is almost unbearable, if not for the fact that the feelings being articulated are my own, and they are so perfectly articulated that they give me bravery and strength. They give me a voice.

‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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This was my involuntary response after (and during) reading Savage City, the third book in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy. I read the book with a kind of desperate, yearning hunger. I’d been waiting for it for several years, I loved its characters (in particular, its heroine, fierce, introverted, determined Una), and I couldn’t bear not knowing how things would end.

The last time I read a book like that, I was 22, and it was the final Harry Potter book. I think this is significant, because the last time before that, I would’ve been in high school, reading Darksong, the follow-up to Isobelle Carmody’s Darkfall. And, indeed, this was the way I read all my favourite books, as a child and teenager.

I devoured them, much the same way as Sara Crewe (a childhood heroine) is said to ‘devour books’ in A Little Princess. Their characters were as real, as close to me, as real people. Their lives mattered as much or more. I felt every blow that landed upon them, and I wanted their happiness with a fierceness that I couldn’t even believe I was capable of feeling. When I read those books, curled up in the wing chair in the living room, my feet resting on the coffee table, as a child and teenager in Canberra, I was oblivious to everything else, as my family will attest. I didn’t hear when people spoke to me. I didn’t notice when the natural light disappeared. My heart-rate increased. My mouth was dry. I was terrified for the characters.

I’m so much more detached these days. Oh, I still enjoy books, and I still find books that I love, but it is a different kind of love, a different kind of enjoyment. Less emotional investment and identification, more literary analysis and serenity. More thinking, less feeling.

I cannot regret these changes. They snuck up on me as quietly and imperceptibly as the day I looked at my old dolls and realised I no longer knew how to play. That girl, who cried for three days without stopping upon reading the ending of The Amber Spyglass, who rewrote Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles because she couldn’t bear not knowing what happened to Pagan, who finished the sixth Harry Potter book and then sat on the floor, literally beating her fists on the floorboards, begging her sister and mother to finish the book so she could talk to someone, anyone, about what had just happened, she is both me, and not me. I lived like that, I felt like that, it shaped me and strengthened me and taught me.

She was me, she is me, and I love her. But she is mostly gone.

And that is why I am so grateful to Romanitas, and to Sophia McDougall. She has written something that allowed me to get back, if only for a few hours, to that place, to that girl, once more. It was wonderful. It was perfect. It could never have been any other way. But it was exhausting. Loving in such a fierce, desperate, focused way, caring that much, feeling that much – I honestly don’t know how I did it.

How I stopped worrying, and learnt to love Lent Term March 1, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, uni.
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I don’t tend to do too well during Lent Term. It’s partly due to the lack of daylight, which by Australian winter standards is pathetic (10am to 4.30ish pm), and it’s partly due to the fact that Lent Term is when it starts to get serious, workwise. Last year, I went a little bit crazy, although it probably didn’t help that I spent about five weeks in the lead-up to Lent Term spending all my days alone in my room drinking various alcoholic beverages…

I spent most of this term being very tense. Every two weeks or so, I’d hand some work in to my supervisor, and every meeting she would say that it was not at a high enough standard. I started to despair, thinking that I was incapable of writing research at a level higher than an MPhil. At the same time, I was preparing for my first-ever conference paper, which caused the Return of Panic!Ronni, Now With Added Hysteria. My friends must’ve got very sick of me, as every time anyone asked how I was, I would launch into a litany of shrieking complaints about how terrified I was about the conference.

At some point, though, I realised I had to pull myself together. I had been having trouble writing in my room, so switched to working mainly in libraries and cafes, with excellent results. Every so often, I’ll get a psychological block about writing under certain circumstances (I’ll suddenly be incapable of writing on a computer, or in the University Library, or in the department common room), but I’ve found that if I simply change my writing circumstances (write by hand with a pen, move to a different library, try writing at a different time of day) I can unblock my writer’s block. That’s what I started doing. I worked in libraries in the morning, then came home, went for a run, ate lunch, and worked in cafes in the afternoon. I wrote everything by hand in exercise books, which meant a bit of extra work transcribing the writing, but it was worth it. I’m now sitting on 5000 words (as well as about 15,000 other words that aren’t really up to scratch).

But the best thing about those 5000 words? My supervisor said they were good, and that the new line of inquiry I’ve been following is a worthwhile topic. After she said that, I felt as if I were walking on air! The thing about my supervisor is that she expects a lot, and she’s fair but firm. This means that when she says my work is good, I can confidently expect it to need very little improvement. She reads everything thoroughly and won’t give empty compliments, so when she’s happy, I know it’s with good reason. She really gets what is meant by ‘constructive criticism’.

And what about the conference? Well, I was very frightened on the day. (My friend J and I, who were both giving our first papers, were sharing a hand-out for the talk before mine, and neither of us could hold the hand-out as our hands were shaking so much!) But the thing about me is that I have such a strong sense of shame that I’ll work hard to avoid being ashamed or embarrassed by anything. (When I was a child, it was even worse. It was fear that motivated me to study, because I was so terrified of making mistakes and having people think I was ‘stupid’. I managed to get through so many gymnastics competitions without a hitch – without falling or stumbling or slipping – because I would’ve been so ashamed to look bad in front of the judges.) It’s a handy trait to have, because although I’d prefer to be motivated solely out of love for my research, I think that fear is a stronger motivator. Thus, although I was freaked out about giving my paper, I was more terrified of giving it badly, and so I forced myself to speak with a well-modulated voice (having journalist parents is good training for this!), gesture with my hands, make eye-contact, make sure I was pronouncing the Irish words as correctly as I could manage and prepare for the sorts of questions that I felt people would ask.

Once I was done, I actually found I’d rather enjoyed the whole thing, and was looking forward to doing some more conferences. This chimes with my previous experiences of public speaking: I’m terrified the first time, but once I’ve done it, I rather enjoy it. I used to love giving tutorial presentations as an undergrad and high-school student.

[Look! Here’s my name on a real, live conference program! It’s in the PDF, and you can see me listed as one of the committee members for last year’s conference, when I helped organise it.]

I feel like I’ve jumped over a massive hurdle with this conference, and nothing will daunt me now until I move on from graduate conferences to conferences with a mixture of postgrads and academics. But that won’t be for a year or so.

My next big lot of work is my registration piece (10,000 words, plus my proposed chapter structure, plus an annotated bibliography, plus a report on training I’ve been doing, plus a mini-viva), which is coming up in just under two months. I’ve got all the necessary writing, but it’s not at a good enough standard yet. Oh well, that’s what the holidays are for!

The frozen North, the sunburnt South January 10, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, university, work.
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That is a satellite image of Britain as it is at the moment. I’ve just got back from a month in Australia, where I spent pretty much every morning swimming at the beach. As you can imagine, I was shocked at the contrast.

My time in Australia was a mixture of nostalgia and happiness. It was very odd to return, and at times I felt like the typical exile that I write about, a person who lives in a foreign land, and then returns home to find that it’s not ‘home’ any more. But for the most part, my trip back was enjoyable, and it was wonderful to see all my friends and family again.

I landed in Melbourne first, and spent about five days staying with my dad, stepmother and two little half-sisters. The time was marred only by the fact that Dad had giardia, and looked rather emaciated. But it was fantastic to see my youngest sisters, who are growing up so quickly that they seem like different people every time I visit them.

I also managed to see several other friends while I was in Melbourne, which was excellent.

After that I flew to Sydney, for what turned out to be a three-week-long catch-up fest. The first night I was there, I went to a housewarming for two of my usydgroup friends, and the day after that, pretty much everyone I knew in Sydney (and some Canberrans) turned up for a picnic that I organised at Bronte. I had my first swim of the holiday there, and it was great.

I saw most of those people (a mixture of usydgroupians, Canberrans and others) a couple of other times during my trip, but it was great to see them all together, especially at an event that I’d organised, as I find organising and hosting events very stressful.

I saw a lot of my extended family. I was living with my mum and my sister (who had just moved back home) of course, but I also saw a lot of my grandparents, four of my aunts (the fifth was on holiday in Japan, Korea and Thailand), most of my cousins and my uncles. I also managed to catch up with one of my Obernet friends for lunch and secondhand bookshopping in Newtown. Raphael and his mother drove up from Canberra for a few days, and it really meant a lot to me that they did this primarily to visit me. We had a great time browsing the bookshops in the CBD.

Aside from all the socialising, I managed to spend some time earning money by working in my old patisserie where I worked as an undergrad. It was the Christmas lead-up, so it was insane, of course. I realised how much I enjoyed doing that work, which makes me worry that it may be the only job I ever completely enjoy doing. I suspect I’m destined to work in that patisserie on and off until the day I die.

It was a good trip, but it raised lots of troubling emotions. Although I relished seeing everyone again, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward, as though I was trying to force myself into a space that no longer existed. I suspect that this feeling might’ve lessened if I’d remained longer. It’s hard to explain, but if you go away for this long, people (of course) do things without you. Their lives change without you. I’m not saying these changes are for the worse, just that you realise that the universe goes on without you. Time doesn’t stop for you.

Of course, as soon as I got back to Cambridge, I wanted to go back to Australia. The snow, which was such a novelty last year, is a pain this year. I can’t run outside or I’ll slip on the black ice. (I saw some hardy souls running in shorts today. Their knees were bright red with the cold.) The lack of sunlight depresses me.

Most of all, I lapse back into childhood the second I spend any time with my mother. Although I’ve always been able to handle the more practical aspects of independence (cooking, cleaning, shopping, budgeting etc), I’ve always been incredibly emotionally dependent on my mother. It takes me about a month to regain my emotional resilience after seeing her. At the moment, however, I just want a hug.

Same, same but different October 28, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, university.
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My first PhD year has begun not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a series of small volcanoes. It seems everything that could go wrong went wrong.

First up was a housing crisis. As I was not sure until mid-August that I had the funding to continue with my PhD, I had given up my old lease, thinking to save money. This, of course, required me to flit between London and Cambridge, from friends’ couch to spare bedroom to floor, in a rather chaotic, peripatetic manner. This caused all kinds of problems, ranging from living out of a suitcase, wearing the same four outfits over and over again, to getting on the bad side of college and being woken in the middle of the night by angry porters.

Almost as soon as I had my own roof over my head, I had a computer crisis. My college, until last year, did not require Mac users to run a virus scan in order to use the college network. This year, all that changed, and I was forced to suffer the indignity of installing McAfee antivirus software on my poor computer. Bernard, my computer, liked it no better than I did. The internet slowed to a dial-up speed crawl, and constantly froze. After several hysterical conversations with both my college tutor and my supervisor (who was so outraged she considered forcing college to pay for a new computer), I got one of the local tech-heads to fix Bernard for me. Everything’s working fine now, but if you know anything about me, you’ll know that depriving me of internet for two weeks will not be a pretty sight.

Once that was sorted out, I got a cold of epic proportions. My old doctor used to prescribe me with seretide, taken through an asthma puffer. If I used it twice a day in the few days when my throat started to feel scratchy, the worst symptoms of the cold would normally pass me by. She did this because until the age of 23, I got colds so badly that they’d last for months, causing me to get a hacking cough that would continue ceaselessly, giving me sleepless nights and aching muscles. So when I got the Cold From Hell, I went to my Cambridge doctor, hoping to get a new prescription. No such luck. ‘That’s a steroid’, he said, when I showed him my seretide puffer. ‘You’ll become dependent on it if you use it too much.’ As my friend said to me when I complained about this, ‘You’re kind of dependent on breathing, too.’ Well, no breathing for Ronni, apparently.

I’m finally better from the cold, and all healthy and ready to face whatever disaster Cambridge next throws at me.

I’m enjoying my first PhD year so far. After struggling to write for ages, I did what I always do when I’m getting writers’ (and researchers’) block: schedule a meeting with my supervisor, which tends to scare me into getting back to work. It worked: I’ve now written nearly 2000 words in two days! Only 78,000 to go!

I’m sitting in on a lot of undergrad classes. My favourite is probably Medieval Irish, where we whip through texts at a much greater speed than we did last year. We’re currently translating Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’), which is part legal text, part wisdom literature. It’s all about how to be a good ruler. I’m also taking second-year Latin, where we’re translating St Patrick’s rather idiosyncratic Confessio, and Welsh, where we’re translating the seriously baffling Canu Urien (‘Songs of Urien’). Finally, I’m taking beginners’ Modern Irish, which I love.

As far as life goes, I’m happy, but it’s a happiness tinged with nostalgic melancholy. Last year was just so perfect that it was always going to be impossible to top. I think part of the reason I loved 2008-2009 was because I’d been so miserable for so long before that. It was not going to be hard to have a better year than 2007! And so my friends in my department were kindred spirits, both in their love of all things obscurely medieval and in their love of the pub. My housemates were perfect (aside from the inability of some of them to do the washing up), and they became not merely the people I lived with, but good friends. I have to try hard not to make unfair comparisons, but it’s difficult. I’m in the same house, but with entirely different people, and the dynamic of the house has changed. None of my close MPhil friends continued on for the PhD, and to make matters worse, many of my good undergrad and postgrad friends also graduated.

Last academic year was so good in so many ways. It gave me the confidence I’d always been lacking. It gave me the sense of place for which I’d always been searching. It gave me the sense of purpose for which I’d always yearned. It was always going to be a hard act to follow, but I never imagined it would be this hard. Up until last year, I always looked back with nostalgia at previous stages in my life, wishing I could do them again. I did not do so last academic year, and imagined myself to have broken the cycle. Apparently I have not.

‘All’s there to love/ Only love’ August 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, life, memories, music, reviews.
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This is not the post I intended to write. This is the post that came to me in an opium-induced dream…er, no. This is the post that popped into my head as I was wandering back from Mill Road, trying to think of ways to avoid packing my belongings up in preparation for moving house. The idea, however, has been bubbling around in my mind since Raphael came to visit in April. We were talking about music, and about the first band, song or album that caused us to really listen to music in a different way.

For me, that band was Massive Attack. The album was Mezzanine. The song was ‘Risingson’. The year was 2001.

When you are a child or young teenager, you listen to music in a rather undiscriminating way (I use ‘you’ to mean ‘me’, of course). The first people to inform your tastes are your parents, and you listen to their music in a rather passive way. You might end up preferring several bands over others, but you do not yet have the tools to articulate why. Thus, I liked The Pogues, Paul Simon, Deborah Conway, Steeleye Span and Annie Lennox, but didn’t really have any reason for doing so beyond a vague sense of liking the sound.

The same goes for when you get a little older and begin to be influenced more by your friends, the radio and music videos (well, if you’re a 90s child who grew up watching Rage and Video Hits or their equivalents). You like certain songs and bands because the people around you like them. Hence, Savage Garden, Hanson, Regurgitator, Backstreet Boys, Silverchair, Aqua and a truly bizarre parade of one-hit wonders (The Mavises? Eiffel 65? Shanks and Bigfoot?). But again these are the tastes of other people and not your own.

So what changes? Well, for me at least (a person who loves to reduce life to a series of ‘She turned a corner and everything changed’ moments), I listened to one song, and then one album, by one band, and it totally changed the way I listened to music, to the extent to which I believe that nothing I did before that moment can truly be called ‘listening to music’.

When I was 16, in early 2001, I went around to an acquaintance’s house with a bunch of other friends. We were meant to be preparing for a group oral presentation on Oedipus Rex for our English class, but, as in so many cases, we abandoned work in favour of socialising. One of my friends put on a CD. It was Mezzanine by Massive Attack.

I had heard their song ‘Teardrop’ before; it had been all over the airwaves in 2000, and I had enjoyed it and been seriously creeped out by its video clip. But I hadn’t thought about the band beyond that. As the scratchy, sinister notes of ‘Angel’ melded with Horace Andy’s silky singing, I pricked up my ears, and began to really listen. By the time we’d got to the next track, ‘Risingson’, I had begun to do something I’d never done before when listening to music: listening with half my ear attuned to the lyrics (which I was analysing like a literary text) and half my ear attuned to the way the lyrics and sound were perfectly fused:

‘Where have all those flowers gone?
Long time passing
Why you keep me tsk and keep me tasking
You keep on asking.’

Before the year was out, I’d bought Mezzanine and Massive Attack’s two other albums, Blue Lines and Protection (Hundredth Window had not been released at that stage). Although Mezzanine remained my favourite (and is, in fact, my favourite album still), I adored the earlier albums too. But why? Why would albums about race relations, immigration and the transformed culture of early 90s Britain (Blue Lines and Protection) and about disgust with the hedonism of the Bristol scene (Mezzanine, which is also meant to be the best album to get high to) have anything to say to a nerdy, middle-class, shy Canberran teenager?

Well, it was the twofold nature of Massive Attack’s lyrics that appealed. On the one hand, they were highly specific, tied to trip-hop, Bristol, Britain, the 90s. On the other, they reached out for the universal with literary and musical allusions. They were at once intensely self-absorbed and personal and overwhelmingly communicative and broadly-focused.

Take ‘Five Man Army’, the fifth track from Blue Lines. The song is packed with internal references to the band (‘Wild Bunch crew at large’) and its history (‘When I was a child I played subbuteo on/ My table then I graduate to studio one/ ’Cos D’s my nom de plume you know but 3’s my pseudonym’). At the same time, it manages to squeeze in a selection of pop-cultural shout-outs (‘I take a small step now it’s a giant stride/ People say I’m loud why should I hide’; ‘See we’re rockin’ in your area rock beneath your balcony/ My baby just cares for me well that’s funny/ Her touch tickles especially on my tummy’; ‘It’s started by Marconi resumed by Sony/ A summary by wireless history and only’; and, arguably, ‘Money money money/ Root of all evil’). There are a series of thematic riffs running through the song, melded coherently, dropped and picked up again at exactly the right place but emphasised in a slightly different way (‘I quietly observe/ Though it’s not my space’ subtly reworks the opening lyrics of ‘I quietly observe/ Standing in my space’, for example). This is a rap song, the type of rap song that is all about talking oneself up, but it’s posturing via literary allusion rather than the usual bragging about one’s car, posse and sexual prowess.

Aside from the lines ‘I quietly observe standing in my space/ Daydreaming’, which has become a kind of personal mantra, ‘Five Man Army didn’t really speak to me in any kind of meaningful way (although I gained great pleasure unpicking the lyrics and musing on the way they fitted together). But there are many Massive Attack songs that seemed to be written especially for me.

‘Protection’ spoke directly to my teenage loneliness, my (misplaced, as it turns out) sense of grief and my desire to be cared for. It sounds pathetic now, but when I was 17, and entering my second year of unrequited love, hearing the beautiful voice of Tracy Thorn singing

This girl I know needs some shelter
She don’t believe anyone can help her
She’s doing so much harm, doing so much damage
But you don’t want to get involved
You tell her she can manage
And you can’t change the way she feels
But you could put your arms around her

I know you want to live yourself
But could you forgive yourself
If you left her just the way
You found her

meant so much. Every time I hear that song, I remember all my wasted emotion on a guy I referred to in my diaries as ‘You’ (with the capital Y) and stared at in what I thought was a wanly plaintive expression across classrooms.

All teenagers have a misguided sense of the significance of their own suffering, but I’m grateful that my personal emo soundtrack was ‘Protection’ and not ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’.

If I was an emo, I was also a wannabe hippie. I kid you not when I say that as a teenager I truly intended to live out my adult days as an environmental protester. And, would you believe it, Massive Attack have a hippie, ‘everyone hold hands together and sing kumbaya’ song. It’s called ‘The Hymn of the Big Wheel’, and it is sung by the incomparable Horace Andy, and it is beautiful.

I’d like to feel that you could be free
Look up at the blue skies beneath a new tree
Sometime again
You’ll turn green and the sea turns red
My son I said the power of axis over my head
The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone
On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green come tumbling down
Yes close your eyes and hold me tight
And I’ll show you sunset sometime again

I challenge you to listen to this and not be moved. It has an innocence and purity, and a knowing cynicism all at once. It could only have been written in the 90s, with the environmental movement hovering in the background, and the potential of the internet as a tool of both distance and closeness hovering beyond the comprehension of most people. The song makes you want to dance barefoot in the mud and watch the clouds, and then burst into tears at the thought of the butchered Tasmanian rainforests.

Then there’s the truly bizarre ‘Sly’. ‘I already know my children’s children’s faces/ Voices that I’ve heard before’. What the hell is that all about? And then we come to:

I feel like a thousand years have passed
I’m younger than I used to be
I feel like the world is my home at last
I know everyone that I meet […]

Wondering is this there all there is
Since I was since I began to be
Wondering, wandering
Where we can do what we please
Wondering

If you think about those lyrics, you know all you’ll ever need to know to understand me as I was then, as I am now, and as I will always be. ‘Sly’ expresses a mindset of mine that is expressed in a similar way by Jo Walton in The King’s Peace, the first volume of her two-part Arthurian alt-history series:

What it is to be old is to remember things that nobody else alive can remember. I always say that when people ask me about my remarkable long life. Now they can hear me when I say it. Now, when I am ninety-three and remember so many things that are to them nothing but bright legends long ago and far away. I do not tell them that I said that first when I was seventeen, and felt it too…So I have been old by my own terms since I was seventeen.

– Jo Walton, The King’s Peace, Penguin, p ix.

I haven’t even got on to Mezzanine yet. In my mind, no one will ever make a more perfect album. (I know this is a controversial opinion among Massive Attack fans, since this was the album that caused serious fractures in the bands and marked a departure from Massive Attack’s original sound.) It is a brilliant, coherent unity of words, sound and theme. The songs can be paired to give a broader, more complex understanding of their writers’ ideas.

For example, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a record of a destructive, unsatisfying relationship from the guy’s perspective. He knows there’s something not quite right going on (‘Will you take a string/ Say you string me along’), but he chooses to ignore it, so he can get some action, essentially. Two songs later (and it’s significant that the song between is called ‘Exchange’, since we exchange points of view) is ‘Dissolved Girl’, the same story told from the perspective of the girl. Only now do we have the complete story. She doesn’t love him, and he knows it, but says nothing. She stays because the alternative is worse, and says nothing. He can feel the inertia creeping, moving up slowly, and says nothing. She stays, despite the fact that the relationship is destroying her sense of self (‘Shame, such a shame/ I think I kind of lost myself again’). We’re meant to lose ourselves in love, but surely staying in a loveless relationship and allowing whatever happens to happen causes an equal loss of identity. A dissolution. It’s seriously powerful stuff, and I wish I could say that I appreciate it solely on an intellectual level.

Moving along, we come to what are in my opinion the ‘Big Three’ of the album (I adore ‘Teardrop’ to bits, but it’s so overplayed, and I will limit myself to saying that its lines ‘Love, love is a verb/ Love is a doing word’ are among my favourite song lyrics ever, and Liz Fraser’s vocals are incredible) – ‘Black Milk’, ‘Mezzanine’ and ‘Group Four’.

‘Black Milk’ has an illusion of simplicity. Its lines are short, brief, and almost curt. But a closer look reveals hidden depths. The hovering, dark notes of the music evokes the watery, dark corners of the ocean floor, and I almost picture a series of bizarre marine creatures, the lights on their bodies illuminating the gloom in the higher points of the music. Liz Fraser’s voice is incredible, cutting through the sinister music with shimmering clarity. The sound is amazingly cold, and amazingly pure. And what of the words themselves? They are beautiful, but kind of creepy at the same time:

Eat me
In the space
Within my heart

Unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which are about being lost in the lack of love, ‘Black Milk’ is about being lost in love:

All’s there to love
Only love

Next up is ‘Mezzanine’, in my opinion the most perfect song ever written (it could only be more perfect if it had a female singer soaring in above 3D and Daddy G). What can I say about it that I haven’t said already? I associate it with the SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ‘TROY GAME’ BOOKS relationship between Asterion/Weyland and Cornelia/Eaving/Noah in Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series, which is my model for Great Love And Its Power To Save The World And All People. Even as the lyrics allude to something I believe deeply (that true love is the instigator of personal improvement, and if it doesn’t change you, it’s not love), they are playfully punning:

I could be yours
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine

We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
Will see to
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
We can unwind all our flaws

Flaws-floors. The song’s called ‘Mezzanine’. Get it? It’s glorious stuff. (By the way, you might’ve noticed that I changed the lyrics from ‘All these have flaws’ as the lyrics website has to ‘All these other flaws’. I may be wrong, but I think that the lyrics should read ‘All these other flaws’. It makes more sense if the song is punning on flaws-floors.)

Finally we have ‘Group Four’, which acts as a counterpoint to the bleakness of ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’. This song is sung by a man (3D) and a woman (Liz Fraser), unlike ‘Inertia Creeps’ and ‘Dissolved Girl’, which each have only one singer. They are in harmony. They are not lost and dissolved and inert. They are found. She is a person again, with a sense of self (‘See through me little glazed lane/ A world in myself/ Ready to sing’). He has lost his apathy and inertia (‘Flickering I roam’ and ‘I see to bolts/ Put keys to locks/ No boat are rocked/ I’m free to roam’). All is right with the world.

I could go on, but this post is now longer than some of the essays I’ve had to write for uni, and I don’t know how short your attention spans are. I’ve put a lot of myself into this post, and it is more personal than anything I would normally write on this particular blog, but it had to be said. Massive Attack absolutely changed the world for me. They made me listen to music in a different way, and have had an extraordinary influence on the way I appreciated both my old favourite bands and every new song I heard. Never before had music shown me both the world, and myself, more clearly.

Master of Philosophy? July 21, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, memories, uni.
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I can’t believe it’s been a month since I updated this blog! I feel incredibly guilty about that, since so much has been happening. My mother’s just left for Heathrow after staying here for six weeks, during which time we went to Spain, walked 22 miles to Ely, and ate way too much Indian food, but before I talk about all that, I’d like to fill you in on the biggest news: I graduated!

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Me with my snazzy Cambridge degree.

Like all things related to Cambridge, the graduation ceremony was poorly organised and highly ritualised. We were told that it would begin at 11 o’clock. We were to present ourselves for inspection (we had to be correctly dressed) at college at 10 o’clock, and our guests had to be at Senate House by 10.50. When we got to college, we were informed that the ceremony would actually start at midday. I had no way to contact my mother, as she had my phone, which was switched off. So I sat in the SBR with one of my housemates, watching appalling reality TV on the computer, agonising about my poor guests.

After an hour, we started our procession through town. This is a tradition for the graduation ceremony, and I’m certainly glad I am a member of a college that’s close to Senate House. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to process from somewhere like Girton, running the inevitable gauntlet of gawking, camera-happy tourists.

The ceremony itself was very quick: no long-winded, patronising speeches like at Sydney. You (I swear I’m not making this up) hold the college Praelector’s fingers, he says some Latin over you, you kneel down in front of the Vice-Chancellor (in our case it was the Vice-Chancellor’s representative), she says some more Latin over you (‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ – non-Christian monotheists can opt out with ‘in the name of God’, but there’s no opt-out phrasing for atheists or polytheists, unfortunately), you walk away and someone hands you your degree. You then hang around outside Senate House until the session is over and then everyone swarms out to congratulate you.

It felt a bit more anticlimactic than when I graduated from Sydney, simply because I graduated with college people rather than my friends from my course (although two of them were at my session). Somehow it’s more meaningful and more poignant and more significant to graduate surrounded by those who went through everything with you.

Prior to graduating, I’ve been having a grand time. Mum got here just before I handed in my dissertation, and it was a great relief to have her there during the final stages. Hand-in was followed by May Week, Cambridge’s traditional week of debauched excess. My May Week kicked off with the John’s May Ball, which was absolutely insane. Imagine the most over-the-top funfair+formal+barbecue+bar+al fresco dining+dance party+rave+jazz club+indie music street festival and you still haven’t quite encompassed all that the May Ball was. I had a fabulous time, but the not-quite-closet socialist in me felt a bit outraged at the excess of it all. I probably wouldn’t go again unless I was taking someone from home to show them ‘the Cambridge lifestyle’.

I followed the May Ball with several more sedate May Week activities: a couple of garden parties, which were all about the Pimm’s and the finger food. At these I caught up with the ASNaCs, which made me a little melancholy. So many of my ASNaC friends are third-year undergrads, and won’t be coming back next year.

After May Week I disappeared to London for a bit with Mum, where we stayed with friends. She did a few interviews for work and I caught up with one of my oldest friends from Canberra and her boyfriend. She was in the UK for a conference and they’d decided to make a bit of a holiday of it. I hadn’t seen her for nine months, so it was amazing to catch up.

Then it was time to return to the ‘Bridge for my viva, a nerve-wracking experience akin to being dragged across a bed of nails while having your hair pulled out strand by strand. Nothing about it was pleasant, and the examiners’ comments were interesting, to say the least, but I must have done acceptably, because my marks were good enough for me to continue for a PhD. Funding, however, remains elusive. Fingers crossed.

After the viva, Mum and I went off to Spain for eight days. We went to Madrid (where we visited three great art galleries: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Reina Sofia and the Prado, as well as unexpectedly finding a fantastic Annie Leibovitz exhibition). We spent a lot of time walking around the Retiro park, where Mum got some hilarious footage of people rowing around a tiny pond, and even paying money to be taken around said pond on a little steamboat. If I can, I’ll upload it here.

After Madrid, we spent four days in Barcelona, where we mostly hung around in the gothic district of the city, apart from one day when we walked to Parc Güell, the crowning glory of Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona. (I was hoping to see people with glowing eyes running around, à la Röyksopp’s ’49 Percent’ but alas, it was not to be.)

I’d never been to Spain before, and was most impressed at what good food you could get for basically nothing. Most places had a breakfast special (coffee, pastry or sandwich and orange juice) for about 3-4 euro, and a lunch special (three courses, drinks and bread) for 8-16 euro.

After Spain, we came back to the ‘Bridge for a few more days, then went to London, where I caught up with yet another visiting-for-a-conference old school friend (we’ve known one another since we were 11) and went on an excellent walk around Hampstead Heath. It’s amazing that such a beautiful place exists within such a huge, noisy city.

Then it was back to Cambridge for graduation and various admin-related tasks. I’m about to head off to Ireland for a Modern Irish language course, and I’ve been trying to organise that. But the whole thing was tinged with sadness. Over the past six weeks, I’ve unlearned all the independence that I gained over the nine months I’ve been away. Having my mother here was wonderful beyond words. For all I love my new friends, there’s nothing like having someone around to whom you don’t even have to explain yourself, who gets you on a level beyond language. I coped before, and I will cope again, but the initial stretching of the umbilical cord is going to be painful.

It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiney day May 24, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in life, university.
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I realised that I hadn’t written about Cambridge for a while, so I thought I might remedy that. Easter Term has been very see-saw-y. Very up and down. My moods swung according to how well I felt I was going on my dissertation. Early on in the term, when I was very lost, I felt appalling. I inflicted my whining on everyone around me, wailing about how I just wanted to go back home to Australia. But as soon as I met my supervisor and told her that I was stuck, she pointed me towards St Anselm and the concept of the individual, and I never looked back.

After that, writing came easily. I aimed to write between 500 and 1000 words a day on days when I was writing, which meant that my dissertation proceeded at a leisurely amble – just the way I like it. I finished my draft on Wednesday (we had to hand in the drafts on Friday) and have been essentially celebrating ever since. I remember that same feeling of relief when I wrote my Honours thesis. Just seeing those 15,000 words sitting there, the result of seven months of research and reading and editing and translating and fobbing off your supervisor, is an amazing feeling.

The only other piece of assessment we had this term was a take-home essay on our seminar texts. We got given the questions (which were really just a series of words – ‘distance’, ‘illumination’, ‘interaction’ and so on) on a Thursday and had to hand the essays in the following Monday. I chose ‘interaction’ and wrote about the interaction between past and present in Virgil’s Aeneid, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and Beowulf. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed it. I love writing exercises of this kind. They were what I loved most about being an undergrad, too. Some people are in academia for research, and some are here for the writing, and I, unfortunately, am here for the writing. I suspect this may cause problems further down the line…

There’s been less socialising this term because everyone is very busy; MPhils with dissertations, undergrads with exam revision. Even so, I’ve managed to get out to ASNaC pub most Fridays and do whatever other fun stuff I could manage. There’s been a lot of movie-watching and afternoon coffee followed by browsing in Borders.

Last week I went with one of my housemates and one of my other friends to a country fair at Grantchester. We (all of us are from countries outside the UK) came away convinced that this country is insane. There was a sheep-shearing exhibition, a dude showing off his hawks and owls, a bunch of medieval reenactment people and a Punch and Judy show. We probably spent more time laughing at inappropriate moments than was strictly necessary.

I wish I could say more, somehow, about what this term has been about, but I haven’t quite sorted out in my mind what defined Easter Term. Michaelmas was all about the ‘ooh, shiny Cambridgeness’, and Lent was all about despair (not helped by the gloomy weather), but Easter’s been oddly schizophrenic. I’ve had moments of ‘what the hell did I think I was doing, coming here?’ followed by periods of undying love for Cambridge, my friends and my subject. I’ve had periods of writers’ block-filled self-doubt, and bursts of joy at how much I love my dissertation topic and how much fun I’ve had writing it. I’ve locked myself in my room with Bailey’s and chocolate, and I’ve danced in the living room with my housemates as we watched the Eurovision Song Contest.

In short, I’ve had the full range of human experiences, and I’ve loved every one of them.

Under the ‘Bridge March 24, 2009

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The two people who read this blog might be wondering why it’s been so long since I’ve written about life in Cambridge. The answer is that until today, I simply couldn’t bear to do so. Lent Term hit me with the full force of a slap in the face, and for the eight weeks of its duration I felt as if I had been thrown into a pit of quicksand, while an army of leprechauns squeezed my heart through a clothes wringer and stamped repeatedly on my face. Florid metaphors aside, Lent Term was a grind.

Old Cambridge hands tell me it is ever thus. You spend Michaelmas Term floating around, in awe at your own cleverness and the old buildings and well-stocked libraries. Then the sun goes away and you realise that you might actually have to do some work if you’re going to survive, and more importantly, get paid to write about obscure medieval texts written in a dead language.

The main piece of assessment in Lent Term for me was two exams, euphemistically termed ‘Written Exercises’. Mine were in Latin (first year) and medieval Irish (second year). Three things you should know about me:
1. I don’t like exams;
2. I hadn’t taken an exam since mid-2005; and
3. I really, really don’t like exams.

For most of the term, although I was revising solidly, I walked around with this stunned, increasingly hysterical look on my face. People in the common room were treated to Attacks of the PanicRonni on an almost weekly basis. The other M.Phil students had to put up with my anxiety-ridden whining every second day.

Oddly enough, though, the exams went okay. I did mix up pluperfect and perfect verbs in the Latin exam, and claim that a dative noun was accusative and a genitive noun was accusative (apparently everything’s accusative) in the Irish exam, but the translations themselves seemed fairly straightforward and I didn’t run out of time in either exam.

I ran into one of my friends in town after the Latin exam, and she said that I was looking happier than I had looked in weeks.

Lent Term also destroyed my confidence in my ability to write. I went into it with very clearly defined goals for my dissertation. I was going to write 1500 words per week, so as to be finished the dissertation by mid-April. What I ended up with were 5000 rather disjointed, badly put together words, most of which I’m too ashamed to show to my supervisor. I spent many an hour convincing myself that I was not cut out to be an academic, and that what I wanted to do in fact was to return home to Australia, work in a dead-end retail job and feed my brain by blogging about books.

I think I’ve mostly got over this self-doubt, thankfully.

When I set out my experiences like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lent Term was unremittingly bleak. This was not the case. What got me through was the people around me. The longer I stay at Cambridge, the more I appreciate the ASNaCs. Who else would think to build a snow longship on a snowy day? Who else would bring port to the weekly departmental lunch? Where else would you find a common-room full of people able to tell you the tense, person and number of a Latin verb that you’re too lazy to look up for yourself?

It’s the little things that matter the most. Weekly coffee sessions with my fellow M.Phils. Latin study group. The crazy conversations at ASNaC pub. The enthusiastic turn-out at CCASNaC. The fact that my Irish tutor spent a month patiently going through unseen translations with me. Consolatory trips to Borders on Wednesday afternoons.

My non-ASNaC friends are wonderful too. Again, it’s the little things that matter. Watching films at the John’s film nights. Being able to borrow milk, bread or cooking oil when I need it. Late-night, drunken post-Hall conversations in the kitchen. The fact that my American housemate bought me a small jar of Vegemite from the big Sainsbury’s.

Almost every week I have a moment where I think that this is it, I cannot endure being away from home any longer, I’m going to go crazy, this is intolerable. And every week, it is the accumulation of little things such as those I’ve outlined above that make me realise that not only can I endure being here, but that I enjoy it. Coming to Cambridge forced me to grow up, to live outside my own head and to open my eyes to a world beyond my front door. If nothing else, I feel it’s made me a slightly better person, and for that I have my wonderful friends to thank.