Sunday, October 19, 2008

Autumn comes to Aber.

Today, walking home along the Plas Crug, it dawned on me that autumn had arrived. Like spring earlier in the year I'd noticed it coming - the green of the leaves on Penglais hill has been slowly draining away - but suddenly I'm aware that it is here, now; leaves are blowing about the streets, the flags on the prom have been taken down, and the light is increasingly slipping from each day.

So much is happening back home at the moment - engagements and weddings, babies, sickness - that Anth and I are feeling curiously unsettled here. It is good to be here and out of the innumerable places we could be we do feel that it is the right place to be. But we don't have any roots in this place with its strange rhythms and practices. For me it is all too easy to throw myself into work and into the immediacy of teaching and administrative tasks. But then anything concerned with the longer term gets pushed to the periphery. This is a concern.

[Plas Crug]

[Plas Crug]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dancing with Strangers

I've finally started reading Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen, almost five years after it was first published (in other words, five years too late). I've come to it having just read Kate Grenville's The Secret River, which tells a fictional historical tale of the clash between the British and the aboriginal people of the Hawkesbury River in the late 18th century. There is something about the histories and narratives of early colonial Australia that I find I'm drawn to, even though the sense of loss in these tellings and re-tellings can be unbearable; perhaps it is an interest in origins or an attraction to the tragic. I think it is also a curiosity of wanting to know what it was like to live then in such a strangely different (to British eyes) place.

Clendinnen's writing is so strikingly clear and her interest in the ethnographic, as well as the historic, engages with the confusions and the fog of life as it is lived. This follows in the vein of Greg Dening's account of the mutiny - and aftermath - on the Bounty in Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992). Clendinnen writes in her 'Introduction' (p.3):
Historians' main occupational hazard is being culture-insensitive, anthropologists' is insensitivity to temporal change. Both can be insensitive to the reciprocating dynamic between action and context. Together, however, they are formidable, and in my view offer the best chance of explaining what we humans do in any particular circumstance, and why we do it.
I'll post a few more choice quotes over the coming week ...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I have joined facebook

I have finally succumbed to the cult of facebook.

Down by the sea

[Anth's photo of the Old College, taken from the tower of St Michael's.]

Where have my summer holidays gone? It was such a perfectly clear day today and the waters of Cardigan Bay were like a lake. I was down at the seafront waiting for a staff meeting in the 'High Victorian' Old College, an elaborate (and idiosyncratic) pile that was originally built as a hotel. It was so quiet at around 10.30 that I could hear the engines of small boats way out in the bay. The weather was so good today you could almost be fooled into thinking that it was actually summer and not the beginning of autumn. But the students are coming ... and there are classes to plan.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

TV Licensing

Anth and I don't have a television. We were recently offered one by some neighbours who are 'upgrading' and this tempted us for a little while, but we said no. We do watch DVDs and stream programmes via BBC iPlayer and whatever is available from the ABC (iView is blocked internationally).

If we were to get a television then we would have to get a TV License, which costs £139.50. Even if we didn't have a TV but watched programmes "as they are being shown" then we would need to pay for the license. This does seem an especially retrograde method of funding the BBC, especially when you realise how appallingly inefficient the whole system is and how laughable some of the license 'discounts' are.

When we stayed in student accommodation the post boxes were literally overflowing with a constant stream of letters from TV Licensing demanding that 'The Occupier' of each unlicensed flat pay for a license or risk being fined. Now most of the flats were genuinely unoccupied, so the letters just accumulated.

At our current address we have already received a couple of letters, each demanding an immediate response. Despite the fact that I've already been in contact to state that we don't have a TV, TV Licensing are unable to record this, or to stop the letters arriving until an inspector has been here to check. In fact, they can't even take down my name. And when might the inspector arrive? "Maybe in six weeks, maybe in six months" replied my helpful telephone operator, "it's an automated system" he added, doubtfully. So the wastage of paper and money goes on!

The thing I find really funny is that if I only own a black and white TV then I only need to pay a percentage of the cost, £47.00. Furthermore, if I am sight impaired or blind then I receive a 50% discount! Apparently, if you make it to the age of 75 then you don't need to pay for a license at all - a worthy reward for years of service to the nation.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Things to do, things to do

[Plas Tan y Bwlch]

It is almost the end of the week, a week that seems like one long scramble to get everything ready before the start of the new semester. Of course if I wasn't so finicky about formatting all my unit outlines and course readers then everything would take a quarter of the time it does. But then I wouldn't have such beautiful documents, right? And students really appreciate that, don't they?

I suspect it is all just a new form of procrastination. I've noticed that I really enjoy doing paperwork and administration - answering emails, entering marks - because you can easily complete a task and then tick it off. Done. This is the opposite of doing research, or writing an article which drags on forever and involves actual thinking. Its a real pity the latter are such a vital part of my job.

Today, just when I thought I everything settled and ready to roll, I had a conversation in which it became apparent that in fact there was something else to do that I didn't know was mine to do. 'Yes,' I stated, 'I'll get on to that right away'. I then asked a few questions that cleverly disguised how little I actually knew, whilst still delving for an answer. This is rather easy to do as an Australian. It feels natural to make statements which conclude in an upward inflection, thereby mysteriously morphing them into questions.

This reminds me of the habit everyone has here of greeting each other with the question, 'Alright?', to which you are meant to answer 'alright'. I haven't got the hang of this yet, so when people look at me and ask 'alright?' (often with a look of genuine concern on their faces) I immediately freeze, thinking, 'Do I look upset? Is there something wrong with my clothing/hair/facial expression?' This especially catches me first thing in the morning when I arrive sweaty from a brisk walk up the hill, inspired (and slightly deafened) by Bon Jovi screaming into my head that 'It's my life/it's now or never' and come face to face with a well-meaning colleague who stumps me with 'alright?' Yes, yes ... I'm fine really, I am.

And what does the picture of Plas Tan y Bwlch (in Snowdonia National Park) have to do with any of this? On Monday and Tuesday I'll be staying there as part of the induction to my Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PGCTHE).

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ten things we like about Aber (despite the rain)

[Aberystwyth from Constitution Hill - EG]

It has been raining for the past little while now ... so much so that we can't remember the last day it didn't rain. Maybe it was in August? That explains why everything is so green. Now, as the green tends towards more autumnal colours, Anth and I reflect on things we like about Aber after living here for just over six months (in no particular order!):

1. The sea: its just over there ... (we're pointing)
2. The community at St. Mikes.
3. Frequent invitations for a 'nice' cup of tea.
4. Walking home for lunch.
5. The blatant display of consonants on Welsh signage.
6. The smell of oil heaters on cold evenings.
7. Rabbits nibbling the university's fields on the way to work.
8. The cry of the gulls (but not their incessant pooping!)
9. Frequent chance encounters with friends in the town.
10. Cawl, bara brith, and Welsh cakes.

[This is the 11th thing we like about Aber: kneeling sheep - EG]

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Organic Welsh Mango

Anth and I have been getting a weekly organic fruit and vegetable box from a store in town, who try to source local produce. This has been great because the fruit and vegetables do actually taste better (esp. the carrots) and because there is always the element of surprise coupled with the possible arrival of something that we haven't come across before (Curly Kale, anyone?). In last Friday's box we received something very unexpected: a mango. Now, at first sight, I was pretty sceptical about it being a locally grown mango, and indeed, the sticker on it stated 'Saint Dominigue', so it has travelled a little way to get here. Also, there there wasn't much else in the box, so the mango probably cost in the vicinity of £10. But it tasted like ... mango. What luxury!

[One mango about to disappear...]

'Popty Ping': Hard Data

Emma has requested 'hard data' regarding the status of the term 'Popty Ping'. Here is Exhibit A from the Centre for Alternative Technology:

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Carreg Cennen Castle

In the days before the invention of the 'Popty Ping' (see previous post) the Welsh used to hang out in castles, or, when the English happened to build their own castles in Wales, the Welsh would hang out around these castles with large amounts of weaponry and menace. Today we visited Carreg Cennen Castle, dramatically set atop a crag at the western end of the Brecon Beacons National Park. We were driven there in style (and relative speed) by the lovely Ceri who we had met at St Mike's in Aberystwyth. Now I spent a significant proportion of my childhood drawing castles and imagining them garrisoned by warrior mice (long story) so the chance to wander through a real live ruined castle with its own cave underneath was very, very, very exciting.

[The walk to Carreg Cennen Castle]

[Anthea and Ceri hanging out in a window recess]

[Anthea remembers what it was like to be a high school teacher ... in case you can't quite make out the inscription, it reads 'latrine outlet']

[On the way down to the cave]

[Enjoying the view]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Self-proclaimed Filmer Holiday

Today was self-proclaimed 'National Filmer Day' (put it in your diaries now for next year) and to celebrate Anth and I took the train to see the sights of Machynlleth. Any usefully mediocre guidebook will indicate that there are numerous things to see there, including the building that housed the medieval Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr's parliament in 1404, the Welsh Museum of Modern Art, and just out of town, the Centre for Alternative Technology. Bron-yr-Aur cottage, just north of Machynlleth, is known as the place where Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame) wrote a number of songs that ended up on Led Zeppelin III, including "Gallows Pole" and "That's the Way".

[Machynlleth station]

It was a little wet today which added to the atmosphere; it felt something like being in the Blue Mountains on a sharp April morning - with the mist rising out of the valleys - except here it was so intensely green, really greeny green, as if someone had gone to town with all the shades of green that are on offer in a pack of 72 Derwent colour pencils. Machynlleth itself was a little sleepy and we could rouse no one in the parliament building to open the door, despite the fact that someone must have put the advertising sandwich board out on the street to advertise that it was indeed open. At least we saved spending £1.50 each on what looked like a rather dodgy historical display.

We had more luck at the Centre for Alternative Technology which is a fascinating showcase of practical ecological solutions for everyday application. It's situated in a disused slate quarry and is reached via a water balanced cliff railway. The top car is filled with water - the bottom with people - and then gravity pulls the water-laden car down to the bottom, thereby lifting the people-laden car to the top! While the displays on home construction, energy conservation, waste disposal, composting and gardening were fascinating, the highlight for me was learning the Welsh term for microwave: 'Popty Ping'. I kid you not.

[Centre for Alternative Technology]

[Water-powered cliff railway]

[Anth among the flowers at CAT]

[The Cambrian, seen at Machynlleth station in the afternoon. Its presence exposed the suppressed steam fanatic in many seemingly innocent bystanders.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Copenhagen capers

Well, I'm back from Copenhagen, having failed miserably in my attempt to decapitate the city's famous Little Mermaid. In fact, I didn't even get to see the Little Mermaid as it was a bit of a walk to get to reach her. What an anti-climax, eh? However, the conference was very worthwhile, featuring a number of interesting panel discussions, and I was also able to wander about the city and take in the sights, including a guided tour of the Danish parliament or Folketinget. (I'm developing a research interest in the performativities of parliament buildings.) This made up for my rather dreadful (budget-conscious) decision to stay in a hostel and share a room with nine strangers, at least one of whom inevitably suffered from severe sleep apnea. Here follows some photos, and in case you are wondering what Anthea was up to during all this, I have also included one from her too:

[Nynhavn canal]

[Bicycles: everyone cycles everywhere]

[Canal surrounding Christainsborg Slot - my hostel was in an adjacent square]

[Student accommodation University of Copenhagen-style]

[Did I mention that Chuck Norris was in Copenhagen too?]

[Anthea's photo en route to Devil's Bridge via steam train]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What a mess!

What a mess of a day! I'm glad it's over. I seemed to spread confusion and misinformation wherever I went and my desk has atrophied from a state of creative foment to an impenetrable mound of paper. Time for a break I think. Fortunately, tomorrow I'm off to Copenhagen where, under the guise of attending a conference, I shall attempt to decapitate the Little Mermaid statue for the third time since its unveiling. See here for a report of the last time this occurred.

[That's right sweetie, just look away while I reach for my hacksaw ...]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Architecture of Creativity

While compiling readings for a new module called 'Improvisation: Spontaneous Performance', I've come across the work of Keith Sawyer. Apparently he's a professor of psychology and education in the US and "is one of the country’s leading scientific experts on creativity." (Why does he feel the need to describe himself as a 'scientific' expert?) Anyhow, he maintains a blog called Creativity and Innovation and has a website with links to some of his past papers on creativity, improvisation, development and collaboration.

He recently posted a blog entry on architecture, pondering the sort of building design that might enhance or facilitate creativity. (You can find it here.) It looks like this was sparked by the experience of having his university department move into a building that is rather bland and isolating, with rows of identical offices and featureless corridors.

I might stop here, for fear of incriminating myself ...

[A Creative Space?]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Working from home

I'm just working from home today; firstly, because I can; secondly, because it was raining; and, thirdly, because I felt I'd actually get more done sitting at this table, by the window, than in the office. I'm trying to write an article about space and subjectivity, arguing that the theatrical labour that occurs within the backstage spaces of theatres not only involves the making of theatrical performance but also the making of theatrical performers (specifically, 'professional' performers). Writing is always a laboured, drawn out affair. Today things seem to be working themselves out into an ordered form, but for the last week I've been comforting myself with Franz Kafka's observation: 'All things resist being written down'.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Prague ...

Here's some photos from our trip to Prague in June this year to meet up with Em and Chris.

[Anth in Cafe Gaspar Kaspar at the Prague Theatre Institute]

[Despite the persuasive advertising we didn't actually go in]

[Em can't keep a straight face]

[John Lennon Wall]

[An advertising billboard in Václavské náměstí: the play being touted is Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. It's based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker and deals with the first European theatre performance in Australia, a production of George Farquar's The Recruiting Officer in 1789]

Friday, August 08, 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I can see my house from here ...

I've been taking advantage of the launch of Google Street View in Australia on the 4th of August to re-visit places back home. This is, of course, a deliberately nostalgic undertaking. From across the other side of the world I can gaze upon my former house and 'walk' the streets of my old neighbourhood. It's all so familiar, and yet oddly disconcerting on at least two levels.

Firstly there is the strange disembodied mode of navigation; my body still holds the memory of walking these streets, of laboriously mowing the grass outside my house. I still retain a knowledge of which routes to take to get to other places, the various uneven patches of grass and pavement, and the peculiar smells encountered. But floating along on Google in fits and starts is so flat by comparison; the places depicted seem to have been dessicated. A mere photograph is static, and a video supplies its own movement, but Google Street View is a curious amalgam. The images are static but continuous and it is I who scroll through or along them. What do I get out of this, a dessicated partial-animation of a place once alive and lived?

The temporal dislocation is another disconcerting aspect. If I look at the image of my old house I can see that it was taken some time ago, when I was still living there. There are pot plants on the porch and I can see my filing cabinet through the front window. One of the windows is open. Maybe I was at home, inside, when the Google van recorded my street? But looking at the scene I can't get over the fact that this place no longer exists as it is depicted. Of course, this is like many of the photos I have with me of people and places, but these don't proport to the virtual timelessness that the Google images seem to offer. The Google images themselves are also dislocated because of the pasting of multiple static images into a continous image. The result is some disturbing representations of headless or malformed humans. Perhaps, as I scroll past, I could even recognise someone in the street who isn't alive any more.

How might a program like Google Street View change the way we relate to the places around us? Instead of seeing it as the loss of place, and a replacement for physical travel, I am reminded of Edward Casey's optimism that 'thinned out' or 'leveled out' places might intensify the desirability of actual places. "The more places are leveled down, the more - not the less - may selves be led to seek out thick places in which their own personal enrichment can flourish." (Between Geography and Philosophy: 685)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It's summer time in Aberystwyth...

It has been a while since my last post, and consequently there's probably no one out there in the blogosphere who even thinks of checking here for new posts. But the news is that Anth and I are now living and working in Aberystwyth (sometimes described as 'the Brighton of Wales', which is a bit better than the Lonely Planet's 'a faded Georgian seaside resort'). I have decided to revive this blog so as to post photos and observations from my new home on the west coast of Wales. The photos below are provided just to prove that we got a summer - it lasted all of three days.

[Aberystwyth Beach and Promenade - AF]

[South Beach, and yes, it is an Australian flag - AF]