Thursday, 24 July 2008

Walk of Shame!

I decided to video myself giving a birthday messsage for a loved-one back in Oz yesterday and, completely against the spirit of the whole exercise, it led to two shame laps for me: the recording itself and then the play back.

In the recording my lips are slightly tighter than usual, my voice is rather shrill and my gestures noticeably more girly; twisting hair around finger, looking up as if to ask the camera to tell me what to say. While watching it, I started to do a mad robot dance on the spot to reflect my malfunction in front of the camera. In both instances I alleviated my discomfort by ducking my head into the chest of the Boy, as if by hiding it would mean that it didn't really happen.

Am I this lame?

I cheered myself up by spotting a blog entry by Merlin Mann:
I thought I was the only person in the universe who made an unconscious little noise when remembering something stupid I did or said.
It is dedicated to the sounds one makes when one feels embarrassed or relives embarrassing moments. So, my sounds would be those of a dalek or some baby bush animal. When I am by myself, I relive the pedestrian moment in my head and then say dryly and slowly until the last two words, with exaggerated mouth shapes: 'I can't believe you DID THAT!' If it's particularly atrocious, I may add a Napoleon Dynamite 'You idiot' on the end.

I have a beach of shameful moments that are replayed from time to time (brought on by stress and fatigue). They range from grossly inappropriate things I have said (like when I was 8, I asked someone whose parents had died in a car crash whether there was blood and guts on the bumper bar. I had heard that line in a movie, Bigfoot and the you-ruined-my-life Hendersons, and thought it would cheer them up), done (a Jerry Maguire Mission Statement-style research funding proposal that I realised only after, having discovered more about the funding body, would have caused much amusement and was duly rejected) and worn (my androgenous phase of my late teens/early twenties makes me quite uncomfortable). I have plenty of noises and mannerisms that accompany these images.

What about you? What's in your shame file? What do you tend to do when you're being sent on that lonely, well-lit march off The Weakest Link?

Sunday, 20 July 2008


I did not give much thought to my Australianness when I nervously anticipated how I would be received as a new student in Oxford way back in 2004. I thought about my first days of high school, and about not having my brothers and sisters around. I wondered whether I would be able to continue to say to myself, 'It doesn't matter what people say about me or my personality, I have loved-ones who have said worse things about me'.

What I did not prepare myself for in the slightest was the barrage of balls that would be thrown at me for being Australian and therefore either (or a combo of) competitive, brash, obnoxious, entitled, unintelligent, anti-intellectual, backward, racist (a cab driver asked me only the other day whether Australians were hateful people), unsubtle and therefore unfunny. The most persistent comments come from the English, but I've got to say, the New Zealanders are up there... Even a South African man came up to me last week (having only met me once) to let me know that South Africa beat New Zealand in rugby union and that it made him feel 'good that the Aussies would get smashed.' How did the Aussies come into it?

Our energy and enthusiasm is seen as crass and annoying or evidence of stupidity. A Danish student remarked to me recently that she'd never hurt such vile things said about a population than the comments her British friends make about Australians. I tried to explain that it was only because of our special, parent-child relationship (where the child leaves the parent) that Brits felt so stridently comfortable about making comments that they never would about Africans or Asians, for instance, or even Canadians (the good son who does his own thing and does not cause trouble). It did make me wonder though. And come to think of it, an English guy recently told me that he could not tolerate 'Colonial women' because they ( were too aggressive and upfront.

I have been trapped in awful, drunken conversations at 2am about shrimps on barbies (caught by trying to explain that no one in Australia uses the word 'shrimp'), Fosters (same thing), backwardness (our literacy rate is higher than that of the UK!), convicts (the proportion of convict descendants; the intentional policy of enforced labour in the colonial period), the arrogance of Aussie males (sporto jerks everywhere; you're projecting because you're smaller than them), The Ashes, our Olympic medal tally. The list goes on. And each time I engage I just feel depleted, infantile (like when your brother used to upset you with the same bait each time) and silly. Usually and increasingly, I concede to a few points - Australians can be too much sometimes in some contexts (especially on Contiki buses) and the male, macho culture (bushman, Anzac hero, sportsman) is intense and sometimes nauseating.

But I still don't like the conversations. I don't like being patriotic. It's akin to loyalty to 'houses' at school. But I must be. How else can I explain why I have to force a smile after the third Aussie-bashing joke in almost every Flight of the Conchords episode?

I didn't even consider that I would be representing Australia in the UK. But I am. I would prefer to represent myself and maybe my family. Apparently I am here to prove or disprove the very strong, prevalent (and most often not jokey) viewpoint that Australians are crap.

What's your problem with Aussies, mate? (eager, but not aggressive tone)

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Lady Crush

photo (c) Tom Plant (via
Shaun Murphy, I will have to tell you: you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you...

Shaun is the wonderful, soul singer in Little Feat (est 1969). I saw 'the Feat' play the other night in Woolver'umptun. I feel like a bit of a shonk calling them 'the Feat' when I was one of only a handful of under forty-year-olds, one of three people who didn't dance in a kind of trancy sway, one of two humans without a long grey ponytail, and the only one there who didn't know every word of their songs off by heart. I was in the front row, centre, next to this guy with his chin on the stage sending special messages to (my) Shaun.

Shaun Murphy is talent and goodness embodied. Her smile is magical, she looks at the audience members, nods as though she recognises you, blows kisses and offers her hand to the fans (who you know have cut out pictures of her all over one room of the house). Shaun has a powerhouse voice but thankfully resorts to none of the hand gestures of Celine or Idol contestants. Plus, she is the best tambourine-player I have ever seen. She beats hard but smooth; they have a good relationship those two.

In a baggy buttoned shirt over jeans, with red pointy shoes and a helmet of red hair, Shaun looks like she would cook your breakfast on a Sunday and ask about your homework on a Monday, but then she could also just decide that she wanted to leave you to play tambourine in the fields.

I must say that my hand went pathetically limp when she shook it and I gazed upwards like I was at the gates of heaven (she does have stunning blue eyes). I couldn't get rid of my dumb grin for two days...and I am still in love. But it's a lady crush, which is very different to a girly crush.

By the way, if you want special treatment from grotty little muso kids at record stores, watch a couple of these Feat clips below (the third showcases my Shaun's talent), somehow bring them into your conversation at the desk and you'll probably get a discount. 'Little Feat' is pretty much a secret code in musoland for 'I am a serious musician/music-lover so give me rushpuct.'

Fat Man in the Bathtub

Dixie Chicken

Sailin' Shoes

Justice Kirby comes to Oxford

Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia gave a speech at Rhodes House yesterday evening. Kirby is known for his liberal, activist approach to his decision-making, his tireless advocacy for law to serve the weak and vulnerable, and also for his openness about being gay. For anyone who studied law in Australia from the mid-1990s, Kirby was your bread and rice. He represented - pretty much invariably - the dissenting view and was therefore in all your textbooks and then in all your essays. Students love him, partly because of the humour factor ('he's at it again that crazy cat'), but mostly because he has such a refreshingly political, compassionate tone in his judgments.

Justice Kirby's talk was on the impact of international human rights law on the construction of the Constitution of Australia. He did not seem overly interested in giving this talk; I had the impression he would have preferred to (continue to) talk about Oxford, the Rhodes scholarship (that eluded him), the benefits to the UK in financially supporting Australians and other non-national students, and the importance of lawyers and law students to be energetic, to maintain a positive, idealistic version of the law, and to uncharacteristically extend their knowledge to inform their understanding of law.

Nevertheless, he dutifully gave a well-cited overview of the developments in Australia - only once looking to his notes, which was refreshing in this powerpoint era (boo to people using powerpoint as palm cards!). He argued that Australian judges are, for the most part, willing to refer to the judicial interpretation of foreign Bills of Rights to help them with their own reasoning, but that Australia (like the United States and...China) was still unhealthily reluctant to engage with the wider international (legal) community.

At the end of his talk (which he marked by asking us to 'now give an applause' for him), Kirby addressed the student body directly, reminding us that our marks at university were only a small part of success in life and that being a successful human was more important, not least, because successful humans were more likely to become more giving, generous, thoughtful lawyers. He told us to remain idealistic; even though the law is good at keeping rich people rich, it also has the potential and power to help less advantaged groups in society. He singled out Professor Julius Stone as the person who most inspired this unswerving belief in the law.

The law does make one very confused sometimes...It's difficult to remain idealistic in an active, confident way, but it's also intellectually dishonest and unhelpful to maintain that it does not have the potential for good within our (capitalist) society. I sometimes wonder though if we give it too much credit for its 'potential'....It gets away with a lot, the old law! But then again, it's expected to do a lot...Hmm...Confused again.

(photo courtesy of ABC)

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Cowley Road Carnival

On Sunday Cowley Road hosted their annual Carnival to celebrate cultural diversity. What a relief! There are times (long periods) where you feel, as an Oxford student (or perhaps it has more to do with being a PhD student?), that you're the only type of person on the planet. You meet so many people from different countries here, sure, but several common traits dominate: high achiever, cashing in on their silver spoon or cultural capital (in whatever form it came in) while seeking to save or change the world, happy to enjoy parties with olives and elderflower water in the meantime. (I am just waiting for someone to bring out some homemade olive or elderflower ice-cream at one of these Oxford dinner parties!)

The town versus gown phenomenon (where there are two distinct communities in a University town) is joked about only because it's true and discomforting. One of my friends lamented that Oxford is becoming more 'Cornmarket' (a paved, pedestrian street lined with franchised food and retail shops, where groups of young locals gather and play music from their mobile phones, put dummies in their babies' mouths and shriek and push each other) than 'Turl street' (the quieter, parallel street for students to ride down, past a few old-fashioned tailors, barbers, wine bars and the flank of a pretty, sandstone church where a rose vine grows).

During the Carnival, you're no longer an Oxford student, you're just someone who happens to live in Oxford, along with a bunch of other people - from India, Pakistan, Poland, the Caribbean and Africa, and even white folk who are (brace yourselves) NOT Oxford students! There are many reasons to be there: to march in the midday procession either for a specific cause or to simply express diversity and creativity (with rainbow butterfly wings or kangaroo spring-legs), to bop in front of the reggae tent whilst enjoying the sweet smells of roasting corn from the bbqs, to enjoy the rustic, folky rock bands (including my friends' band, Stornoway), to join the groups of unofficial bhangra dancers outside the 'Asian' restaurants, to watch the local break dancing, belly dancing, ballet or Alabanian folk dancing talent, to have a beer with friends.

It's nice to get outside yourself for a while.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Moving House and Man Cold

So, I haven't written for a while. I have two excuses:

1) I have moved house.

2) I have a Man Cold.

We all know that moving house is akin to a funeral in terms of stress levels. I am sure there are some classic psychic reasons why having one's wordly possessions packed away or thrown out and one's home turned into a shell are profoundly disturbing. We like caves. But it was the timing of it this time that made it particularly anxiety-provoking.

I have had to move out of my College accommodation for the summer so that the College oldies can rent it out for even more obscene amounts to conference delegates. Summer-booting coincides with the end of the academic year here, when students - home and international - flee back to their homes, homelands, sometimes for holidays, often (now that one year Masters courses are all the rage, much to the frustration of the Admin) to start new jobs, new lives "without routine fire alarm checks", as one French student recently put it to me. Despite the promising, even cheerful weather, early July is the time of upheaval: multiple goodbyes (that become less sentimental as they go on), the rearrangement of alliances, seeking reassurance, facing the reality of solitude, even loneliness. Loneliness in the sunshine somehow feels worse than in the Winter. It's easier to shake off in the Summer, but there's none of the comfort that comes with the rain on the window pane, a menacing fire, a dark painting in the hall, looking at your own white hand. 

My brilliant cousin sent me a link to Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) which she said would make me giggle. Were it not this time of year, it would have. Watching it today made me smile sadly. It reminded me of just how wonderfully fortunate I am to have shared time, food, conversations and dance floors with so many students from all around the world. Of course, there are times when you wish that you were around your own people, where you don't have to explain yourself, where you don't have to conduct an autopsy on conversations because no one's cultural, or even personal, boundaries were crossed, where you're sure that you are loved. But most of time, for me, I have delighted in connecting or not with the motley crew that is the graduate community at Oxford (OK, I am sure someone could run a class analysis on the student composition and question its primarily middle class character). 

I love the fact that only last week I had dinner with a skinny German physicist who found my jokes confronting but laughed all the same, a gregarious Italian historian (who obligingly told me every Lygon street story he had) and a psychologist from San Francisco who is all about playing with language and says ridiculous but great things like "in cognitive linguistics the visual-spatial representations of height frequently indicate the positives, power, prominance and so on. Radiohead is expert in exploiting that format" or "this flourish of post-neural ideation, as it were, owes a good and especially grand deal to Nietzsche, to date the world's absolute best world-&-tempo craftsman of the EXALTED."

I love the fact that the other day someone knocked on my door and I asked from my desk 'who is it?' and this (older) woman replied 'C'est moi'. I said, 'You've got the wrong room, I'm sorry.' She said (in that dramatic, pouty French way): 'Pourquoi tu me parles en Anglais?' I said (coming closer to the door): 'I am not who you're looking for' (and thought of Ben's 'these are not the droids you are looking for...'). She frantically tried to open my door (I could see the handle jerking around) and wailed: "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? Pourquoi? Pourquoi?' She was now crying. I am not sure whether it was the onset of my Man Cold, but I was by then too afraid to open the door. I was half sure that a gypsy woman would jump on me and suck the blood from my neck, so I said (in my best French): 'Je suis desolée madame, je ne parle pas Francais. Je suis Australienne. Vous n'avez pas la bonne chambre.' She sobbed, 'Oh, tu es la. Pourquoi tu n'ouvres pas la porte. Je voudrais te voir. S'il te plait...' She still thought I was her haughty daughter. I didn't open the door. I said (in my best wounded French tone): Laissez-moi tranquille!' (Leave me alone!). She quietly said 'OK' and crawled away. I continued putting my notes into new piles as part of my vow to sort out my desk.

It's the physical task of moving that distresses me the most (smooth segue!). I am one of those irritable and irritating shits who deeply detests ordering things neatly. I shove my clothes into my holiday suitcase, I push and scrunch my money into my wallet (a habit Oprah once said was evidence of someone destined never to be rich) and I certainly do not have my books in any functional order (criterion: what looks pretty). I seem to expend as much energy moving from half-done task to half-done pile as doing the actual scrubbing, compiling, packing or lifting. Music helps, but it also gives me an excuse to do some 80s moves (headslides, skip claps and shoulder shimmies). I was supposed to be out by midday. At 2pm one of the cleaning ladies yelled up to my room: 'You've got to be out of there. You're supposed to be out of there now!' I replied sulkily (as if it mattered): 'I am trying my best...gosh.'

I have moved to the pretty Oxfordshire countryside amongst the hedges, stone walls, sheep, horses, crops, hay and manicured English gardens. I will tell you all about the local villagers in a future post...

Until then, I want to tell you more about why I haven't written for a while - either my blog or much of my thesis. I have had a Man Cold! A Man Cold is a common cold that you decide people are going to know about, a lot of people, and for which you're going to receive some extra special care. You may even convince yourself that your hefty cough is borderline fatal, as you dramatically douse yourself in Vicks (with big circular motions across the chest) in front of the unsuspecting, elderly check-out attendant. You allow yourself lie-ins and longer breaks. The reason it's called a Man Cold is because when men have colds they tend to behave as though they have been struck down by a tropical disease from eighteenth century sea travel. Man Cold was superbly enacted in the Man Stroke Women series. I am not quite the man on the couch in this scenario, but I think with a little less thesis-guilt and child-of-unsympathetic-doctor-shame, I could very well be! "I said 'Laura', but you didn't come, so I dialled 999!" Genius.