Thursday, April 30, 2009

Done, done, and I'm onto the next one

That research essay I was sweating over? It’s done. After a final few days tweaking down to the exact word I wanted in the exact place in this sentence just here. Oh, and cutting a good thousand-plus words – I always write way too long and my dump file for this essay could have been another in itself. The whole process of re-writing and final editing seemed oddly… organised this time, though. I actually had time to get through four drafts. The first two were pretty choppy, but the second two were really in the world of refining ideas and crystallising the argument structure, not the initial ‘how the hell am I going to make sense out of all this??’.

I think I’m finally starting to really internalise the advice to ‘write early and often’. Normally, I’d do ALL the reading and research, and make ALL the notes first. Then I’d go back through the big pile of notes to start outlining the essay. But this time, I’ve been making notes in a Word document as I go along, sketching out the main planks for my argument (and noting what sort of evidence I need to support them and where in my big pile of notes I’ll find it), and also collecting particularly good quotes and points that I may want to develop. So, when it came time to write the first draft, I already had something of an outline to work with and I could immediately see which parts were going to be worth keeping and expanding, and which were going to get jettisoned.

So, it’s finished and I even had a couple of days in hand to do the final fiddly bits like checking all my references were properly formatted and that I’d included everything I needed to in the bibliography. Now it’s been handed in, I go into ‘doubt’ mode. Yes, I wake up in the night thinking was my argument clear enough on that point?’ and ‘oh crap, maybe that bit I jettisoned was actually really crucial’.

To take my mind off things for a few days before I move on to the next one (British Marxists or the Annales school – I haven’t quite decided yet as I find both groups really interesting), I am doing my usual little ‘junk food for the mind’ indulgence. Yes, for the rest of this week, it’s going to be OK magazine and some crap-ass reality TV. I admit that last night, I even watched ‘Rock of Love’ with Bret Michaels! Thank god for C4, MTV and the E! Channel.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The politics of sex(work)

One aspect of medieval history that I find fascinating is the use of structures of marginalisation and ‘otherness’ – both figurative and literal – to define and defend hierarchies of power in society. I recently completed a research project exploring how the masculine power elites of medieval European societies implicitly controlled all women – keeping them in their ‘proper’ subordinate place in society – by explicitly controlling and regulating the sexuality of those termed 'common women' (sex workers, in modern parlance – although not all were exchanging sex for money). This was usually achieved through municipal regulation of sex work, by formally or informally restricting women’s use of public space, and through religious discourses that defined all women as either virgins/wives/mothers (belonging to one man) or whores (‘common’ to all men). In some places, this binary was explicitly enforced; a 15th century customary that regulated the stews of Southwark stated no pregnant women was allowed to work in the brothels and no ‘common women’ could take a particular lover.

Well, plus ça change and all that. I am being powerfully reminded of those discourses by recent media coverage of self-appointed 'community leaders' trying to prevent street-based sex workers from operating (legally, under New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act 2003) in their area. Their campaign includes tracking down clients through their car registrations and sending them letters warning them of the ‘dangers’ of commercial sex. These vigilantes also intend to send letters to clients’ homes so their ‘wives and families know what they’re up to’.

There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to start. Probably with that heavily gendered binary that opposes the ‘diseased and bad sex worker’ to the ‘innocent, virtuous wife and mother’ – a binary that implicitly controls all women. It also conveniently obscures the fact that many female sex workers may well be wives/partners and mothers themselves, and they are doing this job in the first place to support their families (which isn’t getting any easier as the economy turns to custard).

Then there’s the fact that these letters will warn of the dangers of having commercial sex, perpetuating the myth that sex workers are more likely than other people to be infected with STDs. In fact, there is a growing body of research to show that in Britain, Australia and New Zealand at least, sex workers are actually less likely than other members of the population to have an STD, because of the high level of education about safe sex, the requirement for regular testing and the fact that they need to stay healthy to stay in business.

Whereas the issue of suburban brothels seems to have subsided in recent times, conflict over street work has flared up regularly since the PRA was passed. The Select Committee debates that accompanied the bill’s progress through the legislative process make disturbing reading. In them, female sex workers were persistently constructed as either passive, almost childlike victims who needed to be ‘protected’ by a paternalistic state, or amoral sexually rapacious temptresses taking money from the innocent wives and children of their clients.

Over at Border Thinking, Laura Agustin tackles another disturbing aspect of the PRA – the inclusion of a clause on migrant workers that places the legal regulation of sex work within wider racially charged discourses of migration, trafficking and ethnically defined ‘others’.
The use of women’s bodies as border markers in society is one that has a long history, and I’ve seen a number of surviving medieval regulations which define who was ‘in’ and ‘out’ by who could or couldn’t have sex with the town’s ‘common women’ (such regulations being particularly visible in Mediterranean societies where the boundaries were less defined between Christian, Jew and Muslim). I’d be interested in hearing from others who have explored this issue in its historical context, either in Europe or elsewhere.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A rare moment of clarity

I’ve been sweating over a piece of writing for a couple of weeks now. I’ve forced myself to spend hours in the library working on it away from the distractions of home, but after a particularly unproductive four-hour stretch yesterday, I was despairing at ever producing anything half-decent. I eventually gave up in disgust and went home to drown my sorrows in a couple of glasses of TW Black Label chardonnay (a lovely creamy, buttery number with just the right amount of oak).

But as is often the case, all the pieces of the puzzle miraculously fell into place while I was out today on my morning run. I took one of my favourite routes, a path that winds in and out of a dozen small rocky bays strung along a wild stretch of coastline with nothing but ocean between me and Antarctica. The weather here can be brutal, with freezing southerly gales whipped straight off the ice and the sea all roiling, evil-looking grey foam. But today, the air was calm and still held some late-summer warmth, the sea smooth turquoise and so clear I could see a couple of feet down, to the starfish and seaweed that huddle along the shoreline.

So there I was, running along (well, more like trotting), enjoying the views and thinking about precisely nothing when suddenly, the whole structure of this essay just appeared in the front of my brain, as if someone had kindly written it out for me. All those awkward pieces that seemed to belong either everywhere or nowhere found their perfect place in the overall argument and the entire thing came together in a flow that was both logical and lyrical.

Such moments of clarity are a rare gift (and it must be said, they hardly ever eventuate when I’m staring down a deadline). I wish I could figure out exactly what triggers them, but I’ve noticed that they almost always occur when I’m not thinking about anything at all, but doing something repetitively mechanical or physical.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sex, drugs and...Samuel Taylor Coleridge??

I was lucky enough recently to get to go to a concert by Iron Maiden, who rarely tour in my neck of the woods. (Yes, I admit it, I’m a child of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and I still LOVES me some head-bangin’. The very first album I bought with my own money was AC/DC’s Back in Black.) Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson is quite the showman. In fact, even if you’re not that into heavy rock music, their live act is worth seeing just for the sheer theatrical scale of it. They recently beat out several much younger and ‘cooler’ bands to win the 2009 Brit Award for Best Live Act.

Now, Iron Maiden (or ‘Maiden’ as the hardcore fans call them) are surprisingly literate as far as 80s head bangers go. Quite a few of their songs are based on classic books or poems, and such a one is their take on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. At the start of this particular song, a set slowly appears from the darkness of the stage, featuring as a backdrop the tattered sails and rigging of a ghostly wooden sailing ship. Dickinson appears, dressed in a ragged overcoat and swinging a staff, and starts stalking the faux decks. In ominous tones, he introduces the song, saying he is about to tell a famous, dreadful tale by -- Samuel – Taylor – Coleridge! Ha! I never would have believed it, but this swarming mass of long-haired weed-smoking black-jeans-clad head-bangers lets out a huge roar of approval. Coleridge gets the ultimate metal fan’s accolade - the Devil’s horns - and I hear a few drunken shouts of “yeah, Coleridge!”.

It was truly a moment of culture clash on a grand and bizarre scale. Although Coleridge himself may not have felt entirely out of place in this anti-Establishment, drug-smoking crowd.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Raison d’être

Why am I here?

Don’t worry, I’m not about to go off on some existentialist rant about the nature of reality or the meaning of life (not in this post, anyway). This is about why I’ve decided to blog, and why now.

I’ve been a professional writer in some sense for most of my adult life. I’ve worked as a journalist, an editor and a corporate communications flunky. And now, as a grad student in history, research and writing is a major focus in my life. I’ve been keeping a research journal for a couple of years now, noting down ideas and questions and recording the odd particularly well-turned phrase or paragraph for future use (“here’s one I prepared earlier!”). So one purpose for this blog is to give me an outlet to articulate some of those ideas, and hopefully, discuss and debate them with other like-minded people.

I also love fiction writing and harbour that secret ambition to produce a novel (yes, I have a number of chapters already saved on my computer and several notebooks full of wine-fuelled 3am scribblings). I hope the self-imposed discipline of blogging will get me into a pattern of writing more regularly and that this can also become a place from which I can reach out to other writers (since we tend to be a rather introverted bunch at times). I find it incredibly useful to read about how others approach the research and writing process, including (maybe especially!) how they get over, around and through the inevitable struggles and disappointments.

And, to be honest, I don’t want to become one of those people. You know, those mad old creatures that write endless raving letters to the editor and sit on the bus muttering to themselves. Like most people, I see incidents of incompetence, rudeness, intolerance, injustice and plain old weirdness every day. My immediate reaction is to start composing those outraged letters in my head, and I tend to stew over them with steadily increasing (but probably unhealthy) levels of passion or vitriol until I get the opportunity to take them out on some poor unsuspecting friend or colleague. So this will be a place where I can unleash the odd random rant as well.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Well, it’s been one of those days, writing-wise. I’ve been working on my essay on the so-called ‘Whig historians’ for my course in Advanced Historiography and at this point, I swear I have written, erased and re-written the same damned paragraph a dozen times and it still doesn’t adequately express the ideas in my head. I’m being painfully reminded of the bit in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life where she reflects on writing for eight hours straight and being lucky to have a couple of usable sentences at the end of it.

I didn’t think this essay would be easy, and indeed it is proving a tough one to wrangle into shape. But not for the reasons I initially expected. To be honest, I went into it assuming that there wouldn’t be much of interest in a bunch of Establishment white guys who’ve been dead for a good 150-odd years, and that I therefore might struggle to put together a decent critical argument for their continued relevance. I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essays on India give a fascinating insight to how the English political and intellectual elite represented Indian people in ways that justified British colonial projects. And reading Leopold von Ranke’s conceptions of ‘Teutonic peoples’ and the destiny of the German nation is really quite chilling in the wake of WWII.

At times, too, they are just damned funny. I love Macaulay’s depiction in “Lord Clive” of pompous nouveau riche ‘nabobs’ returning from India flush with cash and making themselves unpopular as they “raised the price of everything…from fresh fish to rotten boroughs”. And Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is a delight, his wit and cynicism proving to have enduring appeal for a post-modern sceptic such as myself. I particularly enjoyed his gleeful skewering of religious hypocrisy and corruption, and snarky comments such as “the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church”.

So, I’ve done the reading, accumulated a solid set of notes and identified a number of productive themes to structure my argument, but I still haven’t quite figured out the optimal system to move from a notebook full of quotes, comments and connecting arrows and a head full of ideas to a coherent series of connected paragraphs. I find it difficult to start writing on the computer until things are pretty well advanced, preferring to work out my outlines and rough drafts on paper. Despite my best efforts, the middle stage, between the research and the final writing, always seems to deteriorate into a blizzard of index cards and scattered sheaves of paper covered in disconnected scribblings.

I’m in the middle of that paper whirlwind at the moment, but I know that soon things will fall into place (they always do) and the way forward will suddenly come to me, like a path becoming visible through overgrown scrub. If anyone has any good ideas on how to jumpstart the path-finding process, I’d be glad to hear them. Until then, I’m kicking back with a glass of Mount Dottrel Pinot Noir, a classic soft and fruity Otago pinot.

An Easter w(h)ine

It’s Easter Friday and I’ve been working on my essay on nineteenth-century historiography all day. Between the autumnal nip in the air and seven straight hours spent in the company of Messieurs Ranke, Macaulay and Gibbon, I’m craving a big ol’ glass of red (much as Gibbon makes me laugh). My local shop carries a decent selection, including the truly delish Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir, but can I buy one? Can I hell. Because in this secular, rationalist twenty-first century nation, you still can’t buy booze on Easter Friday in deference to a fable. A charming fable to be sure. Betrayal, torture and human sacrifice – hey, what’s not to like? The irony in this, of course, is that this is a holiday that’s all about the wine (or blood-drinking, depending on which branch of the Christian superstition you happen to support).