An open letter to Mr Andrew Robb AO MP, Shadow Minister for Finance

Dear Mr Robb

I write in response to your comments from 7 November this year, in which you criticised the funding awarded by the ARC to a number of Humanities and Social Sciences research projects. Your comments indicate a fundamental lack of understanding about the role and significance of humanist enquiry. While the sciences (and in particular the health sciences) can offer inspiring and meaningful research outcomes that can assist in prolonging life and ameliorating suffering, the end-game result of much scientific endeavour is neutrality. Thanks to medical advances life might go on, perhaps even without pain or illness, but is that really the height of our ambitions? Do we want a research culture in Australia in which mere continuation of existence is the highest research goal?

As a humanist I often find metaphors a useful way to describe and understand complex ideas, and I recently came across two excellent metaphors for communicating the role of the humanities and social sciences.

In the first you must imagine you look out the window to see a man run past. The sciences can explain many fascinating elements of that image. Physics can explain why the running man remains on the ground, and why the particular application of force by each foot results in the forward motion of running. Biology can explain the role of oxygen in his running, and nutritional science can teach us the role of the running man’s breakfast in feeding his muscles. Neuroscience can teach us how his unconscious brain controls those highly complex muscle movements, but none of this explains why.

Why is the man running? Is he running to or from? Should his running be copied – is he running from something I should also run from? Or is he running towards a loved one, recently returned from a long absence? Does running make him happy? This is the realm of the humanities, and this is the reason it is important. Health sciences can keep us alive, but the humanities can teach us why we might want to, and how to make the best out of our existence.

I promised a second metaphor, and you might be pleased to know it is a shorter one. [NB In the email to Mr Robb I wasn’t able to include the image, so I paraphrased it].

*Original image created by Rachel Leiker for the University of Utah College of Humanities.

I write to you, Mr Robb, to entreat you to work towards a little more understanding of humanist enquiry and work. I could provide endless practical arguments in support of this entreaty, but I would rather address your intelligence than your back pocket.

A little time spent looking beyond mere grant application titles and synopses (which are after all written for a specific audience and purpose) would show how crucial, how infinitely necessary, a strong humanities and social sciences research sector is for the future happiness and prosperity of Australia. Let us aim for more than mere null continuation.

With regards, and high hopes

Jean McBain

(Current MA by research candidate, dept. of English, Flinders University)


Scorched almond and chocolate brownies (wheat or gluten free)


So here I am again, posting a random recipe after a long time away. I’ve been thinking about this blog a lot recently, trying to work out what I would do about it. Then yesterday I made these awesome brownies and I really didn’t want to lose the recipe, so the obvious thing was to post it here. I’ve found this site a really useful archive generally, and so I’ve decided that I’m going to continue breaking all the rules – I won’t post daily, or weekly, or even regularly. I won’t focus on a particular topic or theme and I won’t make any promises about keeping this up! In short I’ve decided that I want to keep this blog around, but as I really don’t have the time to do much blogging, I’ll just be happy with doing the little bits that I can and keeping the site going as a personal archive. If no one reads it, well, I don’t care!

So, I started with this recipe for these brownies, but I took it in a different direction by adding roasted almonds and my favourite Amaretto liqueur. They ended up tasting like a cake version of scorched almonds (not sure if that is going to translate out of Australia, but essentially scorched almonds are just chocolate coated roasted almonds). In other words, delicious!

I made these with 1/2 cup rice flour and 1/2 cup rye flour, making them wheat free. If you want gluten free replace the rye flour with a gluten-free flour and make sure your other ingredients (especially the cocoa and baking powder) are also gluten free.

Almond and Chocolate Brownies

handful whole almonds (how precise am I!)
150g butter
1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2/3 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
scant 1/4 teaspoon vanilla concentrate (or equivalent of vanilla essence)
2 tablespoons Amaretto liqueur
To make
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Put the almonds on a baking tray and add to the oven while it is heating, roast until they are slightly fragrant and the skins have turned a deeper brown. If you’re not sure if they are done eat one! The inside should have become slightly darker. Once they are done remove from oven and allow to cool a bit, then chop roughly (so each kernel is in thirds-ish).
Butter a 20 x 30cm tin and line with baking paper.
Melt the butter and leave to cool.
Sift the flours, baking powder and cocoa into a large bowl. Add the sugars and mix gently. Make a well in the centre. Add the eggs, vanilla and Amaretto to the cooled melted butter and mix so the eggs are lightly beaten. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients and mix with a metal spoon until just combined. Add the chopped almonds and stir through.
Pour the batter into the tray, spread out evenly and then bake for 15-20 minutes (until a skewer comes out clean).

choc-chip banana bread, by way of peace offering

Hi there, so long time no see. Sorry about that, one of those life zooming off in a different direction moments. Mostly because of this:

That’s my husband’s arm – it’s sort of dominated our lives for the last two months – from the moment he horribly injured it at a judo competition. Anyway he’s doing a lot better now, as of yesterday he doesn’t have to wear that brace any more. He’s also been able to start physiotherapy and it’s amazing how quickly a young fit person can heal, not to mention what wonders surgeons can perform. Andrew was so lucky in the vascular, plastic and orthopaedic surgeons who treated him, I can’t get over how amazing surgeons are. They fix people who are broken, it’s jaw dropping when you think about it.

Anyway I can’t really say any more about all that without straying into the gory detail. Other exciting, busy things have also been happening over the last two months. I submitted my research proposal for my Masters and it has been approved! I also attended an incredibly inspiring conference in Canberra, the inaugural conference of the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities. It was full on, and I should really write a whole series of posts about it. If I manage to carve some time out of my current schedule I’ll do just that. Anyway I was involved in a panel at the conference and there’s a photo here for anyone interested (I’m on the far left – but as I’m sure only family and friends will look I probably don’t need to say that!)

But really I should get on to the banana bread, because that’s why you’re here right. I made this the other day and quickly snapped a photo for facebook, before being reminded that I was meant to give people recipes not just photos (thanks Anna!) This is my slightly adjusted version of the banana bread from Essential Baking, published by Murdoch Books. It’s really quick, absolutely delicious, and stays fresh for a good five days or so. As I mention below, I like to use half plain wheat flour and half light rye flour, but another mix or just plain old plain flour would be fine.

Choc-chip banana bread

Apologies about the rubbish photo, snapped on my phone with no intention of posting to here originally!


250g plain flour (I prefer a half-half mix of wheat and rye)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
150g unsalted butter, softened
160g soft brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 ripe bananas, mashed
100g-ish dark chocolate chips

To make

Preheat the oven to 180 centigrade. Grease and line a 13 x 23cm loaf tin.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, spices and salt. In a separate bowl cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg gradually, beating thoroughly after each addition. Mix in the banana and chocolate chips. Gradually add the sifted dry ingredients and then mix until smooth.

Get the mixture into the tin and bake until done (the book says 35-45 minutes, mine took a good 50, anyway test with a skewer). Cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack.


Tiramisu / lamington-misu

I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the odd but great things that has happened to me over the last year or so is that I’ve started liking almost all of the foods that I used to dislike and avoid. One of the most significant epiphanies was on eating my Uncle Mario’s superlative tiramisu. I not only started liking this dessert, I became positively obsessed with it.

So for my last birthday, spent in Italy, I asked Mario if he would make a tiramisu for me. In the end he not only made it, but taught me how it is done – such a perfect birthday present for someone like me!

Me receiving wisdom

The really genius part of this tiramisu recipe is the zabaglione. Cooking the egg yolks makes the cream so much more significant somehow: the flavour is much more complex and the texture much lighter. Other non-negotiables for this recipe are good coffee (preferably espresso) and high-quality savoiardi. The soft savoiardi that Mario uses were a revelation and I’ve been able to track some down here down under.

The final part of my story for today is set in Australia, because yesterday was Australia Day, which means compulsory barbequing and eating in this part of the world. When I was thinking about what to take to the event we went to I was split between making a tiramisu and the urge to do something with an Australian theme. I eventually had my second epiphany associated with this dessert and decided to make a lamington-misu.


This was a fairly straight variation on the main recipe, using lamington fingers instead of savoiardi and skipping the cocoa layers (as the lamingtons already have chocolate icing). It was good fun, tasted good and was a great gimmick for our national day, but I have to say the classic beats my experimental version every day!

Tiramisu – the superlative classic version as taught by Mario

120g caster sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons Marsala or Amaretto
500g Mascarpone
500ml-ish fresh coffee, sweetened to taste
Cocoa (pure, no sugar)
400g-ish Savoiardi biscuits (weight needed will depend on the size of the biscuits, your dish etc etc. The soft ‘morbidi’ version are far superior to the dried)

1. First make a zabaglione. In a heatproof bowl mix the 4 egg yolks with 60g sugar and the Marsala/Amaretto. Set the bowl tightly over a pot of simmering water and whisk like crazy until the eggs become a light colour and foamy. It’s ready when the consistency is like pouring custard and there is no raw egg taste.

2. Quickly mix the zabaglione with the mascarpone.

Mascarpone + zabaglione = pure delight

3. Beat the egg whites until they are foamy, then add the other 60g sugar until you have soft peaks. Gently combine the mascarpone and the egg whites. This is your heavenly cream mixture.

4. Get yourself organised with: a large serving dish; a shallow dish for dipping the biscuits in coffee; the cocoa and a sieve.

5. Dip the savoiardi into the coffee and turn then add to your serving dish until you have one layer of biscuits. Spread a layer of the cream mix over the top and then add a thorough dusting of cocoa. Repeat this in layers until you finish with cocoa on top – three full layers is a good guide to aim for.

Elephants and Rhinoceroses

Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros

How sad that the plural of rhinoceros isn’t rhinoceri. But actually that’s rather beside the point as in this post I wanted to discuss an amusing number of the Spectator that I read today. I’m reading my way through the 555 numbers of the original early-eighteenth-century Spectator essays for my Masters research.

Today I reached no. 50, in which Mr Spectator presents some reflections on England and it’s people supposedly written by a native American chief during his visit to England. A footnote in my edition, edited by Donald F Bond, helpfully provides the following details:

“In April 1710 four Iroquois sachems, or ‘Kings’, had visited London, accompanied by Col. Peter Schulyer and other colonial leaders, in order to solicit aid from the home government for military operations against the French in Canada. They had an audience of Queen Anne on 19 April, and were taken to see the principle sights of London.”

In Spectator 50 Mr S, as I like to call him, suggests that he was so intrigued by these visitors that he made enquiries of their London landlord after their departure. As a result he got hold of some papers that, once translated, proved to contain “an abundance of very odd Observations”. Mr S then proceeds to quote at length from these papers and so we hear King Sa Ga Yean Qua Rash Tow’s opinion of all things English.

These start rather predictably with his awe at St Paul’s Cathedral and his thoroughly incongruous suggestion that it must have been hewn out of the landscape in one piece.

Moving on from St Paul’s things get a bit more fun. On the topic of English fashion Sa Ga Yean comments as follows:

“The Men of the Country are very cunning … but withal so very idle, that we often saw young lusty raw-boned Fellows carried up and down the Streets in little covered Rooms by a Couple of Porters … Their dress is likewise very barbarous, for they almost strangle themselves about the Neck, and bind their Bodies with many Ligatures … Instead of those beautiful Feathers with which we adorn our Heads, they often buy up a monstrous Bush of Hair, which covers their Heads and falls down in a large Fleece below the middle of their Backs; with which they walk up and down the Streets, and are as proud of it as if it were their own Growth.”

Faced with the feminine fashion for applying false beauty spots, Sa Ga Yean suggests that English women

“would be more beautiful than the Sun, were it not for the little black Spots that are apt to break out in their faces” and finds that when these blemishes “disappear in one Part of the Face, they are very apt to break out in another”.

My favourite part of the observations though is the one that gives away the fact that these papers are forgeries of the Spectator author. Sa Ga Yean describes the fact that the two guides who have been assisting the kings are “great Enemies to one another”. One guide warns them against “a monstrous Kind of Animals, in the Shape of Men, called Whigs”, while the other warns them of a similar monster “called a Tory”. This picture of England’s political divide is completed with the observation that “These two Creatures, it seems, are born with a secret Antipathy to one another, and engage when they meet as naturally as the Elephant and the Rhinoceros.”

Now I’m no zoologist, but I’m fairly sure that elephants and rhinos aren’t native to North America and Canada.

Anyway I thought I’d put some notes about this Spectator paper up here as it probably isn’t going to be relevant to my MA thesis.

I’d like to close with Mr S’s very poignant, and still very relevant, conclusion:

“I cannot however conclude this Paper without taking Notice, That amidst these wild Remarks there now and then appears something very reasonable. I cannot likewise forbear observing, That we are all guilty in some Measure of the same narrow Way of Thinking which we meet with in this Abstract of the Indian Journal; when we fancy the Customs, Dresses and Manners of other Countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own.”

All quotations from: Donald F Bond, ed., The Spectator, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp 211-215.

Crunchy (not creamy) Coleslaw

Yesterday was 37°C. Summer is here!

I never thought I would find the smells of sunscreen and mosquito repellent so appealing. Caramelised onions on the barbecue and freshly picked basil and mint are more the kind of thing I was actively looking forward to.

Summer means lots of eating and cooking outside: barbecues and long cold drinks. We’ve been making loads of tomato salads and grilled eggplant. I’ve been adding finely sliced zucchini to green salads, and using the first of our homegrown herbs. Oh and I’ve newly discovered a love of mangoes, can’t get enough of them. After two winters in a row we’ve finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s hot and glorious.

So, rhapsody out of the way, this is just a simple recipe with my take on good old coleslaw. I like to have the vegetables shredded or chopped into large matchstick-sized pieces. The crunchy apple adds a great sweetness, while the sunflower seeds bring their usual toasty, nutty goodness. With the sharp dressing the result is a well-balanced, very crunchy salad that is easy to make in huge quantities for when you’re feeding a crowd.

To make

Half a red cabbage
2 carrots, peeled
2 crunchy apples
2 spring onions
¼ cup sunflower seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons-ish red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon-ish olive oil
salt and pepper

Shred the cabbage finely with the grain, and then chop the long strands into around 4cm lengths. Chop the carrots and apples into matchstick-sized pieces. Clean the spring onions and remove the roots, then slice very finely at an angle.

Combine the cabbage, carrots, apples, spring onion and sunflower seeds in a large bowl.

Mix up a dressing of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part olive oil (i.e. an opposite ratio to usual dressings) and add a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. I give ‘ish’ measurements above because the amount of dressing you need will vary depending on how big your veg are etc. Add the dressing a little at a time until you get just the right balance of sweet vegetables and tangy dressing.

One great thing about this salad is that it can handle being dressed a while in advance, so it’s great for taking to parties.

NB: If you won’t be eating the coleslaw straight away squeeze a little lemon juice over the chopped apples before adding them to the other ingredients to prevent them from discolouring.


Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is dropping her publisher because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In other news, Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A 2009 article in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.