Londoners turn into Australians in August: friendlier, more laid back, enjoying days when the newspapers declare it a ‘scorcher’ (over 24°C). Even so, there has never been a truer simile than Visage’s ‘fade away like an English summer’ (1980) particularly now we are on the brink of September, and despite what Mark McKenna once referred to as the BBC’s ‘ridiculously upbeat’ weather forecasts.
Over my decade in London I’ve been culturally acclimatized, no doubt, but the Australian three quarters of my life still assert themselves in August: I just can’t get used to it. I’m convinced the ‘traditional’ seasons in Britain create a slow bio-rhythm in those who have grown up here, such that the cadence of the year is experienced innately, and you don’t have to remind yourself that August is the time for holidays and relaxation. (The lack of a summer Christmas doesn’t help.) For the same reason the disjunction between the calendar and academic years in the northern hemisphere feels natural for Britons in ways I still can’t get my head around: or rather I have to think about it with my head, rather than feel summer coming in my heart.
It doesn’t help, of course, that August is increasingly the only month in which academics are really free to pursue their own research for an uninterrupted period. So the excitement of getting back to your most treasured work comes into conflict with the need to take a break: and in the case of most Britons, get away from the island to warmer climes.
I’ve been thinking about the corporeal experience of time lately, particularly in discussions with Helen Idle, a doctoral candidate here at King’s, who has been writing about issues of space, time, identity and nation in her encounters with the exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art in Europe. Indigenous art, ‘traditional’ and otherwise, often unsettles comfortable Western conceptions of time just as much as it contests the politics of ‘Australian’ space.
Contrasting rational, psychological and corporeal experiences of time as they impact the discipline of ‘Australian Studies’ is something I hope we will be thinking about at MCAS in 2014-2015 (there’s that split UK academic year again), taking up some of the issues raised by theorists championing ‘world’ frameworks for the study of human culture. If we confront ‘planetary’ time, this does not simply elongate the historical context of the subjects of our research. It challenges the way academics in the humanities traditionally organise time (into historical periods for example), a challenge which is part and parcel to the impetus to break out of strict ‘national’ boundaries when considering, in our case, things that have happened or work that has been created in the geographical space we call Australia.
On a more pragmatic level, I’ve also been thinking about time during August when contacting former directors, faculty, and fellows of the Menzies Centre, seeking from them reflections on their time working here over the last three decades or so, to say nothing of shorter-term visitors and speakers at our conferences and seminars. At MCAS we sometimes think of ourselves as a ‘small’ Centre, but in fact over its history more than 50 Australians have contributed to its work, and collating the accounts of their experiences in London has been August’s greatest pleasure. We will soon be publishing many of these in a booklet celebrating the Centre’s past, present and future, and featuring all of them in our soon-to-be renovated website. Less of a fading away from summer, then, than an agile springing into autumn.