Saturday, 31 July 2010

Dancing for Their Lives

I am reading a book called Dig 3ft NW by Sarah Murgatroyd, about the explorers Burke and Wills. In the book, Murgatroyd tells this charming anecdote, although maddeningly she does not provide her source:

In 1839 two men on a survey of the northern coastline of Australia were "sent ashore to fix their ship's compass. As they made their repairs, a party of Aborigines appeared, wielding their spears. With great presence of mind, the men folded their arms and began a vigorous demonstration of the sailor's hornpipe. The warriors threw down their weapons and roared with laughter while the sailors danced for their lives. The area, east of Darwin, was later named Escape Cliff."

Friday, 30 July 2010

Votes for Sale

Actually, just one vote - mine. I promise it to whichever party is prepared to assure me that they will never again allow taxpayers' money to be spent on Geraldine Doogue appearing on my television screen to promote a channel I am already watching by babbling about 'learnings' and 'a virtuous loop' and how these things make her feel 'sparglie-arglie' (?!?!??????) They must also undertake to destroy all prints of the video in question.

Sadly, as I don't live in a marginal electorate, I doubt I will have my wish fulfilled.

P.S I might be prepared to give my first preference to anyone who would outlaw the expression 'a tad'.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Melbourne Film Festival - Lourdes

I used to know some Knights of Malta, which was why initially I wanted to go to see the film called Lourdes. My knightly friends, who lived in Vienna and had business cards printed with 'Knight of Malta' as their occupation, used to go to Lourdes to help disabled pilgrims a couple of times a year. This was just one among a number of things that intrigued me about them (another was whether it was really possible to be a full-time professional Knight of Malta in the modern age). Seeing Lourdes, I decided, would give me a clearer picture of what their trips to the shrine were all about.

The film is the work of Jessica Hausner, an Austrian director who worked as Michael Haneke's assistant and claims Tati as a major influence. The opening scene, a shot of a hotel dining-room being prepared for a meal for a group of pilgrims, certainly resembles something from Tati, but also evokes memories of Fellini's Roma (as does much of the film which, like Roma, has moments of great beauty - most striking perhaps the tableau in which several women anoint Christine, the central character, with holy water, which is reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting - and Fellinesque moments of grotesque comedy, not least the announcement of the prize for 'Best Pilgrim' .)

In the first scene, against a background of ecclesiastical music, we watch from above as waitresses wearing fresh white aprons enter the frame, pushing metal trolleys. In time with each other, they lift chrome bowls from their trolleys and turn to place them at the centre of the cloth-covered tables beside them. They turn back, still synchronised, and continue to the next tables, where they repeat the same gestures, as if engaged in some kind of ritual dance. From our remote corner, we watch their progress. We observe them with the detachment of someone watching fish dart about an aquarium.

The group of people who arrive in the dining-room shortly afterwards are the characters we follow through the rest of the film. As time passes, we learn that they have come to Lourdes for a variety of reasons - some to be cured, some to get out of the house, some to alleviate their loneliness, some out of boredom. They are cared for by members of the Order of Malta, whose motivations are equally varied and not always entirely sweet. We follow them as they visit the Disneyesque chapel at Lourdes, go to the grotto that is the site of the supposed miracle of Lourdes, attend various services of healing and take the waters at the shrine.

I had expected the Catholic church would be the film's main subject. I had imagined the director's central purpose would be to ridicule the whole enterprise that Lourdes represents. To my surprise, while Hausner does nothing to prevent the church from doing its own excellent job of revealing how much of what it offers is essentially tawdry, her focus lies elsewhere. Similarly, although one of the film's achievements is the way it highlights the plight of the disabled, giving us a glimpse of what it means to lose dignity and control, to find yourself utterly vulnerable and at the mercy of others, surrendering to the helplessness of infirmity - and also showing us how even the best-intentioned carers rarely manage to treat those they care for as true equals - this is not her major preoccupation.

Instead, what lies at the heart of the film is a fascination with the overarching absurdity of most human activity, directed as it is by the belief that we can achieve a constant lasting happiness. It is happiness the visitors to Lourdes believe a cure will bring them. They put their faith in God or Jesus or the Virgin - or, in the case of the enigmatic Christine, who becomes fixated with one of the Order of Malta carers, they create their own earthly saviours - and they believe that in return happiness will be theirs. Miracles do happen during the film but by the end the unavoidable conclusion is not that happiness is attainable but rather that life is mysterious, (as are many of the characters, most particularly, in my view, the elderly woman who shares a room with Christine), death is the one absolute reality and happiness is as easy to grasp as smoke. To underline the point, as the final evening of the pilgrimage draws to a close - and with it the film - an ageing singer and the prettiest of the carers belt out a song called 'Felicita', while Christine and her companions subside back into their loneliness.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Depends How You Look at It

The old fellows in the British Library Reading Room and their memories of Karl Marx, (mentioned in yesterday's post), reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to James Lock & Co. I was supposed to be researching the old crafts-based businesses of London and, as Locks had been established as a hatters no later than 1676, it seemed a pretty good place to start.

I was taken round the joint by an elderly man who had spent his entire adult life in Locks' employ. He showed me various objects that looked like instruments of torture but were in fact designed to ensure each customer's hat would be a perfect fit. He pointed out what he considered to be especially fine examples of each hat style, and he demonstrated how a genuine panama really can be rolled up like a silk scarf and fitted through a wedding ring. He also informed me that panama hat makers have the highest rate of suicide of any profession in the world and that they have to weave their hats underwater. It was at least two decades afterwards that I realised this did not entail taking a huge gulp of air and plunging underwater themselves, frantically weaving for a minute or two and then rushing up to the surface just before their lungs exploded. That did seem a way of life that could lead to urgent thoughts of self-harm.

But what made me think of that visit in the context of the old library guys was the way that for both the men in the British Library and the man at Locks, their perspective had been influenced by their profession. For the British Library people, Marx was just a fellow who made them lug down heavy books. For the man at Locks, the world was just an arena for hats. His judgements on all manner of things were entirely headgear-related. 'Do you go to the cinema', he suddenly demanded, for instance. 'Sometimes,' I told him. He gazed dreamily into the distance. 'Did you see Death in Venice?' 'Yes,' I said. 'Wonderful hats,' he observed, wistfully, 'the best hats I've ever seen in the cinema - probably the best hats you're ever likely to see.'

Monday, 26 July 2010

Made to Last

I love working at the National Library of Australia but I love working at the State Library of Victoria even more. Both institutions embrace the public and demonstrate an eagerness to help us use the collections we have helped pay for. This is in stark contrast to the British Library, which, despite being funded by the nation's taxpayers, seems so keen to prevent citizens accessing its reading rooms you begin to wonder if it is run by the committee of Brooks's Club.

The reason I prefer the State Library of Victoria to the National Library has nothing to do with the service or the collections available though. The thing that makes it my favourite is simply the fact that the building it is housed in was built before 1960. Even though the National Library is one of the nicer late twentieth century buildings I know of, it still does not contain the things I most love about pre-industrial/pre-Modernist/pre-Niemeyer architecture: the countless little signs that the edifice was put together by highly-skilled individuals, who made things carefully, by hand, with the intention that they should last.

The desk I am sitting at, for example, is constructed from solid wood. Its surface has tooled green leather insets. It has a flat, brass-hinged central panel with a flush brass handle that you can pull up so that the main part of the desk becomes a slope. The lamp that shines above the desk is protected by green glass, to match the desk's leather, and set in a gleaming brass collar which hangs from a decorative carved wooden pole topped by a redundant but aesthetically pleasing wooden globe. My chair is also wood. The seat is wide enough to fit the most obese of today's readers and has been planed to slope at each side, with a slight rise at the middle of the front. Its arms are formed from a semi circular piece of wood which has been carved to form a shape a bit like a minim at each end. There is a pretty wooden back rest with a pattern cut into it and an attractive backward curl, and there are two P-shaped carved supports for the arm rests. The whole thing is set on four legs, which form two semi circles, meeting underneath the seat, at its centre, where a heavy cast iron mechanism provides springiness and allows the user to move the thing up and down.

Everything about these objects reminds you that someone - an unknown but living person who cared about doing their job well and took pleasure in getting things perfect - was engaged in every moment of their making. This, it seems to me, establishes a connection between us today and the people who created this place, thus giving us a link with the past in which they lived as well. Somehow the mass-produced formica and chipboard tables and tubular alloy and foam padded chairs of today do not manage the same trick. All human connection is absent from the streamlined sleek chrome and glass structures we are erecting in our cities now.

But clearly not everyone sees things my way. The La Trobe reading room in the State Library of Victoria was once thought of as a sort of poor man's version of the reading room at the British Library in London, whereas now its rival has been swept away. The shell remains in Norman Foster's Great Court at the British Museum, but nothing of its interior is left. This strikes me as vandalism. Aesthetically, no-one could argue that the exhibition space that now occupies the old reading room is an improvement. Furthermore, a place of historical significance - the room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital - has been destroyed. After all, whatever one may think of Marxism, his work is without any doubt the single most influential piece of writing in the whole of the last century. While the workplaces of other writers - Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset - are now places of pilgrimage, Marx's has been systematically destroyed.

Before I descend into whingeing and grumbling, however, I am reminded of a report I saw where some of the surviving old fellows who had worked at the reading room when Marx was a habitue were interviewed. When asked if they remembered him, they frowned and scratched their heads. They'd never heard of him or read anything he'd written. But then one of them remembered: 'Oh yes, he was the one who always wanted the really heavy books from right on the top shelves. We always had to get the ladders out for him. He was a real nuisance.' Now I think about it, that's not a bad description for Marx really - a real, real nuisance.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

English as a Foreign Language

From an Ebay listing:

Worn once drive cleaned after, grad a bargin

Drive cleaning - hanging your clothes out the car window when you're motoring in the rain?

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Drive Time

I will be doing the drive between Canberra and Melbourne a few times over the next month. I have the complete works of Lady Gaga, several Muszikas CDs, Schubert's Winterreise and a few downloads of short stories from the New Yorker site. It's not going to be enough. Can anyone recommend music for road trips? All suggestions gratefully received.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Greetings Earthlings

There was a lot of stuff in the media a while ago about SETI and its so far fruitless quest to find messages from aliens.‭ ‬One thing that emerged was the possibility that by following its current policy of simply tracking radio signals from the depths of the universe, SETI might not be looking in the right place.‭ ‬A message from another planet might in fact be transmitted by a very different method and in some unexpected form.

Ignoring Stephen Hawking's subsequent burst of intergalactic racism, I started wondering if I could solve this puzzling dilemma. ‬What about those strange words you have to copy when you fill in online forms,‭ ‬I thought. Supposedly, they are there to establish that you are a human,‭ ‬but what if they are actually little bits of alien speech‭? (‬Well they could be,‭ ‬you know,‭ ‬anything’s possible,‭ ‬if you believe SETI‭)‬.‭

Just in case they might be,‭ ‬I have been collecting the ones that have come my way ever since.‭ ‬What on earth‭ (‬ooooh,‭ ‬double meaning‭) ‬they could possibly be saying is way beyond me,‭ ‬but I’m sure the people at SETI will work it out.‭ ‬And so,‭ ‬without further ado,‭ ‬I present my whole collection‭ – ‬in all its enigmatic glory:

bapayin wantarec diater gatatriz gabar scron balints pellorn paywalla retralln dramele krogs priense stestin elbero salar groce ressa imanxlyp skyanatn dipuc procido monsin ostosof musquebr shewherg epeta sesica jething puttma zansort undog sivilaca drith ackle manisto momihing pycentat derinjoi temings elingl tershb glypie synersu lative anstat ‭ ‬sturelo haggersi enclanti ingless syphor unkes elialiti vitionsc uncon chimil orcsc cologing exhan nosissen piciwiy taqipej apoja pen exiye evita undst flooment eumboali wayfla formsti comyli oressome retwis gesonsi sauders horthour piciwiy taqipej apoja pen exiye suber tingl nation prous stionu seman epityhoin cotation idonctu ebakosi uquseto mam oxub kede barsi vibre subfu phineus secturre spinee ibikas ovazovi api bik zedeg

Monday, 19 July 2010

Day at the Louvre II

My main reason for going to the Louvre was to see the Victory of Samothrace again. I saw it for the first time when I was 17. I had never- and still have never - seen any sculpture half as lovely.

For me, the statue, with its outstretched wings and swirling windswept garments, is the embodiment of magnificence. Although it has lost its head and arms, it retains beauty and grandeur. It seems to rush toward you from the heart of a wild, roaring storm.

Whenever I look at the Victory of Samothrace, I wonder if we've really made any progress. It was made around 180 BC; is there any sculptor on earth who can produce anything as wonderful today?

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Day at the Louvre I

What is happening to the Mona Lisa? All my life she's been famous, but recently things seem to have got out of hand. She has become the world's greatest inanimate celebrity. No-one's visit to Paris is complete without a glimpse of her - so that 'at least you can say you've seen her', to borrow a phrase from Dame Edna Everidge (although, as she doesn't like being overshadowed, it's doubtful the dame would visit the Italian star these days).

The Louvre, responding to the Mona Lisa's growing popularity, have moved the picture into a much bigger room. They've erected a false wall for her, and a bullet-proof glass panel, behind which she hangs completely alone. They've decked the museum with black and white photocopies of her, complete with felt-tipped arrows pointing visitors directly to her grand new home. Each day, wave upon wave of tourists rush past all the museum's other treasures, glancing at nothing except these helpful signposts guiding them to their prey. 'There she is,' they gasp, when they first clap eyes on her. It's as if they've glimpsed an actress on the red carpet at a Leicester Square premiere. They join the five-deep crowd in front of the barrier, jostling for a better position, waving their cameras above their heads. 'I think I got a good one of her,' someone at the back of the crowd exclaimed excitedly when I was there. 'Holy shit,' squealed another, 'I think I did as well.'

And, of course, when you do clap eyes on her, there is a kind of wow moment as you take the picture in. But is it just the wow moment you get when you see anything or anyone really well-known in the flesh? It is so hard to gauge greatness when fame gets in the way. How do you separate the shock of seeing the real thing from the shock of seeing something really good? Who makes the decisions that transform some sights into so-called 'icons'? How does tourism work? Is it the tourists themselves who collectively make something a 'must-see'? What is the process? Why do so many lovely things miss out?

I should point out that I'm not suggesting da Vinci's painting is not a very great masterpiece. All I wonder is whether she merits singling out for the utterly awed attention she receives. Is the experience of looking at her - especially as you have to stand at a distance that prevents the examination of any of the picture's detail or its extraordinary paintwork (the aspect that is supposed to be possibly its main claim to greatness) - really more amazing than the experience of looking at van Eyck's great Self Portrait in the National Gallery in London? Van Eyck's picture is rarely beset by viewers, you can get really close to it and it has no protective glass to separate you from its marvels. It is also one of the paintings that I most want to own.

And do the people who flock to see the Mona Lisa actually know anything about the painting they're so keen to see? Do they know who the artist was ? Do they know when and where he painted the thing? Do they know anything about the painstaking slowness of how da Vinci worked? Do they care that they are standing so far away from the thing that they have no chance of telling whether this is the real thing or just a fake - or seeing, if it is in fact the genuine article, what makes it remarkable?

Catching the eye of the guy who thought he'd 'got a good one of her', I asked if he knew when the picture was done. 'It's really old,' he told me, 'Maybe a hundred and fifty years or more.' 'What do you think makes it such a great picture?', I asked his companion. 'It's just so awesome,' she answered, 'just so old and amazing and all that stuff.'

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Freecycle

OFFER: Engagement invitations, (no longer needed)

(Plus one broken heart?)

Thursday, 15 July 2010

I Take it Back

Who'd have thunk it - as soon as I decide to be rude about Russians, a hero of our time pops up to make me feel a fool.
I'm sorry; I was mistaken. Uri Shevchuk proved it with his brave attempt at speaking truth to power. I've no idea what kind of ghastly noise he makes in his professional life in the name of music. It doesn't matter. He took on Putin and he spoke nice clear Russian that even I could almost understand (unlike Putin who, some people say, sounds like a member of the Russian mafia, although I wouldn't know, never having met any, at least wittingly).
So my new revised backflip position is: Go Russians, you did produce Chekhov, you did produce Pushkin, maybe you aren't too bad after all (I know, I know, there is still the question of humour, but there's nothing very funny about Putin and his gang, so maybe now's not the time for larking about).
And, while we're speaking of Putin, I do hope Mr Shevchuk takes care what he eats and drinks from now on, never uses the lift in his apartment building and doesn't succumb to suicidal thoughts straight after a visit to the supermarket like some of his troublesome compatriots.
I should also point out that there are those who say the whole incident was just some sort of complicated, wheels within wheels, Machiavellian, internecine, add in all the other cliched terms for conspiracy theories, staged, Putin-backed exercise in public relations or something. There are always those. There are also those who say that Shevchuk's gesture had no obvious instant effect. The Moscow Times reported it this way:
'Despite his best intentions, Putin failed in his attempt to play the role of a democratic politician who respects the opposition’s rights and is tolerant of their opinions. He gave himself away when Shevchuk stood up and offered a toast, wishing that the country’s children will grow up not in a “corrupt, totalitarian, authoritarian [country] with one political party … but in an enlightened, democratic country in which everyone is equal before the law.”
As Shevchuk ended his toast while everyone’s glasses were still raised, someone at the table said, “We are raising glasses of water! No one toasts with water.”
Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Putin retorted, “The beverage fits the toast!” (One colloquial meaning of “water” in Russian is meaningless, empty words or padding.)
Kudos to Putin for his quick and sharp wit. But in those five words, he instantly threw off his liberal mask and revealed his true disdain toward political opponents, democracy and pluralism.
Shevchuk, clearly hoping for a breakthrough dialogue with the prime minister, prefaced his questions to Putin by saying, “This may be the beginning of a genuine civil society.” But judging by Putin’s responses, it may very well have marked the end.'
So not a great outcome then, but full marks for trying all the same.

Wimp

Yes, all right, I know I said in my last post that I was going to live in a tent and yet here I still am, within four brick walls, corrugated iron over my head. This is because, since my hasty decision yesterday, I have discovered certain things about life under canvas. I list the main ones below:
1) It is cold if the season is winter (as it is here, now)
2) It is wet if it rains torrentially (as it did last night)
3) It has a tendency to transform into life under the stars if there is a gale force wind (as there was last night)
4) There is an absence of bathroooms and, whilst it may be argued that standing in torrential rain is a form of showering, there are advantages to having a supply of hot water and the ability to step out of a shower and into a dry place
I am sure others will point out that these facts were all well-known already - even, possibly, self-evident. What I say in response to that is: why then do people do camp? A lot of my neighbours actually do it for a holiday. Is it just the banging-your-head-against-the-wall-so-nice-when-it-stops syndrome? Someone said something to me once about atavism - not, it turns out, a 3-D movie. Well, I may object to pings and squeaks and insistent electronic nagging, but that's as far as my atavism goes.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Please Shut Up

I don't understand why the microwave died. After all, we only used it to cook rice. That's what we bought it for, and it did an excellent job. In fact, it made our lives immeasurably better and saved us more money than I can say.

Before we bought the microwave, the procedure for cooking rice in our house went like this: I would start cooking some rice, the telephone would ring, I would forget about the rice, the smell of smoke would drift through the house to where I was sitting and I would realise that yet another saucepan had bitten the dust.

After we bought the microwave, I would start cooking some rice, the telephone would ring, I would forget about the rice and two weeks later I would find a new life form that had once been rice crawling out of the microwave. Infinitely preferable - and a way of making new and interesting friends (some of my best friends were once rice grains [yes, I am making that part up, before anyone starts signing the committal papers]).

Anyway one day the microwave died. It was then the rot set in (the metaphysical rot, nothing to do with rice this time).

At first, nothing appeared to be different, of course. We bought a new microwave, I started cooking some rice, the telephone rang, I forgot about the rice, all just as normal. But then, not long into my conversation, I was disturbed by an irritating noise, a distant insistent pinging. It was coming from the back of the house. It was actually coming from the kitchen.

I hung up and went to find out what was going on. It was the microwave. It wanted acknowledgment of its successful completion of the rice cooking task. It demanded immediate attention. It refused to be ignored.

I looked at this new possession. I couldn't believe it. I thought I'd bought a labour saving device, but I'd ended up with a nag. There was nothing in the instruction booklet about stopping its bleating. Fed up, we stuck the thing in the laundry, where it was almost inaudible, provided you kept the door shut. It must be some kind of technological aberration, we decided. It was infuriating, but at least it was one of a kind. No other appliance would ever display such bossiness. We could put up with this one crazy little upstart. With relief, we settled back into our untroubled, indolent ways.

Hah. What idiots we were. What fools. That microwave was just an outrider, a warning of what was to come. I look back on our innocence with pity and sorrow, for these days I am surrounded by yelping appliances. Even as I write the house is ringing with their needy cries. With each new replacement due to built in obsolescence another plaintive electronic voice is added to the swelling choir.

The washing up machine screams when it's finished, the washing machine whistles when it's done and the iron squeals until you turn it off. As for the car, it is deafening. It starts clamouring as soon as you get in, before there's even time to close the door, insisting you fasten your seatbelt. As you back out of the drive, it's still having a go at you, introducing another voice which screeches to alert you - just in case you'd somehow changed gears without noticing - to the fact that you are reversing.

Who asked for this? I didn't. What fiend dreamed up these maddening functions. I'm supposed to be the master here, not these heaps of metal and microchips. These things - these inanimate but noisy objects - have got way too big for their (metaphorical) boots. If anyone out there can tell me how to silence even one of these horrible creatures - I mean devices - my gratitude will be boundless, (although taking a sledge hammer to them all is not really a sensible suggestion, in case you were thinking of that). In the meantime, I'm going to go and live in a tent.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Freecycle

Wanted - Treadmill

This one comes up every fortnight or so. The perversity of it never ceases to surprise me. You are given life and what do you do? You seek out a treadmill to spend it on.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Was Chekhov an Aberration?

I studied Russian because I loved Russian literature. Misguidedly, I thought I would therefore love all Russians. I imagined that they would have the calm detached sense of absurdity of Chekhov, the godlike understanding of humanity of Tolstoy, the surreal sense of life's tragicomedy of Gogol. I see now that this was as idiotic as imagining the people you meet in London are all going to be as wise as William Shakespeare.

The trouble is though that, while Londoners are not all William Shakespeare, they are not all utterly antipathetic, whereas in my experience Russians usually are (yeah, yeah, I know it's a huge generalisation, but I'm sticking with it, until something happens to make me believe otherwise - and it's been quite a few years since I first arrived at this sorry conclusion and nothing has yet suggested I'm wrong).

Not only have I never met a Russian even a bit like Chekhov, I'm not sure I've met one who properly understood what I think are his absolutely central themes - that life is a joke made by the universe and that our individual posturings are silly and hilarious and pathetically sad. This is what Fawlty Towers is all about, as well, in my opinion, but Russians of my acquaintance all reject Fawlty Towers. It is emblematic of everything they despise about us. For them there is nothing humorous or even interesting in the situation it portrays. They are happy to wallow in the sadness of existence, but they do not want to make light of it. They look at us laughing and shake their heads. They retreat back behind the barrier they have built between us. It is made from their own unwavering, accusatory sense of cultural superiority and their unconcealed disgust at our Anglo Saxon frivolity and lack of proper seriousness.

But the poet Bronwyn Lea has described all this so much better than I have in her poem called 'Miserability':

Grey skies over Brisbane today -
maybe like the skies over St Petersburg,
I think, but she says, 'No.
The clouds in St Petersburg are heavy like bells'
And so it is with her eyes.
'Your people are kind,' she says, 'this is true
but because I know how it is
to be whittled down to a twig and grow again into a tree -
because I know it & speak it,
they think me clown.'
'Yes,' I say, 'my people are kind
but we do not like to talk about sad things.
It's always been this way.'
She looks at me through wet lashes
in that wounding way of children,
her black eyes bright with 'miserability' -
'Then tell me,' she says, as if I were her
messenger and not her witness, 'where are your poets?'

How brilliant of Bronwyn Lea to write a poem as revenge.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Colin Haycraft

Until a couple of days ago, I knew almost nothing about Colin Haycraft, except that he was the horrid man who upset Penelope Fitzgerald with a flip comment. What happened is described (at least from her point of view) in the hurt letter she sent him after she moved away from his publishing house, Duckworth, to Collins:

"Dear Colin,
I'm terribly distressed at having done the wrong thing and caused trouble when I meant to remove it. That is, I'd thought the most helpful thing to do would be to take myself off without making a fuss. You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn't want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad endings on your hands, and I thought, well, he's getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don't at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.
I would have liked to stay, because I'm not the sort of person who ever has any money anyway, and I admire the firm so much and then you were always so clever and funny that everyone else seemed exceedingly slow by comparison. However having made this mistake, and I'd rather be taken for an idiot than a liar, I'll be careful to make it clear that it was my mistake, which is what you want, I think.
I told Collins that I wouldn't give them an option on non-fiction just in case you were still interested in the LPH biography, -by the time I get the necessary permissions for that I expect you'll have forgotten my various errors and misunderstandings so it would be worth asking you again -
best wishes
Penelope"

(how is that for a master class in passive agression, by the way [that's me speaking, not Penelope Fitzgerald]?)

Then, when Beryl Bainbridge died a week or two ago, I saw that Haycraft came in for more bad press, this time via AN Wilson's obituary of Bainbridge, which devoted itself almost entirely to sticking the boot into Haycraft and his wife (making me wonder, inevitably, whether they had at some point rejected Wilson's own offerings [many of which I like]):

"Colin Haycraft and his wife, Anna (who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis), made the mistake of patronising Beryl and believing that the various masks she wore – the timid-little-girl Beryl who was totally lacking in social confidence; the illiterate scouser who could not spell and needed editorial help to finish a sentence; the Gin Lane slag who keeled over at parties – were "real".The Haycrafts liked to suggest that they were an essential part of the Beryl Bainbridge production line. Anna, herself the author of novellas with a cult following, claimed that she was the one who somehow crafted Beryl's raw material. Colin, snooty about fiction, as about much else, said that novels belonged to the "distaff side of the business". But he was perfectly happy to pocket the profits from Beryl's novels – the only commercially successful books he ever published. She saw almost none of this money and it was a dark day when – Duckworth being in trouble – Haycraft came and asked Beryl to sign over her house. For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines – and that spelled the end of Beryl's association with Duckworth.
Here is perhaps not the best place to air Beryl's complicated relationship with the Haycrafts, who were both, in their different ways, monsters. She love-hated them both. In her morphine-induced trance in hospital last week, she imagined that she was dancing with Colin through a crowd of Hollywood film stars.
I felt that Colin's distaste for fiction had a bad effect on her work. Skilful as some of her historical reconstructions are – such as The Birthday Boys, about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition – I never felt they drew on such deep wells as the self-projections, such as her Liverpool-rep novel, An Awfully Big Adventure. That book, made into a superb film with Alan Rickman, was really a masterpiece.
In her fiction, and in her life, Beryl liked the role of the wronged woman. Stella, the would-be actress, who is seduced in An Awfully Big Adventure, wants to tell all to her mother. But the only way she gets to hear her mother's voice is by dialling the Speaking Clock, which her mother professionally reads. ("'There was this man who seduced me.' 'The time,' mother intoned, 'is 6.45 and 40 seconds precisely.' 'It wasn't my fault,' Stella shouted, 'I'll know how to behave next time. I'm learning.'")While the Haycrafts thought they were manipulating Beryl – Anna by supposedly improving her novels, Colin by playing the Sir Jasper role of total cad – some of their friends could see the dynamics of the infernal trio working very differently. Beryl was not short of men who fell in love with her."

Leaving aside the fact that AN Wilson's claims do not appear to be borne out by this or this or this (in fact, the last of those three argues that, far from being, as Wilson suggests, limited to writing historical reconstructions by Haycraft, Bainbridge felt restrained from writing her greatest novel of that kind until after his death), what interested me most about Wilson's obituary, in as far as it concerned Haycraft, was the revelation - to me at least - that it was he who had been responsible for publishing Bainbridge in the first place. That meant, I realised, that it was Haycraft who gave three of my favourite recent novelists - Bainbridge; the wonderful Fitzgerald (a nice appreciation of her and one of her less good novels here); and Haycraft's own wife, Alice Thomas Ellis - the opportunity to be published.

(Of that trio, to go off at a tangent for a moment, the least known nowadays is Alice Thomas Ellis. Her books are not as magnificent as the best of Bainbridge's and Fitzgerald's, but they are still often pretty entertaining. For instance, I've just dug out Pillars of Gold by Ellis and immediately found a couple of passages that make me laugh. In the first, the book's main character is assaulted by absurd [but, to me, not completely unfamiliar] media-induced anxieties as she tries to decide what is the best thing to do with some courgettes she is cooking for her daughter:

"... if she immersed them in water, their vitamin C content would dissipate. She could cook them now and reheat them, but that, she believed, would be deleterious to their nutritional value: it would perhaps be best to entrap them, with their vitamins and trace minerals, in a china bowl enveloped in clingfilm in the coolness of the fridge, taking care that the film did not touch them lest some cancer-inducing chemical should migrate from the one to the other.
Next she considered the potatoes: in the past she had always cooked them in their skins, but recently it had been suggested that potato skins, if not carcinogenic, were yet harmful to the system, perforating the bowel or preventing it from absorbing the vital vitamins. She scraped them carefully and put them in a steel pan ... Scarlet had thrown away all her old aluminium pans since she had learned that they might cause Alzheimer's disease ... The chicken, which she next drew from the fridge, had, so the label proclaimed, ranged freely over a district of France before being hygienically and humanely slaughtered and packed. It somehow gave the impression that the fowl had led such a delightful and pleasurable existence that it was a positive act of virtue to eat it."

In the second, the trials of this woman continue, as she tries to engage with her teenage daughter:

"Do I look all right?" asked Scarlet. She was wearing what she considered to be an ageless garment - a hip-length coat of black watered taffeta; the shoulders were rather too narrow and too sharply defined to be precisely fashionable, but the material was of most superior quality. Underneath this she wore black cotton trousers - ideally these should have been made of silk, but she felt sure no one would notice.
"You look wonderful," said Camille without raising her eyes from the television set. She had eaten her supper" [which included the pristine courgettes, I think] "and was beginning to feel hungry again.
'No, really,' said Scarlet.
Camille fell to her knees from the sofa and gave her mother's leg a patronizing pat. 'You've got a sweet little face,' she said. Scarlet, though not reassured by her words, was touched by her gesture until she saw that Camille was merely reaching for the crisp packet and had patted her in passing.
'Do these shoes go with these trousers?' she asked.
'Yes,' said Camille, her fingers deep in the crispbag.
'You didn't look,' said Scarlet. 'Are they too old-fashioned?'
'No,' said Camille. Scarlet gave up. Only a few years before, Camille had been acutely conerned about her mother's appearance, sometimes refusing to be seen with her in public, but now it seemed that she no longer minded: she had expropriated from Scarlet's wardrobe those few articles that she felt would suit herself and had thereafter left her mother to her own devices. It gave Scarlet the impression that she had grown very old and from now on might just as well go round in her shroud.")

As well as providing us with the pleasure of Bainbridge, Fitzgerald and Ellis's writing, Haycraft also argued in defence of the short novel (apparently, he wrote something called 'a satire' on the subject for the Times Literary Supplement, but, as it was well before the advent of the internet, I can find no trace of it). I support that view, not because I don't enjoy Dickens or George Eliot or Tolstoy, but because I think the lengthy novels that are published nowadays are rarely up to the standard of their predecessors. Nowadays they are often really just sloppily edited - or completely unedited - short novels (there's a slim volume lurking inside every fat volume, or something like that). My impression is that few of today's writers - especially the really popular female ones - emulate the writing habits of Beryl Bainbridge, as described by Lynn Barber:
"It is here that she walls herself in for the four months it takes her to produce a novel, chain-smoking, never leaving except to sleep and collect the odd takeaway, writing draft after draft then cutting, cutting, till not one sentence, one phrase, one word is redundant. For every page of print, she will have written at least 12 pages of draft and then compressed it to the bare bones."
What is more the kind of editor Barber herself ended up working with at Penthouse, according to her memoir 'An Education' -

"Harry ... had this obsession with redundancy. He could find extraneous paragraphs in any page and would merrily run his black fountain pen through them all. ... 'Can't print waffle,' he would say ... My ambition was one day to write an article from which Harry would be unable to delete a single word. But there, you see, I've already failed. 'What do you mean single word?' he would bark. 'As opposed to what? A hyphenated word?' -

no longer exists, (which is a pity as Harry sounds like my kind of guy).

Haycraft also gave Jonathan Coe his first break, which I think is excellent (I don't love everything that Coe writes, but I usually at least quite enjoy it, and I certainly regard him as pleasingly unslick, with a much more original voice, less driven by concerns of fashion and the desire to please a small coterie of London friends than, say, Ian McEwan). He lent a helping hand to the creator of the Bash Street Boys, as well, which is a good thing in my book. He helped a writer I've never heard of called Eva Hanagan, (and if he thought she was good enough to publish, I think she's worth at least looking for on Abebooks,) and I'll bet there are dozens more I don't know about.

Given all this, (but in light most especially of Haycraft's willingness to publish a variety of witty women's writing that is either no longer being written - which seems unlikely - or, since his disappearance, no longer has any outlet), it seems to me that the man has been given a pretty rough ride. He was clearly sometimes insensitive (possibly thanks to the wonders of a good dinner and a bit too much wine [and who hasn't sometimes in those circumstances been careless once in a while -regretting it at three o'clock in the morning when it's too late and the die is already cast]), but even so I am grateful to him for giving me some of my most pleasurable reading hours.

So hurray for Haycraft - he deserves much more credit than blame. The kind of fiction he published - tightly written, harshly pruned, spare but humorous writing which managed to be both serious and entertaining, light without being silly, and which left quite a lot to the reader's imagination - is virtually impossible to find nowadays, and I miss it. Possibly there was never much of a market for it, of course, given the financial state Haycraft left Duckworth's in. I wouldn't know. After all I have never managed to progress beyond the first sentence of Twilight, one of the most successful novels the world, the universe, infinity, has ever seen. In case you haven't read it, it goes like this:

"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down."

I mean, I ask you -who has ever been to an airport where you can open the windows, let alone roll them down?

Friday, 9 July 2010

Boomerang Kids

Apparently there is a new phenomenon where kids either won't leave home or come boomeranging back after a couple of months. Sadly, we don't suffer from this, (pause to wipe eyes on treasured handkerchief, made years ago as a gift for mum by child in kindergarten, [huge clumsy stitching round its edge, complete with grubby knots; large inkmark in one corner where stubby infant fingers made a bit of a bish; but a comforting keepsake, for all that - a last precious link with what is gone, sob, sob]).

The Australian reference (boomeranging, that is), makes a lot of sense. I only realised this today when I was walking the neighbour's dog up on my local mountain. Wandering along, lost in my own thoughts, (mainly about when and whether my children will return [okay, yes, I am just teasing you, I am fine really, you don't actually have to get on planes immediately]), I was startled by a sudden tug on the lead. My head jerked up and I saw that there was a fullgrown kangaroo ahead of us, doing its best to hop away. Strangely though, the creature wasn't managing - the usual astonishing springy grace most kangaroos achieve was absent from her attempts to bounce. Instead of rising, seemingly effortlessly, from the ground and bounding into the distance, she was tottering, off balance, listing heavily to one side, When I took a closer look, I realised why. She had the most enormous joey in her pouch - it was so big that not just its head was sticking out but its back legs and tail as well. It could barely fit into the space at all. 'Just till spring, mum, it's so comfortable with you,' it must have told her. I tried not to be jealous.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere

I love looking at paintings - pre-twentieth century paintings, that is (I can't be doing with anything after Corot, as my father so wisely used to say). Yet, when I look at them, although I am filled with admiration, it is always admiration from a distance. That distance is not just the physical one, dictated by the bossy men and women who chastise you in museums (and how come the Louvre staff are so much less officious than the National Gallery staff in London [I suppose that's a stupid question: the Louvre staff aren't British]); it is also created by my lack of knowledge about how the pictures were produced. The techniques used to build up the layers of pigment on a Holbein canvas are utterly outside my experience (the closest I've got would be finger painting at the Chelsea Froebel School in 1961 or 2). As a result, when I stand in front of a Titian or a Caravaggio, my appreciation is tempered by a sense of inadequacy. 'How did they make these things?' I wonder. Constructing a computer is only slightly more mysterious than spreading paint about like Velasquez - at least for me.

Drawing though is another matter - at least in theory. I couldn't actually ever produce anything worth looking at, but at least I understand the basic process. That is one reason I found the exhibition of Renaissance drawings at the British Museum so particularly enthralling. There is an immediacy about a drawing - a sense that it gives you some kind of almost direct link to the artist who made it hundreds of years ago. There it is, a piece of paper; there he was with a pencil in his hand. He made these marks, and now you are looking at them. There is nothing between those straightforward gestures that made lines appear on paper - no stretching of canvas, no complex mixing of oil and colour, no lacquers, no varnishes - and you, the observer. You too have picked up a pencil and drawn images of some sort on paper. You have shared the activity of the masters whose works appear in the show.

The exhibition itself is enormous - and, the day I went, pretty crowded. It is too much to take in everything in one visit. Instead, I picked out a few pictures to look at in detail. I started with King David by Fra Angelico, which showed the king seated, playing a lyre. All the detail of the drawing is concentrated around the figure's shoulders and head; the lower half of the picture is conveyed with just a few clean incisive accurate lines. Set down in brown ink on vellum in 1430, the image has survived almost six centuries, arriving before us as sharp and fresh as the day it was made.

Next I looked at Three Men, drawn in 1433 by Pisanello - 'they look like birds' one of the other visitors said, and they do, in their stockings and ballooning hot pants, topped by little capes complete with fur collars captured with Durer like attention to detail - and his horribly meticulous studies of hanged men. I saw drawings by Lorenzo Lippi, which reminded me a lot of Edward Ardizzone, and works by Raphael, including some studies of the Virgin and Child which were, although more brilliant than anything I could ever have managed, really just quick doodles he made to resolve an anatomical puzzle.

Sadly though, as so often with exhibitions, when I read the captions I found myself coming up against the "art speak" that curators do so love to spout. For instance, attached to a drawing from 1502-03 by Raphael called Head of a Woman, was the following statement:

"Already apparent is his gift for geometrical abstraction, seen in the lucid harmony created through the rhythmical play of curved forms."

The drawing showed an oval face framed by an oval of hair and wimple. The sure simplicity of line, the way Raphael could just pick up a pen and draw without hesitation, is what struck me as wonderful about the picture. "Lucid harmony", "rhythmical play" and "gift for geometrical abstraction" are all phrases from which I can extract no more meaning than from a blast of Finnish.

God knows what was written about the pictures I loved best in the exhibition - Leonardo's sketches of the infant Jesus playing with a cat. Drawn in pen and brown ink over leadpoint, somewhere between 1475 and 1481, these sketches were never worked up into a painting. What is appealing about them (apart, of course, from their "lucid harmony") is the sense you have that they could have been done yesterday, that both the child and the cat exist somewhere out there in today's world, just as much as in Leonardo's. The expression of guileless joy on the child's face as he squeezes the squirming cat to his chest and the eager clumsiness Leonardo captures as the child pats the unwilling creature are vivid and immediately recognisable. They aren't the most beautiful drawings in the exhibition but, if I were both rich and unscrupulous, it would be those little scribbles that I'd hire a robber to pinch.

(And, just by way of a postscript, before sticking the boot too heavily into BP, it is worth noting that they sponsored the exhibition - once they're gone, what in the art world will replace their rivers of gold?)

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

City Wildlife

There was a lot of fuss when I was in London recently about foxes getting into people's upstairs bedrooms and snacking on chunks of their children. Personally, I couldn't understand all the outrage and surprise. When hunting was banned, did no-one else foresee this? How did the campaigners expect foxes to use their new spare time? They've never been much for hobbies, foxes, let's face it. Didn't anyone read Jemima Puddleduck when they were young? Did the scary imagery of Ted Hughes' Thought Fox -

... an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.

not enter the dark hole of anyone else's head?

Apparently not. Most Londoners are usually too busy maligning that other furry city dweller, the squirrel - rats with fluffy tails, mere vermin, I was regularly told when I lived there. As squirrels don't frequent sewers and are not, as far as I know, plague carriers, this always struck me as a bit unfair. To me, they seemed extremely obliging creatures, happy to pose for tourists' pictures - and it became obvious to me, on my walks in London's parks, that the sight of a few squirrels was often the highlight of many people's trip to the UK - for little more than the promise of a peanut.

So, when - stuck in a traffic jam on Upper Thames Street, just near Queen Street Place the other day- I saw a squirrel come dashing out of a churchyard ahead of me, scamper a hundred yards down the pavement, dodging the feet of city workers, and shoot into a second churchyard and straight up a tree trunk there, I didn't grimace and mutter about infestations and filth. I saluted the little animal, admiring the ease with which it was negotiating its way through the streets of the city - an ease I could only envy.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Christopher Hitchens

I'm praying for his speedy recovery (that's a joke, and yes, I know it's in very poor taste, but I think he, of all people, can take it.)

Gloomy Sunday

Sunday afternoons and evenings in London always seemed particularly dreary times to me when I was young. This was partly because my brother, who was a weekly boarder, would go back to school at the end of Sunday. Also, after my parents divorced and until they both remarried some years later, they conceived of the notion of a family dinner in a restaurant in Pimlico each Sunday night. It was after that meal that my brother would be swallowed back into his other world and my mother and I would go home alone, me convinced that my parents had set the whole thing up in order to see each other - and yet, once again, had failed to effect a reconciliation and were therefore both miserably sad and lonely. There is something very painful about feeling sorry for your parents when you are still a child. The perspective of adulthood makes me realise, of course, that I was quite misguided in my interpretation of events (about this and many other things).

Now, while racing through Little Dorrit before watching the BBC series - which has begun showing on the ABC on Sunday nights, (appropriately?) - I've found this passage, which I think captures the atmosphere of that time of the week rather well. There are many differences between the world of Dickens and the world I lived in - Sunday closing was not so strictly enforced by then, for example - and yet, there was still a sense in town of desertion, of everything happening elsewhere, of 'streets, streets, streets', as Dickens puts it. Even though we lived just off the King's Road in Chelsea throughout the so-called 'Swinging Sixties', a period that was supposed to be such an exciting explosion of energy and freedom, on Sunday afternoons and evenings the feeling lingered that the life of the place had drained away. Today, even though the unbearable Sing Something Simple - did I read somewhere that the suicide rate went up every week while it was on? - has finally been eradicated from the radiowaves and all sorts of things are open, I still think Sunday afternoon in the city has a melancholic air:

It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibilitiy furnish relief to an over-worked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world - all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it - or the worst, according to the probabilities.

Incidentally, I inherited my copies of Dickens from a great-aunt. They are, therefore, pretty old - early last century or late the century before. They are also all, as far as I can tell, free of typographical errors, something that seems remarkable today.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Beryl Bainbridge

Another witty intelligent writer has gone, leaving us with all the turgid rubbish-mongers who pass for novelists these days. Bainbridge's death is sad enough, but even more depressing is the thought of what would happen were she to submit her novels to a publisher today. Would such a writer even get the chance to be published? I doubt it. Being funny is enough of a handicap - I assume it was that feature of her work that prevented the Booker committee from ever recognising her (has there ever been a funny Booker winner, apart from Penelope Fitzgerald, who most people agree was a startlingly brilliant mistake?) - but there is also the problem of the brevity of her work. Several of her best novels are under 50,000 words, a length that is unacceptable in modern publishing circles (which is so peculiar, given that most readers have less and less time and would appreciate something that doesn't demand a lifetime's commitment).

The Dressmaker, According to Queeney, An Awfully Big Adventure - if you haven't read them, you have some treats in store.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Australia v Britain

While I've been faffing around, humming and hawing, turning over bits and pieces in the messy jumble that is my mind, my husband, paragon of orderly thinking and intelligence, has been putting together a list of the pros and cons of Australia and Britain. Here it is, and any contributions anyone else has will be gratefully received :

Britain and Australia: Pros and Cons

Britain: Pros

Rural natural and built landscape in unspoilt, uncrowded areas e.g. West Country, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Peak District, remote bits of Wales and Scotland

Ancient churches and trees

Pre-WW2 architecture (except most twentieth century suburbia)

Old pubs esp. with open fires in cold weather

- large number of pubs in nice rural spots with reasonably-priced accommodation

- letting dogs into pubs

Surviving traditional caffs, e.g. the ‘Regency’ in Westminster

Regional differences including accents

No need to worry about watering gardens

Pantomimes

Radio 4, despite all the faults – esp. its light-hearted programming (unlike much of Radio National) including silly panel games

BBC Shipping Forecast

BBC/ITV/Channel Four television, despite all the faults

Five good daily newspapers, plus the ‘Economist’, ‘Private Eye’, the ‘Spectator’, ‘Week’

London’s large choice of theatre, live music, museums and shops

Free major museums

Cross-channel and Scottish island ferries

Exploring London by foot

Traditional London taxis

Long-range country footpaths

Old country road signs

Hedgerows

Surviving large old cinemas, incl. Odeon Chelsea, Curzon Mayfair

Well-off parts of London

Pall Mall clubs

Historic cores of Oxford and Cambridge

Old country houses

Carpeted bathrooms

Fact that all parts of the country easily and quickly reachable

Proximity of Europe

Britain still one of the world’s great cultural centres, especially evident in the publishing/arts/theatre/music/media worlds

Britain: Cons

Default grey skies

Long dark winters

General personal coldness, esp. in London

Love of and rigidity about rules

Shoddy service standards/high levels of inefficiency/incompetence

Crowding, esp in the south-east – nightmarish public transport at rush hours

road congestion and endless roundabouts

- large numbers of once nice places blighted by busy roads and ugly development

Public drunkenness – much more noticeable than twenty years ago

Dismal aspects including most twentieth century suburbia, most seaside resorts (e.g. Margate, Ramsgate, Bournemouth – exceptions include Southwold and Llandudno), allotments, use of terms ‘lorry’ (truck) and ‘estate’ (station wagon)

Incompetently managed immigration, leading to large numbers of unintegrated immigrants, high terrorism threat and racial tensions

Overpriced, crowded, noisy restaurants, esp. in London

- almost complete absence of BYO restaurants

Lack of air conditioning

Hopelessness of Heathrow

Failure to master plumbing, incl. those irritating and weak ‘power’ showers

Absence of interesting spoken word radio other than Radio 4 (in contrast to choice between Radio National and Newsradio in Australia)

Having to pay to visit Westminster Abbey/St Paul’s

Distance from Australia

Australia: Pros

Default blue skies and sharpness of the light

General cheery friendliness

Competence/efficiency and overall good attention to customer-friendly detail, e.g. brilliant banking system compared to Britain

Pre-WW2 architecture; esp. verandahs

- old homesteads, pubs and churches

Corrugated iron roofing, old water tanks, shearing sheds and windmills

Brilliant beaches – strong surf, beautiful sand, lack of crowds

Ancient trees, including elms which no longer survive in Britain

Lack of crowds

Informality

Rural sense of vastness - ‘the sunlit plains extended’

Surviving old-fashioned milk bars/caffs, e.g. the ‘Paragon’ at Goulburn

- milk shakes served in metal containers

Bleached grass

Clear starry skies at night

No need for a clothes dryer

Cheap, plentiful, reliably-sourced fruit, vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood – agriculture not as industrialised as in Europe

Thrill when it rains

- the smell after summer rain

Radio National, despite all the faults – Newsradio generally an interesting spoken-word alternative

Wonderfully archaic orchestral fanfare for ABC radio news

ABC/SBS television, despite all the faults

The ‘Australian’ and ‘Sydney Morning Herald’

Vibrant cultural life in major centres

Sydney ferries

Akubras

Ubiquity of BYO restaurants

Generally successful immigration programme

Big city skylines – despite the sad loss of the fine buildings they replaced

Qantas (incl. the nice acronym)

Efficient airports

Giving names to highways, not just numbers

Good air-conditioning

Native wildlife, esp. kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, kookaburras, cockatoos, rosellas

- nice natural bush noisiness, incl. cicadas

National treasures including Les Murray, Barry Humphries, Geoffrey Blainey, H.G. Nelson and Mark Colvin


Australia: Cons

Regular temperatures above 30 degrees

Canberra - despite the leafy charm and nice setting blighted by many unlovely modern buildings (some exceptions e.g. the National Library) and monotonous suburbs

- Central area, Civic, an indictment of a planned city – why wasn’t it integrated with the lake and more non-commercial elements, e.g. churches?

Humourless, earnest fare of much of Radio National

Suburban sprawl

Distance from Europe
------------------

I have to say I have no idea why allotments are so objectionable, but I have never met a pure-bred Australian who doesn't find them absolutely awful.
I would also add these things to the list:
Daily question time when federal parliament sitting (best free theatre in the Western world)

Country motels (they have their own weird 1960s charm and are always reliably what they are - and cheap)

John Bell

Victorian gold towns - there is a touch of a kind of Ozymandias lost grandeur to some, especially Bendigo

Less domination of retail by chain shops than in UK, where Boots, Top Shop, et cetera seem to have driven out almost all small establishments

Greater variety of fiction published - local publishers seem less driven by market and genre

A sort of dry teasing, specially from country people, that I rather like