Sunday, 28 February 2010

Writing Advice from Will Self

Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

Weird World

I went to see Up in the Air last night. It is an odd film. The central character is a man whose home is a studio apartment with a view of an enormous air-conditioning unit and whose job involves spending almost all his time somewhere other than the apartment, sacking people. At the beginning of the film this man, played by George Clooney, is happy with his life, spending his time in airports and hotel rooms and hire cars and limiting his ambition to the accumulation of loyalty points. He has few possessions and no attachments.
There are lots of things to say about the film - not least that it can't decide whether it is a Soviet propaganda film, depicting the merciless brutality of a capitalist corporate world, or a clunkingly cliched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, celebrating the dull virtues of small town bores - but the number one problem I had with it was that the central character seemed implausible. 'There is no real person who is so utterly cut off from normal human life,' I thought. Today though I read an extract from a book called Why People Fail by Simon Reynolds, and I began to wonder if I'd been wrong.
Mr Reynolds kicks off with the absurd statement that 'if you're not achieving all that you'd like in life, it's probably because you haven't established a daily ritual'. He then goes on to advocate a 'success ritual' that should be practised every day, consisting of 'three intelligent steps or actions', so that by the end of the year you move '1000 steps towards your goals', something he describes as 'an extraordinary achievement'.
In the extract I read, he provided an anti-procrastination ritual (which inevitably - the sort of bread and butter of all self-help - involved visualising your goals,) and an industry-mastery ritual which suggested daily reading of 'an industry book (20 minutes)' and 'industry magazines, websites and blogs (10 minutes)' - I love these precise allotments of time - and 'Quarterly: have a coffee with one industry expert'.
Finally came the 'Social-Life-Improvement Ritual.' According to Mr Reynolds 'Anything can be quickly and easily improved with the right daily ritual - even your social life. Make a list of the friends and acquaintances you'd like to see more of and read it each morning. Set a target of one social event including one of these people each week (coffee, lunch, movie, etc). Make one call or email each day to say hi or to arrange a catch-up with friends. Do this, and within a short time, you'll have three weekly social appointments. Easy.'
Imagine being part of someone's target number of 'social interactions', imagine needing to have that list of possibilities - '(coffee, lunch, movie)' - spelled out for you - or indeed needing to make a list of friends and acquaintances and read it each morning (and why do you have to do that - is it in case you forget who they are?) Imagine living a life where you had a goal for the number of 'social appointments' you had each week. Imagine describing meeting your friends as 'social appointments' (and what about if that one call or email each day produces the response, 'Piss off'?) Only someone as completely out of touch as the guy in the film could write this drivel - or take it seriously enough to publish it. Which means that, after all, such people must exist.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Today's World

My older daughter's just taken me round her new place. Her room is enormous. She's put her bed down one end and she has a sofa on the far wall. She still needs a desk but I'm hoping Freecycle will help her out there. She has a balcony. We went out there and looked at the view - a narrow pedestrian street with lots of people strolling about, lovely 19th century buildings opposite. I saw everything. I feel like I've been there - although she's in Barcelona and I'm in Australia

Wise words from John Waters (talking to Fran Kelly, Radio National about ‘This Filthy World’)

'I never understand people who say they are bored - that is something that shocks me. Just step outside and watch people’s behaviour and you’ll never be bored.'

Thursday, 25 February 2010

King Lear

King Lear is coming to our town (as opposed to Our Town coming to our town - it isn't, but it will be in Sydney later in the year, and I'm looking forward to it even though I don't agree that the play is, as Andrew Upton says on the STC website, 'a moving interrogation of the American Dream and the shadow of mortality'; I disagree partly because I think using 'interrogation' in that way is an indicator of wooly thinking and an affront to all English speakers [right up there with having 'issues' 'around' things and 'privileging' things - I have to go away now and lie down for a bit, ugh] and partly because I think 'the American Dream' is a meaningless cliche.)
But back to King Lear. I spent years and years without ever getting a single chance to see King Lear. There are fashions in Shakespeare (and, indeed, in literature generally - none of my children ever studied Keats at school, for example, although no doubt that will change, thanks to the film Bright Star) and if one of the plays is out of favour, you can wait decades for it to be put on at the theatre. But in the end it is rehabilitated and before you know where you are the formerly shunned work is elbowing all the others off the stage.
Currently Lear is the play being smiled on by theatre management. I first became aware of its new popularity when the RSC did a production in 2007, in which Ian McKellen famously took off his underpants. He must have thought this added something to his interpretation of Lear - and in a way it did, if distracting large chunks of the audience with alarming thoughts about what would happen to them if McKellen ever took a shine to them could be said to be a plus (mysteriously, McKellen did hint in a New Yorker article that he might have been wearing an extra large prosthetic - although he didn't explain his reason for doing that.) A few months later the Globe Theatre did the play, with John Calder making a much better job of Lear, while keeping most of his clothes on. And now the Bell Shakespeare Company is putting it on, with John Bell in the title role.
I love the Bell Shakespeare Company. About ten years ago they did the worst Antony and Cleopatra I've ever seen - the set was unspeakable and the costumes straight out of Abigail's Party - but generally their productions - although possibly concentrating marginally too much on spectacle at the expense of language (not really my view but one expressed by some of the more learned members of my family) are marvellous. Even so I'm hesitant about going to Lear this time. The thing is, do I want to be harrowed again? Do I want to sit through another ineluctable tumble into misery? Do I actually want to witness tragedy any more? I can face another Antony and Cleopatra, because in that the disaster is outside of the protagonists' hands, as they are overcome by carnal passion, but I'm not sure I'm up for Othello and Macbeth and Lear these days. They are all stories of poor decisions, missed opportunities, misunderstandings. There's a sense that everything could have been easily avoided - the characters are not swept away by something, they simply make a few mistakes. If the audience just yells 'Look behind you' loud enough, it should all turn out all right - 'Look Lear, look at your daughter, she's grimacing when you're not looking,' 'Hey Othello, look at Iago, his face is twisted with bitterness and spite.'
I've never been much good at tragedy anyway, but now I'm out of adolescence (to put it mildly) I'm no longer certain I need reminders that we humans are to the gods 'as flies to wanton boys'. Experience has told me that often enough already, unfortunately. And I'm not sure I can sit through another eye-gouging either. At the Globe, the scene was so bloody that someone actually fainted when one of the 'jellies' shot across the stage. ('How wet', said a woman near me in the audience, her cut-glass accent carrying across the auditorium as the fainting woman hit the ground.)
What worries me too is that the new Bell Shakespeare production, according to The(sydney)magazine (and can one really take anything a publication with a ridiculous title like that tells us?) is taking 'its cues from Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel "The Road"'. Hang on a minute, a Shakespeare production needs 'cues' from Cormac McCarthy? Shakespeare needs help from - yes, the world has definitely turned upside down.

Crush or Confusion?

Is Graeme Blundell on the point of starting a one-man Kevin McCloud fan club? On Tuesday in the Australian he was gushing about the TV programme called Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour, ‘a beguiling, idiosyncratic and entertaining travel show’ apparently, whose guide has an unparalleled ‘ability to make the camera seem like an agreeable travelling companion.’ All very well - Blundell’s entitled to his opinion (in fact that’s what he’s paid for). But, however infatuated he may be, does he really need to go at it again only two days later? Because that’s what he has done – delivering a column-long plug in today’s newspaper for his idol’s latest show, in which, pant, pant, McCloud ‘loves putting on the gumboots [at least it wasn’t wellies, I suppose] and lifting a spade in the wet’. Of course, given that in the first column McCloud’s name is spelt ‘McCleod’ and in today’s, correctly – if more oddly - McCloud, it's possible Blundell doesn’t know that the presenters of the two shows are actually the same bloke?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Life in the Suburbs

Sitting on my front porch yesterday I saw a couple walking down the road, deep in conversation. 'I don't care what anyone else thinks - that nature strip is his responsiblity and no-one else's,' I heard the woman say as they passed my driveway, 'and that's all there is to it.'

Out Walking

I've been walking again, now that the weather has cooled down a bit. Near where I live is a mountain covered in bush. Although it's only a 15-minute walk to the city centre, up there you're usually on your own. Which is great, except when you are completely on your own, but for one approaching figure. I discovered this today when, right at the loneliest spot on my walk, I spotted a man in the distance. I don't think of myself as mistrustful and yet, without really being conscious of it, I began to study his appearance straightaway. As he came closer, I scrutinised him surreptitiously, trying to tell whether he was going to be a threat to me.
And what I realised then was that somewhere in my head there is a template of normality against which this person was being measured. My mind took in his pale blue shirt and his moleskin trousers and matched it to the figure of a farmer at a country show. So that was all right, (apart from the absence of a tie). Next it turned its attention to the man's shoes - garish yellow and black things, no leather involved, the kind of contraptions joggers wear. These belonged to a different uniform altogether – RM Williams would be the farmers’ choice - but there was still nothing truly alarming about them, apart from lack of taste. The goatie beard was a bit unsettling, but it could mean he belonged to the class of mild mannered men who are fond of them locally.
So no worries then? And yet my mind was still anxious. The way this man was walking wasn’t quite right, it suggested - it simply wasn’t normal to walk as slowly as he was doing.
Until then I hadn't been aware that the speed you walked could be a factor in how you were judged, but my unconscious seemed convinced this was the case. It had taken against the way the fellow was dawdling and the more I tried to convince it that this was silly, the more stubbornly it held to the view that it was a sign of extreme peculiarity. In addition, it noted triumphantly as we drew nearer, the man was humming – and that was definitely weird. Nonsense, I told it - or, rather, myself. A man's entitled to hum, isn't he? Aimless, tuneless humming? The humming you might expect from Ophelia in her mad scene? Don't be so judgmental, I insisted, trying to rid myself of such a prejudiced kneejerk approach to the world. It was at that point that the man drew his hand from his pocket. His other hand was bare, but on this one he was wearing an old-fashioned, spotless, white kid glove.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe V

'a heads up'
No explanation needed, surely, in either case.

Too Much Information and Yet Not Quite Enough

Thanks to the Australian newspaper I now know what 'teabagging' is. I also know that the man accused of it is a father of three, with a mortgage - could that be relevant, did either of those factors contribute to his alleged desire to 'teabag'? Perhaps if the article about the 'teabagging' case, as well as introducing its readers to the concept, had gone on to explain why people 'teabag', whether it is for their health or whether they get paid for doing it (is it perhaps a form of Oriental medicine, lying somewhere between acupuncture and Shiatsu [or is Shiatsu just a species of dog?]) it would all make a little more sense.

English - the Devil is in the Detail

Someone is advertising a pair of trousers on ebay - they have some stains, but apparently 'when you dry clean them they will defiantly come out'. So buyer beware, I guess.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe IV

Someone in my family has revealed he hates 'tidbit', when not spelt with three 't's. As I endured regular trips to UK garden centres in my adolescence with a parent who thought there was nothing so hilarious as pointing out the 'tit boxes' they always had for sale, I sympathise with the wowsers who go with the 'd' spelling of 'titbit' (although I have to admit it is a bit of a dainty word, with slight hints of doily about it - some might say it was a 'tad' dainty.)

Misguided Ads

What are the people devising tv ads thinking of at the moment? All the way through the Australian Open, Panasonic was trying to get us to buy their air conditioners. Yet, although it was as hot as I can remember it being in my home town, I was never tempted for a moment. Who would be when what they were offering was a box full of strangers stuck to your kitchen wall? And now Toyota is enticing us with a car that you start with a power button (what happened to car keys, incidentally?), which releases your own personal team of tumblers. They seem to go with you everywhere, somersaulting behind you, in front of you, turning in perfect formation, no matter how far or fast you travel. As well as this eerie group - could they be lost Romanians, left over from Ceausescu's Olympic dreams or failed synchronised swimmers trying out for a job in the circus? - huge red cannons are shown rising slowly from suburban gardens to left and right, spurting out more tumblers, great sprays of them, shooting up into the evening sky. And to top it all Ford is getting in on the act. The advertisement for their latest model suggests that, if you buy it, wherever you drive you will be permanently surrounded by a five-man-thick ring of paparazzi - it's that attention getting apparently.
Our lives and our cities are getting more and more overpopulated. Crowding is one of the major causes of stress. If you decide to get a car, it's more than likely that part of your reason for doing so is that you want to get away from other people - by using the car instead of packed public transport or as a way of getting out of the city altogether. And when you do get home - either via public transport or private car - you want to close the door knowing that you are alone, within your own private haven, protected from the mass of people you've had to deal with all day. Even a hint that you haven't shut them out, that they're actually still with you, queuing up to peer through a peephole that you've paid for, is completely offputting - to me anyway. And, as for cars, what happened to shots of curving coastal roads and no sign of anyone for miles around? That's the one I'll buy - the model that comes equipped with empty landscapes and total solitude guaranteed.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Margaret Atwood's Excellent Advice to Writers

' ... there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.'

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe III

The new habit celebrities have of saying, when honoured (given an Academy award et cetera): 'I'm humbled', 'I feel humbled', 'I feel so humbled', 'This is so humbling', and on and on. What do they mean? And isn't that the exact opposite of the intended result? 'We think you're great.' 'How humbling.' How does that make sense? Humbug, humbug, humbug.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

What the Hell Was That?

I just walked into a room where the television was on and the news was showing. On the screen was Tiger Woods, talking to a 'hand picked group of confidants' (or some similar guff). He was confessing. He had done wrong. He was sorry. He is a golf player. What is going on? What was this event? Why was it shown to us? Is everything in the world completely mad now? Is it all too late?

Learning Danish

One of the advantages of living in Australia is the access you have to foreign language television programmes. Although so close to Europe, UK broadcasters rarely screen anything in a language other than English whereas, thanks to Gough Whitlam (the Australian Prime Minister who would have to be in the running for the title of most entertaining dinner companion [even if he wasn't particularly brilliant at running the country]) and his minister for immigration, 'colourful' Al Grassby, Australia has SBS Television. This service was set up, I think, to provide migrants to Australia with things to watch. As the broadcasts were at first only available in areas of Australia's cities inhabited by university educated Anglos the aim wasn't wholly achieved. Who cares? The opportunity to flop down, slightly the worse for wear after a Saturday night out, and watch the last three-quarters of an hour of incomprehensible black-and-white movies featuring, typically, two pomegranates, a man in a fez and a half-dead boa constrictor from never-to-be-forgotten Turkish art-house directors is one I will always be grateful for.

And now, as a bonus, SBS is teaching us Danish. They started us off with Unit One and The Eagle (which must have the worst theme tune of any decent TV programme in existence) and now they are bringing us The Killing. As the Danish population of Australia is minuscule, I think their plan must actually be to make everyone in this country fluent in the language, with a view to getting us all to write - once we're all up to scratch - to the royal house of Denmark asking, in perfect Danish, that young Frederik take over the role of Australia's head of state after the - sadly inevitable - departure of our current queen. Don't forget, it was SBS who screened the wedding of Frederik and Mary Donaldson in the first place. It was that screening that really got the whole Mary phenomenon going in this country - Frederik cried, so sweet. The popularity of Frederik and Mary would of course ensure the defeat of the Australian republican movement, whereas if Prince Charles succeeded to the position, he would, for all his good works, be unlikely to generate huge affection and the door would then be left open for constitutional change.

The trouble is there is a flaw in this strategy. Although there may be a year or two - or possibly several - before anyone needs to start composing their letters to Copenhagen, I can't help feeling a bit concerned. Perhaps it's just me, but despite spending night after night slackjawed on the sofa gazing at Jens Albinus (aka Hallgrim) et al, I haven't picked up a single word of the language to date. I should be honest and admit that I've even done extra-curricular work, looking at several episodes of Wallander in the original [screened, in fact, by the BBC - a perverse programming decision, given that they'd made their own versions and the original ones turned out to be very much better than the British copies]) but still nothing. Not a phrase, not a noun, not a verb, not a greeting. Is it just me? Have I a tin ear for languages? Has SBS thought this one through? I don't know. But it's too late to start questioning things now - I've spent too much time on the project to back out at this stage. When is the next episode of The Killing anyway?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Descent into Slobbery II

Insisting that the proverb my Hungarian friend quoted to me - 'Dust is God's way of protecting the furniture' - should be treated as scientific truth.

Fat hedgehogs

Someone told me the other day that the point has been reached where the overweight people in the world now outnumber the starving. Is that possible? I think, if the Fife SPCA is putting hedgehogs on a diet - - then probably anything is.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Words and Phrases that Inexplicably Make Me Cringe II

Go on, spoil yourself! (and very nearly all phrases that end in exclamation marks, [which F.Scott Fitzgerald said were the written equivalent of laughing at your own jokes {I read that somewhere - and, as is obvious, I feel very differently about brackets}])

Words and phrases that inexplicably make me cringe 1

A tad
Wellies - what's wrong with gumboots, rather than infantilising the word Wellingtons?
Shard (when used in any kind of creative context)

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

I Love Jonathan Miller

I've just been listening to the latest podcast of Start the Week from the BBC. I was keen to hear it because one of the guests was Jonathan Miller. Once again I was struck by his ability to talk interestingly and amusingly on almost any subject. Browsing the television offerings of the BBC, many of which are repeats or programmes chosen mainly because they are cheap to make, I wondered why they don't just employ Sir Jonathan to talk on any given subject to fill gaps in their schedule. There are all sorts of vague rumblings around that he is all sorts of things - windy, pretentious, bogus et cetera - but a lot of that is fuelled by jealousy I suspect, combined with a distrust of anyone really confident and energetic. One of the other guests on the programme, Douglas Hurd,(always full of quiet self-importance and a self-effacing but unmistakable awareness of his Etonian heritage et cetera), is probably of this school of thought - 'Well he's a clever enough chap, but he is a bit intense', he might say, if asked. Stevie Smith wrote a mean short story about a small boy, supposedly modelled on a young Miller, so that probably started it all. What swine people are. Miller never appears aloof or too grand for anyone, he is constantly ready to be engaged and engaging, keen to discuss almost anything. I suppose that could be rather exhausting to live with but as an entertaining public figure he can always be relied on to throw up new ideas and insights and stimulate the minds of his listeners, without overawing us - he carries us along with him, enthusing us and drawing us in. The Hamlet he directed at Bristol's Tobacco Factory was by far the best production of that play I've ever seen. I would happily watch him present programmes on any of my least favourite subjects - pensions, say, chemistry, lacrosse. In fact, I'd go further - I'd even watch the shopping channel if he were presenter. I think the Attenborough who presents wildlife programmes was once voted the man people thought was most like god. I love Attenborough, but Miller would get my vote ahead of him, I'm afraid. Heaven in his company would be great.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Local Changes

Not too much has changed since we went away almost four years ago, but some of the more ancient locals seem to have moved on. I particularly miss the old chap who used to march briskly down to the local football club each afternoon and stagger back at closing time reeking of beer and smokes. Although it was probably one of his cast off fag ends that set our hedge on fire in 1987, I couldn't help liking him. At the most chaotic stage in some building works we had done, I remember him stopping by our letter box and staring for a long time at what was going on. He swayed slightly - he was on the return journey - as he took in the full horror. 'What you need now,' he announced eventually, gesturing at the rubble with a burning cigarette, 'is a magic wand.' Then, as if jerked by an unseen string, he set off again, hurtling back up the hill to wherever it was he lived. I guess we should probably blame 'lifestyle factors' for his disappearance.
The elderly man I always assumed was Libyan - because he looked quite a lot like Colonel Gaddafi, although minus the medals - also seems to be gone. He always wore a long white robe, carpet slippers and an embroidered pill-box hat. Although he seemed perfectly able to walk when he felt like it, he usually got about the suburb on a motorised scooter provided by the local health authority. He carried several walking sticks which he did not use for support but merely to gesture at pedestrians who got in his way as he roared along the pavement.
The two aged gay bricklayers who lived around the corner have also vanished. One evening sitting in their neighbour's garden we heard the smaller and younger of the two say to the older one, 'You don't love me. You've never loved me.' 'Oh shut up, of course I bloody love you,' the other one replied.

Monday, 15 February 2010

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

I've been reading A Town Like Alice, after being amazed by the unflinching bleakness of On the Beach, which I read last year. The central relationship in A Town Like Alice doesn't make much psychological sense to me and, although it isn't boring, the book is hair-raisingly old-fashioned in its attitudes towards sex (even though in other respects its central character could be seen as a semi-feminist role model) and shocking to the modern reader in its acceptance of a kind of unwritten apartheid in the outback. To top it all, in the bit I've just read the heroine has bullied her bank manager into carting gallons of DDT into the small outback town where she lives and spraying the stuff all over his branch and customers, to get rid of flies. This is seen by everyone in the book as a very good thing. At the time, presumably, they couldn't have known that it wasn't. Nowadays though not only do we know better; we also trust 'miracle' products like DDT - and the people who sell them to us - a great deal less. There is a sense of optimism about progress and improving life through industry that runs through the latter half of the book and a strong belief in the superiority of the English speaking world in the first section. Those attitudes probably date the novel more than anything else.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cliff Richard

According to the local paper, Cliff Richard has come amongst us. And what is more he has done a Diana, Princess of Wales, at a Melbourne hospital - visiting a ward completely unannounced (possibly the only way he ever visits anywhere if he wants to be certain of finding people in). One patient is quoted as saying that she'd never ever thought she'd meet Cliff Richard. 'Never in a million years,' she told the reporter. The crucial question - did she ever want to? - doesn't seem to have been put. Sir Cliff himself, (or 'sir' Cliff as the writer sensibly describes him, to start with), 'said he was just happy to have played a minor part in helping cheer up the patients' day.' Patronising git - had they asked to see him? He 'said he had also been touched after a patient recalled how he remembered Summer Holiday being played on the radio.' Wow - it's not exactly a life changing experience he's talking about is it? 'You forget how you've become a part of people's memories,' the singer said.' In my mind's eye, I can see the scene. Some poor bloke hooked up to an iv with a weird, plastic-faced '69-year-old music legend' hovering over him. 'Hi, I'm Cliff Richard.' 'Who?' 'Cliff Richard.' 'Who?' 'Cliff Richard, you know, the singer.' 'No, sorry mate.' 'You must remember' Runs through countless dull, forgettable so-called hits he's inflicted on the world. 'Oh, Summer Holiday, yes, maybe - sing me a few bars.' Cliff obliges. 'Yes, I remember that being played on the radio.' (Too polite to add that he was glad when at last the insufferable ditty stopped being played on the radio and he only remembers it because it was so unbearably maddening and wet.)

Saturday, 13 February 2010


The blog next to mine is not only about bikes but its latest entry is - I swear - about watching paint dry (on a bike frame, a coat of silver, on top of a failed coat of some other colour [sorry lost interest around that point - when I say 'lost interest', I mean I gave up I suppose. Interest never actually came into it. Oh dear, am I transgressing an unwritten blog rule that you should never be rude about other blogs?])

Descent into Slobbery 1

A friend was supposed to come over for arvo tea today - at least, I thought she was. When I realised it was actually tomorrow, my immediate reaction was , 'Damn, I needn't have put on ironed clothes.'

Prosthetics and Britain

There was a story on the radio news this morning about a man in England who'd had his foot amputated and an artificial foot attached in its place. After what the newsreader described as months - or was it years? - of agony, during which several 'health professionals' checked the man and couldn't see what the problem could be, it was discovered that a left foot had been attached where a right foot should have been. Of course such a thing could happen anywhere. So why does it not surprise me that the initial error and the subsequent chain of people not spotting that first mistake should happen in Britain rather than, just for the sake of argument, Australia, to take a completely random example, hem, hem? We talked about this for a bit as we drank our tea and then we somehow ended up trying to decide what word we would use to describe Britain today, if we were only allowed to use one. Shabby was the first word that sprang to my mind - I think it encompasses slapdash and sloppy and frustratingly inefficient. Dodgy was a suggestion from another member of the household. If I was allowed two words, my second would probably be aggressive - as long as it was understood that that definitely included the sub-class with the prefix 'passive', so that the pointless, tiresome, obstructive measures that constrain you at every turn when living in Britain would not be left out of the equation. They cause frustration and inconvenience, but that is their purpose - the British derive real pleasure from the inconvenience of others, as I noticed a few months ago at Budapest airport. I was standing in a queue for Easyjet, trying to decide if the woman in front of me was Hungarian or British. An attractive, youthful, slim, carefree girl came in and saw the queue. She went up to the ticket window and told them her flight number and asked if she had to queue too. When she was told she did, I saw the woman in front of me smile with delight. She turned to her husband and said, with triumphant relish, 'She thought she didn't have to queue.' I think that was an entirely and uniquely British reaction.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Annoying Aspects of the Modern World 2

Why, when I press 'next blog' do I find nothing but blogs by bike crazies? I've never mentioned bicycles at all in my blog. Perhaps it's not crime mobsters but bicycle fanatics who have control of my cursor. Soon I won't be allowed to write about anything but bicycles. Didn't Flann O'Brien warn us about bicycles in The Third Policeman? I've always been so careful not to let mine indoors after reading that book. And yet it seems that they've got to me anyway.

Annoying Aspects of the Modern World 1

Why, when my computer insists that I close down for updates, does it always as soon as I open up again, flash up one of those irritating little signs down the bottom right saying 'New updates are now ready for loading'? Why didn't it load them with the ones I closed down for? Or does it just happen to me? (Like the weird thing I'm sure only my computer does of suddenly, in the middle of typing, leaping the cursor back fifteen or twenty words so that the end of a sentence ends up somewhere near the beginning of the last paragraph - that, I am convinced, is because I am being controlled from Vladivostok by organised crime mobsters. To what end is not yet entirely clear to me - but it is the only possible explanation, surely.)

Funny Book

I'm reading a funny book called Seasonal Suicide Notes. It is made up of Christmas Round Robins by a man called Roger Lewis. Unlike the usual ones, his are full of his failures, jealousies and disappointments. On the page I'm reading he recounts how he went to A&E in the middle of a night with an eye so swollen it resembled 'a crimson pulsating grapefruit. I looked so alarming I was in with a chance to be Liza Minelli's new husband,' he comments. He has a keen eye for the absurdities of local journalism and bureaucratic initiatives. 'A poster in Hereford, "Do Hugs Not Drugs", made me want to take up the crackpipe as soon as I go home,' he says. Age Concern has introduced a Toe Nail Cutting Scheme in his local community centre, if he is to be believed, and the Ledbury Rotarians are going to be given a talk on 'The Diabetic Foot'. He notes each year the arrival of the first Christmas catalogue (usually seems to be early to mid May, according to him) and he rails against celebrity culture and the general unfairness of life, especially, as he sees it, the unfairness of his.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Hero Worship

We went to see Les Murray read his poems last night. Once again (Simon Russell Beale was the first) a stout man wins my heart. He read from his published poems in the first half and then from his new collection, which is coming out in April, in the second half (I will be buying it). He had the air throughout of not wanting to burden us, as if he believed we hadn't really all left our houses especially to listen to him.
Someone asked at the end whether he started with an idea or a feeling when he began to write a poem. Like Auden, he seemed to think that ideas were the worst way to begin.
At one point he told the story of his grandfather asking his father to cut down a tree at the end of a day of felling. His father objected, saying the tree was no good, rotten and full of white ant, and he wouldn't. The grandfather got the younger son to do it. In the process, the younger one landed it on himself and died. The grandfather blamed Murray's father for the rest of his life, exacting small, petty revenges. It was easier than contemplating the possibility that it was he himself who was to blame, Murray suggested.
I'd never read Quintets for Robert Morley, which identifies with the fat: 'We were probably the earliest civilized, and civilizing, humans,' it says, 'Never trust a lean meritocracy
nor the leader who has been lean'
Its final proposition:
'had Newton not been a mere beginner at gravity
he might have asked how the apple got up there
in the first place. And so might have discerned
an ampler physics.'
drew much laughter. Murray grinned at the audience after that: 'We like being liked too,' he observed, presumably on behalf of the poem's subjects.
Although I suspect fame and celebrity would be the last things Murray wants, I wish he was more widely recognised as a great man. But as he says, describing his arrival in Hollywood, in the poem Opening in England, (which he didn't read last night):
... Poets are nothing
in that profit vortex. Entertainment
and all the decorations of satiety
were craft, but poetry was a gent
always, regaled with gifts, not money.

Reassuring news

My voice recognition software has just sent me the following message:
'You can get help at any time by saying "Give Me Help."'
At last. Where do I begin?

Friday, 5 February 2010

The next question

What is the best post-war Australian novel, (and I'm not including Cloudstreet)?

Best novels

My brother's sent me a link to a discussion on the Guardian website about what the best British post-war novel is. Apparently Philip Roth nominated le Carre's A Perfect Spy. I can't decide what I'd choose, but not that - it's a good book, but I have loathed le Carre ever since I heard him suggest that he was attracted by the idea of becoming a traitor when he was a spy - he saw it as just one more adventure, as far as I could make out. Loyalty and all the rest didn't seem to be factors for him. Perhaps I misunderstood his point, but in my mind he is now chief of the slimy relativists.
Talking of my mind, such as it is, it always go blank when I'm asked to rank things anyway. Each of my children went through a stage where their only conversational gambit was to ask us to nominate our favourite food or telly programme or country or person or house or car or weather or record or colour or politician or song or plant or - I think I've sketched out the scenario well enough. It must have been some developmental moment where they learned about how the world was ordered or something. I'm surprised they ever emerged from it as I could never come up with a clear answer on any topic at all.
But to return to the question of best British post-war novel, I would nominate any of Penelope Fitzgerald's. Her books are probably not hefty enough to be considered great, but I like short books - and she has the added advantage of being quite funny. I'm glad Riddley Walker got a mention in the Guardian discussion. Lucky Jim did too, which I'd have agreed with until a couple of months ago when I settled down to read it, thinking I'd love it once again and found instead that it wasn't as good as I'd remembered (Three Men in a Boat is now alone as my favourite comic book, whereas before it shared the pedestal with Lucky Jim [which shows I can pick favourites after all]). I would nominate Jane Gardam too - I like her very much and Crusoe's Daughter is a particularly original book. David Lodge wrote some amusing books, but I suppose they can't be called great (although perhaps that's part of the problem with finding an answer to the question - how are we defining what great in the context of a novel means? For what it's worth, I think a novel must be both entertaining and intelligent, providing some original perspectives on life [whatever I mean by that] as well). I don't like McEwen or Amis or Rushdie much. Coe is good but only about Lodge level good. I like Nadeem Aslam too, but most people think his writing is too flowery and anyway he offends Muslims. I like Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. Poor old Angus Wilson's gone totally out of fashion, probably rightly, and although Daphne du Maurier has enjoyed a renaissance of interest and has provided many readers with lots of pleasure, she is not great in the sense the Guardian means I think. The Birds is a pretty good short story but perhaps she is what Somerset Maugham said he was: In the first rank of the second rate (or something like that). I like AS Byatt's Still Life and The Virgin in the Garden and her new one, The Children's Book. Poor pompous old Julian Barnes doesn't get a look in, either from me or the Guardian. Tibor Fischer is good, especially Under the Frog - and he is British, even though that book is set in Hungary. Maybe in the end the choice has to be Dance to the Music of Time - apart from anything else, Powell conjured up so many memorable characters and then managed to imagine them not just through one book but through a whole long series, without ever stumbling. It is a great achievement.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Last night's telly

I watched Spicks and Specks last night and was struck by how good natured the whole thing was. The panel game format is really an English one but sadly most English comedy is less lighthearted these days. In fact there's often a kind of viciousness about things that are supposed to be funny in Britain - and usually an edge of class warfare too. The most cutting and commonly used attack is to call someone 'posh' over there. In the UK entertainment world poshness seems to be an embarrassing and indelible stain.
Mind you, I also saw a man called Christopher Monckton, who is touring Australia telling people climate change doesn't exist. He looks like some kind of jungle creature that David Attenborough has dragged blinking into the light - a potto perhaps? Anyway, his appearance is peculiar enough on its own - when you add the prefix 'Lord' to the package, he becomes impossible to take seriously. I have absolutely no idea whether he's a charlatan or not, but Dr, Professor or even Mr would be titles that would make me more likely to listen to him. As it is, whenever I see him, I switch off, my mind distracted by speculation about whether he is related to that other great member of the nobility, Screaming Lord Such.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A walk on the mountain

The weather was cool when I woke this morning and so I went for a walk on the mountain near my house. I used to go up there every day and once autumn comes I probably will again. The area is part of a nature reserve so that, although it's very close to the centre of the city, it has mostly been allowed to remain as pristine bushland. You almost always see at least a couple of kangaroos - and more often great mobs of them - and occasionally, if you're really lucky, a lone wallaby. I once saw an echidna crossing one of the pathways and I have spotted tawny frogmouths from time to time.
I never used to like bush much. This was partly stubbornness on my part. I knew lots of keen campers and bush walkers when I was young and most of them seemed to be slightly evangelical about Australia's great outdoors. As they usually emerged from their stays in the scrub looking as dishevelled as banksia men, their insistence that it was lovely out there didn't convince me - and anyway I hate being told that I will absolutely adore something. I don't know why but I almost immediately decide I won't.
The other factor at work, of course, was unfamiliarity. Although I'd been brought up on Mary Grant Bruce and travelled to Australia a lot in my childhood, I never lived here full-time until my teens. The part of Australia we always came to when I was a kid - the Western District of Victoria - is pretty heavily farmed in any case. I love that landscape, but there is little bushland left there any more. I had lived in the tropics as a small child - in Malaysia - but thereafter I'd been brought up in England. There to qualify as pretty a landscape is usually lush and also fairly obviously tamed by man. The countryside has been lived in and cultivated for so long that all its wildness has vanished. It is cut up and controlled and tidied and designed. And it is very green.
The bush is none of those things. At first, to the European eye, it can look dusty, rather colourless and extraordinarily untidy. The ground is littered with dead wood and bark and from a distance the lower trunks of most of the trees look as if they are covered in peeling wallpaper. The foliage of everything merges initially into a uniform greenish grey.
But then, if you walk through it every day, you start to see things you didn't notice before. The messy bark scattered over the ground is just discarded wrapping paper. The trees have cast it off so that the beautiful silky surfaces of their trunks can be seen. Some of them are pale and smooth, the colour of ivory, some have wavelike patterns rippling through them, some have stripes of deep grey and livid purple, like the pelts of wild animals.
After a while, you realise that the leaves of the plants are not all one colour either, despite what you originally thought. It turns out that there are endless variations in their pale shades of green. Soon you begin to recognise the small signs of change and growth in the plants you pass as well. You notice when new shoots or tiny flowers start to emerge. There is nothing splashy or vivid about the process. The bush doesn't erupt in unignorable colour or burst out in rich green leaves like the horse chestnut trees in the avenues of Europe's cities. The bush is not showy or gaudy; it's self-effacing. In fact, it's almost secretive - but that's what in the end I find especially appealing about it. If finally its subtle charms reveal themselves to you, you feel special, as if you have been initiated into a select and rather sophisticated group.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Freecycle III



A friend in London mentioned she misses cockatoos, so I sent her this item from the SMH last week:

Dead Cockatoo Taped to Speed Sign AAP

A dead cockatoo has been found taped to a speed limit sign in Sydney's west on Australia Day, police say.

A motorist discovered the sulphur-crested cockatoo taped to the 50km/h sign at Weir Road at Warragamba about 11.40am (AEDT) on Tuesday.

A nearby resident removed the bird.

Its body has been taken to the RSPCA headquarters for a post-mortem examination to determine how it died.

Penrith Duty Officer, Inspector Rick Cox said he was horrified by the act.

"Information from the public is vital in solving crimes such as these", Inspector Cox said in a statement.

Witnesses are urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

There is so much about this story that wasn't worth reporting and the use of the word 'horrified' is, in the context, horrific. If you start flinging words like that about in these circumstances, what will be left when something truly awful happens? Incidentally 'Girl Bashes Biting Shark' is featured in today's issue of the Herald. I am agog already.

Monday, 1 February 2010


I have just been asked for advice. I know if I respond, my advice won't be taken. I will probably make the recipient cross. The thing is, when you're asked for advice, it's usually just a ruse - the person doing the asking doesn't want advice at all, they want praise. But who doesn't want that? Praise is the single most popular item in the arsenal of human interaction. Dish it out and see how people love it. Hardly anyone is immune to the blandishments of praise. Take my advice - praise me. You know you want to.