Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Goulburn Revisited

I’ve been back in Goulburn – taking my mother to a pre-admission session for an operation at the hospital there. The hospital sends out all its documents with its acronym in bold black letters – GBH. It stands for Goulburn Base Hospital, but it’s still not what I’d call a great look. I almost wish Alan Johnson had been in charge when they printed up their documents. I heard him on the radio the other day explaining about the department he’d been going to be minister for. It was called the Department of Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, and it was only just before the letterhead was printed that he noticed what the acronym would be.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Theory of Relativity

We woke up to low grey clouds. About mid-morning, the sky grew darker. There was thunder in the distance. Then at last it began to rain. It came pouring down, warm and steady. It went on all day and we were so glad. ‘Listen to that,’ we said to each other, ‘rain on an iron roof. Is there a better sound?’
And yet six months ago, when we were still in London, we hated rain. We’d wake to see water running down the window and we’d groan. When we went out, we didn’t feel delighted by the wonderful smell of rain – we just felt miserable and wondered if we could get to the newsagent without getting our feet wet.
We experienced similar shifts in perspective when we lived in Belgrade many years ago. It was still the Cold War then, Belgrade was still the capital of Yugoslavia, Ceausescu was still in power in Romania and Albania was the last Stalinist state in Europe. From time to time we would drive up from Belgrade to Vienna, to get things we couldn’t get in Belgrade and also for a change of scene. The strange thing was that, driving towards Vienna, Hungary looked fantastic – and, relative to Yugoslavia, it was. Only two days later though, driving back from Vienna, Hungary looked dismal. Nothing had changed except where we’d been since we last looked at what we saw.
And the same was true of Romania – on the way there, Yugoslavia always looked its usual rather dreary, tumbledown self, whereas on the way out it looked glorious. Going into Albania, Macedonia – then one of the poorest parts of Yugoslavia – looked squalid and the capital, Skopje, looked like some kind of rubbish dump; yet, coming back, it looked like paradise.
In those days, of course, nowhere you could come from would make Albania or Romania seem anything other than prisons for their own populations – except possibly North Korea. Visiting them was fascinating, but the fascination was mixed with a measure of unease. We were glimpsing the hidden misery behind the Iron Curtain (and going into Albania in those days, you actually did pass through a huge iron gate, painted with a double-headed eagle – it slid back automatically once they decided to let you through, probably the only example of any kind of automation in the whole country at the time), but we weren’t doing anything to help the benighted inhabitants of either place. There was a faint sense that we were semi-collaborators in the system – while we weren’t actually cooperating with the regimes involved, we were sitting back and observing, not lifting a finger to change the way things were. Opposition would have been pointless, yet it still didn’t feel entirely right.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Word Search

There ought to be a word for the feeling you have when there was something you wanted to buy on Ebay and you forgot when the auction was going to end and then, too late, you noticed that it had ended and the thing you wanted went for an absurdly low price and you didn't remember to bid - and you know that there will probably never be another thing like it auctioned on Ebay again (and, even if there is, it will cost four times as much as the one you've just missed.) There ought to be a word for that, but I can't think of it right now. There is disappointment in it, of course, but also irritation - at yourself for being such an idiot. A desire to be pleased for the anonymous bidder, who is probably thrilled to bits with their new purchase, is in the mix, but there is only a trace of it, and that is largely overwhelmed by a sense of injustice that, for once, someone got a bargain and it wasn't you.

Freecycle VIII

‘Offer: Australian Bureau of Statistics Publication

I got given Jan to Dec 2000 Australian Economic Indicators ABS Catalogue
no. 1350.0 (12 isssues)
but do not need them. Have been sitting on my shelf untouched for the past 10 years!’

Tell me you’re not tempted

Sorry to Bang On

But Les Murray has a new volume of poems out. It's called Taller when Prone. I’ve just read a review of it and I’m going to go and buy it as soon as I can. It contains a poem with the wonderful title The Drizzle of Chefs’ Knives and a poem about country shows, which is full of razor sharp detail - ‘when the ticket strung through the tweedy eye/ of each member’s lapel meant pedigree’ - and ends with the line ‘The best show was any year it rained’.
The reviewer seems to have loved almost the whole collection but he singles out a poem called King Lear Had Alzheimer’s for extra special praise. It contains these bleak but brilliant lines:
‘The great feral novel
every human is in
is ruthless.'

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Descent into Slobbery III

Pretending to yourself that you are helping the environment by not cleaning much.


My local RM Williams store is advertising their Easter Sale (Now On). The big ticket item is 70% off Women's Bottoms.
It's quite an offer, whichever way you look at it.

Surely Not

Browsing Radio 4’s list of podcasts, I came across ‘A Week of You and Yours’. Is it possible that anyone actually wants to listen to this – an omnibus edition, featuring the ‘highlights’ of each day’s ‘You and Yours’? Maybe they give it to you on the National Health to combat insomnia. It would make me explode though before it ever got me nodding off. Just the sound of Winifred Robinson’s name is enough to make me feel grumpy. And Moneybox Live – well, don’t get me started - and then there’s Evan Davis and - oh, here we go.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Technology and Magic Update

Things were going brilliantly for a while there. Me and the Barracuda were getting on really well. I’d even started to call him Barry – and he’d got over his step fetish and was behaving beautifully. His robotic charms were fully on display.
But those days are gone. Now he won’t do anything. He just sits sulking on the bottom of the pool. He’s dug his toes in this time, (and, yes, I take your point, but if a tube can have a memory, it can certainly have toes, don’t you reckon?)
It all started when he swallowed a stick one morning. He shut down completely, so I fished him out. I got a knife from the kitchen and poked it right down him. I don’t think he liked the way I did that.
‘This is secret men’s business,’ I think I heard him muttering. ‘I’m not dealing with this stuck-up Sheila any more. I want that bloke back who usually looks after me. He’s the boss, and he’s a proper man’s man.’
So now we wait, Barry and I (and to make things worse, I have a feeling he lets some people in the family call him Bazza), until his master makes it home while the sun’s still up one day.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Once, stuck in traffic, I listened to a woman singing on the radio and decided hers was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard. Then she finished and the announcer explained that it had been Joan Sutherland I’d been listening to. That couldn’t be right. I didn’t like Joan Sutherland – she was Bianca Castafiore (‘Ah, my beauty past compare’) made flesh. The singer I had heard had expressed depths of passion and lonely despair that Bianca could never have achieved.
Yesterday it happened again. I was in the car once more and there was music on the radio. This time it was orchestral music. It sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember what it was. I liked it though. It was extremely pretty – in fact, it was really lovely. And then it dawned on me - it was something from The Nutcracker. I wasn’t supposed to enjoy the Nutcracker. I knew perfectly well that it was unsophisticated, crowd-pleasing, sentimental schmaltz.
How easy it is to rob oneself of pleasure.

Shutter Island Revisited

Someone who is more steeped in film history than me has pointed out that most of Shutter Island is in fact a homage - and that's pronounced homidge, not homarge, just so we're clear - to Hitchcock. Scene after scene references (did I really just use that word as a verb? Shame on me,) the master's work.
Which is great. The only problem, of course, is: you have to know to know.

Nag, nag, nag

From my local paper:
'An awareness campaign advising seniors in our community about ways they can make themselves more water efficient through the ToiletSmart program was launched yesterday. “ToiletSmart has proven to be a very successful and popular tool to help each of us play a part in looking after our environment and in particular save water,’ the Minister for the environment said.”
Well that’s great, isn’t it? It looks like even when you’re old, the powers that be will still be on your case – whatever you’re doing, wherever you are.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Smack Attack

The film of Alice in Wonderland has been awarded a PG rating because of the presence in it of ‘a smoking caterpillar’ (and, let’s face it, kids do take caterpillars as role models, don’t they?) The slide and swings in our local playground have been deemed potentially dangerous and taken away after 25 years of uneventful use (and the objects that have been put in their place are so baffling that the local under-10s do not play on them but simply stand in front of them and weep – which is, I suppose, a good outcome, since you can’t break any bones crying.)
Given these and countless other manifestations of an all pervading concern for the welfare of our littlies, I was not surprised to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that the smacking debate has raised its dreary head once more.
And as usual it’s brought its share of creepies slithering out from under their rocks. Not least, David, a pro-smacker and father, who smacks his two and a half year old in special situations, such as when she shows ‘extreme defiance’. This, he explains, is how he goes about the unpleasant but necessary task:
‘After an explanation, [remember we are talking about a two and a half year old – how well-developed are their skills at absorbing explanations, I wonder, especially when they’re in the midst of acts of ‘extreme defiance’] her nappy will be taken down and she will get one light smack on the bottom.’
I find the phrase, ‘her nappy will be taken down’ peculiarly chilling, and the fact that, as David explains, the smacking is never done in anger seems to me to make it worse. We learn next that the little girl, whose name is Lilli, has been smacked ‘only five or six times’ in a six-month period – this seems quite a lot of times to me. Finally, it is revealed that David ‘and his wife are committed, practising Christians and their approach to parenting is guided by this. ‘“We believe that human beings are innately sinful,” he tells [the journalist]. “Kids need to be taught to be good; they don’t need to be taught to be naughty.”’
I don’t know when naughtiness and sin became the same things, but what I find most upsetting about the attitude of David – an attitude shared even by the anti-smackers quoted in the article – is the idea that smacking should only be done in cold blood. I think smacking or any act of violence towards a small child is bad in any circumstance, but it is particularly nasty when planned and carried out in advance. When a parent smacks in the heat of the moment, having come to the end of their patience, it is wrong, but understandable– and immediately afterwards most parents in that situation are filled with remorse. Pre-planned, intentional smacking, carried out following a slow ritual taking down of the nappy is wrong as well; but it’s also monstrous.
Mind you, I wasn’t hit very often as a child myself. There was quite a lot of shouting, of course – in fact, I remember my mother screaming from the front of the car that she would have a nervous breakdown if we didn’t stop fighting. It was at that point that my brother leaned over from the back seat and asked, quite seriously, ‘Why don’t you hit us, mummy?’ I think her reply was, ‘Because I can’t reach.’
On another memorable occasion - also in the car, this time with my father and my mother both present– the rod was spared us once again. My brother must have been misbehaving in some way or other and, despite my parents’ admonitions, he would not stop. In desperation, they threatened to put him out of the car. The threats made no difference and so, finally, my father brought the car to a halt. My brother climbed out. I started crying. My brother stood there, all alone, on the side of an empty country road.
And it was then that the farce began. Instead of being frightened or cowed – or at least instead of letting us see that he was - my brother waved cheerfully and set off by himself in the direction we were heading. I will never forget the ridiculous scene that followed. For some twenty minutes, my parents were forced to drive very slowly along beside their son, leaning out of the car window, begging him to get back in.
He did eventually, but only after he’d renegotiated pocket money, bed time and various other conditions favourable to himself. My admiration for his daring and his negotiation skills was boundless. My parents spent the rest of the journey arguing about whether it wouldn’t be better to give us an occasional wallop in future - if only as a safety valve, so that they could let off a bit of steam.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Shutter Island

I went to see Shutter Island yesterday. It is not, as I'd been led to believe, a horror movie, but a psychological thriller, with a plot that requires the viewer to try to believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’, as the White Queen said. Although some scenes have a slight look of The Others, a comparison with that film does Shutter Island no favours at all. In addition, the use of Dachau to add a bit of narrative interest is morally pretty questionable – or so it seems to me.
In the credits at the end, I was intrigued to see that the film’s highly intrusive big orchestral score was presided over by Robbie Robertson – I assume that’s the Robbie Robertson who so many young women fell in love with when they first saw him in The Last Waltz (also by Scorsese – presumably that’s how they met) and then recoiled from five years later when they saw the film for a second time on telly and realised he was a pretentious git, (and, yes, I could be speaking from direct experience here.)
In its favour, the opening twenty minutes of Shutter Island are really very beautiful and, as always, Leonardo di Caprio gives a terrific performance throughout. He is an exceptional actor, I think - and he seems to have aged rather less than some amongst us (and yes, again, I do mean me.) The film is quite an entertaining thriller, with an excellent central performance and some visually gorgeous moments. If you have nothing better to do and nothing else to look at, it’s not a total waste of time.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Delayed Gratification

I have never managed to get as far as lunchtime when I've got a packed lunch. By 10, I'm trying not to think about it, and by 11.30, at the very latest, I've given in to temptation and eaten the whole thing.
I used to be a bit ashamed about my lack of discipline on this front - oh all right, my greed - until I mentioned it to my favourite colleague. He, it turns out, usually polishes off his sandwiches on the bus on the way to work - and on a couple of occasions he's actually scoffed the lot before he's even left the house.
I've felt much better since he told me that. It's one of the reasons he's my favourite colleague.

Writing Advice from John le Carre

The cat sat on the mat is not a story - it's a statement; the cat sat on the other cat's mat - that's a story.

Go Murray

No, not Andy - Les, the poet. My brother and I were talking about him just the other day, and we both agreed he's well overdue for the Nobel Prize for Literature. As my brother said, anyone who can write something called The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever deserves the Nobel at the very least:

The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever, by Les Murray

To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah -

if the cardinal points of costume
are Robes, Tat, Rig and Scunge,
where are shorts in this compass?

They are never Robes
as other bareleg outfits have been:
the toga, the kilt, the lava-lava
the Mathatma's cotton dhoti;

archbishops and field marshals
at their ceremonies never wear shorts.
The very word
means underpants in North America.

Shorts can be Tat,
Land-Rovering bush-environmental tat,
socio-political ripped-and-metal-stapled tat,
solidarity-with-the-Third-World tat tvam asi,

likewise track-and-field shorts worn to parties
and the further humid, modelling negligee
of the Kingdom of Flaunt,
that unchallenged aristocracy.

More plainly climatic, shorts
are farmers' rig leathery with salt and bonemeal,
are sailors' and branch bankers' rig,
the crisp golfing style
of our youngest male National Costume.

Mostly loosely, they are Scunge,
ancient Bengal bloomers or moth-eaten hot pants
worn with a former shirt,
feet, beach sand, hair
and a paucity of signals.

Scunge, which is real negligee
housework in a swimsuit, pyjamas worn all day,
is holiday, is freedom from ambition.
Scunge makes you invisible
to the world and yourself.

The entropy of costume,
scunge can get you conquered by more vigorous cultures
and help you to notice it less.

Satisfied ambition, defeat, true unconcern,
the wish and the knack for self-forgetfulness
all fall within the scunge ambit
wearing board shorts or similar;
it is a kind of weightlessness.

Unlike public nakedness, which in Westerners
is deeply circumstantial, relaxed as exam time,
artless and equal as the corsetry of a hussar regiment,

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

Ideal for getting served last
in shops of the temperate zone
they are also ideal for going home, into space,
into time, to farm the mind's Sabine acres
for product or subsistence.

Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts,

to moderate grim vigour
with the knobble of bare knees,
to cool bareknuckle feet in inland water,
slapping flies with a book on solar wind
or a patient bare hand, beneath the cadjiput trees,

to be walking meditatively
among green timber, through the grassy forest
towards a calm sea
and looking across to more of that great island
and the further tropics.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Get Behind

The National Sheep Dog Trials were held last weekend in a small town near where I live. I’ve never managed to train a dog to do anything except be neurotic, so I went along to see if I could pick up some tips.
The first dog I saw – called, appropriately, ‘Whitie’ – was all white, which the commentator claimed was quite a new thing. ‘In the old days, white pups used to be got rid of,’ he told us, ‘but now we’re beginning to realise how useful a white dog can be.’
The commentator was a new addition to proceedings as well, from what I remember of earlier years, and the man at the microphone did a wonderful job. He had a slow, easygoing manner, a lot of knowledge, and strong views, particularly on the subject of sheep.
‘The sheep have been very testing sheep for these trials,’ he observed, as Whitie struggled with the ones he’d been given to deal with, ‘and when you get a leader - like Whitie’s got - with a difficult mind set, it makes life very, very tough.’
In the next trial, as a dog called Trish crept round her allotted mob, watching them intently, never letting her gaze drop for an instant, the commentator described what exactly she was doing: ‘Trish is sizing up which are the cooperative sheep and which are the uncooperative ones,’ he explained, ‘- and if she ever finds a cooperative sheep, I’ll let you know.'
Trish did well, despite some sticky moments: ‘ Trish thinks the sheep are going to break out from the top, but Greg knows that that lower edge is the needle case of the penning task,’ we were informed mysteriously at one point. Whatever that meant, she eventually bowed to her master’s superior knowledge and soon the animals were safely put away.
Next came Charlie. His father and his father’s brother were both ‘excellent sheepdog workers’ apparently. His dog’s name was Rain, possibly an ironic reference to the drought into which she had been born. Unfortunately for Charlie and Rain the mob of sheep they were given were the kind that made you want to shout, ‘Come on, you stupid, bloody sheep,’ - and, anyway, as the commentator pointed out, ‘Sheep like some dogs and they don’t like others’ (and was it coincidence that these particular sheep as they left the ring, having defeated poor Rain, did not only jump an imaginary barrier, as sheep often will, but seemed to actually click their heels together in the air to celebrate their victory?)
Finally, Ray appeared, entering the arena along with his master, whose name was Stevo. Stevo was on crutches because he’d had an accident down the mine at Cobar – ‘Stevo, like many young people on the land is maximising the financial possibilities of mine work, because these days you need a lot of capitalisation if you want to get started on the land,' said the commentator, which I think means Stevo is saving up to buy his own farm.
Once again the sheep that came out of the yards were a recalcitrant bunch. ‘It’s very hard to judge whether you’re in command with sheep in this mental set,’ the commentator warned as Ray’s trial began to get under way. He needn’t have worried. Ray, it turned out, was a prince among dogs, ‘Here, Ray, come here, come out of it, mate, get over, Ray, get behind,’ his master told him, but he hardly needed to. Ray was thinking it all out for himself. His every movement seemed to epitomise keenness and his relationship with his master was practically telepathic. He got the sheep through the race in no time – ‘That’s the sort of race you like to dream about,’ mused the commentator, ‘ - or at least I like to dream about.’ He got them over the bridge and then, within seconds, they were round the field and neatly penned.
‘What you have been privileged to see there,’ the commentator announced as Ray escorted the sheep from the field, triumphant, ‘is a dog of genius. Before our very eyes Ray has turned sheep that were cranky and recalcitrant into sheep that have an inclination to cooperate.’
It was a beautiful thing to behold.
(Some earlier winners: http://www.nationalsheepdogs.webone.com.au/Pictures_2006_1.htm)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Ooh Yum - Tales from the Not Too Distant Past 1

‘Potatoes in their jackets,’ said Lady Edwards, proprietor of the Chelsea Froebel School. Fifty eager faces turned toward the kitchen door. And there she was, the cook, emerging from her cavern, a squat Giles-cartoon-granny in a helmet of hairnetted lavender curls.
But it wasn’t the woman we were looking at; it was the huge vat she was carrying. Could it be - yes, oh joy, it was - the only palatable dish on the school menu, the kitchen’s one speciality: spam stew.
And, better still, that meant jelly for pudding. Fifty eager faces looked up at the ceiling. Perhaps it would be orange for a change today. We stared at the pattern of green and yellow and red up there already. Orange was the one colour missing from the abstract we’d created with our flicking spoons.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Smiling Spy

I've just listened for the third time to an Archive Hour programme that the BBC first broadcast in August 2009. It was made by Tom Bower and based on an interview he conducted with George Blake, former British intelligence officer and traitor, some twenty years ago.
What a puzzling figure Blake was (or rather is – he is still alive, in Moscow, I believe). He was born on Armistice Day in 1922 and named after George V. Although his parents were not British born, his father had British citizenship – which meant that George did too, even though he was brought up mainly in Holland and did not set foot in Britain until he was 18. His eventual arrival in the UK arose from a need to escape the Nazis, as he’d been a fighter in the resistance in Holland while still a very young man. Once in Britain, he joined the navy and, without at first realising what was happening, found himself recruited into the secret service. Posted to Korea, he was taken prisoner during the Korean War. It was in this period, under circumstances no-one is certain of, that he became a double agent, going on to betray hundreds of people, before eventually being caught, imprisoned, escaping with the help of some 'peace activists' who regarded his long prison sentence as inhumane and ending up eventually in Moscow.
Central to the enigma of George Blake is whether he was blackmailed into being a double agent, after confessing to his role in the Secret Service while in captivity – something he determinedly denies – or whether he chose his pathway of his own free will. The interview does not establish which of these two versions is the truth but it provides such an intriguing insight into the compromises and complex accommodations a traitor must make with himself that I have transcribed a lot of it here, in case anyone else might be interested to read it.
Bower begins by asking Blake what it was like to practice deception.
‘I didn’t know I was capable of that sort of thing,’ Blake replies.
‘Of that sort of deception?’ Bower asks.
‘Yes, I didn’t know I was capable of it. But apparently I was. I thought about it later, of course; I have thought about it as a result of our many conversations – I must be able to divorce my personal relations from the work I’m doing,’ Blake tells him.
Bower presses him then, trying to probe his conscience, revealing in the process how with half truths and bent logic Blake manages to hide from himself the magnitude of what he’s done.
‘Crudely put, you’re a perfect liar,’ Bower half asks, half states.
‘If you call that lying, yes, I think I was a deceiver.’
‘You’re a professional deceiver – a master of deception.’
‘Certainly, I can do it. I’m surprised myself that I can do it. But I couldn’t do it, you see, for personal reasons.’
‘You mean you can be dishonest in a cause, but not in personal relationships?’
‘But surely that can’t be true, because you lied to Midmon,’ (a Frenchman [whose name I think I’ve misspelt] with whom Blake was imprisoned in Korea; he regarded Blake as a friend and explains during the programme that for him that is the worst thing – that Blake betrayed not only his country but his friends), ‘you lied to all your friends.’
‘I didn’t lie to him,’ says Blake, ‘I simply didn’t tell him anything.’
‘You didn’t tell your wife either.’
‘Well, of course I didn’t tell my wife.’
‘Well, that’s deception on personal terms, if you don’t tell somebody.’
‘Well, that is deception on personal terms - but I did it in her own interest.’
‘And in your own interest as well.’
‘No - in the interest of the cause.’
‘That’s playing with words.’
‘Because you don’t want to admit that you do lie to people who you love and who you live with.’
‘But I had no choice. How could I have told them?’
‘That’s true,’ Bower concedes, ‘but then you can’t surely make the distinction that you’re not deceptive to human beings and only deceptive in professional relations or in bribery. I mean you lie to people you love.’
‘If I have to do it for a higher purpose,’ Blake answers, ‘but not for personal reasons. Not to pursue my own personal interest.’
Bower proceeds then to the nuts and bolts of what Blake did, and Blake begins to come alive in a way he hasn’t earlier in the interview. He sounds at times like an eager boy scout in this section, wriggling in his chair with self-satisfaction, reporting his activities as if presenting his tally of bob-a-jobs achieved.
‘How much material did you hand over in that period [while at the MI6 Berlin Station]?', Bower asks him.
‘That I cannot tell you.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because it is so much.’
‘So much? You don’t even know how much you handed over?’
‘No, I don’t. I don’t. I have no idea.’
‘What - you mean you were just like a hoover - you sucked it up?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘And turned it over. And fooled MI6 pretty well. And, besides all the documents, you gave away the identity of every agent?
‘Every agent, yes.’
‘Every agent who was operating on behalf of MI6?
‘How many was that?’
‘I can’t say, but it must have been, I don’t know, maybe 500 to 600.’
‘You betrayed 500 to 600 agents?’
‘Maybe. In that order, maybe – I don’t know how many.’
At this point Bower raises the subject of an East German defector who - almost certainly thanks to information from Blake - was kidnapped from a ‘safe house’ in Britain and taken back to East Germany, where he was probably tortured and killed. Blake’s replies to Bower’s questions about this episode are either naïve or show a capacity for the most extraordinary self-deception:
‘All I can say is that I had nothing to do with that,’ Blake insists, ‘because, if I had, if he – I mean, I would have known - I agree with you that in many cases I don’t know the names, but I think that in this case, being such a prominent figure, I would have known.’
‘But let’s say you would have been responsible. Would that matter?’
‘Well, it would matter, because the story is that he was executed.’
‘When you did those betrayals, did you consider that it was possible one of those who you’d betrayed might be executed in punishment?’
‘Well, I had been assured that that wouldn’t be the case.’
‘By whom?’
‘By the people with whom I had been in contact.’
‘The KGB?’
‘And did you believe them?’
‘And when did you ask them that?
‘Well, when the time came for me to produce the information.’
‘And you actually said to them “What’ll happen to these people?”’
‘Yes. Yes. I said to them, “I’ll only give you this information if you can assure me that these people will not be executed – will not be …” – yes.’
‘The KGB isn’t renowned for treating people with kid gloves.’
‘Well - I know that, but I - that was the only thing that I could do, and I had to accept that. And I now believe that they kept their word.’
‘They wouldn’t want to tell you contrary, would they?’
‘They wouldn’t want to tell me the contrary, but I have no reason to believe that they told me a lie.’
‘Your critics would say that that suits you very well.’
‘Well, maybe it does, but that doesn’t – it can still be true, even if it suits me.’
Bower moves on to ask about the circumstances of Blake’s unmasking in 1959. The details Blake proceeds to reveal about his capture and interrogation are strange, amateurish and somehow uniquely English. Blake’s intense desire not to be seen as a victim, a desire which led to his own defeat as a double agent, is curious and possibly the one really human trait he displays during the whole interview.
‘I reported to Broadway,’ Blake explains, (Broadway, by St James’s tube, was at the time MI6 headquarters) ‘and I was met by Harry Shergold,’ (Shergold was an MI6 officer who was expert on Soviet affairs.) ‘He said to me, “Well, there are certain questions we want to discuss with you about your work in Berlin.”’ The two men then crossed St James’s Park together to a room in Carlton Gardens. It was there that Blake was cross-examined.
At first, Blake tells Bower, he thought everything seemed manageable. Only after lunch did things begin to change.
‘In the afternoon they came what I would say nearer the bone,’ he says, ‘and they mentioned a document which I had photographed in Berlin and passed on to the Soviets … I said, “I have no idea.”’
‘What was your feeling at that time?’ Bower asks.
‘Well, I was feeling that they were onto something, that they wouldn’t ask me these questions if there wasn’t a strong suspicion in their mind. But still I continued to pretend I didn’t know any more than they did. And then, towards the end of the day, they began accusing me ... I thought I could still save myself … Then I was allowed to go home. The next day I went back. The interrogation continued, and it went on throughout the day.’
‘Where was it leading?’
‘It wasn’t leading anywhere really.’
‘Why not?’
‘Well, because they kept on saying, “We know you’re a Soviet spy,” and I kept on saying “I am not.”’
‘And what was your reaction during that day?’
Well, it was one of tension, obviously - when you are being accused of such a serious matter.’
‘Especially if it’s true.’
‘And you know it’s true - then you’re not in a very happy state. But I hoped that I’d be able to somehow get out of it.’
‘It was on the third day that Shergold dramatically changed his technique?’
‘Yes. Shortly after lunch they went onto another tack, and that, of course, proved to be very successful, from their point of view. Because what they said then was, "Well, all right you keep on saying that you’re not a Soviet spy, but we know you’re a Soviet spy, but we can understand why you’re a Soviet spy. It’s not your fault,” or words to that effect. “You were tortured in Korea and you were made to confess that you were an SIS officer, and you were then subsequently blackmailed and you just had to go on supplying information.” And, when they said that, something happened to me, which even today I may find it difficult to account for - and it certainly goes against all logic of self-preservation and the way people should behave in those sorts of situations - but my reaction - and it was a sort of gut reaction – was, “Oh no: I have not been tortured, I have not been blackmailed; I went to the Soviet intelligence service myself. I established contact with them, and I offered them my services of my own free will.”
‘You were confessing?’
‘And that amounted to a confession.’
‘What was the look on their faces?’
‘Of great amazement. And then, of course, I explained to them in great detail why I had taken that decision, why I had done so, in much the same way as I told you. I mean that was the confession. That was really the end of the matter. Then it was 6 o’clock, and it was time to go home.’
‘You’ve just confessed to being a spy, and it was time to go home?’
‘And it was time to go home – well, it was six o’clock.’
‘No thought even the next day of making a bolt for it?’
‘No, because I thought that was pretty hopeless.’
‘Well, where would I go to?’
‘You could have hidden out somewhere until you –‘
‘No, no, no, that’s not real. No, no, no, I didn’t believe in that.’
The looks of great amazement Blake describes were almost certainly real– according to Bower the confession really had been unexpected, as other double agents, such as Philby and Blunt, only confessed after extracting a guarantee that there would be no prosecution.
Bower says, however, that MI6’s 'bittersweet compensation' was Blake’s willingness to expand his confession. This he did, with several MI6 agents present, over the course of a weekend in the country. Blake’s account of the events of those few days include some of the oddest revelations of the interview:
‘Harry Shergold had a cottage, and there we were very kindly welcomed by his wife and his mother-in-law.’
‘What were you doing?’
‘Well, what we did was we talked a lot. We went for walks. The atmosphere was quite extraordinary, because it was rather like an ordinary weekend among friends. And I remember one very extraordinary afternoon really - when you come to think of it in the circumstances that here I was, a confessed spy. I was in the kitchen with the old grandmother making pancakes, because I was quite good at making pancakes and, when it was suggested that we should eat pancakes that evening, I offered to make them.’
‘And what was their reaction?’
‘Well, just normal: “Thank you, that would be very nice.”’
Only the English, surely, would balance their way politely through a weekend with someone who had betrayed them, going for walks and eating meals together as if all was well.
Finally, Bower invites Blake to look back and survey the life he’s led.
‘Any regrets about your life?’
‘No, none whatsoever.’
‘Most people have regrets though.’
‘Well, I haven’t.’
‘Why are you so self-righteous?’
‘I’m not self-righteous. Everything that happened in my life was meant to happen and there was no other possibility. And I want to remind you of the words of St Paul, who says that the potter uses the clay to form vessels, some to honour and some to dishonour, and it is not for the clay to ask the potter why he does it. And that is my outlook on life: I have been formed in this way, and it is not for me to ask why - and I would say that I have been an unusual vessel in that I have been fashioned both to shame and to honour.’
So the accommodation Blake makes with himself in the end is to argue that there is no such thing as human responsibility – that what is meant to happen does happen and there was never another possible outcome: we are but clay formed by a potter (and how odd for a lifelong Communist to use St Paul’s words to justify his actions.) He does refer to ‘shame’, but he blames it on the potter rather than himself - and he gives no indication of where in his life he thinks it lies.
Perhaps then the last word should go to Charles Wheeler, the journalist, who worked with Blake very early on in Blake’s career (before he had become a double agent.) Like Kenneth de Courcy, Blake’s very Etonian sounding fellow prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs, who says that Blake ‘had a very engaging manner’ and ‘was a very good listener … [he was] one of the most popular prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, without a doubt,’ Wheeler recognises that Blake was likeable. ‘He was a curious person', he tells Bower, 'he was very charming. People liked him.' Wheeler pauses for a moment. ‘He smiled a lot.' he continues, 'He smiled rather too much. He smiled at breakfast.’

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Westminster or Canberra

I’ve been trying to work out why I find Australian politics so much more engaging than the British variety. Of course, in Australia there is the wonderful spectacle of daily question time when the parliament is sitting– some reckon it’s the best theatre in the country-and the possibly resultant fact that many of our MPs are far from bland (performing in the question time arena may force them to become showmen as much as bureaucrats).
Not that our current bunch of politicians are as vivid as their predecessors. Although quite colourful when compared to the present occupants of Westminster, beside our former Prime Minister Paul Keating they all fade to a dusty grey.
Just this morning he was on the radio, simmering with his usual barely contained impatience at the fools he has to deal with. ‘I wouldn’t trust that mob with a jam jar full of five cent pieces,’ he growled, in reply to a question about the opposition’s economic credentials. I can’t imagine Blair or Brown or Cameron coming up with such a vivid and amusing image – let alone Clegg (and even if he could, he’d fluff the line).
But then Keating’s always had the greatest way with words. It was he who described the then shadow treasurer as ‘all tip and no iceberg’ and a former accountant turned opposition leader as ‘an abacus gone feral.’ Being attacked by that same politician, he claimed ,was ‘like being flogged with a warm lettuce.’
Would any British politician be as brave as he in admitting that most politicians ‘have brains like sparrows’ nests – all shit and sticks’? And surely it takes a kind of genius to come up with a phrase like ‘He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.’ Best of all, as his reply to a question about his economic record demonstrates – ‘The dogs may bark but the caravan moves on’ – even when he doesn’t make sense, he knows how to turn a lovely phrase.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Technology and Magic

I have been in charge of a Barracuda recently - not the fish but a long piece of hose with a sun-shaped suction extension that's supposed to clean a swimming pool (I imagine it was named after the fish, because they're both long and both hoover up whatever comes in their way). Anyway, like so many so-called labour saving devices, the Barracuda has been a bit of disappointment. In fact, the only thing it has hoovered up in large quantities lately is hours of my time.
The idea with the Barracuda is that you set it off and leave it. Without bothering you, it then makes its own way round the swimming pool, polishing and dusting as it goes. It's a kind of robot really - the watery equivalent of those new round vacuum cleaners that can be trained to do your carpets while you go out.
There is one big difference though: those things work. In fact, they work so well that their owners become as attached to them as they would to a pet. My friend works in a shop that sells them and he says that when one breaks down, the owners don’t want a brand new replacement; they insist instead that their particular model be fixed and returned.
From the experience I've had this week, I will never feel like that about a Barracuda. Unless it’s just that I’ve struck a model that's particularly dim.
The problem is the Barracuda I've been operating doesn't go all around the swimming pool. It goes around a bit, while I'm watching, and then, as soon as I've gone away, it rushes down to the corner of the pool where the step is and just spends the rest of the day nuzzling that. It's hopeless.
And the really peculiar thing is the advice I've been given to fix the problem. According to the pool guy - and as I write this, I feel ever more convinced that he is having a laugh at my expense - when the Barracuda gets into a bad habit like this, it needs to have its memory erased. The Barracuda, it is important to point out, is 20 foot of plastic piping. How can it have a memory? I don’t know. The pool guy doesn’t know. He says it just does. So I have broken the thing up into its component segments and lain them in the sun, as he’s told me to do. In half an hour or so the piping should be completely amnesiac. It’s fondness for the pool step will be gone from its – what? -it’s mind? How can this make sense? I can’t imagine. How do they make planes stay up in the sky?

Sunday, 14 March 2010

When the Pedants Take Over

When my fellow pedants and I form government, (not sure this is going to happen any time soon, but important to get your policies out early) it will be a jailing offence to say 'cheaper prices'.
Should anyone read this who is not a pedant - prices can be lower or higher, only the goods get cheaper or, more usually, more expensive. Yes, I know it doesn't matter - but it matters to me.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Freecycle VI

The pathos:
and the drama (there's a whole novel in this one):
Hi there, I have had a harrowing three months or so since I first joined Freecycle. I have been hospitalised three times in three months, stranded for two days and then later a week in cities other than my own home city and am now in the process of a massive custody battle for my children.
As a result, I may have dealt with you in the past, offering to take things off your hands.
Unfortunately - every offer that I have accepted in the past three months has resulted in a no-show by me - and each and every one of those no-shows has been due to a genuine unavoidable delay and/or change in circumstance.
So I am here to apologise. If I have agreed to take an item from you - and names I cannot remember - and I was a no-show - I whole-heartedly apologise.
I know that among other things I have agreed to take –
a kitten,
a pair of thongs
a coffee table?
I have also offered to a lady in the northern suburbs a stroller (which is still on offer if you still want it?)
And to another man another stroller when I could not offer him the original stroller (again I have tracked down that stroller if you want it?)
I have also offered a rocking chair to a school teacher (and again, it is yours if you want it)
Now that my life has evened out somewhat, I am ready to move on and become a responsible, fully functioning member of the Freecycle community.
My deepest and most sincerest apologies for having stuffed you all around'

The Pleasure of Pointlessness

When I was about nine I began exchanging letters with a girl called Paula who was in the year above me at my funny little Froebel school (I don’t know what Froebel theory is, but as it was practised there creativity was the key to everything. We wrote stories, we painted, we made glove puppets, we clay modelled. We had a nature table [to which a boy–it was a mixed school until the age of eight when the boys were swept off to prep schools – called John Belgrave, who claimed to own the whole of Belgravia, once contributed a dead mole and another time a perfectly ordinary looking rock which he claimed was a meteorite he had caught with his bare hands] and a set of Cuisenaire rods - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisenaire_rods - but that was as close as we got to maths or science.)
I can no longer remember how the letters started. I don’t know whose idea it was – I don’t remember talking about it or agreeing to give it a go. All I remember is that we wrote as if we were a pair of businessmen, and the letters were taken up entirely with arrangements to have meals together or discussions about the meals we’d had the last time we’d met. ‘Dear Dewsbury-Briggs,’ I would write (we settled, without any discussion on the use of surnames, possibly because we both had brothers who went to boarding schools and had learnt from them that this was how things were done) ‘I’ve been away investigating sales possibilities in the South of France but am back in London for a week or two. Wondering if you feel like lunch some time – we could go to the Poule au Pot, although I gather the duck is not what it was, so perhaps my club – Tuesday, 12.30, if you’re free?’ and she would write back to me in similar vein. The whole thing gave us a lot of stupid amusement.
And then one day one of the teachers discovered our correspondence. We were each asked to explain ourselves. Why were we doing this? Neither of us had the faintest idea. Distrustful of such mysterious behaviour, the powers that be made it clear that we had to stop. And so, feeling rather ashamed, we did.
I’d forgotten about this episode until the other day when someone asked me why I blogged. Those absurd letters came back to me and I realised that the empty space that they’d left – the one marked ‘pointless fun’ - has at last been filled: by blogging. Like my letters to the imaginary Dewsbury-Briggs, my blog posts do not bring me any money or get me any closer to getting a certificate or a better job. They are just a way of doing one of the best things of all in life, one of the things we’re not really supposed to do (especially once adult) – being idiotic and mucking around.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Hurt Locker

Everyone told me how good The Hurt Locker was. And they were right. It is a very good, gripping, moving, harrowing war saga. I was totally swept up by the characters and – a sign of a successful bit of story telling – in my head I remained in the reality of the film when I came out. All the way home, I was still on alert, just like the main characters, taking note of parked cars and open windows and watching passers-by for any sign they might attack.
But, as well as being an entertaining war movie, The Hurt Locker is also insidious trash. This is because its intention is not primarily to entertain us. While Katheryn Bigelow, like all good propagandists, is prepared to be entertaining in order to suck her audience in, what she is really after is getting across a message. What she wants to do more than anything is shove an argument down our throats.
The argument she is so keen to press on us is one of the central ideas in a book called ‘War is a force that gives us meaning’, by New York Times journalist, Chris Hedges. The book, which deals almost exclusively with the Balkan wars, argues that ‘war is a drug’. It is that phrase - war is a drug – that appears on the screen right at the beginning of the Hurt Locker. Not until we’ve had a chance to read it are we allowed to meet the characters, not until we’ve had a chance to absorb the phrase’s message is the action of the film allowed to begin.
This opening alone is proof enough of the film’s failure. It is, in essence, an admission by the movie maker that the film is not articulate enough to get across what she wants to say without having it spelled out at the start. Don’t tell me, show me, is all I can say – I don’t want my story framed by the moral I must draw from it. What is more, I don’t come to the movies to read, thanks; I can do that at home.
And, as it happens, I have read Hedges’ book – which, bizarrely, begins with a quotation from Wilfred Owen’s Pro Patria Mori; surely no poet was ever less addicted to war than Owen - and I think its arguments are muddled and unconvincing.
In the book, Hedges rails against war in lush, seductive language, presenting a kind of romanticised version of battle, which, he says, ‘provides excitement, exoticism, power … and a bizarre and fantastic universe’. Surprisingly, he says the book ‘is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance’. He insists that war has ‘an enduring attraction.’ He claims that ‘Even with its destruction and carnage, it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living ... a grotesque and dark beauty.’ Speak for yourself, ducky - who exactly is this 'we'? The bulk of the population in countries in the West are pretty content to lounge on the sofa watching telly and eating chips, in my experience.
In the film, the character who expresses Hedges’ view is Staff Sergeant William James, a bomb disposal expert. He is fearless and brave, he keeps the fuses of the hundreds of bombs he’s dismantled in a box under his bed, he takes no notice of army discipline, he puts his team mates in danger – and when he leaves the war zone and goes home he rapidly tires of clearing leaves from his gutters and making decisions about breakfast cereal and goes right back to get another fix of the one thing he really loves – good old war.
There are so many things to say about this character (the puke-worthy way a completely pointless plot line about a small boy he grows attached to is inserted to demonstrate that there are chinks in this warrior’s emotional armour springs to mind – and the whole sequence where he runs unprotected through Iraqi streets defies belief) but first and foremost is the profound unlikeliness that such a person would be tolerated in a professional army. A very senior officer is shown going out of his way to meet him and congratulate him for being ‘a wild man’, when any decent soldier would be clapping him in irons for completely unnecessarily endangering his fellow men.
Those who do have to go to war – and most, as I understand it, join up not because they are looking for kicks but because they need to support themselves and their families – are changed forever. That is unavoidable and true. They are required to endure terrible situations and do appalling things. While in conflict zones, they live with the knowledge that death and pain are constant possibilities. They experience the most intense exhiliration when they survive against the odds. When they come home, they are usually struck by the narrowness of the horizons of those who have stayed behind. They find themselves isolated by their extreme experiences and scarred by what they have witnessed and what they have had to do. They no longer belong among the innocents who have not been where they have been.
These things are true – but if, unable to fit back into their old lives, they return to the battle, it is not because they are addicts; it is because the world they come from has not understood or cared for them enough to make a place for them. The argument that war is a drug is glib and insulting. If anything, it is precisely because of this kind of view - and the resulting lack of any real recognition of the worth of their activities - that many soldiers return to the world of army and war. Uneasy with the knowledge of what they have done and seen, they are rarely made to feel that their contribution is appreciated in the outside world; in fact, they are often criticised outright for going at all. I suspect this is the reason that so many Vietnam Veterans appear to have had such complex problems since the end of that conflict
War is a horrible human enterprise in which, often, important things – above all, freedom - are being fought for. Nowadays in the West there is a tendency not to take sides, to suggest that violence of any kind is reprehensible and the ‘war is a drug’ argument is terrific in that regard. There is no longer any need to examine the issues behind a conflict if ‘war is a drug’. And, of course, once we’ve accepted that ‘war is a drug’, we no longer have to honour or worry about those who go to fight wars for us. After all they are all just hopeless addicts.
And it is this that seems to be the most reprehensible aspect of The Hurt Locker and of Hedges’ argument: if those who take on the task of fighting our wars are mere addicts, we can dismiss their achievements. We can turn our backs on them instead of having to admire their heroism. For there are no heroes now – that’s the most important thing to grasp. There are only these weak, undisciplined, pitiable creatures we once so foolishly imagined as heroes, these people who can’t control themselves, who are actually only happy when shooting up on war.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A Little Bit - Maybe

A student of English Literature at Cambridge University has contacted me to tell me I should use fewer qualifiers. I wish she’d said less qualifiers so I could have knocked her off her perch with grammar tips. But she didn’t. So I can only say that, if I possibly can, I will probably try quite hard to follow her advice, as far as it is feasible to do so.

Aldous Huxley and Proust

Mentioning Proust yesterday made me think of Aldous Huxley's character Anthony Beavis who is so rude about him in Eyeless in Gaza:
"'How I hate old Proust! Really detest him.' And with a richly comic eloquence he proceeded to evoke the vision of that asthmatic seeker of lost time squatting, horribly white and flabby, with breasts almost female but fledged with long black hairs, for ever squatting in the tepid bath of his remembered past. And all the stale soapsuds of countless previous washings floated around him, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub or hung in dark suspension in the water. And there he sat, a pale repellent invalid, taking up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face, scooping up cupfuls of it and appreciatively rolling the grey and gritty liquor round his mouth, gargling, rinsing his nostrils with it, like a pious Hindu in the Ganges."
Completely unfair but very memorable.
No-one seems to read Aldous Huxley's novels any more. I've forgotten almost everything about them, except that passage and the fact that I enjoyed them. I suppose one could regard this as one of the pluses of advancing age: due to failing memory I am now able to read books I enjoyed already and enjoy them all over again.
Actually another bit of Huxley I haven't forgotten is the section on the word 'carminative' in Crome Yellow:
"'It's a word I've treasured since my earliest infancy,' said Denis, 'treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold - quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues and, among other things, it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. 'Isn't it carminative,' I used to say to myself when I'd taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that - what shall I call it? - physical satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later when I discovered alcohol, 'carminative' described that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but the soul as well. The carminative virtues of burgundy, of rum, of old brandy, of Lacryma Christi, of Marsala, of Aleatico, of stout, of gin, of champagne, of claret, of the raw new wine of this year's Tuscan vintage - I compared them, I classified them. Marsala is rosily, downily carminative; gin pricks and refreshes while it warms. I had a whole table of carmination values. And now,' Denis spread out his hands, palms upwards, despairingly, 'now I know what carminative really means.'
'Well, what does it mean?' asked Mr Scogan, a little impatiently.
'Carminative,' said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, 'carminative. I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen-carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation. Carminative - there was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Careme and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative - the warmth,the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word.'"
Poor Denis.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

At Last - a Good Reason to Miss London

Simon Russell Beale. I forgot about him. I won't be able to go down to the National Theatre or the Old Vic and see him on the stage. And now I've gone and done it. Oh, what was I thinking?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Why do I find romance so interesting? At the very end of an email, a friend who has moved to a new city tossed in the phrase, ‘ Lots of romantic dramas at this end.' As soon as I read it, my curiosity was ignited. I don't know any of her friends, I've never even seen pictures, and yet I'm mad keen to know more, to hear all the complicated twists and turns, the who, what, wheres. It's not rational to want to clutter up my mind this way, but I think it is precisely that - the irrationality of romance - that fascinates me so.

The Joy of Cutting

In 2007 the New Yorker published a Raymond Carver manuscript, complete with the changes his editor, Gordon Lish made to it before publication -


I was reminded of that document today when, after listening to Miriam Margolyes read Portrait of a Lady by Henry James on BBC 7, I went back to my copy of the book. I was curious, because the radio version struck me as clear and almost cinematic and yet my memory of the book had been that it had been dense and, although enjoyable, definitely something of a thicket of words. In the radio version the characters emerge with a sharp immediacy, their outlines drawn with precision and their interior lives only shown by their actions.
The usual criticism levelled at James is, to use a phrase that always makes me think of the scene in the film of Women in Love where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed roll about on the hearthrug (can't find a copy of that on YOUTube but here is a link to the fig eating scene from the same film: http:
which doesn't seem as overblown and ridiculous as I remembered it, perhaps partly because I see it now with the knowledge that Bates and Reed are dead, although there is no reason that should alter things [this sentence is getting a bit Jamesian itself]), that 'he wrote as though he was wrestling with a dead language'. In the radio version of Portrait of a Lady, however, there is no evidence of any struggle with syntax going on. The convoluted sentences have been replaced by concision. This was, I discovered once I looked through the printed version of the novel, because the whole thing had been severely abridged.
I've always thought I didn't like abridgments, so it surprised me that the shortened version of Portrait of a Lady I heard on the radio came across as better than the original novel. Lish's cuts had an equally positive effect on Carver's work, even though for the writer himself some were very hard to make.
This is not to say that either James or Carver are not great writers. The argument put forward following the publication of the Carver manuscripts that Lish should share equal credit with Carver for the work that goes under the name of Raymond Carver is completely wrong. After all, it was Carver who took an empty page and managed to produce something to put on it - from thin air. Lish was merely the person who helped give shape to the stuff Carver conjured up. Without Carver, Lish would have had nothing to work with. The same is true of James and whoever abridged the radio version.
What is interesting though is the idea that other well-known works might benefit from some trimming. All day I've been trying to decide which writers could do with a bit of editorial slash and burn. Many people, I suspect, would cite Dickens as their first candidate, but in fact I see him as the exception that proves the rule - his virtue is his sprawling, lush torrent of characters and events and words; he is not meant to be tight and clipped. Dostoevsky's prose could not be improved either - much as I hate his miserable vision, his descriptive powers are extraordinary and should not be tampered with. In Crime and Punishment, for instance, the dream Raskolnikov has of a horse being beaten to death is magnificently horrible and there is not a word of it that could be spared. And Proust too is out of the question - his prolixity is pretty much the point.
But what about George Eliot? Or Thomas Hardy? Patrick White certainly, as far as I'm concerned (including destruction of almost all The Tree of Man - or was it just doing it at school that made it seem so terrible?) Could Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South be compressed into a Penelope Fitzgerald kind of novel? Probably not, but it might be fun to try.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Freecycle V

Offer: Young Rooster beautiful potential as a father (Not for the pot thanks)

I Knew It

Just switched on the Academy Awards and there was Mark Boal accepting an Oscar for his script of the Hurt Locker: 'Thank you Academy, you honour me and humble me,' he began.
For pity's sake - if even the writers are doing it, what hope is there? They're the ones who are supposed to care about words.

Misguided Marketing

The mistakes made by car manufacturers when naming new models are legion and well-known: Pajero means wanker in Mexican slang; Rolls Royce couldn’t sell its Silver Mist into the German market; et cetera, et cetera (see here for more of the same: http://www.oddee.com/item_93544.aspx).
And car manufacturers aren’t the only ones stuffing up on the branding front. At my local pharmacy they’re trying to flog something that calls itself an ‘exfoliant’ (no, I don’t know either) for your feet. It comes as a ‘slip on pad’ or as an ‘intense exfoliating sock’. It is called Milky Foot. Yes, it really is. Perhaps someone had already nabbed Silky Foot, so they just ran through the alphabet till they found another word. Or perhaps they really believe that there are people out there who want to have what Milky Foot offers – that is, ‘milky soft feet.’
Some people. Somewhere. I hope I don’t know any of them. (And what, after all, is wrong with standing in a bucket of milk?)

Sunday, 7 March 2010

As Time Goes By

'I don't think we have time to wait for the time frames we're talking about at the present time,' said the Vice-President of the Rural Doctors' Association on Radio National this morning. Sadly the interviewer didn't follow up with, 'We've run out of time.'

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe VI

Kick back - as in, 'Grab a glass of chablis and kick back', 'X Cafe is the place to kick back on a Friday afternoon.'
Where did it come from? What on earth does it mean?

Something Else I Like about Jonathan Miller

I am almost certain that, if you gave him an award, he would not say he was humbled.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Keeping it Going

In a country cafe yesterday, I saw two old ladies waiting for their food. They talked about the weather and their ailments and then they ran out of things to say. One of them looked around the room. She stared at the curtains and the mirror on the far wall. She picked up the salt shaker and rolled it between her fingers, watching the white powder slide about inside. The other spread her hands out on the tablecloth (what an oddly detached phrase that is, as if they were something she'd just got out of a plastic bag - perhaps English needs reflexive verbs.) She looked at the gold band on her left hand and the cluster of diamonds alongside it. Inspiration came to her at last. 'Do you go to bed in your rings?' she asked.

Oh Lady Gaga, No - No Humbling

'There's something that's very humbling about being able to write for a powerhouse group like the Pussycat Dolls.' From the transcript of an interview with Lady Gaga by Ron Slomowicz, June 2008.
Maybe they wrote it down wrong. I hope so. Too disappointing for words. Almost humbling, in fact (but not).

Friday, 5 March 2010

Writing Advice from William Zinsser

The hard part of writing isn't the writing; it's the thinking.


Bumper Stickers

There don’t seem to be as many bumper stickers around as there used to be, although I sometimes –specially round Bellingen or down on the coast - get stuck behind battered vehicles driven by old hippies doing their best to keep the tradition going. They don’t restrict themselves just to the bumper to display their views either; they cover the whole of the back of the car. Their rear ends are plastered so thickly with stickers that it’s unlikely anyone inside can see out the back window. Some of them – the stickers – are so ancient - they might almost be collectable by now. Hidden among the more up-to-date exhortations to buy free range eggs and go green, (usually attached to a gas-guzzling pre-catalytic convertor vehicle) you sometimes spot a Whitlam supporting ‘It’s Time’ or a Women’s Electoral Lobby ‘Coming Out Ready or Not’ slogan, left over from the 1970s. When the car’s a Peugeot or a Renault, it’s practically certain there’ll be at least one little oblong dedicated to opposing French nuclear testing in the Pacific lurking somewhere about.
But aside from hippies, most of us these days are more restrained in how we express ourselves on our vehicles. As a result, the only thing to read in the traffic at the lights is the dull information that the Subaru in front of you was serviced in North Ryde but purchased in Queensland. I think this is a pity. I miss those intense little moments of urban communication - the wearily pissed off, ‘Don’t blame me – I voted Labor’, the raging ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame,’ or the utterly Australian, ‘Eat More Meat, You Bastards’, (my all time favourite, put out on behalf of the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation in a misguided attempt to woo the vegetarian market).
And if you do see a bumper sticker these days, you’ll be lucky if it says anything half as direct. The last really popular one I can remember was ‘Magic Happens’. ‘No, it doesn’t,’ I always wanted to shout back. And about a week ago on the back of a fairly normal looking car, my eye was caught by another. ‘Got Ferrets?’ was absolutely all that it said. It gave no telephone number, there was no-one you could contact if you wanted to answer the inquiry. Were you supposed to yell your answer out the window as you hurtled past in the overtaking lane. ‘No, should I? Are they good? Are they easy? What do you have to feed them? How long do they live?’ I suppose you can’t accuse the sticker of not being thought provoking. It’s the most enigmatic thing I’ve seen in years.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Freecycle IV

Among today's temptations:
OFFER - Expired Toners
OFFER - Solid water container (shouldn't that be 'ice container'?)

Richard Dawkins in Australia

Richard Dawkins has come amongst us, preaching the doctrine of evolution with his usual zeal. Leaving aside a huge number of issues, including the fact that I don't think evolution and a belief in the unknowable are exclusive, I find it hard to embrace the views of a man who appears to be both humourless and overflowing with self-regard. Still, when I heard an anti-gay marriage advocate on the ABC's 'World Today' refer to 'The righteous, perfect hate of god', I had to concede that Dawkins's attacks on believers are not all unjust.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Fiendish Things, Computers

My first computer was a Toshiba laptop that used to make a grinding noise when it saved things. I found the sound endearing – I think my brain probably makes a similar noise every time I try to think. That machine was quite simple. You fed it floppy disks and it saved stuff you wrote. That was all it did – or all I used it for. This was 1987. The Internet hadn’t been invented - or at least not where I live.
I stuck with that machine until it gave out one day. I even kept it for a couple of years after that, hoping it might suddenly come alive again or that someone might know how to revive it. In the end though it got left behind somewhere when we moved house. It’s probably still lying on top of a cupboard, unnoticed by the new tenants in that flat.
I’d invested in a new machine in the meantime anyway. I’d started out on the Net. It wasn’t the same though. This computer did more things than my first one; in fact, it seemed to have a mind completely of its own. Its cursor leapt about when I didn’t expect it to and it told me to shut down for updates, even though I didn’t want to. Quite regularly it informed me without warning that I’d made a fatal error and would stop working altogether, which I thought pretty rude.
Now I’m punishing it by treating it as a radio and television and ignoring it for virtually everything else. I’ve bought myself a pocket-sized thing called a netbook instead. This object claims to resemble a clam shell, although I can’t see how, unless somewhere deep in the ocean there are clamshells that are oblong shaped and made of shiny black plastic.
Disappointingly it’s turned out to be almost as uppity as the one it is replacing, refusing to do half the things I ask. Just today I decided to load a new programme onto it and it would not agree. The task consumed hours – not metaphorical hours, but actual hours, most of them spent stuck in some weird technical roundabout. The computer groaned and whirred and I fed it disks. It didn’t raise any problems and then on the last disk it expired. I tried again and the same thing happened.
On the third attempt, it wouldn’t progress beyond disk number 1. It clamoured for it back every time I took it away and then clamoured for disk number 2 whenever I gave it number 1 back. It reminded me of the magpie babies I can hear all around the house, yabbering at their parents for food – why are they there now, when it’s almost autumn I wonder; aren’t birds supposed to have babies in the spring?. Anyway I gave up in the end. I'm beginning to sympathise with the man in this video who wishes we’d stuck with the scroll:

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Humbling Continues

Now John Howard's at it. According to Cricket Australia he 'said that he was honoured and humbled' by the nomination to serve as ICC president. (Macquarie Dictionary: humble, verb (humbled, humbling) to lower in condition, importance, or dignity; abase.) I think he felt more humbled on 24 November 2007 actually.
But sense will not prevail and the Academy Awards are coming up this week. My sole prediction for the night: there will be wall-to-wall humility, each new prizewinner elbowing the last out of the way in their eagerness to profess a proper understanding of their own hard-earned abasement.