Friday, 30 April 2010

Belgium and the Burqa

The news that Belgium is banning the burqa (one Belgian MP referred to the garment as ‘a mobile prison’) makes me feel uncomfortable, even though I think the burqa is dreadful and the women who choose it – rather than having it forced upon them – are all bonkers.

The trouble is I don’t like banning – and in this country, the government’s recent decision to fund its new health policy by increasing tax levied on those addicted to smoking has highlighted once again the hypocrisy of its many bans on other addictive substances. Rather than banning, I wish that we could try persuading people of the drawbacks of using addictive drugs or of wearing the ridiculous get-ups that burqas and niqabs are.

Drug users, of course, will always be with us – in every population there is a percentage of genuinely addictive personalities who cannot be saved by anyone but themselves. The state’s role should be to give them the information that will allow them to make their own decisions, without adding to their problems by turning them into criminals as well as addicts.

Burqa wearers, by contrast, are unlikely to be acting from a desperate addictive need. With them, therefore, it should be possible to use reason to change their behaviour – and if that is unsuccessful, we might consider sectioning those who insist on continuing to wear the frightful things – using, in other words, the mental health act as an instrument rather than the criminal code. That would at least demonstrate that we are acting from compassion, thus making it harder for Islamists to complain that our behaviour is a form of persecution, when all we want is to take care of misguided souls (and, in this context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography contains a really interesting account of how she went through various attitudes before recognising the foolishness of wearing the burqa).

To complicate matters, while I’m not happy with Belgium’s outright banning, I also don’t like Amnesty’s position, as expressed by their representative, John Dalhuisen, on ABC Radio National’s wonderful PM programme (presented by that national treasure, Mark Colvin – sign up to the group his fans have founded for him here:!/group.php?gid=15095471746&ref=this). They – Amnesty, not Colvin’s fans - seem to be arguing for the right of Muslim women to wear the burqa in Belgium – ‘we believe that individuals should be able to exercise free choice’, to quote Dalhuisen. I would be much more sympathetic to this position if I’d ever heard an Amnesty representative arguing for the rights of women to go about uncovered in Saudi Arabia, where the hijab is enforced by law. Is there a double standard at work here: Amnesty expects one thing of the west and something less exigent of the rest?

Five Bells

It is a long time since I last visited Sydney Opera House. The predominance of purple in its interior is disturbingly dated. Even John Olsen’s mural on the theme of Kenneth Slessor’s Five Bells is suffused with the colour - very 1970s. But the poem on which the mural is based – written after the death by drowning of Slessor’s friend, Joe Lynch, an illustrator who jumped off the Neutral Bay to Mosman ferry when drunk on the way to a party one evening – is timeless (although preoccupied by time) and beautiful:

Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship's hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In the air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something's there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing...only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something that had just run, gone behind the grass,
When blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.
Five bells.

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ectasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
"At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained..."

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Spare us

From the BBC Radio 4 Schedule for Friday:

'Book of the Week part 5: Michael Chabon confronts his feelings towards his daughter's emerging sexuality.'

Why must he do it in public? How will it make his daughter feel?

Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales 1810 to 1821

Is the answer to the quiz question last Friday. He was born on an island off Mull and his grave is on Mull, in a small bluestone mausoleum, which is the only National Trust of Australia site in Europe, as far as I know. The mausoleum is encircled by a stone wall and surrounded by country that is reminiscent of parts of New South Wales. In it Macquarie, his daughter who died at only three months old, his wife and his son, who died aged 31, are all buried together.

Macquarie did a great deal for New South Wales and Australia more generally–he devised Sydney’s street plan and it is thanks to him that we have the lovely buildings of Francis Greenway; he encouraged exploration and inland settlement, establishing many of our finest towns; and he was the first person officially to use the name Australia.

Extracts from his diary as he travelled up the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers late in 1810 are available here:

They are interesting partly because they have a real immediacy to them, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be there, seeing that landscape in all its newly discovered freshness, but also because they reveal Macquarie as a decent, adventurous man who clearly liked and was interested by this new place - and they also give the lie to Jan Morris’s silly comment that he was pompous (although possibly his advice to the hapless settlers about cleanliness in the final entry reveals a lack of insight into the difficulties they may have been facing.)

Sadly, despite his achievements here, Macquarie returned to Britain under something of a cloud. He died there three years later, still defending himself against the attacks of an English judge called Bigge, who had taken the side of free settlers to Australia who did not like Macquarie’s enlightened attitude to emancipated convicts in Australia – they were scandalised by Macquarie’s inviting such people to tea at Government House and appointing ex-convicts to government positions (among them the aforementioned Francis Greenway, who had been transported as a forger and who Macquarie brilliantly appointed colonial architect. The Clifton Club in Bristol is one of Greenway’s pre-transportation works.)

Perhaps Macquarie was the first victim of the Australian fondness for cutting down tall poppies. He was certainly an amiable family man – according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography he even agreed to have the family’s favourite cow shipped all the way from Sydney to Mull (I’m not sure this was necessarily kind to the cow, of course.)

Here is the inscription on his tomb on the Isle of Mull, which, quite fairly, I think, given that he was probably the first figure of authority to have a vision of the colony beyond its origins as a prison, describes him as ‘the father of Australia’:


I hope any Australians travelling in that part of the world will pay a visit to Macquarie. There is something rather lonely about the little building he lies in in that distant place.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


When I went to the theatre on Monday, it was the Bell Shakespeare's King Lear that I was there to see (and John Bell in the role of Lear was stupendous - the theatre critic John McCallum said of one of Bell's earlier performances, 'One day you'll be able to tell your grandchildren that you saw John Bell act,' and that was how I felt after watching him on Monday afternoon, [now all I need is grandchildren]).

Anyway, on the way home I was thinking about how extraordinary Shakespeare was (always one for the original thought, me) and reminding myself that I must read more about him. I remembered that, despite Spike Milligan's definitive analysis of the question (something along the lines of, 'I don't think the plays are the work of William Shakespeare - just of a man of the same name') there'd been an article in one of the weekend papers looking at the age-old topic of the playwright's identity.

When I got home, I dug the paper out and read the article carefully. It quotes Mark Rylance, an English actor and the first Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, who supports the idea that Shakespeare was not just one person. Fair enough, I thought, except that he does not base his view on history or evidence. The reason he gives for his belief is that 'he finds the idea of the single genius at work very damaging to the confidence of younger playwrights.'

Blistering barnacles - it's this sort of thing that brings out the Captain Haddock in my personality (an aspect of my character that I usually like to conceal). What is this nonsense? In another article in the same paper, someone describes a Kurt Vonnegut story called Harrison Bergeron. It is set in a society where everyone is equal - the intelligent are forced to wear things on their heads that let out high pitched sounds every few seconds "to stop them 'taking unfair advantage of their brains' and dancers are weighted by birdshot or scrap-iron calibrated to the size of their talent.'" Vonnegut's satirical vision seems to be the world Rylance aspires to, a world where being awed and inspired by the magnificence of another human being's achievement must be avoided because it might be detrimental to lesser mortals' self esteem.

Thundering typhoons, what sort of lily-livered landlubbers are we breeding? Shakespeare shouldn't be '...damaging to the confidence of younger playwrights'; his example should just make them all try harder. Next you'll be telling me that Herge was not one individual but a committee of Walloons.


I went to King Street, Newtown the other day - a street close to Sydney University and therefore pretty much devoted to the young. Instead of feeling middle aged and out of place, I imagined I was one of them. Again yesterday at a theatre matinee (was it sacrilegious to go to the theatre on the Anzac Day holiday?) I put on my glasses and looked at the crowd of total wrecks in the foyer and imagined I wasn't anything to do with them.

Of course, it's the need for glasses that allows me to continue in my belief that I am still quite youthful. If I don't wear them, the world takes on the same hazy quality it had during my teenage years, which I spent smoking too much of the wrong types of things (although is there a right type of thing to smoke?) And when I look in the bathroom mirror without them, I could be any age - or, indeed anyone (although not yet anything - I can still distinguish a vaguely humanoid shape from a cupboard.)

Unlike me, my fellow audience members yesterday all seemed to have resigned themselves quite well to maturity. Most of the women - and the crowd was mostly female - had chopped off their hair and allowed themselves to grow quite stout. If that's what it takes to acknowledge you are ageing, I will never do it. And if I start to spread vastly, I intend to buy a whalebone corset. I shall not go wobbling into that good night - or only wobbling drunkenly in the mode of the man who wrote the original of that line (I may be wrong but it was Dylan Thomas, I think?)

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Cult of Obscurity

Why has art become an extension of the cryptic crossword? Try as I might, I’ve never come up with a reasonable answer to this question. Most of the time, therefore, I try to ignore it. Sometimes though – for instance, when visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney this week – ignoring it becomes impossible. Instead, I find myself staring in bewilderment at ‘artworks’, thinking: ‘Why?’, and ‘When did it happen?’; and ‘Is there any chance it will ever change?’

Mind you, I should have known better. It was such a lovely day. What stopped me from lying down on the grass in the Domain and staring up at the sky for an hour and a half? I don’t know – living too long in German speaking countries, where the idea of the Kulturausflug is respected rather than ridiculed, may have had something to do with it.

Anyway, for whatever reason – probably just curiosity - I entered the gallery, paid 10 of my hard-earned dollars and went down into the basement to see the Archibald portrait prize exhibition, the Wynne landscape prize exhibition and the Sulman prize exhibition. As usual, the Archibald portraits were all pretty dreadful – although many of the painters are clearly technically very able, it makes no difference: the art of portrait painting has been lost somewhere along the way – and most of the landscapes lacked any real presence. The finalists for the Sulman, which is a prize for subject or ‘genre’ painting (is that a very jargony word, or has it always been a way of describing a painting?), were also a pretty uninspiring lot.

All the same, even within that rather pitiful company, the winner seemed unusually undeserving. It is called Paintings, prints & wall hangings and is a ‘large-scale, multi-canvas, text painting [that] precisely replicates a newspaper column and is derived from actual published classified advertisements of paintings for sale, which [the artist] has been collecting for some time now’. That is, it looks like an enormous page of classified advertisements. The label beside it explains that ‘It is a conceptual painting, which wryly addresses issues surrounding cultural meaning and the commodification of art.’ According to the artist, ‘The painting contains a distinct paradox - it is banal, an elevation of the everyday. However, by presenting it in a gallery context it becomes quite radical, absurd and humorous in the manner of Duchamp’s work.’

If you have to explain that you are being humorous, I think you may be in trouble, but clearly the judges didn’t agree.

I went upstairs, passing a baby grand piano that someone had decided to fill with straw, and came face to face with a canvas thickly crusted with layers of paint in various shades of greyish brown. A propellor had been screwed into the middle of it. This was Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Glaube, Hoffnung and Liebe’. The label said this:

‘There are two powerful strands to Kiefer’s work since the early 1980s, a philosophical investigation into the problems of representing transcendence and experimentation with materials and images to create hybrid forms between paintings and sculpture that confound traditional representations of space. Kiefer describes both these enquiries as journeys into the unknown. The idea of the journey is a metaphor that he often includes in images and in material processes. In Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, the journey is potentially a flight that would take us from the material plane into the heavens, and yet the propellor is made of lead and will never fly. The words in the title are inscribed on all three blades; they are St Paul’s cardinal virtues; faith, hope and love. Perhaps Kiefer is implying that neither technology nor the exercise of virtue can achieve literal transcendence, and yet he is constantly asking the question, ‘Why not?’
Applying an object such as this lead propeller to a representation of landscape contradicts the logic of spatial representation. Where in the space of the painting do we locate the object? Is it lying on the rock shelf or hurtling through space? In fact, it is not in the space of the painting at all, but hovers as if in a separate dimension or representational register. Yet the two kinds of space are magically integrated so that we don’t see one or the other but both at once, something akin to the strange behaviour of quantum physics.’

Are they saying that although Kiefer can’t paint like the old masters, he could build the Hadron Collider, if he felt like it?

I scurried away to Tom Roberts’s ‘Holiday Sketch at Coogee’ and Streeton’s ‘Railway Station, Redfern’, both beautiful pictures that need no dreary essays to hold their little canvas hands.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

It's Complicated

Miss Marsh, our school scripture teacher, had two catchphrases. She began each lesson with one - 'Pull up a pew, girls', bellowed as she strode into the room - and she wound things up with the other, which was delivered as part of a slowly swelling valedictory sermon, intended to sustain us through the days until she saw us again. Its subject was the virtues of the bible, which she claimed was jampacked with excitement. Within its pages we could find everything, she told us - adventure, romance, tragedy, history, madness - if only we would just 'dip in.'

I thought of Marshie's advice when I went into St James's Church yesterday morning. Built in 1819 and intended as a courthouse, it is Sydney's oldest church now. It stands opposite the lovely Hyde Park barracks and, like them, was designed by Francis Greenway, of whom more another time. Whereas the bible, upon being dipped into, has not always fulfilled Marshie's promise of excitement, it turns out that the walls of St James's certainly do.

For a start we have history in the plaques to Ensign Henry Middleton Blackburn, Captain John Shaw Phelps and Lieutenant George Philpotts, all of whom died in the Maori Wars - an episode most of us barely realise Australia ever took part in, (it certainly wasn't mentioned in any school history I did.) Then there are the the inscriptions, such as the one praising Commodore Sir James Brisbane for his efforts in 'the submission of the Burmese empire'. Such a confident phrase that, expressing an unquestioning belief in European cultural superiority - although not quite as astonishing as the one we saw in a Belgian town called Chateauneuf: it was on a memorial to soldiers who had died in the Belgian Congo, and read, quite simply: 'Morts pour la civilisation'.

The fairly casual view we once took of foreigners and their rights is also on display in St James's in the form of a framed bit of mosaic tiled floor, which, according to the inscription, the desert mounted corps helped themselves to in August 1918, when they 'discovered' an ancient church near Jericho, in which the tiled floor lay.

The plaque 'To the memory of the Reverend Richard Hill, the first minister of this church, who expired suddenly in the performance of his duty within its walls,' brings us the drama that Miss Marsh promised. The mind boggles at the thought of what that service must have been like. Did he lean out of the pulpit and drop like a stone or was he administering Holy Communion when he 'expired', the goblet flying from his hand, wine splashing across the lace fronted panelling of some pillar of the community's best Sunday frock?

There's tragedy in the plaque 'In memory of Robert John Birch, who was accidentally drowned at Clontarf, Middle Harbour, Dec 7th AD 1865, aged 8 years'. The poignance of this incident is increased by the fact the plaque was erected by his playmates 'in affectionate remembrance of their beloved school fellow.'

More tragedy follows in the commemoration of 'James Green, Commander of the ship Dunbar, who perished with all his passengers and crew save one by the wreck of that vessel at the Sydney Heads in a fearful gale on the night of 20th August 1857.' This event, sometimes referred to as 'Australia's Titanic', shocked Sydney at the time. According to, after an 81 day voyage, the clipper was driven into the reef at South Head and began to break up immediately. Only one able seaman survived, by clinging to a cliff face for 36 hours. A mass funeral was held for the victims and a monument to them can still be seen in Camperdown in Sydney.

Finally, there are the several plaques which refer to conflict with the original inhabitants of the land. There is one that is 'Sacred to the Memory of Capt Collet Barker, of His Majesty's 59th regiment of foot, who was treacherously murdered by the Aboriginal natives on the 30th April 1831 while endeavouring in the performance of his duty to ascertain the communication between Lake Alexandrine and the Gulf of St Vincent on the South West coast of New Holland.' Another pays tribute 'to the memory of Lieutenant Edward Murray Tupper Rn Aged 22 years and William Kennedy Seaman aged 43 years, both of HM Ship Iris who were killed by the natives of Tana on the 1st July 1858 whilst on service on shore.'

A monmument headed 'Dulce et decorum est pro scientia mori' hangs near the door. It is dedicated to 'John Gilbert, ornithologist, who was speared by the blacks on the 29th of June, 1845, during the first overland expedition to Port Essington by Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt and his intrepid companions.' Beside it a tablet with a carved scene of Aboriginals with spears in the background and a dying man being held in the arms of another in the foreground tells a wild story from which some of the subtle complexities of white Australia's relationship with the original dwellers of the land emerge.

Erected 'in testimony of the respect and gratitude of the inhabitants [of New South Wales]' it 'commemorates the active service and early death of assistant surveyor Edmund Besley Court Kennedy who after having completed the survey of the River Victoria was chosen by the government to conduct the survey of York Peninsula, where, after the most patient and persevering exertions to overcome the physical difficulties of the country, and the destructive effects of consequent disease, by which the expedition, originally consisting of thirteen persons was reduced to three, he was slain by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Escape River on 13th December 1848, falling a sacrifice in the 31st year of his age to the cause of science, the advancement of the colony and the interests of humanity.' So far the dividing lines between natives and settlers seem clear and undeviating, but the tablet goes on to memorialise a survivor of the expedition, 'Jackey Jackey, an Aboriginal of Merton district, who was Mr Kennedy's sole companion in his conflict with the savages and though himself wounded tended his leader with a courage and devotion worthy of remembrance, supporting him in his last moments and making his grave in the spot where he fell.'

Aside from the very touching story this tells, which gives us a glimpse of a less simple world than the usual one we are taught about, in which whites oppressed blacks and blacks hated whites, it is interesting that only in this final passage, in which they are actually praising an Aboriginal individual for his - to western eyes at least - noble behaviour, do the writers of the inscription stray from neutral terms such as 'blacks' or 'natives' and describe the Aboriginal attackers as 'savages'.

Sometimes it seems to me that it is no easier to see into the past with any clarity than it is to look into the future. Certainly, the story of Kennedy and Jackey Jackey indicates that history - especially Australian history - is never as straightforward or clearcut as we're sometimes led to think.

Quiz Question

What is the connection between Sydney and the Isle of Mull?
Answers on a plain piece of paper, by Thursday.

Friday, 23 April 2010

The Bright Lights

My grandmother used to hide in a cupboard to avoid Violet Trefusis. They were both children at the time and the Trefusis parents were friends of granny's parents or the family lived nearby or something - sadly, I wasn't listening properly when she told me (any of the many times). Only now, too late, have I realised the importance of listening when someone tells you something, which means that all the stories my father told me as we walked round London - 'That was the building where Cyril Connolly and I ....' or 'When I was a child we used to go into that place and they had ...' are gone. Because, instead of listening, I'd think 'I must listen next time he tells me that.' What is it about us humans that it never crosses our minds that there might not be a next time?
Anyway back to the point - my grandmother and Violet Trefusis. It was in Ireland, I think, and granny, who couldn't explain the violent loathing she had for the young Trefusis, would always be found and dragged from her cupboard and forced to go outside and play with her little so-called 'friend'. And they would stomp around the garden, side by side, my grandmother glowering and sullen until - to quote for the second time in a fortnight from the great Mabel Entwistle scene in Molesworth (which, in my opinion, is right up there with the Andrei Volkonsky lying on the battlefield looking up through the trees epiphany in War and Peace, to name but one of the many pivotal moments in literature that are its equals) 'at length the ghastley day is over.'
But granny always remembered the one day that they encountered the gardener as they wandered about. Granny politely introduced her companion to him and he looked the child up and down. 'Where be you from then, Miss?' he asked. 'London, sir', Violet replied. At that the gardener, who might have been called Mr Stubbs (and how typical that I remember a detail like this but not important things like where exactly the story took place or what relationship granny's family had to the Trefusises) made a kind of sniffing sound. 'I thought as much,' he said and looked directly at Violet before continuing: 'A sink of iniquity is London - an absolute sink of iniquity.'
Which brings me to my real point - I'm off to Sydney which is the closest thing we have to a sink of iniquity over here. It's a big wild city so if I'm not back shortly, I hope someone will call the New South Wales police.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A Solid Response

My mother is friends with a couple who manage a small shopping mall in Goulburn - and run a café within it. When I took her over there to hospital, we went to visit them first. It turned out they’d had a disaster. One of the tenants of the shops in the mall, having not paid their rent for months, had done a moonlight flit over the Easter weekend, leaving thirty thousand dollars of unpaid rent – plus unpaid utility bills and none of the fittings that had been part of the shop they’d occupied. ‘It didn’t matter if it was nailed down or not – they took it,’ mum’s friend explained.

So, good riddance to bad rubbish, you’d think. But no. After a few days, there started to be problems with the drains. Some kind of blockage from tree roots, it was thought. An electric eel was brought in and sent down underground to do its stuff. It blew up, unable to shift the obstruction. Diggers were called for (to the delight of the local small boys, I imagine [see yesterday’s post]). The floor was pulled up. Finally, all became clear. The moonlight flitters, as a parting gift, had dumped a load of concrete down the drains, which meant total replumbing for the whole complex. Such nastiness – cutting off business to all the enterprises in the place, damaging other people’s livelihoods – and of course not causing any real strife to the owners of the mall, since they were fully insured.

So no coffee for us. While mum had a yarn with her friend, I looked at a display board showing photographs of historic Goulburn and chronicling its rise to prosperity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The town’s good times were founded on the wool trade and times must have been very good at one stage, for a lot of the civic architecture is on the kind of confident scale you usually only see in gold rush towns like Bendigo. Many fine buildings have survived but the pictures showed plenty of others that have disappeared. There was the long-gone Gillespie’s Boot Factory, with all 80 or 90 of its staff lined up outside; the vanished wonder of the time ball tower, which was essentially a tower with a ball in it that would fall at precisely 1 p.m. each day, triggered by a telegraph from Sydney (to what end I don’t know – just for the thrill of the thing perhaps?); and the auctioneers where the first Goulburn wool sales were held in 1933.

I wanted to get a closer look at the faces of the men lined up in their three-piece tweed suits outside that sale, but couldn’t get near enough to make them out properly. I looked down to see what was in my way – a line of zimmer frames belonging to the chemist opposite, chained together and locked to the wall. How miserably appropriate for poor old Goulburn – instead of the swagger of the era of wool wealth, it does have a slight air of staggering along these days.

(That’s enough about Goulburn for this blog – ed)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Dream of Watching Trucks Forever

They are cutting out a chunk of the park near our house to make more spaces for cars at the local shops. Lots of trees have been torn down, huge mounds of earth have risen from nowhere and now the Tonka trucks have arrived.

They appeared on Monday and shortly afterwards dozens of small boys began emerging from the houses round about, drawn by the mysterious attraction of heavy machinery. Even my neighbour's three-year-old, who has insisted, since the birth of his baby sister six months ago, that he is a girl called Melissa, has been unable to resist (to his parents' secret relief).

He and his fellows cluster together at the fence, their tiny hands clinging to the heavy mesh, their eyes peering through, following each scoop and lift of the digger, every slow inching movement of the steamroller. The intensity of their concentration gives their faces a fierce almost angry look.

Behind them, their mothers wait patiently. Some sip at cups of takeaway coffee. 'He likes it more than when we went to Disneyworld,' I heard one say this morning. 'How much did that trip cost you?' 'Don't even ask.'

Needless to say, there's not a single little girl in sight.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Squeaking Gate - a Parable for the UK Election

Once upon a time there was a woman who lived in a house in North London. Unlike many houses in London, which had had their railings removed to melt down in the First World War, her house still had its railings – and a little front gate through which visitors had to pass before mounting the steps to her front door. Each time the little front gate was opened it made a loud squeaking sound. The woman liked this noise very much. It acted as a warning to her that someone was approaching the house. Whenever she heard it, she would look out the window to see who was coming and, if she didn’t want to see that particular visitor, she would lie down on the floor and stay hidden there until they went away.

One morning the woman saw a removal van draw up to the house next to hers. A new family was moving in. A couple of days later her new neighbours introduced themselves. They seemed very friendly. The woman was leaving for a short break away that afternoon and still had a lot to organise. She did not give any further thought to the conversation they had.

Arriving back from her holiday, the woman was surprised by the feeling that something was not quite right, although she couldn’t put her finger on precisely what it was that was wrong. Everything in the house was just as it had been before she went away. No-one had broken in. Nothing struck her as obviously different. It was not until she saw her neighbour in the street about a week later that she realised what exactly had been bothering her. ‘Hello’, the neighbour called as the woman set off towards Sainsburys, ‘I hope you had a good trip.’ The woman nodded and smiled, but the neighbour persisted. ‘I'd noticed your gate was squeaking,’ she told the woman, ‘so I oiled it for you while you were away.' So that was it – the gate was absolutely silent now; she'd known there was something, 'It only needed a couple of drops,’ the neighbour beamed.

She was a Liberal Democrat, of course, the new neighbour. Hers was precisely the kind of action – well-meaning, interfering and replete with unintended consequences - that Lib Dems adore. Had she been a Labour supporter, her attitude would have been similar but her approach would have been more bureaucratic. Instead of acting for herself, she would have contacted the local Residents’ Association and got them to send a notice round, instructing the occupant to oil the squeaking gate in the interests of community noise abatement – and if that failed, there would always be the ASBO route. And had she been Tory, she would have left the whole thing alone, understanding that the world is strange and complex and that if the gate squeaked it was up to the woman who owned it to decide whether she wanted to do anything about it.

Who you vote for: it all comes down to how you feel about other people's squeaking gates.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Missed Opportunity

I can't believe it. All those trips I’ve been making to Goulburn and I didn’t realise there was an exhibition by ‘an international artist’ that I could have seen. It’s called Talking Trash and it’s at the Goulburn Regional Art Gallery and it’s an ‘exploration of personal relationships with waste’ in which ‘25 residents expose their relationships with rubbish.’
And did I mention it’s by an international artist? That’s right – an artist from overseas. So it must be pretty special. The exhibition poster shows a woman in her kitchen holding a rather nice looking toaster. It ‘features interviews with 25 householders who explain their disparate responses and reasons for waste, from the practical and personal to the metaphorical, revealing an increasing awareness of waste (or wastefulness) and individual frustrations at the enormity of this problem and its impact on their daily lives.’
For a moment, I thought I had a glimmer of hope, as I’ll be back in Goulburn again on the thirtieth. But, wouldn’t you know it, the exhibition ends on 29th May. Sometimes life can be so cruel.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Young and Lovely

When I collected my mother from hospital the other day, I was expecting her to be looking ‘tense but dignified’ (as in EL Wisty on Royalty: "‘I’ve always wanted to be a member of the royal family. I’ve always wanted to be part of the royal family because there are great advantages to being royal. If you’re royal, whatever you do is very interesting. Whatever you do, people are very interested in it. Even if you do something very boring, people are still very interested in it. If a royal person does something extremely boring, people say, ‘Oh, isn’t it interesting that he’s doing something extremely boring.’ If I do something extremely boring, people say, ‘Oh, how extremely boring,’ it’s not so good. You never get newspaper cuttings about me, you never see headlines saying, ‘EL Wisty was looking radiant as he got off the 17A bus from Hounslow.’ You don’t see pictures saying, ‘EL Wisty was looking tense but dignified as he entered the municipal baths.’ You don’t get that sort of treatment.") As it turned out, my mother was looking 'radiant'.
The reason my mother was looking radiant, I discovered as we drove back to her farm, was that none of the nurses would believe she was over 80.‘You don’t look a day more than 75,’ they all told her. It’s made her year.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Lives of Others II

At the lights in Goulburn yesterday afternoon.
Mother to child who has tried to cross against the traffic:
'They're still green, you spastic.'

Friday, 16 April 2010

David Sedaris

I am a fan of the writer, David Sedaris - his piece about his father's fondness for old food is one of the funniest things I've ever read - and so I was pleased to see him on the Radio 4 schedule. One of the things he read out in his first programme was a diary entry which, while I would really rather not have to concentrate on anyone’s experiences in a urinal, nevertheless exactly captures the infantilisation you experience and the craven urge to appease that all too easily seizes you in London daily life:
‘Harrods has opened a Krispy Kreme counter. Before sitting down to a doughnut and a cup of coffee, I went to the basement to use the restroom. There was a young man beside me at the urinal and, after he’d finished, he walked to the sink to wash his hands. The attendant asked him if he’d flushed. ‘Uh, yah,’ the young man said.
‘No you didn’t,’ the attendant told him. The young man returned and, as he pulled the handle, we exchanged that particular glance meaning, ‘The washroom attendant is crazy.’
This was the sort of behaviour you’d expect in a public toilet in Paris but not in a department store, especially such a fancy one. The attendant was black and looked to be in his sixties. His accent suggested that he was from the West Indies and his expression said in no uncertain terms that he hated these toilets and everyone who used them.
When it came my turn, I made a great show of the flushing, glaring at the urinal and its contents, as if to say, ‘Be gone, you.’ Then I washed my hands. There were towels folded beside the sink, but using one might have angered the attendant, so I wiped my hands on my pants. This seemed to please him, and I left the restroom thinking, ‘He likes me, he likes me.’

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Lives of Others I

Overheard in cafe. Boy to girl, after long silence:
'I don't even want to get drunk with you any more.'

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Freecycle IX

You wait for weeks and then four come along at once:
OFFER: Waste paper (4 and a bit bags)
OFFER: Old mattress protector - was just about to throw out a ratty old double bed sized mattress protector but thought someone might want it.
WANTED: Unwanted magazines (Dream the impossible dream)
TAKEN: Electric toothbrush


The vacuum cleaner has been forced through the kneehigh grunge, dust has been removed in shovel loads, steaming pails of water have been brought in and skirting boards and windowpanes have been cleared of detritus and polished until they sparkle in the sunlight we didn't even realise was there. Yes, we have people coming to stay.
And so from now until Sunday there will be daily performances of Breakfast and Dinner in the dining room, during which neither of the central characters will hint at their better known works involving sofas and televisions and the flopping down on one and the eating of meals in front of the other or that equally popular piece involving bed and cups of tea and racing out of the house at the last minute without anything to eat at all. Oh no. The task at hand is the creation of the - entirely false -illusion that this is a household where standards are kept up.
It puts me in mind of one of my favourite scenes from the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century:
'... you are xpected to be xactly like wee tim especially when mater's grate skool friend mabel entwhistle (prothero that was) pay a visit with her tiny dorter chiz chiz chiz. On that morning all boys cats dogs parots sparos and owls are turned into the garden while house is polished and mabel entwhistle's foto is brought out of the boxroom. Boys glue their noses against windows and are finaly admited.
'Do not the house look luvly, nigel' sa yore mater.
'But it never look like this reely it is just an empty facade.'
'O.K.,' sa youre mater. 'But let's keep it that way, see? Otherwise there's liable to be trubble. Look at yore knees.'
i do not kno why boys are always told to look at their knees it is dashed dificult. In fact the only way is to lie on yore back and pull yore knees up. Maters, however, are liable to get batey if you do this in the sitting room just before ma entwhistle arive becos they see wot is on the soles of yore shoes. Too repulsive, my dear.
Procedure: Ho to the bathroom. Out flanel and wipe geting most off. Brush front of hair and leave back. Gaze in mirror at yore strange unatural beauty. Report hopefully. Back agane. Scrub nails. Leave tap runing and soap in bottom of basin. Sa look at ickle pritty to molesworth 2 who hav to put on blue corduroys cheers cheers cheers cheers. Report back and granted certificate of hygene (ist Class Honours) also gold medal antwerp exhibition 1899.
Pijaw. Mater then give pi-jaw e.g. Now you will behave nicely won't you nigel and you won't do wot you did to cicely last time.
Oh no mater rather not.
You promise?
Oh yes and i will sa nothing about her dolly either.
And you will not shout Cave Cave here they come when they ring the bell? You will not repeat wot Daddy sa at breakfast about mabel entwhistle? Nor sa rice pud ugh at lunch?
No No dearest mama perish the thort.
You had better not, rat.
The works. Mabel entwhistle arive in a super car a bentley or aston martin which show that mr entwhistle have a clue or 2 which is more than pop hav. Women thro themself into each others arms like guided missiles.
'Darling darling (chiz) how lovely to see you after all these years.'
Visitor then gaze about as if she have never seen anything more beaituful in the world in space.
'How swete your house is!
(Thinks: a dump)
nigel! this must be nigel! Wot a good-looking boy.
(Thinks: Ugh.)
'And your younger boy how luvley.'
If anyone can call molesworth 2 luvely you know she is telling a whoper even blue corduroy trousers do not make him into bubles not by a long chalk so it show how empty and artifical ect. hem hem.
Enter CICELY entwhistle.
YOUR MATER: 'Ciceley! She's already a beauty. Such hair Such eyes' ect.
(Thinks: Gosh wot a plane child.)
And so it go on the lunch is cold molesworth 2 drop the sprouts ciceley can't eat the steak and all larff wot screams children are to be sure ....'

Monday, 12 April 2010

Speaking of Telly

Which I was yesterday, sort of, I hear The Bill is staggering toward a long overdue finale; I’m also pretty sure I read somewhere that Inspector Barnaby is retiring from Midsomer Police Station - so that’s the coming Sun Hill unemployment problem solved. Heaven knows they need a decent police force down in Midsomer – how many years is it and how many murders?
I also read that ITV are going to put the money they will save from The Bill into a whole lot of new drama. This interested me as here in Australia, when we are not improving our linguistic skills with Danish murder mysteries in preparation for the coming of our future Queen Mary (see earlier post ‘Learning Danish’), we do watch quite a few UK imports (and be warned anyone hoping to escape the winsome Richard Hammond – he appears depressingly regularly on our screens too).
Consequently, I’ve been trying to imagine the sorts of things we’ll be watching once ITV gets its act together and then flogs the stuff to us. So far I’ve come up with nothing except a vague wish that that Irish git who was first in Cold Feet and has since become ubiquitous (and yes I know I should do my research and Google his name, but I’m not sure even Google is sophisticated enough to be able to find an answer to ‘what is the name of that Irish actor I hate?) is not part of anything we get.
If it were the BBC making the programmes, it would be much easier to work out what might be in store. Ticking multi-cultural boxes seems to be the main thing they aim for in drama these days (and I am baffled, by the way, to understand how Miranda Hart ever got her sit-com up and running, given its shocking lack of ethnic diversity [and Shappi Khorsandi, nice though she is, pretty though she is, is not really that funny, unless you’re looking at her from the point of view of a producer who needs to fill
a quota.]).
If the BBC was going in for a new drama, it would probably give us a heart-warming Sunday night series centred on a banker who, having missed out on his bonus, has to sell his place in wherever bankers live (somewhere they can find a plentiful supply of deserving poor with upturned faces to grind their heels on each morning) and move to Tulse Hill. Once there he finds the railway timetable too complicated to understand (cunning comment on intelligence and mathematical know-how of bankers) and decides to stay at home and grow vegetables instead.
Soon he is bonding with the cheerful West Indian family next door (if they’re very lucky the BBC might be able to secure the services of that titan of talent, Mr L Henry, for one or possibly all the parts here) who teach him how to grow and cook yam and plantains and who, it turns out, are sheltering their son’s girlfriend, who is a Muslim, because her family want to murder – sorry, ‘honour kill’ – her as she is not complying with their desire to marry her to her 76-year-old incontinent uncle.
Eventually, via a sequence of scenes highlighting the richness of immigrant tradition and the overseas newcomers’ deep bonding sense of community - which shines out especially brightly in our vilely shallow, wealth-obsessed, consumerist wasteland - we come to realise that, just like the West Indian neighbours, the Muslim girl’s family are actually good, kind people and only blind prejudice has hidden this fact from us. Our civilisation, it turns out, is worthless and exploitative and has brought every type of horror down on their poor innocent heads over generations. Their culture is not actually oppressive and woman-hating but vibrant and overflowing with a resonance and vigour we can only dream of.
We witness huge family gatherings, which involve tables piled high with food, plus much laughter, dancing, music and not a few shared tears, and gradually (but firmly) we are edged towards a renewed perception of these people’s impulses and intentions, which are so much more understandable when seen within the context of both the fundamental spirituality of their beliefs and the many years they spent under our imperialist
The series ends with the entire cast making chapattis together in a celebration of multicultural harmony. The daughter has already died from shame, having understood the full consequences of her transgression, and her erstwhile boyfriend has converted to Islam and entered a madrassa in Pakistan, with the aim of dedicating his life to peace (hem hem). The incontinent uncle, broken-hearted but philosophical, spends his remaining days sitting under a lemon tree that the erstwhile banker has planted in his back garden. As the credits roll on the final scene we see him there, propped up beneath the tree’s flourishing branches. Beside him is a basket piled high with the tree’s first harvest. The camera lingers on the heap of bitter yellow fruit as the strains of a distant call to prayer drift through the evening air.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Outing to the Theatre

We went to see The Walworth Farce last night. It was not a very long play so when we got home we made some dinner and turned on the television and watched Midsomer Murders. Strangely enough, both dramas - The Walworth Farce and Midsomer Murders - dealt with the theme of children and overbearing parents and the impossible struggle to escape. One was more entertaining than the other though. And, while I know that entertainment should not be my only requirement, I do find it easier to take hard medicine in a palatable form. Just as oats are good for you, but taste better when mixed with raisins and dried mango to make muesli, so tragedy is easier to bear when a few laughs are thrown in. Unfortunately, in The Walworth Farce the laughs were - like the bits of dried mango in most muesli - rather few and far between.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Tales from the Not Too Distant Past II - Come on, Mrs Thatcher

It is just after 10 on a winter’s morning. In Miss Pickard’s classroom, everyone is bent over their Cuisenaire rods. There is a faint click as the minute hand on the clock moves forward. My stomach churns as the moment of dread draws near.
They are there. I can see them. Their squat little figures crouch on the radiator. They are waiting–just like every weekday morning.
Another minute clicks by. My friend Penelope walks past them and they rattle quietly – ‘Just a reminder that we haven’t gone away.’
And then it is time. Miss Pickard lifts them out with bird like movements, piercing each one with a paper straw. She hands me mine and looks at me sternly. ‘I don’t want any nonsense today,’ she says.
I grasp the thing’s stout little body, warm on the bottom, but icy cold towards the top. ‘Come on, drink up,’ Miss Pickard tells me, and I put my lips to the straw and suck. The warm, half curdled bit that has already melted mixes with fragments of still-frozen milk. The taste, the texture, the temperature - it is all absolutely revolting.
Hurry up, milk snatcher. I can’t take much more of this.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Road Less Travelled

Some people at my house are admirers of Jan Morris, but they don't include me. I thought I'd get that off my chest before bidding farewell to the whole area of 'top jobs' and the like (off my chest - oh, the wit).
My main objection to Morris is her prose, which I find lacking in sparkle. As a female myself, I'm also not keen on her absurd caricature of womanhood - all stoutness and women's institute hair. If she is going to insist on joining us, I think she should give us the respect most drag queens accord us and outdo us massively at our own game. Instead of piling on the glamour though, Morris looks to me like she's taking the mickey.
Given her apparent lack of interest in Louboutin shoes and false eyelashes, I can't help wondering about Morris' decision to embark on a change of sex. After all, she had married, fathered five children and was well into a career as a travel writer when she revealed that she wanted to be a lady. Is it possible that, as a long-term traveller, Mr Morris saw the crossing over process as the ultimate journey. Did womanhood represent the great unexplored destination? If so, did she realise too late that the ticket was strictly for a one-way trip?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


When I was about twelve my schoolfriends and I used to waste a lot of our energy worrying if we were really proper females. We tried lots of different tests to gauge our femininity (or, horrid thought, its absence) – nothing invasive, just things like which way you struck a match – if outwards, it was quite a major worry (proper women, being silly creatures, would, of course, strike them towards themselves, ignoring the fact that the head might fly off and burn them) – and how you looked at your nails – if you folded your fingers over and looked at them in the palm of your hand rather than spreading your hand out and looking at them that way, you were almost certainly doomed to a life of dreaded manliness. You couldn’t get away with trying to change your natural match-striking and nail-viewing tendencies either. You might be able to fool some of your friends, but deep within you the dye was already cast.

I thought of this nonsense today, while listening to the news, which reported the case of one Conor Montgomery, aged 50. Young Conor (yes, I did say ‘young’ – 50 is the new 30 apparently, didn’t you know?) was born a woman but ‘a few years ago he borrowed 10,000 dollars to have what transsexual men call top surgery ... He has also taken male hormones.’ However, for health and financial reasons, Mr Montgomery has had nothing else done. In other words, physically, he is essentially a woman who has had her chest cut off. In these circumstances, Mr Montgomery has persuaded the authorities to give him a passport that describes him as ‘male’, which is probably sensible - things could be awkward at the airport without it. Mr Montgomery is not satisfied with this though – he is now fighting for the right to have his birth certificate revoked and replaced with one that says he was born a man.

Does this strike anyone else as ludicrous or am I just a horrible person? I am not saying I don’t feel sympathy for Mr Montgomery – clearly, life is confusing and probably not entirely satisfactory in his situation. Nevertheless, if what Mr Montgomery is requesting is agreed to, we will be complying with rights demands that have more to do with delusions than reality. This person thinks they are a man, they dress like a man, they have had bits of themselves cut off so that they look more like a man, but they aren’t a man, and they were not born a man. I am happy to call this person ‘he’ but, if he is allowed to change his birth certificate as he wishes, the result will be that it will state something that isn’t true. This person was not born male and no matter how much surgery he has, that fact cannot be altered. If the change he is asking for is carried out, what will happen next? Will I, if I take it into my head that I am a small grey Angora rabbit, be able to have that put on my birth certificate?

Do words have meanings or not? That is the essential issue here. In this context, as so often, Lewis Carroll’s Alice crystallises the dilemma. I am not, of course, referring to that excrescence that claims to be a related film, but to Alice through the Looking-Glass and Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty:

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, ‘whether you can make words means so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Even as a small child I found Humpty Dumpty’s cavalier attitude very disturbing. Perhaps this was simply the first of many indications that I was going to be a hopeless bigot and spoilsport in adult life. Certainly I haven’t changed - I still hope that the Humpty Dumpties of this world will not triumph over words.


Seen on a bulletin board in Goulburn last week:
Dexter bull for sale - great Easter gift.

Bounce Back

The roos have returned. At least most of them have - I saw dozens of tiddlers and tiddlers' mums on my walk up there today. The big thuggy types, the ones that lie around looking threatening and then suddenly scramble up and reveal themselves to be six foot high, are still missing. Perhaps they've all been herded off to anger management courses. Or maybe they're regrouping in deep bush, higher up the mountain, getting ready for an all out attack on the lunchtime fitness fanatics who pound the tracks below.
That's the big question really: was the other day an opening salvo or an isolated incident? Time alone will tell.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


In the Saturday before the Saturday before last’s paper – look, I’m a slow reader, I’m not ashamed to admit it (to be absolutely honest, I’m still getting through colour supplements dating back to 1991 [and apparently there’s this thing coming called the Internet, have you heard about it?]) - we were given fifteen suggestions for simple steps to happiness.

They ranged from ideas that were impractical but not completely without sense – ‘Next time you want to take a photograph, draw it instead’ (it makes you really see properly and thus, apparently, realise how incredible the world is) – through to the fringes of the psycho-babble world. They then veered briefly into something very like obscenity, before ending up with this, (my favourite) - the frankly mad:

‘Sing a loud song while putting petrol in your car. People will walk past and smile at you.’

No, look, feel free. Yes, I know I was the one that spotted it, but go ahead and give it a whirl. I really, really do not mind if you try it out before me.

Let me know how it goes though.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Roo News

It’s the talk of the suburb, although I’ve only just heard about it – a big old man roo punched a jogger in the face. Apparently, he was pounding along the track minding his own business (the jogger, I mean, not the roo) and the next thing he knew he was lying in the dust.
He’s got a black eye to prove it, (which makes me slightly suspicious –is this just a twist on the old ‘I walked into a door’ excuse; have we really got a poor battered husband on our hands here?)
Who knows. At least the sudden absence of roos makes sense now. Either they’re all at the police station, being questioned – ‘What’s that you say, Skippy, it was the other bloke who started it?’ - or they’ve gone into hiding until the fuss dies down..

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter Wowser

On Good Friday the ABC newsroom, clearly scraping about for stuff to fill its half hour – well, ten minutes, once you’ve factored in Thai kick boxing (and was that spectacle really suitable for Easter [or any day]?) and various forms of footie – came up with shots of shut shops (alliteration going into top gear there) and deserted mall forecourts.

The voiceover explained that Good Friday is one of the few days of the year when most avenues of consumerism are out of bounds. As a result many Australians feel lost and despondent and don’t know what to do with themselves. The camera then tracked to a shabby individual who I think was a professor of something or other (he clutched a bunch of stationery [notepad, some kind of writing implement, possibly a leather document case], which I took as evidence of his academic credentials.) He was on a deserted city street, surrounded by closed department stores. His expression was both disapproving and mournful (and who wouldn’t be mournful, on an academic's salary?) Without much prompting, he began to air his views.

A large proportion of the population was, he assured us, slumped at home, unable to cope with the 24-hour interruption to their drip feed of constant consumerism. Deprived of their one leisure activity – buying things - a vast number of our fellow citizens felt utterly lost. The only thing we could be certain of, he said, was that most of them (not us of course, we are ABC viewers and therefore superior) would be spending the day ‘hunched in the company of Mr Google’. He delivered his message with the solemnity of one announcing the death of the monarch.

What was the ABC thinking of? The picture this man painted of a nation whose normal day is spent oscillating between a flickering screen and the merry ring of the cash register has no basis in fact. No evidence was offered to back up the fellow’s depressing claims. This item was not news, as I understand it. It was a piece of doom and gloom killjoy moralising, a party political broadcast for the nostalgia party – main policy platform, ‘More sing-songs round the piano and making your own fun with empty jam jars and pieces of broken shoelace’ – who love nothing more than painting a picture of the western world hurtling rapidly towards the proverbial dogs.

Where I live people were gardening, walking their dogs (which involved hurtling rapidly behind some of the more unruly but no hurtling towards), washing their cars, washing their dogs (pre- and post- hurtling) and, above all, engaging in heroic battles with their misbehaving Barracudas (see Technology and Magic and Technology and Magic Update).

The suburb did not echo with howls of withdrawal from desperate shopaholics; there were no zombie figures staggering out after long slabs of time slumped before their computers to check whether the shops were open again. Not for the first time, the media was peddling an untrue but depressing vision of a world where we have lost all humanity as well as our moral compass, having plunged ourselves into a depraved frolic through the sticky web of capitalism – a heap of upsetting nonsense.

I could go on, but I have to run: someone’s just told me the shops have reopened, so I’m heading off down the mall. I shall spend the rest of the day there, drifting aimlessly through its air-conditioned corridors, my mouth hanging open, my eyes glazed, uttering little high-pitched grunts of pleasure as my pin fingers pick out their jolly little dance over and over again.


There is a new Adam & Joe podcast. Sadly, it is only bits from earlier shows, but it does include Adam’s Coming Back from Holidays blues, which is great. I listened to the whole thing while going up the mountain this morning and managed to consolidate my claim to the title of local madwoman (already pretty well entrenched due to my habit of dragging large chunks of tree back home with me - I will use them to keep the home fires burning once winter comes) by laughing rather a lot and rather loudly as I tramped to the summit.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Where are Roo?

I can’t understand it. Usually I see twenty or thirty kangaroos when I go for a walk in the morning, but the last two days I haven’t seen a single one. I hope that bunch of goody-two-shoe, busy-bodies, the Clean Up Australia mob, haven’t bundled them up and carted the whole lot off - all in the interests of hygiene, presumably.

Friday, 2 April 2010

New or Old?

Worlds, that is. It's the perennial question when you're born, as I was, with two nationalities (Australian and British - and that's only alphabetical order, before anyone gets upset.)
In practical terms, the New World has it all sewn up - nothing's difficult, there still aren't too many people and dense tangles of rules and regulations rarely prevent you from doing what you want. Yet the email I got from my Old World cousin this morning, headed 'Maundy Thursday', reminded me that there are other aspects to life that need to be considered.
Because I'm not involved in a church here - I've yet to find one where the platitudes of the vicar, the banality of the new versions of the Bible and prayerbook and the refusal to acknowledge that the whole thing is about mystery haven't driven me away - until today practically my only awareness that Easter was approaching came from the sight of hot-cross buns and chocolate eggs on the supermarket shelves (and they've been there for months and so were not great indicators).
My cousin, by contrast, lives in a quiet hamlet with a 15th century church and surrounding buildings dating back a century further. No wonder she knows that it is Maundy Thursday (over there anyway; it's actually Friday here, of course): the medieval maundy practice of giving alms to the poor was probably something that used to happen right there where she lives.
Reading her email, I thought about how, despite the usually filthy weather in England, it is still oddly comforting to live somewhere where Easter rituals and other ancient practices have been observed without interruption, year in, year out, for many, many centuries. There is a pleasure in knowing that the place you call home has been inhabited by generations of your own kind for centuries and is steeped in your culture and traditions. That bit from Pike by Ted Hughes that includes the phrase 'It was as deep as England' conveys something of the idea.
So yes, for a moment I let nostalgia sweep over me.
But then I read this letter to The Guardian from Blair McPherson, Director of Community Services, Lancashire County Council:
'Libraries are not about borrowing books (Off the books, Society, 17 March). Libraries are not about housing books. Libraries are one of the vehicles for local councils to deliver community cohesion, social inclusion, community engagement, and equality and diversity. Libraries are a place where you can access the internet. Libraries are venues for homework clubs, mother and toddler groups, rock concerts, councillors' surgeries, and benefit advice sessions. Libraries work with schools to promote reading, with adult learning to promote life skills, with the Prison Service to promote numeracy and literacy, and with social services to promote safeguarding children and adults. Libraries are local, they are community centres. The best attract all ages and all sections of the community. If we didn't have local libraries then people like me would be inventing them.'
What good, I thought, is it to have deep links to tradition and the values of the past if you then place power in the hands of people with no appreciation of those things - or is what McPherson displays actually a spiteful hatred of everything representing the past and the values of an earlier time (and I know libraries are not quite the same as 15th century churches, but in their original un-McPhersonised incarnation they did represent an impulse towards civilisation and a belief in and desire to preserve some of the major achievements of our own culture)?
Perhaps, after all, it is better to live in a place where ancient customs (at least those of your own heritage) are not ingrained in everything around you. At least then you avoid the disappointment of seeing the things you value being systematically trashed by ideologues and fools.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Cleaning Up

Each day I get up and go into the kitchen and start cleaning up. I have an idea of how the place should look – an idea that is probably too heavily influenced by honeyed images from advertisements and lifestyle magazines. It takes time – never less than ten minutes and occasionally, (when I really decide to get things camera-ready, just on the off chance that someone may ring up asking for a last-minute double-page spread), almost an hour. Eventually though everything is returned to order. I stand back and admire the fragile perfection I’ve achieved.

Then it all starts over, and before I know where I am, I’m at it again: wiping down bench-tops and scooping up onion skins, while the great Beckettian question - ‘Why this farce day after day?’ – runs round and round my head. ‘Why?’ I began for the umpteenth time this morning as I lifted the bin lid - but my question went unfinished. I’d just clapped eyes on Ian Kiernan. He was there - with his moustache - at the bottom of the bucket, and both of them were gazing up at me, (and yes, he was on a magazine cover, and yes I admit he ought not have been in there, since he should have been in paper recycling - I know, I know [and I am aware that moustaches can’t gaze, but will you stop splitting hairs {hairs, geddit, moustaches - hairs, do you see what I did there? – oh, stop getting at me}]).

Where were we? Oh yes - Ian Kiernan. Ian Kiernan is the man behind Clean Up Australia, which has been going now since 1989. Clean Up Australia generates the kind of community-minded gung-ho enthusiasm that makes me want to go and jump off a bridge. Year after year, you see its adherents trouping up to our local mountain to gather the rubbish no-one would have noticed anyway – the bush is pretty thick and the area enormous; the odd abandoned suitcase is really not that big a deal. In the afternoon, they come back down past our house, smelling of sanctity (at least I think that’s what it is) and wreathed in self-righteous grins.

‘Why this farce year after year?’ I’m sure Beckett would himself have paraphrased his question, if he’d been here to see them trotting by. Why don’t these people devote their energies to preventing the mess in the first place, so they won’t have to come back time after time? Why don’t they lobby shops to cut down on packaging, why don’t they use their collective clout for that? The thing is, I fear these people don’t want Australia to stay cleaned up. I suspect they relish their rubbishy outings. They thrive on the fact that things get in a mess (I sometimes worry that some people who make a career in aid work are a little bit similar). The Clean-Up-Australia-Dayers are actually glad there are people who litter. They can look down their noses at them as they bustle about.

But perhaps my objections are based too much on personal experience, having lived with a cleaning-up zealot for the first part of my life. When your things have been in constant danger of being swept into a bin bag and whisked off to the dump, you don’t naturally warm to those who like tidying. When you’ve sacrificed a complete set of Beatles autographs (yes, I promise that is true [cue weeping]), and a huge collection of Edwardian postcards on the altar of order, it’s very hard to get enthusiastic about group clean-up days.

Even my Samuel Beckett plays were chucked out while I was walking the dog one evening. Apparently ‘they were taking up too much space and no-one was reading them.’ That is why I can’t be sure exactly which one that immortal question is taken from. I’m fairly certain it was End Game, though (in which the following scene is, I think, also to be found: A white dog is placed before Hamm, a blind man. ‘Is it black?’ Hamm asks. ‘Sort of,’ comes the reply.)