Sunday, 30 May 2010

DH Lawrence - the Spring Collection

Nowadays, most people seem to despise DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, but a lingering memory of the Brangwen sisters' brightly coloured stockings has left me with a soft spot for the book. No author could be all bad, I thought, if he let his female characters get about with legs clothed in scarlet and emerald-green.

Looking through the book again the other day though – when I was trying to see if Lawrence described food at all - I discovered that stockings weren’t the half of it. The book is actually a disguised fashion parade more than it is anything else. Ken Russell made us think the Graeco-Roman wrestling between Rupert Birkin and Gerald on the Crich family hearth rug was the focal point of the novel, but he was wrong, I’ve realised – it was really just a ploy Lawrence used to distract us from his true, shameful obsession.

The first hint of the novel’s secret world comes with Gudrun’ s first appearance. ‘She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeves; and she had emerald-green stockings,’ Lawrence tells us, adding that she teamed these items with a ‘large grass-green velour hat’ and a ‘full soft coat, of a strong blue colour’. Mrs Crich turns up next and is given a ‘sac coat of dark blue silk’ and a ‘blue silk hat’. Hermione Roddice follows, in ‘a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow colour’ and ‘shoes and stockings ...of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat.’ Shortly afterwards, Hermione makes a quick change, returning in ‘a large, old cloak of greenish cloth,’ with ‘a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak’ is ‘lined with dark fur.’ Beneath the cloak she has ‘a dress of fine lavender-coloured cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull, green-and-gold figured stuff.’

And really from here on in its open slather when it comes to frocks. Lawrence hurls outfits at us down the catwalk so fast and furiously that I had quite a hard time keeping up. I’ve done my best to list each of his haute couture creations. Here is a list of the ones I got:

Gudrun wears variously: 1) a dress ‘of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes.’ Her hat for this outfit was ‘pale, greenish straw, the colour of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black’; 2) a dress of white crepe and a hat of soft grass ‘with a sash of brilliant black and pink and yellow colour wound broadly round her waist, and she had pink silk stockings, and black and pink and yellow decoration on the brim of her hat, weighing it down a little. She carried also a yellow silk coat over her arm ’ ; 3) 'blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys.’ ; 4) ‘startling colours, like a macaw ... And her ankles were pale yellow, and her dress a deep blue’; 5) a ‘soft blue dress, and her stockings were of dark red’; 6) a ‘blue, bright dress [that] fluttered in the wind, her thick scarlet stockings were brilliant above the whiteness’; 7) she was ‘fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, lustrous, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey.’

As well as the outfits already mentioned, Hermione gets: 1) ‘a dress of prune-coloured silk, with coral beads and coral coloured stockings’; 2) ‘a handsome gown of white lace, trailing an enormous silk shawl blotched with great embroidered flowers, and balancing an enormous plain hat on her head.’

Ursula is not quite so richly provided for by Lawrence, but she still gets 1) a dress of ‘white crepe’ and a hat ‘of soft grass’; 2) a pink hat ‘entirely without trimming and her shoes were dark red, and she carried an orange-coloured coat'; 3) ‘a big soft coat with a collar of deep, soft, blond fur and a soft blond cap of fur. Best of all, she is allowed to show off the House of Lawrence jewellery range: ‘a round opal, red and fiery, set in a circle of tiny rubies ...a rose-shaped, beautiful sapphire, with small brilliants ... a squarish topaz set in a frame of steel, or some other similar mineral, finely wrought.’

Miss Darrington, aka Pussum, is first seen wearing no hat but a ‘loose simple jumper ... strung on a string round her neck ... it was made of rich peach-coloured crepe de chine that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists.’ Later, after she’s eaten some oysters, Lawrence strips her down to ‘a loose dressing-gown of purple silk, tied round her waist'. Finally she appears ‘wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and spattered with different colours, a curious motley effect.’

And, lest there be any jealousy from his gentlemen readers on the question of outfits, Lawrence provided a limited but equally exquisite range for them as well. Gerald is portrayed in: 1) ‘a gown of broad-barred, thick black-and-green silk, brilliant and striking socks ... silk underclothing and silk braces’; 2) ‘a silk wrap of a beautiful bluish colour, with an amethyst hem’; and 3) ‘white, with a black and brown blazer’

What is more, even quite minor characters get full outfits: Halliday wears ‘tweeds and a green flannel shirt, and a rag of a tie, which was just right for him’; Laura Crich wears ‘a stiff embroidered linen dress’; Winifred wears ‘a dress of silvery velvet’ and ‘a dress of black-and-white stripes’; Ursula and Gudrun’s mother is ‘dressed in a summer material of black and purple stripes and [was] wearing a hat of purple straw’ ; the completely incidental daughters of an almost incidental professor wear ‘plain-cut, dark blue blouses and loden skirts’.

What can all this mean? Lawrence is suspected by some to have been a suppressed homosexual and he does go on about loins a fair bit (what exactly are loins by the way – I thought they were the same as buttocks, yet in Lawrence’s mind they appear to be separate things). Could it be though that his interest was purely structural rather than homoerotic ? Was his preoccupation really with how lengths of suiting and swathes of linen would hang on all those limbs he describes in such detail? Perhaps the key to the mystery can be found in the scene in the book when Ursula returns to the family home and finds that there are ‘half-burnt covers of ‘Vogue’ – half-burnt representations of women in gowns –lying under the grate.’ Did something similar really happen – but to Lawrence? Did the real secret he kept from the world - the thing his working-class father could not abide about him – have nothing to do with who he might be attracted to? Was it simply his fascination with Vogue and his longing to work in haute couture?

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Am I Racist?

For weeks now, I’ve been worrying that I am. It all started when I glimpsed Lewis Hamilton’s name in the paper. As I read the words, I visualised the attractive young racing driver -and instantly Barack Obama appeared beside him in my mind. The same thing happens whenever Sarkozy or Berlusconi are mentioned. Whichever one happens to be under discussion, the other pops up in my head as well. That’s because I keep the two of them in a folder marked Silly Mediterannean Men (yes, I know Sarkozy is in fact largely of Hungarian origin, but I think his is a clear case of nurture versus nature.)
But it gets worse – if Angela Merkel is ever mentioned in conversation, Kohl and Schmidt crowd in behind her into my brain. Surely that is racist – it’s certainly crowded. And yet, if I look carefully, I can, even with my poor eyesight, make out the label on their (bulging) file. ‘Frumpy Leaders who don’t Know How to Dress’ it’s got written on it – and, ooh yes, what a relief, I’ve just spotted Hilary Clinton and her hideous array of travelling pant suits in it, together with the Germans. So at least in this instance my problem doesn’t seem to be racism.
On the other hand, when I see Gael Garcia Bernal, I always think of Beneficio del Toro. They’re bracketed together in a folder marked Attractive South Americans, so I suppose that’s racist. And George Clooney goes everywhere in my thoughts accompanied by Steve Martin. Their folder is marked Attractive but Slightly Creepy Actors with Unusually Regular Features, (but, although it isn’t mentioned, the fact is the two of them are white.)
Which brings us back to Obama and Hamilton. They are in fact in the same file that the Mexicans and Clooney are stashed in. It’s marked ‘Men – Good-Looking’ so there’s nothing wrong there. The trouble is that, just as Bernal and del Toro fall into the sub-folder for South Americans, Lewis and Barack are in a sub-section marked nice-looking men who are, yes, I have to admit it, black.
And that’s the real question – is it racist to notice someone’s skin colour or merely not to like it once you’ve noticed it? If the Victorian Police force is any kind of guide, noticing is enough to condemn you. And mentioning skin colour is out of the question – they regard describing someone as black with the same horror Basil Fawlty reserved for mentioning the war. To put it bluntly (not something they approve of) they don’t and won’t do it. Which is why when they were hunting for someone the other day they told us all they were looking for 'a man with a very dark complexion, extremely white teeth and exceptionally curly hair.’ Only after the entire nation had exhausted itself looking for the lone survivor of the late unlamented Black and White Minstrels Show did they reveal they were actually looking for a Black African male.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Pedantic Protest

I really like the New York Times Lens site. It provides a daily set of pictures from around the world. However, my pleasure was spoiled today by the caption on the first one, which read, 'Steelworkers took to the street ... to protest a government proposal.' I've seen this lots of times lately - shouldn't it be protest against? Am I losing my mind, or are we losing our grammar? Similarly, shouldn't someone have a debate with someone about something - nowadays people seem to debate other people. Is it just me, or is this wrong? I have heard the arguments about English being an adaptable, evolving language and flexibility being its great strength. I understand that, and I am prepared to accept that words can change their meanings, but I worry that if we start fiddling with grammar, which is the engineering that underpins a language, the whole structure of meaning will collapse.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A National Joke

Someone told me once that whenever Geelong Grammar School advertises for a new headmaster they get dozens of fantastic applications, mostly from people at Britain's major private schools. To work out who to choose, they go through all the usual procedures - interviews, references et cetera - and then, when they've whittled the candidates down to two or three, they give them the gate test (not to be confused with the squeaking gate, [which I suppose has to be amended anyway, in the light of events - now you'd have to include a scenario where a Lib Dem {dressed rather like Terry Jones when he plays a housewife - apron, rollers under scarf and so forth} stands by the window with an oil can in one hand, holding back the lace curtains with the other. He peers at the nextdoor neighbour's and gestures with the can. 'I really think I should go and fix that gate,' he says. Meanwhile behind him in a comfortable leather armchair sits his Tory partner. He has his slippers on and The Telegraph spread out in front of him. 'No, no, darling, just leave well alone,' he replies, without glancing up.])

Anyway, the gate test involves taking each of the short-listed headmasterly candidates out to lunch at a country parent's house, which is down a dirt track that involves several closed gates. The results, apparently, have often been surprising. Over the years numerous otherwise excellent candidates have made no effort to get out and open any of the gates, just staying in their seat each time the car draws to a halt. Of course, no-one ever explains to them that they are expected to get out and help or that they are being tested. They return to England none the wiser and eventually an envelope containing a polite, 'thanks but no thanks' letter arrives on their mat.

For a long time Australia had a similar secret test for foreign celebrities. It came in the form of Norman Gunston, an exceptionally gormless journalist with a comb-over and little bits of lavatory paper dotted about his face to patch up shaving cuts. He was the invention of an actor called Garry McDonald and he preceded spoof artists such as Ali G by decades. Norman Gunston would turn up at airport press conferences and fire questions at jet-lagged stars - here he is ambushing Warren Beatty. He would somehow con publicists into allowing him into hotel rooms to interview their charges - here he is with Mick Jagger, who comes out of the thing very badly, even stooping to argue about who has sold the most records (Gunston claims to have sold 15 LPs altogether, including 12 in Malta). He would persuade unsuspecting agents in Hollywood to let him talk to their clients - here he is with a TV actress called Sally Struthers.

It was a national joke we played on the world and all too often what was revealed was an idol's pomposity and lack of humour. Sadly, even some revered Australians didn't emerge from the Gunston test particularly well (Bob Hawke, to name no names).

If being interviewed by Gunston were part of a process to choose headmaster of Australia, for me it would be a close run thing between Sally Struthers and Frank Zappa (his interview with Gunston is at the very end of this post). Perhaps I've missed someone, but from what I have seen they appear to be the only Gunston test candidates to have done really well.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Sheep Shock

I was still digesting the whole Craig Venter story, when I saw this in the paper yesterday: 'New Heads for Wool Bodies'. Why? That's what I want to know. I like sheep just the way they are thanks. I don't want the landscape of my youth dotted with Daliesque wool bodies sporting clowns' features or wool bodies topped by profiles of Greek gods. Why fiddle? Wool heads for wool bodies, I say. Haven't we made enough of a mess of the world as it is?

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Textile Conservation

Is it normal to keep the clothes you like for best? Is it normal to go around wearing the things you know make you look dreadful? That’s what I do. If I find a garment that really suits me, I put it away in case I wear it out. After all, I might never find another, and then where would I be? Instead of looking decent, I save my nice things as if they were hunting trophies (and in a way they are) and go about in awful trousers that my daughters stare at sideways, trying to work out how anyone in their right mind could actually bring themselves to put them on.
‘Err, where did you get those jeans from, mum?’ one will burst out at last.
‘Why, don’t you like them?’
‘Did dad give them to you or something?’
‘No, I bought them.’
‘You BOUGHT them? Where did you buy them?’
‘Umm – from the back of the Radio Times – they were only four pounds fifty.’
‘Mum, they’re terrible.’
Which is perfectly true. The trouble is, I don’t actually care. As long as the things I look smart in never get worn out, that’s all that matters. One day I might need them – there’s sure to be some occasion –and so I must keep them crisp and fresh and ready, just in case.
And, although my behaviour may not be altogether normal, I do know that I’m not completely on my own. There is at least one other person in the world who shares my attitude – a fellow I read about who is – or was - the mayor of a small English town. I can’t remember the name of the place but it’s somewhere the Queen graced with a visit (which I realise doesn’t narrow the options much – is there anywhere in the British isles she hasn’t been to at one time or another?)
Anyway during her trip to the town, (according to the article), there was a delay of some kind and she and the mayor were left waiting together in an anteroom inside the town hall. After a bit, the Queen spotted a glass cabinet in a corner, and, to pass the time (presumably), she went over to have a look. Inside she saw the most splendid set of mayoral robes and chains anyone could imagine. ‘What are these?’ she asked the mayor, who was wearing some perfectly okay but considerably less magnificent robes in honour of her visit. ‘Oh,’ he told her, being a man after my own heart, ‘those are only for really special occasions.’
Apparently the Queen allowed herself a small grin.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Brideshead through Australian Eyes

A few people seem to be looking for this ancient piece of Australian radio so I found the old audio tape of it that someone gave us and converted it and put it here .
Sir Reg has more class than the father of Sebastian Flyte could ever muster (well, certainly more than some of the current members of the extended Royal Family), but apart from that the parallels are pretty close.


Offer - child's violin, in pieces
The dreams of a middle-class parent dashed?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Feast of Reading

I’ve been reading a book called A House is Built, which I was supposed to read at school when I was thirteen (I always said I’d get round to it eventually.) It’s a pretty much forgotten novel these days, and, although entertaining - and, arguably, an early feminist parable - it isn’t really especially good. It has two authors, which could account for the book’s slightly uneven tone, the tendency for characters to be introduced and forgotten about and a fairly jerky plot. ‭I think it was probably selected for the New South Wales curriculum because it is ‬set in Sydney in the‭ ‬1840s and‭ ‬50s and so it provided a bit of history to pupils in a fictional form.

And anyway it's not all bad. One delightful thing about it, in fact, is its vivid descriptions of food. At a lunch party we are told exactly what dishes are provided for the children:‭ ‘… ‬great plates of nice wholesome brown bread and butter,‭ ‬blue-rimmed bowls of barley broth, lightly boiled eggs,‭ ‬earthenware pots of honey,‭ ‬pitchers of milk and lemonade,‭ ‬pyramids of pale yellow pears,‭ ‬pie dishes of milky rice pudding in paper frills ...', and we are given just as much detail about what the adults will get:‭ ‘... ‬cold chicken decorated with beetroot stars‭ … ‬breasts of chicken in aspic,‭ mou‬lds and pies and spiced meats,‭ ‬salads,‭ ‬tall glasses of celery,‭ ‬an epergne of grapes in bacchanalian abandon,‭ ‬cremes and jellies,‭ ‬made with art and clarified with eggshell,‭ ‬glaces fruits,‭ ‬gâteaux and wines.‭’

‭Given how much time we spend eating - and indeed how much time characters in fiction spend at table - such close attention to what’s consume‬d is actually surprisingly rare. For example, I’ve just looked at one of my favourite scenes from Dickens - the dinner party given by the Veneerings‭ (‘‬bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London’‭) - and realised that, alt‬hough we see the characters called into the dining-room‭ (“‘‬Dinner is on the table‭!’ ‬thus the melancholy retainer,‭ ‬as who should say,‭ ‘‬Come down and be poisoned,‭ ‬ye unhappy children of men‭!’”) ‬and gathered around the table‭ (‬which like everything else in the house is so new that it is‭ ‘‬in a state of high varnish and polish‭’, ‬its surface,‭ ‬like that of its owners,‭ ‬smelling‭ ‘‬a little too much of the workshop and‭ … ‬a trifle sticky‭’,) ‬we are told nothing of what is eaten.

I’ve also had a quick flick through some novels by Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, F Scott Fitzgerald and DH Lawrence and, despite the fact that in all of them the characters never stop lunching and dining together , we rarely glimpse a thing they eat. Admittedly, Lawrence does allow a rather saucy girl some oysters in Women in Love, but I think he is more interested in insinuating something about the person eating the oysters than in the pleasurable experience of the eating itself. Similarly, Katherine Mansfield describes lots of food in The Germans at Meat, but not to give us the pleasure of thinking about the delicious dishes on offer - all she wants is to show us what greedy pigs her fellow boarding house guests are so that we will sneer at them with her.

‭In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the character called Chip (who may, I suppose, be named after a snack?) thinks about food a great deal. However, although he spends a rather gruesome half hour walking around a shop with $78.40 of salmon stuffed down his trousers ‘like a cool loaded diaper’, you could hardly claim his story was a celebration of ‘fine dining’. ‬

John Galsworthy bangs on about saddle of mutton for a bit in Forsyte Saga - ‘No Forsyte has given a dinner without a saddle of mutton. There is something in its succulent solidity that makes it suitable to people of a certain position. It is nourishing - and tasty; the sort of thing a man remembers eating. It has a past and a future, like a deposit paid into a bank’ - but it is obvious he is not interested in the experience of consuming the thing but only in its symbolism. ‭

James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a book anyone thinking of converting to Catholicism should read very carefully), is guilty of a similar trick. He conjures up a pretty delicious sounding Christmas dinner: ‭‘... the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top’ ‭but only so that poor old Stephen Daedalus can feel guilty about his ‘gluttonous enjoyment of food’ later on.

Towards the end of the novel - after Stephen has made his confession and feels his soul is ‘made fair and holy once more’ - Joyce repeats the exercise. He describes how: ‭‘On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs ... White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of tea. How simple and beautiful was life after all!’‭but he isn’t trying to remind us of the joy of plain dinners; he merely wants to highlight Stephen’s state of religious fervour, in which even sausages become sacramental.

‭Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French give food more of a starring role in their fiction than we do. You don't need me to tell you how Proust has made the madeleine the most famous biscuit in all literature, but he is not alone. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert is also more than willing to describe what is being eaten by his characters, even if it does not lead to the kind of transcendent moment described by his colleague. He shows us Madame Bovary enjoying a maraschino ice and details a ‘supper, with plenty of Spanish and Rhine wines, soups a la bisque and au lait d’amandes, puddings a la Trafalgar and all sorts of cold meats with jellies that trembled in the dishes.’

He also tells us all about cheminots - ‘small, heavy, turban shaped loaves, that are eaten in Lent with salt butter; a last vestige of Gothic food that goes back, perhaps, to the time of the Crusades, and with which the robust Normans gorged themselves of yore, fancying they saw on the table, in the light of the yellow torches, between tankards of hippocras and huge boars’ heads, the heads of Saracens to be devoured.' Unfortunately, this latter description, which starts so innocently and ends so ghoulishly foreshadows the most horrible eating scene I’ve ever come across in literature - the one in which Madame Bovary ‘seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand and withdrawing it full of a white powder ... began eating it.' The powder is of course the poison that kills her.

‭No survey of literature would be complete, of course, without reference to the work that towers over all others - The Compleet Molesworth, (okay, I admit it - the only reason I dragged myself through all that other dreary stuff was so that I could establish my credibility before quoting from Willans and Searle yet again). As befits a masterwork, The Compleet Molesworth does not let us down when it comes to eating. Contained within its covers we find not just passing references to meals but an entire chapter devoted to the subject. The food described is hardly mouthwatering, I admit, but it's a lot more cheering than Madame Bovary's final gulp:

‭Skool Food


‭Many boys find themselves quite incapable of not making any rude comments on skool food. This is hardly good maners hem-hem and i must impress on all cads and bounders who sa poo gosh when they see a skool sossage to mend their ways

‭When face with a friteful piece of meat which even the skool dog would refuse do not screw up the face in any circs and sa coo ur gosh ghastly. This calls atention to onself and makes it more difficult to pinch a beter piece from the next boy.

‭Rice PUDINGS and jely in the poket are not a good mixture with fluff and the ushual nauseating contents. Sometimes you can chiz a bit of pink mange into a hankchief but it is apt to be a bit hard to manage when bloing the nose. peason hav tried green peas up the sleeve but no good really as they all come shooting down again.

‭We in our skool are proud of our maners which maykth us the weeds we are and when grabber shoot peas from peashooter at the deaf master we are much shoked i do not think. Nor do we make lakes of treacle in the poridge or rivers of gravy through the mashed potatoes perish the thort.


‭Aktually whatever boys may sa about skool food the moment deaf master sa lord make us truly etc. whole skool descend upon food with roar like an H bomb and in 2 minits all hav been swept bare. We then hav time for interval of uplifting conversation
‭i sa e.g.
‭i think aldous huxley is rather off form in point counterpoint, peason. And he repli i simply couldn’t agree with you more rat face but peason is very 4th rate and hav not got beyond bulldog drummond. Anyway then the next course come and all boys disappear in a cloud of jely blanch mange plums and aple while treacle tart fly in all directions.


‭When the repast is finished the head of the skool or headmaster should wait for a moment until the conversation shows some small signs of flagging then rising to his feet he indicates that the meal is at an end and the lades may withdraw.

‭Aktually if he waited for the conversation to flag he would be sitting there until tea time when it would all begin agane. Wot he does is to bawl Silence at the top of his voice separate three tuoughs who are fiting and the whole skool charge into the corridor except molesworth 2 who is pinching the radio malt.

The New Routemaster

Is here. Why do I not believe that the 'open platform at the rear, shared with the Routemaster of old, which can be closed off at quiet times' will ever be open? Perhaps partly because, if you watch the video (and, incidentally, how much did this little production cost?) David Brown, who is identified as MD Surface Transport, says: 'With the open platform we have deliberately designed it so that people can hop on and off, but we've also designed it so that when we don't need a second crew member on the back of the bus we can close it off as well, so we can be as efficient as we possibly can in terms of providing value for money.' So when exactly is there going to ever be a 'second crew member on the back'? Plus this little incident doesn't inspire much confidence that the desires of the public will be heeded.
It's also slightly disturbing that Mark Nodder (CEO the Wright Group - presumably this is the design company responsible) says in the video that he thinks they've come up with something that is 'genuinely a world breaking design.' World fixing might be more useful, although an ambitious ask, I'll admit.
(And could we have a bit less of the word 'icon'?)

Retirement Plans

The sports news usually washes over me, a blur of groin strains and bruised hamstrings, but yesterday there was a gem hidden in the sweaty mess. Some man who plays some sport had decided to retire. When asked why, he said, 'I want to be the dog that's got his head out the car window and the warm air blowing in his face.'

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Gwen Harwood

Australia has more than its fair share of terrific poets and I think I've been wrong to mention only Les Murray (great though he is). Gwen Harwood, who died in 1995, is another favourite of mine and, as I have been thinking lately of my oldest dearest friend from school, who died too young, leaving a six-year-old son behind her, this poem, which Harwood wrote in memory of a close friend of hers, seems especially moving.

Driving Home
To the memory of Vera Cottew

Stones, I think. They rise, crying.
Plover. One cloudy afternoon,
looking for mushrooms, we discovered
a plover's nest. "See how these eggs
marry colours of earth and stone."

Homeward in your old Baby Austin;
a mottled sky. You talked of Ruskin
finding in clouds a deep, calm presence
"which must be sought ere it is seen
and loved ere it is understood."

Passing a shabby country town you said,
"I love these lonely places
waiting for someone to be born
who'll make them great - but then they'll lose
their fields and plovers' eggs and mushrooms"

Miles. Years. This later landscape streaming
through earlier eyesight. You remain
somewhere in the confused arcades
of memory and longing, talking
of light and colour, bird and stone,

"St Mark's porches so full of doves" -
(Ruskin again) - "that living plume
and marble foliage seemed to mingle."
Come from the shades to comfort me!
You do, as I switch on the headlights,

though not as I expect. As often
in life you charmed me with surprises,
you draw out from my memory bank
a Brisbane City Hall recital:
an earnest pianist playing Bach.

The silvertails are bored. You nudge me,
flick your eyes upward: on the cornice
running right round the hall, a rat
has found himself without an exit.
Head after head begins to turn

and follow his demented circuit
round the ornamental ledge. It seems
he has to run when he hears music.
Between one item and another
he stops to rest and preen his whiskers.

Nobody listens to a note.
But oh, the applause! The pianist looks
bemused. We dry our tears of laughter.
Slowly, alert for dazzled creatures
on the dusty road, I reach my gate.

Presence not understood, but sought
and loved, remain with me tonight.

Bradman Museum

Yesterday, on the way back from a trip to Sydney, I broke the journey with a visit to the Don Bradman Museum in Bowral. I love Australian country towns, and Bowral is one of the nicest - and certainly one of the most affluent. It is a leafy place with lots of spacious early 20th century houses - deep verandahs, ornamental woodwork, pretty roof finials et cetera - set in large gardens.

Don Bradman is the town's favourite son,(although if we're being pedantic, [and when have I ever resisted?] Cootamundra shares the honours, since the future cricketer was actually born and spent the first three years of his life in that town.) Still, it was in Bowral that Bradman learned to play the sport in which, according to Frank Keating, the Guardian newspaper's sports columnist he remains "history's untouchable, unarguable champ of champs."

The museum has been built beside what is now called the Bradman Oval and the first thing you see on your way in is a statue of Don Bradman at the end of a 'Commemorative Water Feature' which John Howard opened in 1996 by bowling the first coin into it. Judging by the accuracy of Mr Howard's only other recorded bowling efforts that coin almost certainly did not reach its target but is probably now somewhere in the surrounding bush. (While on the subject of politicians and Bradman, didn't John Hewson nominate Don Bradman as one of the dead heroes he would like to have at a dinner party, only to be telephoned by the man himself, who pointed out that he had not actually expired? [although he has since.])

The museum is divided into a gallery dealing with the history of the game of cricket, another gallery looking at the history of the Ashes and the cricketing rivalry between England and Australia and, upstairs, a gallery devoted to Bradman himself.

I went in knowing nothing about cricket. I picked up a lot of information, most of which presumably everyone else interested in the game is already aware of, but I'm so proud of how much I learned that I'm going to list it anyway:

1. It is thought cricket was first played by shepherds and the word comes from the Anglo Saxon word 'cricce', meaning crooked staff.
2. Wicket supposedly comes from the Anglo Saxon word 'wican', to give way (can't quite follow the logic there, but that's what it says at the museum)
3. Bail may come from the word Baile, which was something used to secure a wicket gate.
4. The earliest reference to the game was to 'Craiget' in 1300
5. The first certain reference to the game was on 16 January 1598 when one John Derrick wrote that at the free school of Guildford 'several fellows did ... play there at Kricket.'
6. The first known women's cricket match was in 1745 (there is a picture in the Bradman museum of the Countess of Derby and her friends playing a sedate-looking game in Surrey in 1779)
7. The first balls were small rounded stones.
8. Bowling used to be underarm along the ground and overarm bowling was only legalised in 1864 and not in general use until 1885
9. In early games one batsman defended a hole and the bowler rolled the ball from 9 yards away. In the 1680s the distance the bowler stood was increased to 22 yards and then it was decided he would therefore need a marker so two sticks each 12 inches high and 28 inches apart were put beside the hole. The third stump was introduced in 1775. At this stage, it appears that cricket was really a peculiar kind of golf.
10. The urn the ashes are kept in was presented to Ivo Bligh, the English captain on the 1882-83 tour, by two women in Melbourne and is thought to have been a women's scent bottle.

That is the extent of the possibly obscure facts I picked up from my visit. However, I also found out about the all Aboriginal XI, of whom I'd been vaguely aware before. It turns out they came from the Western District of Victoria and were trained by a former English first class player called Tom Wills. They played against their local team very successfully and then in 1866 at the Melbourne Cricket Club in front of 8,000 people. Another English player, Charles Lawrence, who toured Victoria with the first all England XI became interested in the financial possibilities of touring an all Aboriginal XI and organised a tour for them through Australia and England in 1867, which ended up getting no further than Sydney due to money problems and the fact that four team members died (why? how? such a sad fact is left unexplained, but one of them, I suspect, since his name doesn't appear in the subsequent line up was the team member with the rather surprising [to modern eyes at least] name Tarpot). In 1868 another tour was organised and a team sailed from Sydney on 8 February 1868. While in England, the team played 47 matches in 15 counties, (won 14, lost 14, drew the rest). They only had 11 fit players as two were sent home sick and the handsome figure on the left of the photograph of the 1867 team, King Cole, died of TB (and is buried somewhere in Tower Hamlets - I think I will make a point of going to find his grave next time I'm over). They played on 99 days out of the 126 they were on tour and six of them ended up playing more than 45 of the matches.

The museum has so many exhibits in its history section that I cannot list them all here. My favourites though were Victor Trumper's gloves - he didn't normally wear gloves to play but had to during the 1902 tour to England because the conditions were so wet (good old English weather).

No judgment is expressed on Bodyline, but there is footage showing Larwood in action in Adelaide. For me the images looked more like the television coverage of the Redshirt barricades in Bangkok than anything to do with the game of cricket. There is also a recording of Don Bradman saying that during that time each Australian player thought it 'beneath his dignity to speak to an Englishman and vice versa.' However, it is also pointed out that when Larwood was playing in Sydney, following the incidents in Adelaide, he got a standing ovation for scoring 98 runs in 138 minutes. It was the last Test Larwood ever played in and, having broken down in the 11th over of the second innings and then been forced by Jardine to keep going, he stood at the stumps in pain and bowled to Woodfull who patted them back, even though Larwood had whacked him full in the chest with a ball in Adelaide. Larwood ended up migrating to Australia. Frank Keating writes movingly about that here .

There have been some half-hearted attempts to dismantle the legend of Bradman recently (his post-cricket business dealings have been raked over and claims have been made of some possible lack of probity.) That's as may be, but in the sphere in which he excelled Bradman remains a magnificent figure. In the upstairs gallery, his interest in the game is traced from its beginning and there is also a replica of the water tank Bradman first practised against in his youth. A stick and a ball are supplied so that visitors can have a bash themselves. My favourites among the exhibits in this section were a) a photograph of a very awkward looking scene, showing Bradman sitting up in bed in his pyjamas on the day his knighthood was announced, being congratulated by a trio of men in three-piece suits who he clearly wasn't expecting and b) a letter he wrote at about the age of 18 reluctantly turning down the first offer he was given of a place in a Sydney team. In neat, flowing handwriting, he thanks the man involved for his help and thoughtfulness and explains that he doesn't have enough money to pay for the travel costs from Bowral to Sydney that the offer would entail. He doesn't complain about this. He seems merely apologetic, commenting that he had never imagined that this would be a difficulty, in a tone that suggests he feels he has messed people around. It is his undemanding modesty that is so striking. How the world of sport has changed.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Lives of Others III

Overheard in a cafe in Berrima, NSW

'I don't care if you like him, I think he's creepy.'
'I know you do. You've been saying that ever since that day you saw him in his underpants.'

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe VII

Creative juices, as in ‘What really gets my creative juices flowing.’ Bleurgh. Just writing that has left me feeling sick. That's two days in a row I've revolted myself with my own blog entry. I resolve to start talking exclusively about happy things from now on.

Saturday, 15 May 2010


Also in the paper today, it is reported that Charlie Lynn, a New South Wales MP who has walked the Kokoda Track 59 times, has come back from his most recent trip without his eyesight, after bathing in dirty water. Don't read further, unless you enjoy grimacing and squirming:

'His doctors are still unable positively to identify the organism that has invaded his corneas, but it appears to be a "spiny amoeba" ..."They've been scraping the eye and examining it with a giant microscope and they still can't identify it," Mr Lynn said, "They told me it was like a microscopic parasite that had a shell, and when you put the drops in it could close its shell and protect itself."'

'They've been scraping the eye' is a horrible enough phrase, but the idea of a spiny amoeba with a shell it can close living inside your cornea is just simply disgusting. Who needs Ridley Scott when we have this stuff as reality?


This was in today's Australian newspaper, under the headline 'Query on Literature in English Curriculum.' The criticism of English courses by a teachers' union representative - they 'tend to privilege print medium' - makes me despair. The whole article does actually. Australia's children are at the mercy of a bunch of ideologues and dropkicks apparently. Thank heavens mine have already finished school.

"ENGLISH teachers have questioned the value of a stand-alone literature course in the national curriculum for years 11 and 12 in an "increasingly media-driven and digital society".
The draft senior secondary national curriculum in English, maths, science and history was released for public consultation yesterday by Education Minister Julia Gillard, offering four hierarchical levels of study in English and maths, four science subjects and two history courses.
Students in Years 11 and 12 will be able to choose from a basic English course for social and workplace skills, a course for those learning English as a second language, a more traditional English course for students intending to study at university and a separate literature course. Students can take one or a combination of the courses.
The initial response from the NSW English Teachers Association queried the place of literature in the English courses, saying a separate course suggested literature was only for the top students and placed an over-emphasis on traditional literature at the expense of other forms of communication.
"Key considerations will focus on whether, in an increasingly media-driven and digital society, a stand-alone literature course is the most appropriate focus for the final two years of formal school study and indeed whether the suite of courses proposed is sufficiently forward looking," the association says.
ETANSW executive officer Eva Gold said the English courses "tend to privilege print medium" over digital and multi-media texts.
"When you think about the range of courses that kids are going to be looking at in their last two years of school, you have to ask if studying English as purely a literature course is going to be an adequate preparation for life," Ms Gold said.
She said a functional English course being trialled in NSW as an alternative for students not wishing to pursue university study had encouraged boys in particular who were not interested in literature in taking it up.
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority chairman Barry McGaw said literature was critical to language development and media was a separate course under the national arts curriculum being developed.
ACARA intends to provide for each of the four English courses prescribed texts for study, to be developed in consultation with the states, covering fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry, film and other multimodal and digital texts.
The draft curriculum includes examples of the types of texts intended for each course, with the functional English course, called Essential English, including newspaper and museum websites, workplace texts such as "Help with your Resume and CV" and "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers".
Examples of literary texts in Essential English include the Booker prize winning novel The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Beaten by a Blow: a shearer's story by Dennis McIntosh, and plays such as David Williamson's The Club and Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
In English and Literature, suggested authors include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Yan Martel, Raimond Gaita and Arthur Miller."

Friday, 14 May 2010

Learning English

Heavens to Murgatroyd, as Top Cat used to say (his intellectual best friends call him TC), I’ve just discovered what MILF stands for: I thought it was mother-in-law’s friend. It never crossed my mind there was a silent ‘t’ in it. And the saddest thing about knowledge is that, once you know, you know
Never mind - the loss of innocence has never before deterred me. My next goal is to pin down the meaning of ‘meme’. It’s a slippery little word that’s begun popping up everywhere. Wikipedia says it was coined by Richard Dawkins (who some regard as a slippery little man, so you could argue it all makes a sort of sense). Could he be responsible for MILF as well, I wonder. Someone must be. Why not him?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Tales from the Not Too Distant Past - First Lessons in Absurdity

‘Spread out, children, make sure there’s lots of space around you - you’re going to be lovely tall trees in the forest, so you’ll all have to have lots and lots of room.’
The words come from a pale wooden speaker on the wall by the window. They are accompanied by a torrent of tinny music.
‘Can you hear the wind rushing through you, can you hear it in the woodwind - that’s right, bend and billow, feel the way it buffets you, back and forth, nice big movements, feel that huge strong wind.’
Twenty-five pairs of arms swing wildly about in the stuffy air of the school gym (which doubles as the assembly hall).
‘The storm’s slowing down now,’ the bright female voice continues, ‘the music’s getting quieter, can you tell?’
There is slightly less timpani than before, now that you bother to listen.
‘All our trees have to grow quieter too,’ the unseen woman informs us, ‘we need to stop swaying. Stop moving, trees, it’s time to stand still again.’
As the wild hurling about dies down, the sound of someone crying becomes audible amongst us. Emily Anderson has managed to whack Arabella on the nose – probably on purpose.
‘Now the sun’s coming out in the forest,’ the voice ploughs on, relentless, ‘and your branches are stretching up to reach the beams of sunlight. Stretch those arms, stretch them up, that’s right, that’s the way. Can you push them up above your heads - really high, right up. Yes, feel those branches, feel them growing, feel them reaching up, up, up into the sky.’
And on and on it goes. She wants us to curl ourselves up and become rocks next, and after that we have to be tiny creeping creatures. She exhorts us to be bits of wheat thrusting our way out of the farmer’s well-tilled ground, ‘sprouting, rising through the earth, swaying together in the morning air.’
And we do it all, as best we can. We carry out her commands with dogged, obedient care - not just once but at least a couple of times a week. Without a murmur of protest, we put on our vests and our shorts and our black gym shoes (or plimsolls as they insist on calling them) and troop downstairs to the hall, where we try to follow the dotty instructions she gives us. We know it’s crazy. We know we look like a bunch of demented writhing halfwits. But we don’t complain. We don’t refuse. We certainly do not laugh scornfully or start to look sulky. We don’t even dream of saying, ‘Miss, this is lame’.
‘Show me how you can be waves, children, up and down, that’s it, great big waves crashing against the cliffs - and now little waves, low down on the floor, tiny waves coming into shore.’
More fool us – but then we are all too scared to say anything. Which is not to say we don’t wonder. We do. What the hell is 'Music and Movement' about – that’s what we wonder. Even now, I have absolutely no idea.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Gaga, Zappa et cetera II

As I was saying - long live silliness.

Thank you v much, Anna Higgie

Last Station

We had the Budget last night so telly was wall-to-wall finance blah. Fed up, I decided to go to the pictures.
The film I saw was Last Station, which claims to tell the story of Tolstoy's last days. As I spent rather a lot of time studying Tolstoy about three million years ago, I suppose I ought to know whether it gives an accurate account of events. I'm ashamed to say I don't though.
Actually, am I ashamed and ought I to know? After all, I was studying Tolstoy's novels; I never signed up to investigate his life. And isn't going off and poking about to get bits of gossip about someone who wrote a few books a long time ago just another version of the whole celebritisation of the author phenomenon - which I hate (although I do recognise that Tolstoy was possibly the first real example of that phenomenon)? Aren't writers' works supposed to do the job of expressing what they want to express - trying to find out how the writers got on with their families is just being nosy, isn't it? If his book works, who cares if the author is a little too friendly with his dog or his goldfish (not that I'm implying Tolstoy or anyone else for that matter engaged in anything untoward with their pets).
I think it's time to return to my original focus - the film and what it is like. It has some beautiful landscape scenes, particularly one featuring Countess Tolstoy being conveyed through the peasant-speckled countryside in an open carriage pulled by a pair of grey horses that perfectly match her meringue shaped hat (very My Fair Lady [the scene at the races]) and cream coloured dress. It has too much distracting music - hidden orchestras strike up every time anyone is left alone in a room, ditto any time anything romantic is about to happen or a steam train appears, (although I'm glad to say that the steam trains aren't used as a visual euphemism for anything romantic actually happening - that would be pushing it).
The story concerns Viktor Chertkov, the moving force behind the Tolstoyan movement supposedly (no, I didn't know there was such a thing either). In the film he is portrayed as the kind of person Brit characterises excellently here. James McEvoy is hired by him to be Tolstoy's secretary. McEvoy plays the role by giving his now celebrated impression of a gulpingly shy young man. Although he's good at it, he should probably drop this from his repertoire before too long - it's beginning to resemble a slightly tired party trick on his part.
McEvoy is given a love interest called Masha, who, despite living in the world's first hippy commune, never appears without hair that looks as though it's just been blow dried by a very skilful hand - and she is badly served by a script that has her use the word 'tightarse', which, to my ears, jars in a 19th century context. Helen Mirren plays Countess Tolstoy, clad almost constantly in pale blue (I suspect she's had her colours done - someone told me it was the best investment they'd ever made, which is quite a statement.)
Mirren gives an absolutely wonderful performance - she holds the whole film together. She is its powerhouse. She also proves definitively that she deserves to be on the list of the world's most beautiful women, even if it was compiled by a bunch of cynics, who, recognising modern demographics, decided to please their growing middle-aged readership and reject most contenders under 30, (thus, it seems to me, redefining at one stroke the notion of beauty that has been flogged to us for years - something that is quite hard to absorb, when you've spent several decades being brainwashed into thinking a) that youth and loveliness do not so much go hand in hand but are in fact Siamese twins and b) that hanging onto youthfulness is something you should strive for at all costs.)
For mercy's sake, get back to the point, ZMKC. To conclude, the film is entertaining. It - or rather Helen Mirren as the hapless Countess Tolstoy - made me blub once or twice, which is fine by me. It's nicely shot - sort of Merchant Ivory pretty. I don't totally understand why the subject matter inspired Jay Parini to write a novel and the film makers to make a film from the novel (a film of a novel about a novelist), but the odd sequence of events leading to Tolstoy's death does seem to hold a fascination for artists - Rose Tremain wrote a short story called The Jester of Astapovo about the same thing, but told from the point of view of the station master who gives up his bed for the dying Tolstoy, and there was a painting of a scene from the same events in the recent Sulman prize exhibition. I imagine that almost everything has now been wrung from the incident, although possibly some mileage could be dragged from looking at the thing from the perspective of Tolstoy's daughter Sasha (I may only think this could be interesting because of Ann Marie Duff's excellent performance in the role [she is good in almost anything, although even her dynamism couldn't turn George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan into an entertaining evening as far as I was concerned {I wonder sometimes if time is going to transform Tom Stoppard's plays into the dry, dull ideas-vehicles that GBH's now appear to us to be.}])
In short, the film is absorbing and enjoyable but it is a fictionalisation of actual events about which I know little and I cannot work out whether it should be judged on fictional grounds or as a documentary. If you judge it purely as a fiction then it tells a story of love, expressed by the Countess Tolstoy character, opposed to calculation, expressed by the Chertkov character. The trouble is, because these were real figures and some at least of the events did happen in one form or another, it is harder to accept that the conflict was as clearcut and straightforward as the one we are shown. In fiction, things can be presented more starkly. In real life, I suspect the opposing personalities were neither as appealing and good nor as straightforwardly unpleasant as the ones in this film are presented as being. If they were fictional, we would have to believe whatever their creator told us about them - because they aren't, I, at least, expect them not to be mere emblems but well-rounded, complex, good and bad flawed people. Chertkov in particular emerges from this film as a one-dimensional villain - if he existed only in the minds of the film-makers, I would accept that. Because he actually existed I know that I can go and find out more about him and I'm sure it will turn out that he had many different sides. Funnily enough the one really big flaw in War and Peace for me is the insertion of Napoleon into the text as a character - a real figure popping up amidst Tolstoy's fictional creations sounds a really dud note, in my view. The film makes me uneasy in a similar way. It is not a documentary - and yet it is about people who lived and things that really happened, so it is not a fiction. Perhaps it is a moral question that is bothering me - liberties have been taken with real characters. They are helpless to fight back about the way they have been portrayed.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Gaga, Zappa and the Glorious West

I was going to make this post about Lady Gaga and how when I was a kid I travelled from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator through China during the Cultural Revolution (my dad was living in Mongolia at the time) and later I spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries and as a result I realised that Communism was not just horrible and inefficient, but also colourless, dull, dreary, unexciting and completely lacking in frivolity (although this could partly be blamed on the people Communism chose to hang around with).

I was going to go on to say that a) it gives me a thrill to imagine that every time Lady Gaga yells out, ‘I’m a free bitch baby’ in Bad Romance, oppressive Islamist men have apoplexies all over the world and b) I think her music and performances are exactly the kind of top notch frivolity that epitomises freedom – a species of highly-skilled silliness that involves hard work and huge attention to detail and is very American and wonderful and probably epitomised by this .

And I was going to bolster my argument about Communism by quoting Frank Zappa on the subject. But then I looked up to check exactly what he said, (which was ‘Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff’) and I realised he said so many brilliant things that it would be three hundred times as amusing just to copy them and make them into today’s post instead. So here they are:

“Stupidity is the basic building block of the universe.
Tobacco is my favorite vegetable.
There is no hell. There is only France.
Jazz is not dead; it just smells funny.
Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.
It is always advisable to be a loser if you cannot become a winner.
A mind is like a parachute. It doesnt work if it's not open.
If we can't be free at least we can be cheap.
Sometimes you got to get sick before you can feel better.
You can't be a Real Country unless you have a BEER and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a BEER.
There will never be a nuclear war; there's too much real estate involved.
Consider for a moment any beauty in the name Ralph.
Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?
Outdoors for me is walking from the car to the ticket desk at the airport
You drank beer, you played golf, you watched football - WE EVOLVED!
You have just destroyed one model XQJ-37 nuclear powered pansexual roto-plooker....and you're gonna have to pay for it.
Interviewer: "So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?"
FZ: "You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?"
Without deviation from the norm, 'progress' is not possible.
Who are the brain police?
The people of your century no longer require the service of composers.
A composer is as useful to a person in a jogging suit as a dinosaur turd in the middle of his runway.
There are more love songs than anything else.
If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another.
Hey, you know something people? I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white.
Most people wouldn't know good music if it came up and bit them in the ass.
Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.
There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.
There are three things that smell of fish. One of them is fish. The other two are growing on you!
May your shit come to life and kiss you on the face.
Let's not be too rough on our own ignorance, it's what makes America great.
Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST.
Beauty is a pair of shoes that makes you wanna die.
The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese.
Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.
Everybody believes in something and everybody, by virtue of the fact that they believe in something, use that something to support their own existence.
I think it is good that books still exist, but they do make me sleepy.
In the fight between you and the world, back the world.
The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.
Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.”

‘In the fight between you and the world, back the world’ is one I like particularly - but I have to admit that all this sudden exposure to Zappa has gone immediately to my head. All I can think of now is moving to Montana soon (I’m going to be a dental floss tycoon – at least that’s the plan.)

Not quite yet though. First there’s this clip to watch, featuring Zappa and Norman Gunston, another entirely frivolous character who wouldn’t have lasted 10 seconds under the Commies.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Were I in London

I'd go to this.

Plea from a Pig

I suppose it’s a bit late, considering Australian Fashion Week has just ended – and a bit pointless, since I don’t imagine any designers actually read this blog. However,if by chance any of you should happen on this speck of inconsequence, might I ask you, next time you’re looking for a new angle or unusual gimmick, to consider giving bibs a try? They could be attached by press studs or ribbons or safety pins – by anything at all, I don’t mind. They don’t need to be co-ordinating – you can go for insane colours: that’s completely fine by me. Just make them fashionable, that’s all I’m asking – for the sake of my dry cleaning bill, (and the environment – think of the chemicals), please make it cool to wear a bib for meals.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Future Shock

Coming back from the shops just now, my path was blocked by eight ancient women. They staggered towards me, each one supported - or propelled - by her own glittering zimmer frame, complete with a little set of wheels (possibly those 'little fidget wheels' Kenneth Slessor was talking about [see here]). Although the effort was considerable, they all gave me a cheery greeting and three or four made a brave stab at a smile. I returned their friendliness and then continued my journey, trying to forget the image of lipstick-flecked dentures and rouge daubed wrinkles - and my growing fear about the years to come and what they have in store for me.

Friday, 7 May 2010

A Triumph for Democracy

Yes, I know, the UK election is a mess and a muddle and the voting arrangements were disastrous at some booths and now there will be shabby deals and so on and so on, (and on the missing-out-on-casting-a-vote fiasco, surely the intelligent thing to do is to move voting day to Saturday [geez, we Aussies could teach those Poms a thing or two {but will they listen? No.}]?)

Anyway I still think it was a wonderful election. The reason for my absurd and unfashionably positive attitude is the fact that, despite the worried mutterings of many on the left, (who I suspect would like to curtail the right to say what you like, if they possibly could, unless it agrees with them), free speech and democracy and the British public all proved themselves sensible and mature. Earlier, the nanny types screamed and said it was appalling that Nick Griffin had any kind of airing, but it turned out it was the best thing that could happen. Exposure to his hate filled garbage didn't affect the result at all (except perhaps to wake voters up to the fact that he was a nong and a nutter, not a political force so much as a mere reaction - in this case, to Labour's mismanagement of immigration). There were dire predictions about his chances, but in the event he didn't notch up a single win.

I remember hearing Marcia Langton, an Aboriginal activist and academic, put the much derided view that Australia's extreme right wing politician Pauline Hanson (now vanished from the scene, more or less - and thinking of moving to Britain) was doing everyone a favour by saying the things she said. As Langton saw it, it was much better to pull the scab off a wound and let all the pus out than to have a murky set of views festering away, unspoken and dangerous, beneath the crust of polite society.

Mystery in the Park

When I walked through the park yesterday evening, everything was normal. Now the place is in chaos. A full pack of Trivial Pursuit cards appeared during the hours of darkness - not neatly presented but scattered haphazardly through the grass. The little squares lie about in complete disorder, together with the remains of their shiny cardboard box. Something happened while we were sleeping - but what?

Did someone hurl the box from a passing car on a sudden impulse – ‘I’m getting this bloody game out of my life’? Or did they fall from the back of someone’s bicycle – and if so, was it on the way to an eagerly anticipated Trivial Pursuit evening, or peddling home after one, somewhat the worse for wear (perhaps the version where you have to drink a shot of vodka every time you get a question right [or wrong])?

Or did someone think that they would win a girl’s heart with their dazzling ability to come up with all the answers, only to transform in her eyes into a ‘total loser’ when they couldn’t identify Tom Jones’s birthplace or name the most commonly used pigments used by Renaissance painters?

Yes, I reckon that was the one – the game was chucked out in disgust by some poor lonely desperate, driving home – yet again – all by himself.

Prose from Murray

Australians are always agonising about identity - it is a perennial column filler for editors across the country. It seems to me though that Les Murray settled the question years ago in his essay, 'Flaunt, Scunge and Death-Freckles'. Is it just self-importance that makes us continue with the argument, when his description of our national character really says it all:
'Above all things for many Australians, summer means the beach. It may well be the thing for which we are best known in the wider world: a huge innocuous nation-state mad on swimming, and blessed with great beaches. A sea-bathing rather than a seafaring nation.'
I've been thinking about Murray after reading a recent interview with him, which was accompanied by a heartbreaking photograph of him as a small boy - it shows a skinny little fellow, dressed up in shorts and shirt and tie, his hands clasped behind his back, his socks just starting to slip down towards his ankles, staring guilelessly into the camera. He was bullied at school, as unusual people often are, and the experience forms the backdrop to some of his Subhuman Redneck poems, I believe. He wrote wisely about bullying in an article headed 'Erocide' for the now defunct magazine The Independent Monthly (not to be confused with The Monthly). This is what he said:

'As the late Marxist technique of tapping every focus of oppression or even private misery for its revolutionary potential fades with the sixties generation that carried it, any marginal group which didn't get its movement up and protesting by the 1980s is probably doomed to stay marginal. One such group, almost certainly bigger by far than the gay population and all the sad victims of literal rape and sexual abuse put together, is one whose members remain isolated by shame and self-contempt, and will probably never Come Out and speak with anything like a single voice. These are the folk for whom the sexual revolution remains a chimera, the ones whose sexual morale was destroyed early by rejection, by scorn, by childhood trauma, by fashion, by lack or defection of allies, by image. Not all are unattractive, but all live and act in the believe that they are. They are called wallflowers, ugly, wimps, unstylish, drips, nerds, pathetic, fat, frigid, creepy - the epithets go on and on. All are victims of something we haven't developed a word for yet, but which I've called anti-rape or epar, which is rape spelled backwards. A better term might be formed by analogy with erogenous: erocide. This crime, which appears in no statute books, is definable as the concerted or cumulative sexual destruction of a person. It may be an instinct which humans share with zebras, rabbits and many other species, a drive to sterilise as many potential breeders as possible, especially those idiosyncratic ones through whom the species might undergo change; the whole thing may be counter-evolutionary, designed to preserve the average. In humans, the matter seems always at least partly deliberate, and can be done by either sex to either sex. If triumphant Lawrentian sex, the kind that stares challengingly out of films and glossy magazines all over the Western world, is a nazi - and it is if you think about it, with its tall, beautiful blond idols - then those who have suffered erocide, along with children and the old, are its subhumans. They are the damaged goods of the universal flesh market, unfitted to consume or be consumed, but constrained to pay lip service and pretend.
Children are perhaps second only to the media in the enthusiastic practice of the anti-rape I'm talking about. In schools, it is usually called bullying or harassment and all children who enter school are tested to see if it works on them. If it does, they will cop it unremittingly, and the psychological scarring may persist lifelong. If anything, the taunts and jeering are less terrible than the abandonment that goes with them, the moral cowardice of fellow kids who don't jeer themeselves but don't speak out against it either, or afford the tormented one support for fear of becoming victims themselves. If the jeering or the avoidance come from the opposite sex, the results are apt to be severe and lasting. Those who fight back by compulsive promiscuity are no less victims than the anorexics or those who quietly shrivel into lifelong inner misery. We do little, as a society, to protect our children against such damage. A few well-publicised lawsuits by parents, not only aganst schools but also against the parents of tormentors, might be salutary. In a society which values sexual love so highly, too, it might seem odd if erocide, once defined, were not quickly included among crimes against the person. That may be a fair way off, though. Smaller steps may be taken in the interim, perhaps. At the now-defunct Crows Nest boys' high school, a perceptive deputy headmaster in the 1970s named Steve Murtough banned name-calling on pain of instant suspension, and it had good results. In hell, even a drop of water, on the tongue or the flames, has immense value, perhaps especially if the culture of hell forbids us to say or recognise that we are indeed there.'

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Missing Murray

News reaches me from Cambridge that those hoping to see Les Murray last month ended up disappointed, thanks to E+15. His trip may be resurrected some time later in the year, but meanwhile here is one of his poems, in case any Cambridge readers need something to keep them going until the great man's rescheduled arrival:


Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;
they want to control it. Not lovers, not the combative,
nor examinees. They too skim it for bouquets
and magic trump cards. Not poor schoolkids
furtively farting as they get immunized against it.

Poetry is read by the lovers of poetry
and heard by some more they coax to the cafe
or the district library for a bifocal reading.
Lovers of poetry may total a million people
on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat.

What gives them delight is a never-murderous skim
distilled, to verse mainly, and suspended in rapt
calm on the surface of paper. The rest of poetry
to which this was once integral still rules
the continents, as it always did. But on condition now

that its true name is never spoken: constructs, feral poetry,
the opposite but also the secret of the rational.
And who reads that? Ah, the lovers, the schoolkids,
debaters, generals, crime-lords, everybody reads it:
Porsche, lift-off, Gaia, Cool, patriarchy.

Among the feral stanzas are many that demand your flesh
to embody themselves. Only completed art
free of obedience to its time can pirouette you
through and athwart the larger poems you are in.
Being outside all poetry is an unreachable void.

Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb
before the trance leaves you. For working always beyond

your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it. For a non-devouring fame.
Little in politics resembles it: perhaps
the Australian colonists’ re-inventing of the snide
far-adopted secret ballot, in which deflation could hide

and, as a welfare bringer, shame the mass-grave Revolutions,
so axe-edged. so lictor-y.
Was that moral cowardice’s one shining world victory?
Breathing in dream-rhythm when awake and far from bed
evinces the gift. Being tragic with a book on your head.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

I Don't Believe it

Can this be real or is it a hoax? I especially like the poignant: 'Am I funnier than I think I am? Less funny? Who will give me an honest assessment of my sense of humor?'

Feel the Power*

There are some malcontents in this great nation who regard our capital city as a little dull (all right, utterly dreary, why hide the truth?) Other wiser figures understand that this view is essentially misguided. In fact, they contend, the riches contained within the ACT's boundaries often beggar belief. A case in point is the newly opened 'Quincessential', an exhibition of quince oil paintings on canvas. The originality, the eco-friendliness (I'm assuming the canvas is unbleached), the new horizons for artists this opens up - banana pulp, mango flesh, passion fruit pips, what kind of visual feast might not be created, now that the concept of fruit-based pictures has been pioneered? Sydneysiders can sneer and jeer all they like, but when it comes to real originality and innovation, can they put their money where their mouth is - or rather put their fruit not where their mouth is? I suspect they are too busy stuffing themselves with quince paste to come up with Canberra's astonishing creative outpourings.

* slogan on Canberra number plates

Electronic Memories

‘Why would Thistle Hotels be writing to us? We’ve never stayed in a Thistle.’
Rising from the depths of sleep, I feel my brain turn over. The cogs creak reluctantly, the pistons begin to rise and fall. ‘We have,’ I say, ‘we spent a night in one in Bristol.’
We wanted to see our daughter. We took her to the movies and then had a brilliant Chinese meal.
’Why were we so stupid? Why did we give them our email address?’
I don't remember, but we did. And we handed it out to a whole regiment of businesses, across the UK and beyond.
Unlike many of our friends and relatives, these people will never forget us. Thanks to them, we will feel wanted forever. The 'salon' where I had my hair cut once in 2006 will go on updating me about its wonderful new stylists; the place I bought a ladder from in 2007 will keep on sending me pictures of their stylish lime-green trowels and their spades for the disabled; the mail order site I got a belt from last year will continue to flood me with once in a lifetime on-line opportunities. We’ll be reminded eternally of where we’ve been and what we purchased, our last four years memorialised in a steady stream of friendly messages, full of eager hope that one day we - and, more importantly, our credit card - will return to spend just a pound or two more.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Sins of the Mothers

‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, often found in women, never found in men.’ When did I first hear that piece of nonsense being recited? I know I was still pretty small at the time. Even so, I remember recognising immediately that it was rubbish. Ever since, I’ve been very suspicious of the ‘women are all marvellous, men are all rubbish’ school of thought – I prefer the ‘women are generally well-meaning, bumbling, hopeless human beings - and men are too’ camp myself.

I suppose my attitude arose directly from that initial proverb’s message. The problem with it was that in my family it was clearly the exact opposite of the truth – it is the men, not the women, who hold all the stocks of patience among us. It is the women who are liable to be snappy and have a tendency to become furious at the drop of a proverbial hat.

I was reminded of this when my mother and I were talking about learning languages on the weekend. She told me the story of her first introduction to a foreign tongue, which came about when she was nine or 10 and being taught at home. Her mother, who never went to university but, judging by the row of beautifully bound books that were her school prizes, was clearly very clever, decided she would teach her little daughter French. They sat down at the table after supper one evening and my grandmother presented my mother with the conjugation of the verb to be.

My mother could make no sense of this list of strange words and, no matter how much her mother tried to explain the concept to her, remained uncomprehending. What did my grandmother expect? Her child had lived all her life in the Western District of Victoria, where foreigners were rarely if ever encountered and where, looking out across the flat endless paddocks, the idea of another place where other languages were spoken must have seemed as solid as a dream. Yet she seemed to imagine that my mother would instantly grasp the concept that there were other people in the world who used strange and different words - and that she would understand the principles of grammar simultaneously.

She must have had a very high estimation of her daughter’s brain – to begin with. Unfortunately, by the end of the lesson, she had become sorely disappointed. As a result, she completely lost her temper, told my mother she was an idiot, swiped her with the grammar book and sent her off to bed, still baffled – although not very upset (she knew her mother well enough to know her rage would pass extremely quickly and meant nothing).

This story made me laugh, because in my grandmother’s sudden burst of exasperation, I recognised parallels with scenes involving my mother and I in my own childhood - and, I am ashamed to say, scenes that happened between my daughters and me when they were little. It was one more confirmation of my suspicion that there is a streak of terrible impatience that runs down through the female line in our family, a genetic trait that nurture appears to have no effect on. None of us hold grudges, nor do we sulk - but we do imitate Icelandic volcanoes from time to time, erupting suddenly and unexpectedly, and then just as quickly calming down (although strangely enough we reserve this behaviour almost entirely for our nearest and dearest – plus people who try to trick us or rip us off).

The detail of my mother’s story that I found particularly amusing was my grandmother’s deluded insistence that she herself had been cured of her temper. Apparently this was thanks to her mother regularly taking a horse whip to her when she was young. It seems absolutely clear to me that that horse whip was not a tamer of temper; it was a symptom, the conclusive Exhibit A, I would argue, that proves my great grandmother suffered from the family short fuse as well.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Making Sense

A while ago, I quoted some of Paul Keating’s better turns of phrase. Don Watson was Keating’s speech writer and since Keating left parliament Watson has spent quite a lot of his time attacking management speak. His books on the subject are: Death Sentence; Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Cliches, Cant and Management Jargon; and Bendable Learnings. In February, he talked about language at the Perth Writers Festival. Here is an edited extract of what he said:

‘Yesterday at 8.55 am, I went to an all-day in-house seminar in a Victorian government department. The seminar was on plain English. They invited me to open their seminar, and about 70 people were there. But before I went in, I was sitting in reception and a brochure was lying on the table. It had a picture of the director of the department on it and he had put his signature under this:

“For the past three months, we have been focusing heavily on strategic planning. I am excited by our new vision - and I want you to be excited too - to be a catalyst for continuous improvement in the accountability and performance of the public sector, supported by our values: integrity; personal accountability; teamwork learning; and being outcome focused. I look forward to working together over the next five years towards achieving our vision through the implementation of our key priorities.”
He winds up:
“These are challenging and exciting times ahead, and I thank you for your support and welcome your ideas and input.”

Now that encapsulates modern management language as it has spread out into everything - into everything. For instance, Cardinal Pell ended his pastoral letter the year before last, “May the Lord be with you, going forwards”. And Anglicans aren't exempt: I noticed last time I was in St Martin’s in the Fields that they now have their mission statement on the wall, and it refers to their “excellence in hospitality.” When they were surviving the Black Death, the Great Fire of London and all of that, they never had “excellence in hospitality” - they just gave out soup and bread. But now they provide “excellence in hospitality”.

Anyway, no sooner had I read this brochure and stuck it in my pocket, than the man whose image is on it appeared before me and escorted me into the seminar. I wanted to say to him, “How could you? How could you hold an all-day seminar on plain English and offer up this piffle? This is to language what dead sheep round a dried up bore are to pastoralism. This is what ghostly ring-barked gum trees are to nature. This is what PowerPoint is to Abraham Lincoln. This is terrible.” But I couldn't bring myself to say it.

But it does go everywhere this stuff. It is even in grade 2 school rooms, where they write mission statements now - as one of their first tasks - in the language of business. They even talk about risk-taking -- and then they laminate the things and put them on the wall. This is in school rooms where kids have to wear helmets before they can go on the monkey bars - they are not talking about risk-taking as in taking risks climbing trees; they’re talking about risk-taking in the business sense, the entrepreneurial sense

To cut this very short, I think the threat to the English language is real - year after year of this has convinced me - and I think the biggest threat to the English language is that it is not necessary any more. George Bush didn't need language to succeed; he got two terms. Kevin Rudd uses language every now and again, when he thinks it’s a good idea; the rest of the time he knows it’s better not to use it. John Howard rarely used language; he used images. Embracing people mainly. Rather awkwardly, I thought - but nevertheless he did it. And language is not doing Barack Obama any good at all.

People like Samuel Johnson and George Orwell wanted to stabilise meaning. The way business stabilises meaning and management language stabilises meaning is to remove meaning. It flattens it out. It uses one word where we used to have to decide between 20 or 30.

Take a word like ‘issue’. I turned on my cable television the other day, and on the screen it said, ‘We apologise - we are experiencing an issue - please bear with us.’ How do you experience an issue? We would once have been told what the issue was – well, ‘issue’ wouldn’t have occurred to us.

‘Impact’ is the same. We were impacted by fires in Victoria last year. We weren’t warned, but we were impacted. We weren’t warned because, as the responsible authority - the Country Fire Authority - said at the Royal Commission, “We couldn’t warn people about the fire, because the fire was unprecedented.” When the commissioners said, “But surely there had been fires before,” they said, “Yes, but not like this one.” Because they had been to management school, they did not have the language to warn people. This is literally the truth. It is there in the transcripts of the Royal Commission.

When you cannot do that, you really are in trouble. If you cannot say, “hot”, “burn”, “danger”, “get out”, then you are really in strife.

Saturday, 1 May 2010