Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Tales from the Not Too Distant Past - First Lesson in Democracy

At the end of assembly in a girls' boarding school in New South Wales, around the time of the moon landing, the head mistress made a final announcement. 'All girls will be familiar with the rice meal we have for charity once a month,' she said, 'and some of you have complained that it is rather dull.' Her audience stared at their shoes, unwilling to confirm or deny the statement. Where was this heading? Was blame about to be apportioned? Would there be punishment for dissenters if they spoke up?

'You may think we don't listen to you,' their leader continued, 'but we do.' Silence. What was she plotting? 'Having made some inquiries, I have ascertained that a soup meal would cost as little as a rice meal. This means we will be able to raise the same amount for charity by providing only soup for one meal a month as we have done in the past by providing only plain boiled rice.' The headmistress looked out across the rows of students, all in identical sack-like brown tunics and beige knee socks. 'Those of you who would like to continue with the rice option, please raise your hands.' No hand was raised. 'And the soup option?' The school moved as one.

Two days later, at the end of assembly in a girls' boarding school in New South Wales, around the time of the moon landing, the headmistress made another final anouncement. 'All girls will remember the vote we took on the subject of the charity rice meals and the possibilitiy of replacing them with soup,' she said. 'Since then I have had some discussions with the kitchen staff. It has been agreed that we will be continuing with our traditional boiled rice.'

Monday, 30 August 2010

Out of the Mouths of Brothers

'They need to change their price structure,' I heard myself saying, and a part of my mind told the rest of it, 'You don't even know what a price structure is - you've had too much to drink.'

What is it about lots of wine that makes me talk such rubbish? Some time ago, I asked my brother this exact question. He told me I always talk rubbish, even when stone-cold sober; the only difference he's noticed, apparently, is that, after a couple of glasses, I talk rubbish with tremendous confidence.

I wish I hadn't asked.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


I read an article the other day about living life more fully. It recommended looking at the person opposite you on the train and trying to imagine everything about them, investing them with a personality and a story, acknowledging them as a fellow human soul.

What a good idea, I thought, and so, settling into the carriage the other day, I focussed on the man across from me. He was at first sight, a fairly unprepossessing creature, but beauty isn't everything. It wasn't his fault he had a meaty face, very small eyes, hair sprouting up from out of his greying tee-shirt and a sort of warty growth just to the left of his nose. He was stocky and had very short legs too, but he was a person, with feelings. He had a life, he had a right to attention, just as much as anyone else.

That's what I was telling myself when he shoved his finger right up his left nostril. He'll stop in a minute, I thought, trying not to grimace. I was convinced it would be just a matter of moments, but he kept rootling about in there as the train passed through station after station. He may still be at it for all I know. I gave up. I have to admit it. Revulsion overcame me - he may be a fellow human being, but I'd forgotten how revolting we often are as a species. I got up and left the train and walked the last part of the journey. I didn't look at anyone I passed.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

At Least We Didn't Put Him in the Senate

You know you are a genuine 'fair dinkum', (now where have I heard those words lately?), Australian when you look at the stuffed figure of Phar Lap, and at his tack, his rug (the red-and-white checked one he was wearing at the moment of his death, sob), his metal shoes, his rubber shoes, all his little bits and pieces, (now housed in the Melbourne Museum - except his enormous heart, which used to be on display in Canberra's magnificent Institute of Anatomy and is, I imagine, now in the National Museum of Australia,) - and feel weepy. And the fact that Phar Lap was actually born in New Zealand doesn't alter his 'true blue' status for an instant. After all, is it not also quintessentially Australian to idolise and claim as our own any high-achieving New Zealander we can lay our hands on?

Our emotional response to Phar Lap has little to do with any real experience of his performance though. After all, there can't be many people still alive who can claim to have actually seen him race, (he's been dead since 1932). That doesn't matter - he is an element in the national myth that we go on telling ourselves. His is the wonderful tale of the chestnut horse whose name means lightning in his trainer's Chinese doctor's dialect, and who, from his first win as a three-year-old, went on to win 32 of the 35 races he ran between 1929 and 1932 and, after being shipped to America, almost immediately managed to win a race splendidly and was then poisoned with arsenic in mysterious circumstances, possibly by gangsters, anxious to protect their illegal bookmakers' profits.

We have all been brought up on it and, if the young couple I saw at the museum the other day are anything to go by, we will continue cheerfully indoctrinating future generations into the cult: 'Look, Bobbie,' the young dad told the two- or three-year-old boy in the push chair beside him, ' Phar Lap, the greatest horse that ever lived.' 'Horsey,' cried Bobbie, 'horsey, horsey,' 'Phar Lap, Bobbie,' his father persisted, 'Phar Lap, the greatest horse that ever lived.'

Perhaps it was because Phar Lap's races took place during the Great Depression that he became so especially loved by the Australian public. His spirited efforts must have provided a measure of joy and excitement at a time when there was not much of either about. Or maybe he really did have some special quality that was all his own. A newsreel of his final race runs on a continuous loop at the museum and watching him as he comes up from way at the back of the field to overtake all his competitors and win, by a nose, but with apparent ease and pleasure, in track record time, you can't help admiring the eagerness of his performance, the courage and willingness he seems to display (or is this just evidence of how successfully I've been brainwashed?)

Whatever the reason, when the news of Phar Lap's death was revealed, shocked Australians are reported to have wept openly. Letters of condolence, like this one:

Dear Mr Telford
I am writing to express my sympathy to you in the loss of your beloved horse Phar Lap.
We have all watched his wonderful career and was so pleased at his great success in Aqua Caliente it's hard to realise that Phar Lap is no more
Again expressing my deepest sympathy
I remain
sincerely yours
(Miss)) Gwen Sculthorpe

- poured in to his trainer, along with poems like this (and, whatever you might think of it, I suspect such a literate response might not be forthcoming today):

'From the last barrier he sped to proudest victory
But ere the Latin cheers had died was he borne
On lightning wings - unbitted and riderless
Home to the West, whence he came
Here his immortal spirit dwells - and soars.
From the land of his birth to Yarra's field
And other fields of noble triumph
And his proud laurels adorn not his grave
But his memory eternally - Phar Lap!'

Prints of a mural showing Phar Lap, surrounded by Pegasus and Greek gods, helping to pull the chariot of the sun were bought by thousands of people who wanted to create a little shrine for the horse in their homes, while those of a less sentimental temperament invested in bottles of Phar Lap Big Red Shiraz Cabernet in order to drown their sorrows.

There are elements of Phar Lap's story that I think are especially appealing to the Australian psyche. There is his dash and keenness. There is the fact that when he was young he was under-rated, thought to be gangly and useless and not up to much. There is his tragic end at the hands of foreigners. Really, he was an equine ANZAC - plucky and doomed.

In addition, there is our passion for any form of sporting contest - exemplified right now by our tendency to regard politics more than anything as a kind of horse race. In the recent federal election campaign, in fact, this blurring was more noticeable than ever, with huge attention being given by the media to the betting markets and their shifting election-related odds. It is still far from certain who will be the victor of the election race - the chestnut or the stringy bay - but, as we study the breathtakingly close photo finish, we should remember Phar Lap. His story has much to teach us - most particularly that arsenic is definitely not the way to go.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

My Lucky Mother

I have mentioned before (ie never stop carping on about it) that my mother threw away my complete set of Beatles autographs . Only after reading this have I realised what a genuinely decent and magnanimous person I really am.

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe

The use of the word 'inappropriate' as a euphemism is my current bugbear. Children are warned against 'inappropriate touching' instead of being told to watch out for being groped or felt up. A vivid, vigorous word like 'groping' makes it fairly clear, (without spelling things out in too alarmingly graphic detail) what they should try to avoid; 'inappropriate', by contrast, slides off the surface of actual events, gaining meaning only in relation to a structure that is rarely supplied (appropriate or inappropriate to what?)

In other contexts, the word fares no better. For instance, during the recent Australian federal election campaign, a former candidate for the prime ministership confronted our current prime minister in a highly aggressive and startling fashion.
Everyone could see that our prime minister was shocked, a bit intimidated and irritated that this man was trying to wreck things for her. It was also pretty likely that shortly after the incident she felt a surge of rage and realised she hated his guts and wished he could be struck down with a plague of boils. Yet, when asked about the incident, did she reveal any of this? No, of course not. Instead, she said she thought his behaviour had been 'inappropriate.' She would have won me over if she'd expressed even a bit of her true feelings, instead of resorting to the empty, abstract, latinate 'inappropriate', a word without emotional weight, without humanity, without any sense that this was a person rather than a party machine speaking.

But then, as I know to my cost, having spent large chunks of my life reading politicians' words (for payment, I hasten to add - surely no-one does it for pleasure), such a lot of what comes out of their mouths makes no real sense. That is to say, the sentences are often perfectly formed, but they contain no meaning. They are, in fact, akin to algebraic formulae. You can look at them for hours and never extract a concrete image or a piece of solid sense from them. It drives you mad in the end. Believe me, I am proof.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Naming and Shaming

Someone I know has just had a baby. The name she has chosen for her little girl has the same effect as hanging a large placard round the child’s neck that says, ‘My parents have read classical literature.’ It also leaves the poor creature open to a childhood of teasing. When I pointed this out, her mother said, ‘Well, childhood doesn’t last forever,’ which left me completely speechless.

I’m not going to tell you what the name is that the kid’s been lumbered with (no, not Medusa), or the parents will guess it’s them I’m writing about. Instead, I will list some of the other batty names I’ve encountered, (no, not Methuselah – anyway that’s Hebrew, not classical), as a warning, or just for fun.

There was Venus Intergalactic Starchild, who I never met but whose birth certificate I sighted when I was working as a Clerk Class One in the Family Allowances section of the Department of Social Security. She must be 30 or so by now. I often wonder how life’s gone for her. There was Rebel, who I went to school with and who, when I knew her, busily lived up to her name – although it seemed to me the only way to rebel really in her circumstances was to flout her parents’ choice of name and be completely conformist and good.

There was the couple I met who had a baby girl in Australia’s bicentennial year and therefore decided to call their daughter Acacia, which is a fancy name for Wattle (‘I love the flaming wattle, the emblem of our land, you can stick it in a bottle or hold it in your hand’). And last, but by no means least, there was the woman my brother insists he overheard in the supermarket the other day: ‘Maverick,’ she yelled at the small boy with her, as he ran down the aisles causing havoc, ‘Maverick, why can’t you just behave.’

Monday, 23 August 2010

Smells Like

I forgot to mention here that in the 1860s some extremely enterprising, if misguided, person decided to manufacture and market a scent named after Burke and Wills. What could it have smelled like? Camel dung, sweat, dashed hopes, a distant whiff of death - just the thing to dab behind your ears before a big night out.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Freecycle - Innocence Recalled

"WANTED: Cloth Nappies
Our baby is due in two weeks and we are planning to use cloth nappies - I believe we will need quite a lot! We have bought some but not yet enough.
So if anyone has any that they don't need - we would be happy to take them off your hands.

I remember 'planning to use cloth nappies'. I too had some vague idea that I would 'need quite a lot'. Reading this request makes me feel the way I did at pantomimes in my childhood - "Look behind you, look behind you," I want to shout, 'you have no idea what's coming at you in a couple of weeks. The very word 'planning' will be swept from your mind."

If I didn't dislike the usage so much, I think I'd have to say "Oh, bless."

Friday, 20 August 2010

A Month Not in the Country

I've spent the best part of the last month in Melbourne, and I have absolutely loved it. It is a really fascinating and comfortable city that makes you feel easily at home (and, if you want to breakfast or lunch in a place run by very nice people who make really delicious coffee and food and also provide absolutely terrific service and don't care how long you sit around taking up space reading the paper, I highly recommend Earl Canteen in the NAB building, Bourke Street [the owners' are delightful and Rhys, their main man, is a treasure - in fact, all the staff are terrific]).

Strangely though, despite Melbourne's many attractions (about which I will probably write at length before too long), I was glad to return home yesterday to the world's only country town masquerading as a capital city. And on the drive back to Canberra I was struck by a road sign that directed travellers to Wagga Wagga and Tumbarumba. It made me think of this poem, which revels in the place names of Australia.

Country Places by AD Hope

I glean them from signposts in these country places,
Weird names, some beautiful, more that make me laugh.
Driving to fat-lamb sales or to picnic races,
I pass their worshippers of the golden calf
And, in the dust of their Cadillacs, a latter-day Habbakuk
Rises in me to preach comic sermons of doom,
Crying: 'Woe unto Tocumwal, Teddywaddy, Tooleybuc!'
And: 'Wicked Wallumburrawang, your hour has come!'

But when the Four Horsemen ride their final muster
And my sinful country sinks in the fiery rain
One name shall survive the doom and the disaster
That fell on the foolish cities of the plain.
Like the three holy children or the salamander
One place shall sing and flourish in the fire:
It is Sweet Water Creek at Mullengandra
And there at the Last Day I shall retire.

When Numbugga shrieks to Burrumbuttock:
'The curse of Sodom comes upon us all!;
When Tumbarumba calls for spade and mattock
And they bury Hell and Hay in Booligal;
When the wrath of God is loosed upon Gilgandra
And Gyulargamobone burns red agains the west,
To Sweet Water Creek at Mullengandra
I shall rise and flee away and be be at rest.

When from Goonoo Goonoo, Underbool and Grong Grong
And Suggan Buggan there goes up the cry,
From Tittybong, Drik Drik and Drung Drung,
'Help, Lord, help us, or we die!'
I shall lie beside a willow-cool meander, or
Cut myself a fly-whisk in the shade
And from Sweet Water Creek at Mullengandra
Fill my cup and whet my whistle unafraid

When Boinka lies in ruins (more's the pity!),
And a heavenly trump proclaims the End of Grace,
With: 'Wombat is fallen, is fallen, that great city!'
Adding: 'Bunyip is in little better case;'
When from Puckapunyal and from Yackandandah
The cry goes up: 'How long, O Lord, how long?'
I shall hear the she-oaks sough at Mullengandra
And the Sweet Waters ripple into song:

Oh, there's little to be hoped for Grabben Gullen
And Tumbulgum shrinks and shudders at its fate;
Folks at Wantabadgery and Cullen Bullen
Have Buckley's chance of reaching Heaven's gate;
It's all up with Cootamundra and Kiandra
And at Collarenebri they know they're through;

But at Sweet Water Creek at Mullengrandra
You may pitch your camp and sleep the whole night through.

God shall punish Cargellico, Come-by-Chance, Chinkapook;
They shall dance no more at Merrijig nor drink at Gentleman's Halt;
The sin of Moombooldool He shall in no wise overlook;
Wee Jasper and Little Jilliby, He shall not condone their fault;
But though I preach down Nap Nap and annihilate Narrandera,
One place shall yet be saved, this I declare:
Sweet Water Creek at Mullengandra
For its name and for my sake the Lord shall spare.


Alas! my beautiful, my prosperous, my careless country,
She destroys herself: the Lord will come too late!
They have cut down even their only tree at One Tree;
Dust has choked Honey Bugle and drifts over Creeeper Gate;
The fires we lit ourselves on Mt Boothegandra
Have made more ruin than Heaven's consuming flame;
Even Sweet Water Creek at Mullengandra,
If I went there now, would it live up to its name?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Tony Abbott Might Do Well to Note This Comment from Keating

'One is not bound to be frank always.'

A Muddled Remembrance

Alan Attwood, the editor of the Big Issue, wrote the other day about the ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the departure of the Burke and Wills expedition. Really that took place on 20th August - or rather, everything got into such a muddle that it actually took place properly on 21st August, 1860. Appropriately, in Attwood's view, the commemoration ceremony also hit a few snags. The most recent was the date chosen for the Federal election - Saturday, 21 August. Once that was announced, the ceremony had to be brought forward - it was decided it should be held today instead. The project also hit problems to do with funding. Attwood comments thus about the various difficulties:

'I think it's wonderfully appropriate - because the expedition itself was a bit of a shambles, it would have been incongruous to have things run too smoothly 150 years later ... In the interest of historical accuracy ... I hope it begins very late, the crowd is unruly, and some of the participants are affected by drink.'

I don't suppose I'll ever know if the event lived up to Attwood's vision - I couldn't find the venue, but that too is really par for the course.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


"WANTED: Guillotine

Our team has an old one that is blunt.
Would anyone have one they could pass on to this not-for-profit?

Southside preferred - but can send our handyman anywhere to collect!


I don't really approve of violence, but at least they're not-for-profit, I suppose

Monday, 16 August 2010

I Know I've Mentioned Him Before

Paul Keating that is - but I've just discovered a new book called "Vintage Keating - His Wit and Wisdom", so I'll almost certainly soon be mentioning him some more. Sorry.

As an amuse-gueule, here are some snippets from the book. The first is not a comment from Keating but fromBarry Humphries, as it happens:

'Sydney is very central - just twenty-four hours on a plane and you could be somewhere interesting.'

The next quote is from Wayne Goss, so I don't really need to explain that it is not funny (at least not to anyone who knows who Goss is - there was a line of Keating's that I think referred to Ralph Willis - "he was standing behind the door when they were handing out personality," something like that - which, from my impression of him, would apply to Goss as well.) Nevertheless, it may shine some light on the present election campaign:

'Queenslanders are sitting on their verandas with baseball bats just waiting for Keating to come. They've been sitting there for a long time. But the really chilling thing is that they don't care how long they have to wait. They'll get him whenever he comes.'

Again, in the context of this election I suppose it is interesting to learn that Keating referred to our current Foreign Minister thus:

'He's always between a shit and a shiver.'

And about our current ambassador to the United States (plus the final stages of an election campaign), Keating had this to say:

'What would he know from roaming around the Western Australian branch and visiting pommies in nursing homes? He came to see me for advice, you know. Well, Kim and I have totally different views of politics. Look at him, he lost an election and he's still walking around like a big cuddly bear. I told him I see it like the National Geographic ad, where in slow motion the lion grabs the wildebeest on the arse, with blood and fur and dust and shit flying everywhere. That's what the mob wants in the last fortnight of a campaign - a sign that you really want it.'

Keating also described Beazley's challenge to Simon Crean as 'the revenge of the blancmange.'

That's enough for today.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Many Faces of Melbourne

Yesterday evening we were walking along the path that leads along the Yarra from Melbourne's CBD to the suburb of South Yarra. Ahead of us in the darkness we saw a figure moving slowly towards us, training a rather small, weak torch beam across the water and the reeds that grow at its edge. As we drew closer, we saw that it was a policeman. 'What are you looking for,' we asked.

'A body,' came the gruff reply.

We laughed. After we'd passed him, I called back, 'You are joking?'

'Nup,' he said and continued on his way.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Word Watch

'I threw up in my mouth a little' is one phrase I am hoping has a very, very short currency. Sadly, it seems to be everywhere just at the moment. Perhaps it's the sight of all these politicians that's done it.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

There'll Always Be a Latham

Someone remarked that the description of Burke here reminded them of Mark Latham. Yesterday, outside Melbourne's lovely Exhibition Building (allegedly the world's best surviving example of the 'international exhibition style'), I noticed a great big piece of rough hewn stone on a plinth. It had a plaque fixed onto it which said that the stone had been quarried at Stawell and placed in front of the building 'at the insistence of The Hon John Woods MP ... to express his indignation of the choice of New South Wales stone for Parliament House and to show the enduring qualities of local stone.'

I'd never heard of John Woods, so I looked him up. This is what David Dunstan, in the surprisingly interesting book 'Victorian Icon - the Royal Exhibition Building' has to say about him:

'John Woods was a Liverpool-born and -trained engineer with railway works experience in Britain, Germany and North America. As a young man he had won first prize for railway axles at the 1851 Great Exhibition and was later the inventor and proponent of a hydraulic brake (patented 1882) used on Victorian lines. On the Ovens diggings in north-east Victoria, Woods became politically active on behalf of the miners, and thereafter pursued technology and politics as joint - and often interchangeable - interests. Ruined by mining speculations in 1857, he returned to his old profession, and it was while working as an engineer at Stawell in 1859 that he was elected to parliament and forever afterwards associated with the district. Woods was one of Graham Berry's more radical supporters [Berry was Premier of Victoria in the late 19th century], and an important figure in Berry ministries up to March 1880, after which he became a disaffected liberal. Deakin described him as well-read with an original mind but abrasive in approach and ultra-radical in his opinions - 'a Chartist by training to whom all restraints were obnoxious', who harboured 'old scores against the wealthy and influential which he was eager to pay off.'

The character that emerges from this description - especially from Deakin's comments - sounds every bit as eccentric, intelligent and difficult as our Mark. I think it is the never-ending cavalcade of crackpots, crazies and unhinged power grabbers who present themselves for election (and are not all politicians to a greater or lesser extent mentally questionable?) that makes Australian politics the enduringly fascinating spectacle it is. Whether it is conducive to good government is a whole other issue.

A Glimpse of Reality

I managed to lose my fountain pen last week. Yesterday, I went to buy a new one. I was served by a nice young man who spent quite a lot of time with me, letting me try different nib widths and so forth. I thought we were getting along famously until he asked if I'd be wanting green ink with my purchase. A green ink user? How appalling to discover that that's how I come across.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Notes from a Field Trip

I had to go out into the distant suburbs the other day. It was an hour long journey, first by train and then by bus. As I travelled further from the centre of the city, what I saw through the window changed. In the older inner suburbs there were attractive solid houses surrounded by generous gardens. When these gave way to newer developments, the houses became more uniform, the gardens smaller. Large highways heavy with traffic sliced through the spread of featureless streets. Looking down each one as we passed, I saw a succession of boxlike houses - some yellow brick, some brown brick, some well-kept, some scruffy, their tiny plots of land generally neglected, possibly because the people who live there have little time for anything except the long daily commute.

I was just wondering what you'd have to do to cope with life in these bleak, blank suburbs when the bus stopped and a young woman of about 24 got on. She was carrying nothing except a packet of cigarettes and a can of bacardi and coke. When the driver politely asked her if she knew that drinking alcohol on public transport was against the law, she said, 'Oh is it?' Then she drained the can, tossed it out the door and staggered to her seat. It was still only 11.20 am.

On the way back, a man who seemed to have chosen a similar approach to the existential problem was already onboard when I climbed up the steps. By the looks of him, he'd been dealing with suburban tedium for a few decades longer than the bacardi-for-elevenses female. For a start, her collection of tattoos was relatively meagre, whereas he was almost completely covered in the things. His face was the one visible part of him that remained unadorned, unless you regard as decorative the 3-cm-wide sores on his forehead, left cheekbone and just beneath his chin. His front teeth had gone missing at some point and he smelled as if he'd been marinated in alcohol and smokes for quite some time.

He was with a mate, whose face was hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. The tattooed one was showing the hooded fellow photographs of a child:
'Look this one shows the bruises better,' he said, as he passed a picture over. His friend studied it and handed it back. 'Where's her mother?' he asked the toothless man. 'Oh she fucking tried to kill herself last week,' he answered. He gave his friend another picture. 'And they still won't fucking let me have her.' 'Oh that's so shit,' said the guy in the hoodie, 'you should get her, you should piss it in.'

I had to get off then, which I think I was grateful for, except that as I did so, two young women - in their mid-thirties or so - brushed past me, getting on.
'I can't believe it, I'm going to have a husband in a fucking wheelchair,' one was saying to the other. 'It's not what you signed up for,' her companion answered. 'It fucking isn't,' came the reply, 'I'm really,really pissed.'

On the train, things were calmer. Two old ladies in woolly hats spent twenty minutes conversing about almost nothing, providing a reassuring background of conversational white noise. 'I'm not an enormous chocolate eater,' one began, 'I like a bit of chocolate,' the other responded, 'in fact, I have a bit of chocolate if I have a cup of coffee in the afternoon.' 'Do you?' the other answered, 'Well, that is a very sane thing to do.'

Perhaps encouraged by this, her friend began to enlarge on her experiences in the chocolate arena. 'It was Joe's birthday a few weeks ago,' she said, 'I always give her a dvd of a series or a film, but Rose said to me, "Is that all you're giving her?" so I thought I'd better get something else, so we were down at Leigh's Chocolates, and I got her an owl with all the feathers and eyes beautifully marked on it.' 'It would be a pity to eat that, wouldn't it?' the smaller one interrupted. 'Yes, I thought so,' her friend answered, 'I couldn't eat it.' There was a pause while they digested this information. 'But I dare say she ate it,' the old lady added wistfully after a bit.

'I send over to England to get Bendick's Bittermints,' the other one revealed suddenly, contradicting her earlier claim that she didn't like chocolate. 'It's a bit of an expense but Mike's beady eyes light up when the package arrives.'

'All these houses look the same,' said her companion, clearly feeling chocolate had been thoroughly canvassed as a conversational gambit. 'In a few years, they'll have a heritage listing on them,' said the other. They fell silent then. I looked over after a minute or two and realised they'd lulled each other into a peaceful doze.

They woke with a start two stations further on. The carriage was full of shouting and laughter as a mass of schoolboys from an all-male Catholic school got on. Two stood near me, barely drawing breath for the first five or six minutes as they discussed complex technical specifications to do with a computer programme of some kind. Eventually they exhausted this subject and their conversation dried up briefly. They looked about at the other passengers and glanced out the window. Then, pushing his hair back from his eyes and looking into the middle distance, one of them said, a propos of nothing, 'I get really nervous round the opposite sex.' An expression of relief spread across his friend's face. 'Yeah, me too,' he said, with feeling.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Word Watch

New phrases and buzzwords seem to leap in and out of fashion at an alarming rate so I've decided to pin down the ones I've noticed lately, before they vanish back into thin air:

man crush
girl crush
brain snap

Any other suggestions gratefully accepted

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Throwing it All Away

I am a hoarder. I blame my mother. Somewhere else in this blog I have already mentioned that she chucked out my complete set of Beatles signatures. As well as that, she threw away a large collection of Edwardian postcards that someone at primary school whose father was an antique dealer gave me. As a result of traumas like these, I find it almost impossible to ever get rid of anything.

Sometimes I try though. Just the other day, in fact, I persuaded myself to junk several bags of ancient library reminders, five or six packages of old letters and a couple of sacks of bus tickets whose digits added up to 21 (very lucky, in case you didn't know). I thought I'd really achieved something. I began to feel rather proud of myself. But then I saw the display about Burke and Wills at the State Library of Victoria and doubts about what I'd been up to started flooding into my mind. Looking at some of the exhibits, I wondered if, after all, I'd made a huge mistake.

It was the scraps of paper that did it. They are dog eared and tattered and the writing on them is smudged and in pencil. But they are the last messages ever written by Burke and by Wills. They are grubby enough to be got rid of, they are ephemera, just like my bus tickets, but, unlike them they leave an emotional impression. When you look at these desperate little handwritten notes - 'The camels cannot travel and we cannot walk,' says one, 'We are trying to live the best way we can like the Blacks but find it hard work. Our clothes are going to pieces fast. Send provisions and clothes as soon as possible', says the other - the tragedy in which the lives' of Burke and Wills ended seems very immediate. They touched these pages, which they hoped were going to save them. They were present; they held these documents in their hands; these things were a last bid for rescue. Standing before them, reading the words they wrote so hopefully, we know that it was already much too late.

Ironically, it was the hoarding instinct that at least in part dictated the failure of the expedition in the first place . If everyone involved hadn't been so set on taking everything they could think of with them, if there hadn't been such an absurd and unnecessary amount of stuff to drag along, things might not have ended where they did - with those scruffy, hastily scrawled, desperate appeals for help. But, as Hermann Beckler the expedition's doctor, noted, when describing the process of preparation, 'Ordering and buying is so easy and enjoyable and this activity is doubly seductive when someone else is paying for it.'

The Library's exhibition discreetly only shows the account book pages that detail sensible supplies like flour and sugar and hay for the camels. However, according to Sarah Murgatroyd, whose book on the expedition called Dig is brilliant, the party set off with 6 tonnes of firewood (in the Australian bush, where wood is incredibly plentiful); a bath-tub; an oak and cedar table and two oak stools; 270 litres of rum for camel medicine; 4 enema kits and 12 sets of dandruff brushes. She also notes that, despite the huge amount of stuff they deemed indispensable, the expedition carried with it only two sets of field glasses and - incredibly - a mere dozen water bottles.

Of course, it was poor judgment that led to there being such a lot of ill-chosen luggage. That poor judgment, it seems to me, resulted from Burke being appointed as expedition leader. A 'colourful' character (frequently described as 'impulsive' and, less charitably, 'mad' - indeed, George Landells, the deputy leader of the expedition, said he had 'grave doubts about his sanity,' noting that 'his temper was ungovernable'), Burke, who was born in Ireland, had no experience whatsoever of exploration. Having served as an officer in the Austrian Army (he failed the exams for his own country's military), until going AWOL ,(claiming constipation, but more probably running away from debts), he escaped the death sentence at his court martial and entered the Irish police force instead. Becoming quickly bored of that occupation, he headed to Australia with dreams of gold.

He ended up joining the police force in Victoria instead of prospecting and was stationed in the country where - again according to Sarah Murgatroyd - he was best known for spending hours in an outdoor bathtub, wearing a police helmet, reading and cursing the mosquitoes (she doesn't mention whether the bath tub was positioned in his front garden or out of public view around the back). He became a member of the Melbourne Club and, through contacts there, managed to pull strings to get appointed leader of the expedition (oddly, the club contributed to his erratic behaviour once embarked on the expedition by trying to pursue him for gambling debts, leading to his rushed departure from stops along the way).

The only photograph that I have seen of Burke makes me think of one of my country relatives' description of a prominent former politician: "If you saw those eyes on a kelpie, you'd shoot the bastard." I suspect he (Burke, that is) was the kind of man who, in the context of a safe social setting, is highly entertaining and wonderful company, but in any other situation is completely unreliable. On top of this, he seems to have had a cruel streak - accounts of his treatment of Grey, who was one of the four explorers to go all the way north but who died on the return journey, and of Ludwig Becker, who was supposed to be on the expedition as an artist and scientist but about whom Burke gave orders that the party should 'walk him until he gave in', are evidence of this possibility.

Although the expedition was originally intended to be a scientific endeavour, Burke saw it purely as a race - South Australia had offered a prize of 2000 pounds for the first person to get to the north of Australia, and as far as Burke was concerned he was representing Victoria in a competition with its neighbour South Australia. Amazingly, if the account of King, the only surviving member of the party of four that accompanied Burke to the north of Australia, is to be believed, Burke was so uninterested in discovering anything about the lands they passed through that he squandered his chance of survival by driving away friendly indigenous people who brought the explorers fish to eat. He explained to King that he did this because 'he was afraid of being too friendly lest they should be always at our camp.' This reminds me of my father's refusal ever to say good morning to any of the people he saw daily on the station platform when he was a commuter: 'Thin end of the wedge,' was his explanation. Burke was not at Basingstoke though. He was in a vast, unknown country, a lonely wilderness where a sense of wonder and astonishment would surely override the snobbery and diffidence of normal life. Compounding his small-mindedness with incompetent bungling, (again according to King), Burke followed up this act of folly by managing to set fire to everything the explorers still possessed. He was cooking fish at the time, but instead of providing supper he destroyed all that they had, except one revolver.

Wills seems to have been a very different kind of person. Born in Totnes, he came to Australia with his family during the gold rushes of the 1850s. He was fascinated by science and saw Australia as a hugely interesting place in which to study nature. Initially he was appointed as the expedition's Surveyor and Astronomical Observer and, as the only person in the party who seems to have had a proper knowledge of navigation, he was invaluable. The Library's exhibition includes his meticulously kept notebook, detailing his astronomical observations on the journey, and also some of the equipment he buried with touching care, in order to preserve it. These last have only recently been rediscovered.

Perhaps if Wills had been a little more experienced and a stronger, more assertive personality, things might have turned out differently. He was a steady, careful scholar; Burke was a wild opportunist. In some ways, it is possible to see their expedition as one of the first examples of a continuing phenomenon that runs through Australian life - the struggle between those who see themselves as practical, no-nonsense types who get on with things, and those who favour the intellectual approach to life. Sadly, as often in our history, the lack of a thoughtful, inquiring outlook may have been one more contributing factor to the disaster in which things ended.

For Burke and Wills did not perish because they lacked food or water. There was apparently no shortage of either at Cooper's Creek. What they lacked, in fact, was knowledge. Having observed the indigenous people harvesting a seed called nardoo, they copied them and were subsisting on a paste they made from the stuff. Unfortunately, presumably thanks to Burke's desire not to be too friendly, they had not discovered from the natives an absolutely vital piece of information - to be nutritious, nardoo has to be prepared in a certain way. If the correct processes are not carried out, instead of sustaining a person, nardoo causes beri-beri.

Pathetically, the explorers spent their last hours and final reserves of energy harvesting and grinding masses of nardoo. They consumed it in ever-increasing quantities and thereby poisoned themselves. Had they shown more curiosity, had Burke respected the earlier inhabitants of the land, rather than shooting over their heads to drive them away, the pair might have survived and become celebrated as the first white explorers to reach the north of the continent. The journey they made, when you look at the map and remember the utter lack of any kind of infrastructure at the time, is astonishing and admirable. However, Burke's vanity in a situation that called for care and humility means they are now remembered by most people (other than this puzzling London removalists' firm) merely as the foolish leaders of a doomed enterprise.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Melbourne Film Festival - The Old School of Capitalism

We lived in Belgrade between 1985 and 1988. The day we left, I said to my husband, 'I never, ever want to come back here again.' I haven't changed my mind, but enough time has passed for me to be mildly curious to see what the place looks like now, provided I can view it from a cinema seat rather than having to actually visit.

Which was why I chose to go to see 'The Old School of Capitalism' at the Melbourne International Film Festival last night. I suppose I don't regret buying the ticket. After all, I met a very nice Hungarian from the Vojvodina and his charming Irish wife. Also, it is always interesting to discover that a new benchmark for utter hopelessness has been set.

For 'The Old School of Capitalism' is almost certainly the worst film I have ever seen. The acting is breathtakingly terrible and you couldn't say the thing has a story or a plot. Instead, without explanation, the film plunges us into the lives of a collection of muddled people who are having a lot of financial problems. We watch as they attempt to resolve their problems by all shouting at once and then smashing down a building, shouting some more, shooting at each other, shouting again, tying up some of their number, shouting again, and eventually ploughing, possibly inadvertently, one amongst them into the ground. The scenes of shouting are occasionally intercut with arguments about Communist theory between the character who is eventually ploughed under and another character, unrelated to the main action, who runs a left-wing magazine in Belgrade, funded by the proceeds of his father's career on Wall Street.

Leaving aside the unfortunate ploughing incident, the events of the film did not seem all that different from what I observed of daily life in Belgrade - no planning, no structure, no vision, just a lot of shouting. I found it pretty wearing - and, once I discovered that the men shuffling about in their pyjamas fingering things in our local supermarket were actually patients from the infectious diseases hospital across the road, I really felt I'd had enough. Leaving the theatre last night, I felt exactly the same way.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Melbourne Film Festival - Russian Lessons

This film, made by Olga Konskaya and Andrey Nekrasov, sets out to examine the war in South Ossetia in 2008. Through interviews with eye witnesses and visits to the area, they mount a strong case for the possibility that Russia and not Georgia was the main aggressor and perpetrator of major casualties and destruction in the conflict. They then delve back into what happened at Beslan and in Abkhazia, establishing what appears to be a strong case against Russia and suggesting that Putin should be treated as no less of a war criminal than Milosevic.

Leaving aside the human response of disgust and outrage at the abuses that have been allowed to take place in these remote places, from the west's point of view there are two very troubling aspects to the documentary. The first is the revelation that BBC 24, the BBC itself and the German channel ZDF happily took footage provided by Russian sources and presented it as evidence of Georgian atrocities against Ossetians in Tskhinvali when it was in fact footage of Russian atrocities against Georgians in Gori. Nekrasov and Konskaya painstakingly go through the footage in question, to demonstrate that there is no doubt of its provenance or what it shows.

The other is not really a revelation, but something we forget too easily - the fact that Putin is a very dangerous man and parts of his army behave without any humanity or honour, carrying out acts of bestiality and depravity that remain unpunished by Russian authorities and ignored by the rest of the world. The major Russian lesson we learn during the course of the film has nothing to do with the source of the title - an exercise book found in a bombed Georgian house, belonging to a fifth grade student of Russian language; the major Russian lesson is that it is a good idea not to live in a country anywhere near Russia.

While I have a few reservations about one or two slightly cheesy aspects of the way their film was put together, Konskaya and Nekrasov are brave and should be applauded for somehow breaking out of the brainwashed patriotic viewpoint of the majority of their fellow countrymen. I would very much like to see an earlier film they made about Litvinenko. That film is banned in Russia; it would not surprise me if this one suffers the same fate.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Melbourne Film Festival - The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu

The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu is a very long film (180 minutes), made entirely from propaganda and news footage of Ceausescu's time in power. There is no commentary and no attempt to shape the material into any kind of structured narrative. It is less an evening's entertainment than an endurance test - at the screening I attended the exodus started as a trickle but, as the images flowed on and on, the numbers of viewers leaving the theatre grew and grew.

Sadly leaving was not a choice available to most Romanian people. Possibly, this was the goal of the makers of the film - to give an impression of what it was like to live in a country where broadcast information was controlled, where the truth you were shown in the media bore no relation to the truth you saw around you in your daily life. If so the method was quite effective. I visited Romania several times at the height of Ceausescu's worst excesses and saw with my own eyes that the shelves in the shops really were bare and people were cold and miserable and things were about as bad as you could imagine. Even so, after watching Ceausescu tour shops stuffed with bread and meat and fish and fruit and vegetables - sometimes with visiting international politicians (de Gaulle, Nixon, plus the usual Soviet suspects), sometimes by himself, (one of his interminable birthday celebrations appears to have included an all-day round of food shop visiting - inadvertently one section of this footage includes an off-camera frenzied conversation about whether or not the fish has arrived yet so that the usually empty cabinet can be hastily made to appear full), I was beginning to wonder if I'd allowed my memory to exaggerate just how bad things had really been.

The film includes footage of Ceausescu's overseas visits. The North Koreans and Mao-era Chinese produce dazzling displays of frenzied joy at his arrival. The British wheel out guardsmen and state coaches, but the Queen looks as if she is trying to stifle the desire to be quietly sick. Jimmy Carter looks unimpressive, as usual. Brezhnev strokes Ceausescu's face and Gorbachev complains about the heat.

What the film does not do is give any insight into Ceausescu's personality. Did he really believe the dreary Marxist Leninist drivel he spouted repeatedly? Could he possibly have been fooled by his own propaganda? Did he understand what suffering was being endured by his people? And what did the delegates to the annual party congresses think they were doing, rising as a man to yell support for him in unison - at the XIIth party congress even turning on one individual who was brave enough to challenge Ceausescu's unscrupulous manipulation of the system? Where are those people now? How do they live with themselves?

I don't think I could recommend The Autobiography of Nicolai Ceausescu, not only because it is so very long. The most remarkable and ultimately pointless thing about it is its utter neutrality - without previous knowledge, the viewer could leave the cinema no wiser about who Ceausescu was or what had brought him to the film's final scene, cornered in a country police station, refusing to answer questions and looking afraid. I suppose in that context, the film's achievement is that the audience has grown so heartily sick of this unimpressive little man that they are glad to be rid of him. What is missing though is a proper explanation of just what harm he did - boring people was the least of it. Because of this missing wider context, the film, despite some interesting and even comic moments, seems to me an exercise in futility - like Ceausescu's own endeavours, I suppose.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Department of Misguided Business Names

I just passed a wine bar in Melbourne's Richmond called DTs.

What do I know though - it may be a thriving enterprise. Perhaps I'm the only person who doesn't want to think about the state I may end up in before I've even taken a first sip. If so, sister joints called Hangovers, Splitting Headaches and Late-Night Fatal Car Smashes would seem the logical way to go.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Freecycle - a really hot item

"OFFER - Medium Heller column heater with rotary on/off timer - broken. Heats up but makes funny noises and has a smell like electrical fire. I don't think it is safe."

Temptation, thou art ever with us.