Thursday, 30 September 2010

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe

"Research suggests" and "scientists say", followed by almost any unlikely claims. What research? Scientists in which precise discipline? Who are they? What was it? How can I judge the value of the information being peddled, without knowing what those phrases really mean?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Men in Tights

Continuing my defence of my dog walking wages, in the edition of the LRB that I mentioned yesterday, I also found these gems.

1)  In a review by Julian Barnes, I discovered what I'd been looking for for years - someone else who doesn't like Hugo. Barnes quotes Richard Cobb's description of him as "France's National Bore".

2)  This Churchill comment (supposedly made to Stalin): " In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.".

3)  Best of all, as so often, some unintentional humour, from a review of recent books about Iris Murdoch. It turns out that, when Murdoch was 20, she and some friends from Oxford formed a touring concert party called the Magpies and travelled round the Cotswolds, bringing dance, ballads and "allegorical Tudor drama to varyingly enthusiastic audiences" (sounds a bit like the sort of thing Lucky Jim's professor was "keen on").

As Rosemary Hill, the reviewer, explains, quoting liberally from Murdoch's diary of the period:

"Here, not quite a writer yet and not quite at war either, Murdoch is at her most endearing, earnestly practising 'Greensleeves' on the recorder in a field full of cows, discussing the international situation while wondering with rather more urgency whether the scenery will turn up in time. The journal evokes a Betjemanesque interwar world of japes and ginger biscuits, 'strenuous breakfasts' and undergraduate tantrums. "Apparently while I was singing 'Love is a sickness' yesterday Denys [another troupe member] gave an appalling display of temperament because he couldn't find his tights."

The Magpies went over very well in Aston Bampton, where the local children did some songs and dances in the interval and were 'most spontaneous and charming', but at Northleach everything was ruined by 'a great mob of toughs at the back' who reduced Denys to tears and sent Murdoch into a rage by laughing all through her ballad. She was inconsolable, she notes, despite the rest of the cast being 'terribly upset for me' ...Talk of politics among the Magpies was desultory, even as rumours of war grew louder: 'We try not to think of it at all - and find it amazingly easy.'"

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Life of the Mind

My neighbours have a dog I sometimes walk and in return they give me old copies of the London Review of Books. My brother says this makes me the world's cheapest dog walker, but what he doesn't understand is that I am getting free access to some of the best comedy being written today. Take this example, rich with academic envy and inter-institutional rivalry,  from the letters column of the 22 April 2010 edition (I did mention they were old copies, didn't I?):

Richard Evans suspects that I haven't read Lutz Raphael's Die Erben von Bloch and Febvre, though it is cited in the bibiliography of my book, The Annales School: an Intellectual History (LRB, 3 December 2009). I can only say that such a practice is perhaps admitted in Cambridge, but not in Paris. I would like to reassure him: I do read and speak German, and I did read Raphael's book. Nevertheless, his approach to the Annales School's evolution since the 1950s, by focusing on its institutional task and development, did not fit the analysis I was making in my book.
I am not sure, however, that Professor Evans read my book properly. Leaving aside the memory of his own encounter with the works of the Annales School when he was a young scholar, his piece is a not uninteresting survey of the academic expansion of the Annales School since the foundation of the Sixth Section of the Ecole Pratique, drawn largely from Raphael's book. But he does not refer to the main topic of my book: the historiographical destiny of the concept of mentalites.
Andre Burguiere, Paris"

I love that 'not uninteresting' - and the 'perhaps'. As for not referring to "the historiographical destiny of the concept of mentalites", shame on the man.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Getting There

There is almost nothing I love so much as travel. First, there is the way it makes you look at your life from the outside, so that you realise, because you are about to part from it, just how attached you are to where you live and to how you spend your days. Then there is the chance to observe the scurrying mass of other travellers gliding up and down escalators in airports where you too glide up and down escalators - and you can't help noticing that they all look as convinced by the importance of their own individual journeys as you are by the significance of your own, which leads you, once again, to reflect on the wisdom of the homily someone put up in the tea room at work recently - "Never forget that, like everyone else, you are unique" (here is the whole list from the tea room, for what it is worth:

"Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it
Generally speaking you aren't learning much if your lips are moving
Good judgment comes from bad experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day
Have you ever lent someone $20 and never seen that person again? It was probably worth it
There are two theories about how to win an argument with a woman. Neither one works [yes, I do realise that, as a woman, I should object, but it makes me laugh - and surely it is no worse than the one about men and fishing]
Never miss a good chance to shut up
Never forget that, like everyone else, you are unique
If at first you don't succeed, avoid skydiving
Remember, no-one is listening until you fart [appalling vulgarity, I know]
If you think nobody cares whether you're dead or alive, try missing a couple of mortgage payments
Some days we are the insects, some days we are the windscreen")

Then there is the opportunity travel gives you to reflect, uninterrupted, on big philosophical questions like whether the waiting area of an airport is actually a public area and therefore, if it is, should one not eat or brush one's hair in it, since eating in public et cetera is something one was brought up not to do (and, ultimately, after dalliance with the proposition that it is some kind of temporary "home", a private space shared with strangers, it has to be admitted that it is, of course, about as public as anywhere can be: not that most of the other people in it seem to let that hold them back - and, I might add, that as a result of their lack of inhibition and based on close study of three separate individuals, I can now state definitively that it is impossible to eat a banana in public without looking foolish, no matter how well-cut your clothes).

Travel also provides the dubious privilege of meeting people you would never normally come up against and discovering, thanks to their generosity in sharing their personal information, that there is actually a place called Naples in Florida (who would have thought?) and that some couples - including ones called Nancy and Randolph - divide their year between Naples, Florida and Maine, with occasional trips to Europe for their 'cultural fix'.

Finally - and best of all - there is the rare and wonderful luxury of having hours and hours and hours to read, without needing to stop to hang out the washing or cook a meal or make a bed. This allows you to discover, for instance, that there is an India quite unlike the yoga ashram circuit mystifingly beloved of so many of your friends - an India which, according to the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, contains a state called Jharkand, where a Maoist insurgency is going on. In Jharkand in fact, when you enter the capital city, Ranchi, you are welcomed to the '"Land of Coal"  and... mining underlies every aspect of life ...Seams of coal are visible in the earth alongside the rutted roads and ... about 40 miles outside Ranchi ...a freshly paved patch of asphalt veers sharply west and snakes up a smoky hill through the village of Loha Gate and into an ecological disaster zone. Shimmering waves of heat, thick with carbon monoxide and selenium, waft through jagged cracks in the pavement large enough to swallow a soccer ball. A hundred feet below, a massive subterranean coal fire, started in an abandoned mine, burns so hot that it melts the soles of one's shoes ... There are at least 80 coal fires like this burning in Jharkand, turning much of the state's ground into a giant combustible honeycomb. A fire ignited in 1916 by neglectful miners near the city of Jharia has grown so large that it now threatens to burn away the land beneath the entire community, plunging the 400,000 residents into an underground inferno.'

Without embarking on this journey, I would never have come across this extraordinary story. Sitting in a sleek steel and glass airport, I learned that on the same planet, right now, there is another way of life still going on - a world that evokes the fiction of Dickens. And, instead of getting up and grabbing the shopping list and going down to Woolworth's or heading out to the line with the basket of wet washing, I thought about mining and I wondered again about the trapped Chilean miners - what substance were they mining by the way? - and I realised after a bit what I should have known anyway: that wherever we turn in the 21st century western world almost everything around us derives at the start from the work of miners.

So travel, the actual bit that involves getting from A to B, really does broaden my mind - or at least it gives it a chance to do a tiny bit of work. Removed from ordinary existence, there is finally time to think. Which makes me wonder if I wouldn't after all quite enjoy being stuck in the 6 Clicks scenario. Mind you that is probably only the jet lag talking - just like this entire post.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Worrying Signs I

Rummaging about in a kitchen drawer the other day I came across some objects I hadn't seen for ages - they are corks with wooden Hungarian men in traditional costume stuck to the top. They are supposed to be used to seal up half-finished wine bottles, for drinking another day. I can't remember when we last had a need for them. I'd forgotten they even existed, to be truthful. It's a long time since a bottle of wine that was opened in our house didn't get polished off that same day - that same hour, in fact.

It could be a good sign of course. It might mean that our wine consumption has gone down, not up. Maybe once upon a time we drank one bottle and then started on a second - or even a third, which we didn't quite make it through. Yes, that's a possibility. Perhaps we're actually becoming more moderate in our old age (I can hear that hollow laughter, and, you know, saying, "If you believe that, you'll believe anything," could be considered rude.)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Winding Paths of Bloggery

Gaw has been writing about his older boy starting school. That led him to take note of a poem. And that led me to remember a poem on a not unrelated theme. It's by Jennifer Maiden, and here it is:


In case my love unfits her for the world
I watch her sometimes from peripheries
as if I were the child I was
hovering at each playground's edge
debating dumbly with myself -
how to be a child? She does that
so much better than I did, and
it seems she isn't acting. Good:
if something apt about my love
has made her cleanly real, something
in its half critical yielding, or
its whimsical huge pleasure gives to her
a crispness like my silken tough unpruned
camellia and may bushes which she harvests
to thrust in sugared vases with the air
of one who fits them aptly for the world

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

We Know What's Good for You

Our new Foreign Minister, who happens to be our old Prime Minister, was asked about his 'body language' when he attended the swearing in of our new Prime Minister, who happens to be the person who gave our old Prime Minister the push. Our old Prime Minister, or, if you prefer, our new Foreign Minister, realised that this was not a question about his habit of eating his own earwax (that link, by the way, is only for those with a very strong stomach) and suggested that the people asking the questions did not possess degrees in psychiatry and were therefore not in a position to speculate on the states of other people's minds.

After reading an article in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald about the miners trapped underground in Chile, I can't help wondering whether, even if they did have 'appropriate' qualifications, Mr Rudd should show any respect for the people asking him these kinds of things. If the measure of psychiatrists is the behaviour of those looking after the Chilean miners, the profession should be treated with suspicion at the very least.

Under the heading, "We Know Best: Doctors Tussle with Miners" this is what the article said:

"The honeymoon is over," explains Alberto Iturra, the lead psychologist in the operation to free 33 men trapped 700 metres deep in San Jose mine. As point man for the psychological health of the trapped men, Iturra is at the receiving end of the rage of relatives of the miners, who are upset at the Chilean government's refusal to deliver letters considered "psychologically inappropriate".

The widespread censorship of letters to and from the miners – which the government now claims has ended – acted like a spark to ignite what was already a simmering conflict between family members ever more desperate for their loved ones to be rescued and the government medical team battling to keep the miners psychologically united and working as a group.

"The honeymoon lasted two weeks," said Dr George Diaz, the lead physician in charge of monitoring and maintaining the health of the 33 men. "Now the men are starting to demand certain things and we begin to restrict others. We are measuring each other's strength" ...       

With their health improving and patience expiring after six weeks underground, the 33 miners are restless. On several occasions, they have refused to talk to psychologists, cancelled a series of meetings with doctors, delayed implementation of vaccinations. The men have few problems, however, making their desires clear: cigarettes and wine.

Over the past 10 days, the Chilean government psychological team has ceded to certain demands. Last week, the initial delivery of cigarettes was sent down the 700 metre tube that is essentially a lifeline to the trapped men and widely known as the "umbilical cord".

Monitoring the mental health of the miners is itself a challenge. For the initial two weeks after they were found alive, the miners assented to daily hour-long conference calls, in which psychologists peppered them with questions in an attempt to build a profile of the group and the individual members.

As the miners regained weight and strength, however, their antagonism to the daily sessions increased.… In recent days, the miners have been asked to conduct interviews using a video camera. The videos were then carefully listened to by a team of psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors and nurses.… In an effort to dominate the miners, the team of psychologists led by Mr Iturra has instituted a series of prizes and punishments. When the miners behave well, they are given TV and mood music. Other treats – like images of the outside world – are being held in reserve, as either a carrot or stick, should the miners become unduly feisty.

In a show of strength, the miners have at times refused to listen to psychologists, insisting that they are well. "When that happens, we have to say, 'Okay, you don't want to speak with psychologists? Perfect. That day you get no TV, there is no music – because we administer these things,'" said Dr Diaz. "If they want magazines? Well, then they have to speak to us. This is a daily arm wrestle." After weeks of demands, the miners are now focusing on a few precious requirements – they want daily letters from their families and wine to celebrate Chile's Independence Day today, particularly noteworthy this year as Chile celebrates its bicentennial.

While NASA experts brought to Chile as advisers have recommended sending the wines and withholding the cigarettes, the Chileans have done the opposite, saying the miners have nearly two kilometres of ventilated tunnels to smoke cigarettes and relax (as opposed to the confinement of space travel) while further noting the average miner consumes large quantities of alcohol.… Despite rising tensions, the medical and psychological team is content, and they have received glowing reviews from the team of NASA psychologists. Furthermore, many of the symptoms now being shown by the miners are typical of group dynamics when people are placed in confined and stressful environments for more than six weeks."

I used to think the world was divided into two kinds of people - those who love being looked after and told what to do, and those, like me, who would rather break something in the process of trying to get it to work, rather than be given instructions or help. Reading this article made me realise that there is a third type - those really noxious individuals who think they know best and want to do the looking after of their fellows - in order, as the article so bluntly puts it, to 'dominate them'

I do understand that this team of professionals almost certainly has - or imagines it has - the best of intentions. Its members clearly believe that they are taking care of the health of the miners much better than the miners can take care of themselves. It is the idea that they know best that I find so objectionable. After all, these miners are adults. Until they had the misfortune to end up in this frightful situation, it was entirely their responsibility to decide whether they wanted to smoke or drink wine. It was their right to make mistakes and then, possibly, learn from them. Now, their autonomy has been removed from them by people who have set themselves up as their superiors. Working on the assumption that they have better judgment, the professionals have robbed the miners of their last scraps of freedom. They have instituted 'a series of prizes and punishments', which seems to me an utterly degrading thing to do,  and they have given themselves permission to withhold images of the outside world so as to use them "as either a carrot or stick."

This strategy is outrageous in any circumstance, but it seems particularly so in this situation. Apart from anything else, these poor miners are only in this horrible situation because of the mistakes of other well-qualified professionals - mining engineers. I'll bet those 'experts' displayed the same lofty certainty that they knew exactly what they were doing as they planned and constructed the deep, dark hole in which the miners are now stuck. The miners, having put their lives in those professional hands, believing they knew what they were doing, are probably, if they've got any sense, beginning to question the value of help from those who regard themselves as smarter and more qualified than they. And as the various care teams bask in their self awarded "glowing reviews", soothing themselves with excuses about typical symptoms in such a "stressful environment" does it ever occur to them that their behaviour is probably the major source of that stress?

Can you imagine it? Being stuck down a mine with a bunch of smelly workmates for weeks on end would be bad enough. To add to that a nagging bunch of shrinks and do-gooders, sitting above you - pestering you with nosy questions, controlling what you do and what you're allowed to have - is just out and out cruel. "You don't want to talk to us?" these so-called healers yell down the "umbilical cord", "Okay, you can't have TV - because we administer these things" (I have the idea that they finish that statement off with peals of maniacal laughter, but, of course, I have no proof of that at all)

The poor miners are being reduced to the status of infants, sent off to bed without their so-called 'treats' (and even the concept of 'treats' strikes me as extremely demeaning). They are being handled like prisoners, but they have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have all my sympathy. Just thinking about what they are being subjected to makes me feel apoplectic. And what I can't understand - apart from the perennially baffling issue of why psychiatrists always seem to be the people least able to imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of those they are treating - is where the human rights activists are on this one. They should be protesting about the way these men have been stripped of their dignity. Of course, I know they are pretty fully occupied with protests against the planned stoning and beating of a woman in Iran. That, obviously, is keeping them extremely busy. Sorry, what's that, Sooty - they're not busy with her? Aren't they? What are they doing then? They're what? Oh, they're demonstrating against the Pope are they? Oh yes, of course.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Learning to Read

When I was about four Miss Monck Mason (whose older brother insisted that the adjective that was the ultimate superlative in the English language was super-duper-export-only) introduced me to Mac and Tosh. Mac and Tosh were two Scottie dogs who wore tartan coats when they went outside. Miss Monck Mason was my teacher, and I loved her. I loved Mac and Tosh too - they were the heroes of my first ever reader.

Given my affection for the two things, I found it hard to be wholeheartedly thrilled when Miss Monck Mason married my classmate Gavin's widower father and retired from teaching, abandoning us to a bony, birdlike woman called Miss Pickard who removed all traces of Mac and Tosh from the classroom and gave us Janet and John instead.

Mac and Tosh may have been in black and white but at least they were fond of a joke. Janet and John were in jarringly bright blues and yellows and they were so appallingly cheerful that, frankly, it turned your stomach. What was more, on top of - or because of - their subjects' dullness, the Janet and John stories were ridiculously easy to read.

With Mac and Tosh, there'd be so much to reflect on as you followed the twists and turns of their subtle plots. It would rain, they'd have to put their coats on, one of them would lose his coat, the other would get muddy, they would return home, there would be the dilemma of the missing coat, the problem of the mud, there would be high emotions, there would be drama, there would be tears, there would be laughter, and finally there would be a - usually amusing (well, faintly amusing - look, at least they were making the effort ) resolution.

With Janet and John, there would be Janet, there would be John, there would be Janet and John, Janet would go, John would go, Janet and John would go. And that would be that. You could whip through the things in the space of five minutes. And I regularly did.

But that was when the full horror of the new regime set in. When you told Miss Pickard you'd finished the latest in the sequence of dreary Janet and John stories (diplomatically omitting the adjective, if you knew what was good for you, which, surprisingly, even at four, you somehow usually did), did she give you the next one? Did she what. The complete and total injustice of the woman still rankles with me. What she would do - I mean, can you believe this: she didn't trust us, even though we were only four! - was say, 'You have to read it to me so I can be sure you've really read it. Now sit down and, when I'm ready, I'll call you over.' 'But what will I do while I'm waiting?' Acid smile, cold eyes: "Why don't you read it again a few more times?' Again? A few more times? That drivel? Are you crazy?

It was at that point that I might very easily have thrown in the towel on the whole reading business. But luckily Miss Monck Mason - lovely, wonderful Miss Monck Mason, (now Mrs Gavin's dad) - stepped in, just in  the nick of time. That angelic woman invited me round one weekend to have tea at her place. I arrived at three thirty on a snowy afternoon and within five minutes we were all lined up - her, me and Gavin - on a chintz flowered sofa in the little sitting room of the garret flat that was Gavin, Miss Monck Mason and Gavin's dad's new home.

We spent the whole time there, drinking hot chocolate and eating cake and reading. Thanks to her - and most particularly to an especially  lovely book about a cold winter's day and a dropped glove and the series of animals that made it their home, I decided I would, after all, persevere with reading, despite horrid Miss Pickard and her dreadful double Js.

And that meant that I did actually go on not only to learn to read but even to learn to quite like it. And, wonder of wonders, I have now even managed to read a whole grown up book (although quite a short one). In fact, I liked the book I read so much (partly because it was so short) that I've written about it over on the Dabbler.

Are You Having a Laugh?

Going through my file of interesting and silly things recently, I found that I had kept the Question and Answer section from the Guardian weekend magazine of August 9, 2008. The person answering the questions  was Slavoj  Zizek. The interview is such a masterpiece of comedy – at least I assume it's comedy (and like all great comedy it does contain, in between the genuinely mad bits, occasional moments of insight or wisdom, even if they are expressed in a very unusual way) – that I am reproducing it here.

"Slavoj Zizek, 59, was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities in London and a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana's Institute of Sociology. He has written more than 30 books on subjects as diverse as Hitchcock, Lenin and 9/11, and also presented the TV series The Pervert's Guide to Cinema.

When were you happiest?
A few times when I looked forward to a happy moment or remembered it – never when it was happening.
What is your greatest fear?
To awaken after death – that's why I want to be burned immediately.
What is your earliest memory?
My mother naked. Disgusting.
Which living person do you most admire, and why?
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Indifference to the plight of others.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Their sleazy readiness to offer me help when I don't need or want it.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
Standing naked in front of a woman before making love.
Aside from a property, what's the most expensive thing you've bought?
The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.
What is your most treasured possession?
See the previous answer.
What makes you depressed?
Seeing stupid people happy.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
That it makes me appear the way I really am.
What is your most unappealing habit?
The ridiculously excessive tics of my hands while I talk.
What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?
A mask of myself on my face, so people would think I am not myself but someone pretending to be me.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Watching embarrassingly pathetic movies such as The Sound of Music.
What do you owe your parents?
Nothing, I hope. I didn't spend a minute bemoaning their death.
To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
To my sons, for not being a good enough father.
What does love feel like?
Like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.
What or who is the love of your life?
Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.
What is your favourite smell?
Nature in decay, like rotten trees.
Have you ever said "I love you" and not meant it?
All the time. When I really love someone, I can only show it by making aggressive and bad taste remarks.
Which living person do you most despise, and why?
Medical doctors who assist torturers.
What is the worst job you've done?
 Teaching. I hate students? They are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.
What has been your biggest disappointment?
What Alain Badiou calls the "obscure disaster" of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.
If you could edit your past, what would you change?
My birth. I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born – but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
To Germany in the early 19th century, to follow a university course by Hegel.
How do you relax?
Listening again and again to Wagner.
How often do you have sex?
It depends what one means by sex. If it's the usual masturbation with a living partner, I try not to have it at all.
What is the closest you've come to death?
When I had a mild heart attack. I started to hate my body: it refused to do its duty to serve me blindly.
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
To avoid senility.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The chapters where I develop what I think is a good interpretation of Hegel.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.
Tell us a secret.
Communism will win.

Saturday, 18 September 2010


The idea at the heart of Inception - that what we think is reality might not be reality - is interesting, but the film about that has been glued onto a movie that wants to be part of the Bourne series and then the whole thing has been put together by someone with a huge budget and a very good special effects machine. Just to make sure we get our money's worth, every possible feature of that contraption is demonstrated during the course of the narrative - the manufacturers could use it as a sales video. The trouble is all those dazzling visuals interrupt the flow of any thought. Complexity is thrown away in favour of chase scenes in markets in Mombasa and on remote ski slopes. Michael Caine makes a cameo appearance as a genial professor - though what he is professor of is unclear (architecture possibly). The film is so long that even the makers must have realised they'd gone overboard - perhaps as a consequence they dispensed with credits at the start. It reminded me, strangely, of Artificial Intelligence - both films take a fascinating concept and then, as if afraid of it, proceed to go on and on and on, bombarding us with expensive imagery but no content to speak of. Both films, if my memory of Artificial Intelligence is correct, involve cars underwater too. The characterisation in Inception is almost non-existent, which makes it very hard for the viewer to feel involved. Eames comes closest to being anything more than a gadget for providing information about the inception process, but that is not saying much. Each time there was an attempt to build tension, I found myself wondering why I should care. At the end, it is not entirely clear whether the outcome for the main character has been good. The trouble is, despite my great fondness for Leonardo di Caprio who plays the central figure,  it didn't matter to me either way. After two and a half hours, I just wanted to go home.

Friday, 17 September 2010

News from the Post Box

Yes, it's been raining again, praise be the Lord - it keeps me in touch with my neighbours. This afternoon, as I was once more kneeling at our splendid mail box altar, going through my gratitude-for-the-gift-of-water ritual, two girls walked by. I didn't hear any of what they were saying, except at the moment they passed. It was at that point that  one said to the other, "I'd like to become a vegetarian - but only if I can still eat meat."

Mind Like a Cesspit

Is it just me or was the play listed on BBC Radio Four's schedule last Monday rather unfortunately named? It was described as being a dark drama set in the heart of Soho's gay scene and its title was "The Cracks".

While we're on the subject (what subject?) I am reminded of the time when I was living in Belgrade and an old Serbian man was reportedly attacked by unknown assailants on Kosovo Polje and left with an empty Kneza Mihajlovic mineral water bottle shoved up his bum. This piece of news, largely thanks to the unusual involvement of the glass container, was covered widely in the newspapers of the world. As a result, my aunt went to enormous trouble to ring me (in the days before it was easy to get through on the telephone to what was still essentially a Communist country) to ask which end of the bottle had been used. Clearly, impure minds run in the family.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Glamour of Diplomacy

Just over ten years ago today an Australian ambassador in a city in Europe was pondering how best to celebrate the start of the Sydney Olympic Games. Instructions had been sent out from Canberra that all overseas missions should do something to mark the occasion. The problem was that the opening ceremony would begin at about 10 in the morning local time. Even the most hardened members of the diplomatic corps could not be expected to accept a drink so early - at least not in public. Then he hit on it - the idea was brilliant. He would give a party for the local country's Olympic team instead. That would be a gesture more in keeping with the Olympic spirit, giving the locals a tremendous send off,  strengthening the bond between the people of the two nations, generating boundless goodwill.

The invitations were sent out, the arrangements were all set in train. Everything was in order until at three o'clock in the morning on the day of the party the ambassador woke from a deep sleep. The Paralympic team. What if any of them had wheelchairs? His residence had no disabled access. Disaster loomed.
As day broke, the ambassador arrived at his office. He called in his senior researcher. "Find out who is coming and what kind of access they'll need," he told him. Meanwhile he instructed the junior girl to check on the availability of stair lifts and ramps, and whether they could be hired at very short notice.

An hour and a half later, the senior researcher burst back into the room. 'I have wonderful news for you, sir,' he cried, 'there are ten members of the Paralympic team attending your reception this evening, but they are all mentally disabled."

A Bit Wobbly

My children sometimes imply that I might not be an entirely fit mother. This is partly because of my habit of completely losing my temper and chasing them through the house shouting that I will burn all their toys if they don't behave. I reckon it's their fault for being annoying, by the way, but we may have to agree to differ on that.

One issue, however, that I find it harder to defend myself on is my squeamishness in the face of blood. While I'm happy to look at my own flowing out in torrents, the sight of a cut on anyone else turns me into an abject weed. Even seeing someone trimming their fingernails makes me wince, let alone injuries from childhood falls. Grazes on knees, sliced fingers, gashed foreheads, all these have me turning away in horror, gesturing vaguely towards the medicine cupboard and the packet of Band Aids I hope are somewhere inside. 'You're supposed to do that for us,' my daughters tell me (or used to - they're in their twenties now and have given up), 'you're supposed to clean up the wound and kiss it better.' 'Don't mention the word "wound"' is all I can mutter as I stagger towards the sofa for a long lie down.

I have to admit this used to make me feel a bit guilty. At least it did until I saw my friend Polly last weekend. She told me about her great grandfather who was so squeamish that when his son was dissecting corpses (as part of his medical studies, I hasten to add, rather than just as a hobby) he would come home and tease his father by sitting down at dinner and pretending to be distracted by a tiny speck on his coat sleeve. Picking the imaginary article off the material, he would examine it with a frown. 'Oh, it's just a bit of skin,' he'd announce, flicking it lightly away. Then he would pick up his knife and fork and look around hungrily, as his father, drained of colour, was escorted from the room.

Worse than that though - and this is the detail that makes me feel quite normal - Polly's great grandfather could not remain in a room where there was jelly. In fact, he only had to glimpse the stuff to be off his food all day.

So you see, there's nothing wrong with me at all. I might faint at the sight of a pair of nail scissors but I can contemplate a bowl of jelly without turning a hair.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

World War I Diary

My grandfather grew up in Victoria but served with the British Army in World War One. He left detailed diaries of his time fighting in France between 1915 and 1917. We have always wondered what to do with them as they give such a clear and interesting account not just of the events he witnessed but also of the different attitudes of the time. In order to make them available as a resource for anyone who is interested, I have decided to make them into a blog, posting each entry on the date that coincides with the date that it was first written. The first thing I have is a letter from 17 September, 1915. I then have two or three more letters, written over the course of October and November that year. Only once my grandfather is posted to fight in France in late November does he start to write his diaries in earnest. From then on, there will be daily posts, corresponding to his daily diary entries. The blog address, for those who wish to read further is:

Monday, 13 September 2010

Ah Dope

There are no jokes like the old ones, some say. Certainly the students' habit of changing round the letters on the AD Hope building at the Australian National University goes back to the first day the building was opened, (which is not actually very long ago, even in Canberra terms). Anyway, AD Hope was a fine, if occasionally controversial, poet and writer. He described Patrick White's prose, in a review of Tree of Man, as 'verbal sludge', which didn't endear him to everyone. Strangely enough the views he expresses in this poem, in which he attacks the philistinism he saw in Australia (while also managing a sideswipe at Europe as well), would probably have endeared him to grim old Mr White.


A D Hope

A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

Saturday, 11 September 2010


I'm going to Budapest soon and I am determined not to pack too much this time. Usually on the eve of a voyage I am to be found sitting on a suitcase, squeezing the lid down, trying to get it to close. Just as I think all is well and I can snap shut the fasteners, the far corner suddenly splits from the base. With some difficulty, I get that squashed back into position and then the corner diagonally opposite leaps up at me instead. I stamp it into submission, only to find the whole of one side is beginning to gape.

Just at the moment, our new government reminds me of one of my overfilled suitcases. Just when you think it's all finally contained, an independent springs out of nowhere, claiming he didn't know a certain tax would not be part of some process. They get him under control somehow, but almost immediately another independent leaps up, saying he is also concerned about some other aspect of the same tax. He is appeased and settles back down and all seems to be well. Then a third independent appears, saying he doesn't just want the tax discussed; he wants the whole thing redesigned.

Day by day, we get another glimpse of things that are meant to be shoved out of sight - governmental socks and underpants, worn pyjama bottoms, fraying string vests - each one bursting out just when you least expect it. Presumably the whole churning mass will be sealed up eventually. Good strong padlocks will be needed then.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Hanging Too Good for Them?

The Old Melbourne Gaol is a forbidding looking place – which I suppose is as it should be. It is built from bluestone, a material that, in my view, (and I apologise in advance to Melbourne Grammar School, [the world's leading bluestone educational establishment?] for saying this) rarely inspires a sense of cheer.

The interior of the jail, although partly painted, (thus concealing to some extent the sombre blueness of the bluestone), is at least as gloomy as the exterior. It consists of a long stone corridor, flanked on either side by low doorways. A metal staircase at one end leads to the galleries that encircle the two upper floors. Little light reaches through the cells' small windows and there is no visible means of heating. It was freezing the whole time I was inside, and it rained ceaselessly. The steady sound of falling water only increased my sense of gloom.

I should point out, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that I did not go to the jail as an inmate, (the building has not actually functioned as a jail for many years); I went as a visitor to what has become a museum. Instead of prisoners, the cramped cells of the former institution now contain detailed displays that tell the story of Victoria's early penal history.

Melbourne Gaol, it turns out, was built in the mid-nineteenth century – hence, presumably, the archaic spelling. It was modelled on Pentonville Prison in London, which was the template for penal establishments throughout the British Empire at the time. The Pentonville design was based upon the "Pentonville method", which favoured long periods of isolation, silence and constant surveillance – designed to break the spirit so that reform could be effected. During recent repairs at the Melbourne Gaol, a subterranean, windowless "punishment cell", where inmates could be left for up to four days, was discovered, evidence that the isolation principles of the Pentonville method were enforced here with more gusto than previously thought. This does not come as a total surprise once you've seen the dreadful calico hoods that prisoners had to wear in solitary confinement – and the even worse iron masks, inflicted as punishment for outrageous behaviour, such as, horror of horrors, whistling in your cell.

What does seem astonishing though is the information that the jail's youngest inmates included: in 1859, a three-year-old called Michael Cummins, incarcerated for six months for being idle and disorderly (fairly difficult to be anything else at three, I would have thought); Robert Hall, a four-year-old, imprisoned for vagrancy; his brother, Charles, a seven-year-old, also a "vagrant"; and Thomas McNamara, aged nine, charged, once again, with vagrancy. It is details like these that prove the past really is another country: a world where children could be locked up for having nothing to do seems a very foreign place indeed.

Of course, there were far worse fates than isolation and the “Pentonville Method” awaiting prisoners at Melbourne Gaol. Not to put too fine a point on it, 135 of them ended up swinging from the jail’s gallows—which the visitor can still view on an upper level of the museum, along with the dreadful contraption called a lashing triangle. In the cells on the ground floor, the stories of some of these individuals are told. In each separate room, the death mask of one or other of the death sentence victims is displayed, along with information about their convictions.

Among the 135 who were punished by hanging, there were some who were unarguably bad. Martha Needle is one such. Also known as the Richmond Poisoner, she discovered how easy it was to make money from insurance by knocking off family members with arsenic laden food. She managed to poison her husband, three children and a future brother-in-law, before being caught and hanged on 22 October, 1894.

Frederick Bailey Deeming, the famous Windsor Murderer, is another. Deeming, whose death mask is accompanied by a cast of one of his hands, (and what a dreadful hand it seems, once we learn what deeds it did), was once considered a suspect for the crimes of Jack the Ripper. He travelled between the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and South America, with his wife Marie and four children to begin with, and later with his second wife, Emily. He arrived with Emily in Victoria in December 1891 and rented a cottage, calling himself Mr Drewin. In March 1892 when the landlord was showing someone through the cottage, (presumably after the departure of Deeming), he noticed a horrible smell. Police were called and dug up Emily's body, encased in cement and buried beneath the hearthstone. Subsequently, English police found the bodies of Marie and her four children beneath the hearthstone in Deeming's house in Liverpool. Deeming, having now promoted himself to the peerage – he was calling himself Baron Swanson—was caught in Western Australia, where he was about to marry again. Despite a plea of insanity, he was executed at the jail on 23 May, 1892.

Sadly most of the other hanging victims we are introduced to seem, at least on the face of it, less deserving of their eventual fate. In the first cell we go into we find the masks of two Tasmanian Aborigines—Bob "Smallboy" and Jack "Tummunperway". In 1839, they travelled to Victoria from Tasmania with the Chief Protector of Aborigines. When a female amongst their party (the famous Truganini, as it happens), thought she recognised a whaler who had abducted and murdered her husband, they killed him as payback. In sentencing them, the judge declared, "the punishment that awaits you is not one of vengeance but terror… to deter similar transgressions." They were hanged on 21 January, 1842 and, possibly because it was the state's first execution, the job was horribly bungled, one observer describing it as a "disgusting execrable scene."

The next cell tells the story of George Melville, a highwayman, hanged for robbery with intent to murder on 3 October, 1853. He was involved in a hold-up of the “gold trip” in Bendigo, and after his execution the prison released his dead body to his wife, who took it, decorated it with flowers and put it on display in her oyster shop, attracting large crowds. Whether or not she continued trading in oysters with him in situ is, disappointingly, not revealed—I like to think she laid him on a bed of the things and picked them out from under his corpse to serve to ghoulish clients. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that grim tableau, it was decided from then on that the bodies of the hanged would no longer be released to their families but instead would be buried at the prison itself.

An ex convict called Weachurch was the next to go to the gallows—or the next we are shown at least. He was first transported from Britain to Tasmania for theft, and it seems pretty clear from the stuff on display about him that he was either mad or driven mad by the penal system and was in need of treatment rather than execution. On the wall in his cell is a long, somewhat deranged letter that he wrote to his parents during his incarceration. It makes poignant reading: he assures them that he is certain he will soon be released, writing of his "humbel, hearnist, heartfelt prayer" in a script far more beautiful than most of us today can muster. Two thousand people are said to have gathered in Melbourne’s Royal Park to protest against his sentence, which suggests that even in 1835 there were plenty of decent people around.

Weachurch is followed by: an Italian named Bondietto, who was convicted on trumped up circumstantial evidence and spoke no English, so that, horrifyingly, he didn't even realise what was happening until two minutes before he was put to death; an Indian called Fatta Chand, a 24-year-old door-to-door salesman who was supposed to have killed his mate but protested his innocence to the end—the public's attitude to him, sadly, was rather less enlightened than it had been toward Weachurch: in fact, his hanging resulted in nothing except renewed calls for restricted immigration (how things change eh?); An Gaa, a Chinese about whom there was never any doubt that he killed his mate nor about the fact that he was utterly insane; and another 24-year-old, Fred Jordan, an ex-slave from Maryland who, although sweet natured when sober, killed his wife when drunk and whose last words were, 'No, I have nothing to say. It is no use now".

And with the story of Fred Jordan we reach the end of the row of cells on the ground floor, but not the end of the prisoners' stories. In fact, the museum curators have saved us the best for last. Coming out of the final cell doorway, we are confronted with one more deathmask, a more familiar one, belonging to the prison’s most famous inmate. It rests in a glass case at the end of the ground floor corridor–a position that captures what light there is and suggests an altar rather than an exhibit - and it belongs to Ned Kelly.

Kelly's execution took place at the jail on 11 November, 1880. Pitifully, his mother, who was also a prisoner at the time, was working in the prison laundry only a few yards away, aware of what was happening but unable to witness her son's death, (I am not suggesting she would have wanted to attend the event as a spectator, but I think any mother would have wanted to lend emotional support, if that doesn't sound too "new agey" in the circumstances.)

I never really know what I think about Kelly. The times he lived in were hard, but he was a violent man and a threat to authority in the new colony, and I am far from being an anarchist. His mother, (of whom there is a startlingly clear photograph from 1911 on display,) was, I suppose, partly to blame for his downfall, given that it was she who suggested he apprentice himself to a bushranger in the first place—Harry Power, who also spent time at Melbourne Gaol, although he escaped the gallows, dying instead by falling in the River Murray some time later. On the other hand, Kelly was not merely a thief, if the information provided about him by the museum is to be believed. According to that, he was also a kind of revolutionary, with a plan of some sort to declare the north-eastern part of Victoria an autonomous Republic. I don't know whether this legitimises his activities, but it does suggest he was a thinker of some description, as well as a crook.

Many relics of the Kellys can be seen in the jail, including two suits of the armour the gang fashioned from ploughshares (although not Kelly's own, which, in what may be a stroke of irony or merely a nice reminder of the fact that his nihilistic efforts might have prevented the establishment of such a civilised institution, takes pride of place at the State Library, which was set up by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Kelly to death.) It is almost pointless looking at them anyway: like chocolate box alpine scenes, the things are so ubiquitous as images that it is actually quite surprising to view them in the round and realise that they really do exist. They are overflowing with symbolic meaning - although what they are symbolic of exactly, I am far from certain - but it is nearly impossble to see them simply as what they are.

One item of Kelly's on display in the jail that did touch me a little though, setting up some sense of a link between the man and the present, was a green velvet sash that Kelly was given when he was about 10, after he leapt into a fast-flowing river, without any thought for his own safety, and saved a boy from drowning (given Harry Power’s eventual fate, he might have done well to keep Kelly by him longer, in the circumstances). Kelly was wearing the sash at his death which struck me as rather poignant—I’m probably getting carried away with sentiment here (this is what the Kelly myth does to you, if you don’t watch it) but I couldn’t help wondering if the object reminded him of what he might have been, rather than what he had become.

Strangely though, resonant and almost overpowering as Kelly's story is for Australians, it is not the most powerful or upsetting tale in Melbourne jail–not by a long chalk. That honour is reserved, at least in my mind, for the account of what happened to Colin Ross, which can be found in a large room right at the top of the building.

Colin Ross was convicted in 1922 of the murder of a young girl and sentenced to hang. He insisted he had not committed the crime, going so far as to persuade his warders to give him, illegally, a pencil stub, with which he scrawled the following note on the back of an envelope:

"Dear Friends outside, a few words from Colin Ross, who is going to hang an innocent man, I appeal to the people of Australia to see that I get justice. My life has been sworned away by police and wicked people. I ask you this because if they will do it to me they will do the same to you. Take this to some paper office for me please, I am an innocent man."

The note, now on display in the jail, was somehow thrown over the prison wall and found by a passer by. The guards who had supplied the means of writing it were punished. Then it was discovered that, after all, Colin Ross had been telling the truth all along. He had been framed by police anxious for a quick result and by someone with a grudge against him. Forensic evidence proved his innocence and he was pardoned. Sadly, he was already dead by then, having been hanged on 24 April, 1922. His vindication came on 27 May, 2008, almost 100 years to late

But, if Ross's tale is not enough to give the most keen devotee of hanging pause for thought, there is always the issue of whether it is fair to ask someone else to carry out the deed. Next to a room in which the only thing on exhibit is an extremely lifelike human figure with its back to the viewer, the canvas hood worn by all condemned men over its head and a leather covered hangman's noose around its neck, the stories of the first people who were given the unpleasant task of being hangmen are laid out in considerable detail.

The first we meet is Alexander Green, originally the New South Wales hangman, who completed 409 executions before going mad. After him comes Michael Gately, a convict whose claim to fame, apart from being generally hated, was that he converted from Roman Catholicism to the Jewish faith while in jail, because being a Jew brought an entitlement to Passover cake. While in life Gately seems to have retained his equanimity better than most of his colleagues, he now, supposedly, haunts the jail.

Gateley’s replacement was Elijah Upjohn, a criminal from the UK whose offences included "drunkenness" and "indecent exposure" plus, mystifyingly, "carting night soil without a license." (was this what they did before telly?) It was Upjohn who hanged Ned Kelly, but accounts from the time suggest that he had to be wound up to the act with large amounts of alcohol. After Kelly's execution, Upjohn apparently lost what little nerve he had, bungled the next hanging he presided over and retired a broken man. William Walker succeeded him but, when faced with the first hanging of a woman in Victoria, he cut his own throat instead. The man who followed him fared no better, descending into madness and ending his life convinced naked girls were chasing him down the street abusing him.

These stories suggest that, whatever we may think of the criminals who are being punished, hanging is not merely a risky business for those on whom it is practised but also a destructive enterprise for those who have to carry out the deed. There is always another victim, it seems—and that is the hangman. Of course, the leaders of some countries would advocate a sharing of the burden instead—a collectivisation of responsibility via the practice of stoning—but all I can say to them is, “Off with your heads.”

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Lives of Others

Walking ahead of me on the local mountain were two pony-tailed girls.
'There's a new guy at work,' one said to the other.
'Oh yeah.'
'He's looking at happiness.'
'Oh right.'
Then they stopped talking. Just when it was getting interesting. Where is their office? How do I get that job?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Freecycle - It's the Way You Tell Them

There's nothing wrong with these listings, except the fact that they are together. I can't stop wondering whether there's a connection between the two:

"Offer - six beef sausages
Wanted - breast pump"

(Actually, the offer of six beef sausages, now I think about it, is fairly odd even on its own - there must be a dog nearby that you can toss them to, surely?)

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe

drill down - 'I had to drill down through the issues';
around - as in 'issues around';
and, last but not least, 'stakeholders'

I wonder where I heard those today?

(A clue: the person who uttered them also relieved himself of this homily, which I am about to commit to rainbow coloured needlepoint - “It’s going to be ugly but it’s going to be beautiful in its ugliness".)

Monday, 6 September 2010

It Must Be Global Warming

This weekend in our town it rained more heavily than it had in years - certainly more heavily than it had since we built our smart brick letterbox. Which is why it came as a revelation to discover that, when it rains very heavily, the stuff the postman puts into the letterbox ends up lying in a four-inch puddle of rainwater marinade.

So I was kneeling in front of the letterbox with a cloth, plunging my hand, plus cloth, into the dark cavity, removing hand, plus cloth, from dark cavity, wringing out cloth and repeating the process over and over again. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hedge, a snazzy looking young woman appeared round the corner. She was talking into her mobile telephone.

'What, before William?' she said, 'I don't believe it. No, that can't be true. Oh my god, are you really sure? That is SO amazing.' She was talking loudly, her voice filled with breathy excitement. 'You're kidding me,' she squealed, 'I was sure it was only after William. Are you certain? Are you absolutely certain? Do you promise it was before? That's incredible. Before? That is just completely unreal.'

My mind was dancing with sordid scenarios, boys dumped and boys duped and boys doublecrossed. I wrung out the cloth again and plunged it into the post box, just as she drew level.

'That's why they called him the Conqueror then, I guess,' she said.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

God's Own Country

Whispering Gums wrote a post on Australian expatriate writers the other day. It began with this quote from Carmen Calill: "Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere".

Shortly after seeing Whispering's piece, I was in the library. As always, when looking for something else, I came across lots of interesting things that I hadn't known I wanted to begin with. Among them was this interview from Quadrant April 1970, looking at the attitude in Australia toward expatriate comedians. Peter Coleman was the interviewer and he was talking to Barry Humphries and Dick Bentley, (I don't remember Bentley, although I learn from Wikipedia that he was in the Sundowners, which my mother took me to see at the Essoldo Cinema in the King's Road, Chelsea, when I was way to young to understand the most basic children's flick, let alone something designed for adult Australians. The one impression I came away with was that my mother's homeland was about as unlike Chelsea in the 1960s as anywhere possibly could be.)

A lot of what they talk about no longer applies - particularly the bits about Australia House being anxious to downplay the rigours of the bush in order not to put off migrants (during the 80s at Australia's Vienna embassy in fact they used to have a documentary about Australia's most poisonous spiders and snakes running on a continuous video loop in the immigration waiting room.) Nevertheless, as with anything involving Humphries, the piece offers some amusing insights.

Barry Humphries and Dick Bentley, interviewed by Peter Coleman
Quadrant, April, 1970,
How dare you make us laugh?
From time to time Australian critics or officials have criticised Australian comedians in London for presenting an untrue, out of date or at least unflattering idea of Australia to British audiences. They are often supported by English critics: recently to Mr Barry Humphries's irritation, his BBC television work was praised by English critics for the way it ridiculed Australian crudity. In this interview in London Peter Coleman discussed this issue and the role of the comedian with two leading "expatriate" comedians.

Peter Coleman: Let's start with some horrific examples. Would you give the most horrific example you can think of that illustrates this peculiar attitude that you think Australian officials and Australians have to Australian comedians overseas.

Barry Humphries: Luckily I commute a bit back and forth. Last time I arrived at the airport two gentlemen of the press approached me almost simultaneously, and the first one asked a question that is quite commonly addressed to returning entertainers: "Glad to have you back Barry. Very nice to see you back in Australia. What are your plans? Are you going to stay in Australia for very long?" I was very interested in this because it is a trick question. I said I was going to do three television shows and then I had to go back to London to do a series with the BBC. And he immediately said - "Yes, we probably seem a little bit rough and ready to you now, a little dull and naive compared to your new-found friends in the West End of London." I was a little bit chilled by this. Seconds later another microphone was thrust in my face and another voice said to me - "We're very glad to see you Barry. What are your plans?" I was very guarded at this point and I said - "Oh well, I'm very glad to be back in Australia and as a matter of fact, though I've got this BBC series, I would very much like to be staying on and working here some considerable period of time." And he said, "Yes, we heard that you weren't doing too well over there."

Dick Bentley: I don't get that treatment. I've been away rather longer although I've been back in ’51, ’55, ’61, ‘66, and I'd go back rather more often if they'd have me. But it drives me barmy: "I suppose you reckon you are an Englishman now." This is ridiculous. I usually say - "No, actually I'm Swedish" - but your opening remarks, Peter, indicate that Australians do not hold a favourable view of us.

Coleman: Well, apparently there have been some criticisms made. For example, you were involved in some controversy some years back. What was that?

Bentley: I did a programme for the BBC sound radio -an Australia Day programme and we had all the top people from the operatic field, the concert platform and all the people from all the cultural departments - all Australians. It was a 45 minute programme and sandwiched amongst these pleasant cultural items I introduced Keith Michell, who was at Stratford-upon-Avon at the time, reading a little from the ‘balcony scene’ from CJ Dennis's Sentimental Bloke, which I loved. There was also a sketch of two run-down terribly effete people from Mayfair – a fellow and his girl and their counterparts in Australia - talking. The Mayfair fellow says - "vin rouge my pet? " and the Australian says - "a drop of plonk darl?" This was considered to be slang and of course CJ Dennis was considered undoubtedly to be slang. The two items took about 4 1/2 minutes, but the front page heading in a Sydney newspaper the following day said BRITAIN SHOCKED BY SLANG PACKED AUSTRALIA DAY PROGRAMME. I took the rap. The fact that I did the Mayfair fellow seems to have escaped them.

I don't think Australia House were in love with me round about that time. I went round to Australia House to see if I could get a copy of Dennis's work – the combined essays – I always love that – and I said to the lady at the counter. "Do you have a copy of CJ Dennis's work?" "Oh," she said, "there's been a terrible run on them lately – they've all gone." I said "Good, I suppose people heard it on the programme." She said, "Yes all those English people, they've come and bought all the books." I said "I thought they'd like it." She said, "Oh they don't like it. The English only buy that book because they like to see Australians in a bad light."

I hear on the grapevine that Barry is persona non grata at Australia House. Is this because he is supposed to, I was going to say, rubbish his countrymen, though I don't think that Australia House would approve of such a word, because I don't think that they acknowledge there is such a thing as slang. I understand they would probably use a word like denigrate.

Coleman: Well, Australia, in the government view, is a "swinging refined country, fly free and fireproof". As one correspondent said in the Guardian this week: the typical Australian is a middle-aged housewife talking about nickel and oil or on her way to the stock exchange for the weekly lecture, and none of this fits in with the "bastard from the bush" image. The question arises as to how much truth there is in this? Is this kind of comedy making fun of an outdated stereotype? This is what they would say if they were pressed.

Humphries: What would they say if they weren't pressed? Quite recently I did a tour in Australia, one of those one-man shows and it went down well. It seemed to me that if it had described stereotypes of Australian characters that didn't exist the audience wouldn't have laughed with the energy they did. It seems to me that people laugh at things they understand. But the fact is that I did the same show for a limited season in London at the beginning of this year and a number of English critics commented on the fact that this indicated that Australia was not a very desirable place to live in. Quotations of this kind went back to all the Australian newspapers and numbers of people including a well-known New Zealand impresario… who shall be nameless… went to the press, said he had seen the show in London and that I was doing Australia a grave disservice and that the authorities at Australia House should have the power to take me off the stage. Apparently it's okay if you say this sort of thing in Australia, but if you say it abroad its rather different, it's rather bad form. But curiously enough an Englishman approached me recently and said that he had thought of going to Australia and had decided against it, but when he had seen my show he thought that he would revise his decision and go to Australia after all. He said "You see, it must be quite a good place, because it seems that Australians, whatever we'd heard to the contrary, are able to laugh at themselves."

Coleman: I think that's probably true, that probably Dick Bentley and Barry Humphries are among the best migration drummers that we have…

Bentley: We have a disadvantage in being comedians. We're not jockeys. I think actors are a bit suspect with Australians. In Australia I remember a fellow being asked – "What do you do? An actor? No, what do you do for a job?" So it's slightly shaky there and perhaps comedians even more so. But I was interested in your point about people laughing at themselves. I should imagine that one of the main functions of Australia House is public relations, nurturing the relationship between this country and Australia.

Humphries: They are very partial to giving dried fruit to people in the Strand. They rush up and plunge handfuls of dried fruit at them, much to their astonishment.

Bentley: I think that, rather than widening the gap, the very fact of seeing the Australians laughing at themselves – this is the kind of thing the British have done all their lives – will bring the countries closer together.

Coleman: I think that the critics who say that you are rubbishing Australia are to some extent missing the point. Did you see that critic in the Daily Express the other day, who said something to the effect that Barry Humphries is keenly aware of the lack of culture that his countrymen bear and that he is at his best when he's ridiculing them. I think this is to miss the point – that in fact what the audience is laughing at is not so much Australians as themselves. They see the characters you present, whether you call them Australian, British or Anglo Australian or something, and then they say they are laughing at Australians – but they know they're really laughing at themselves. I don't think that Australian officials and the pompous London television critics are right…

Humphries: I prefer to think that too. But I've never set out in a mood of mockery of Australia, never consciously at any rate. I've often seen aspects of Australian life that I positively detest and I've tried to describe that in my work quite a bit.

Coleman: It is interesting that there is not, in London, a number of Canadians exploiting Anglo-Canadian humour or South African comedians exploiting Anglo-South African humour or New Zealand comedians using Anglo-New Zealand humour. Perhaps this Anglo-Australian humour is a special thing.

Bentley: Well, comedy or rather comedians are in rather short supply and always have been in South Africa and, strangely enough, in Canada. I think that one of the things here is that Australians are worried that the British will think we are crude, that we have a lot of slang. With respect, I think that Australian comedians would know better than any official at Australia House just what the British public thinks. It is part of our business to find out what they think. We live on that sort of thing. We have contacts that are not available to any official at Australia House, the fellow in the pub, the dustman, the workman, old men, old Etonians, the whole spectrum of society. People chat. You're on the television here – we know pretty well what the British public think and they're not thinking that because we have a joke about Australia – oh dear, what a terrible place.

Coleman: Australia House may think you are holding Australia up to ridicule in another country.

Bentley: I wonder what the attitude of the British High Commissioner is to the Alf Garnett show – that it might put off Australian tourists?

Coleman: There was a press report the other day about this fellow who had read two books about Australia, Craig McGregor's Profile and Donald Horne's Lucky Country. Both, whatever else you might say about them, are critical books. This fellow was saying that, if the country could produce such critics, well it wasn't too bad.

Humphries: The thing is that if we are going to be concerned about the criticism of Australian bureaucrats then we ought to give them a little observation, and recently I had something to do with Australian bureaucrats – with the income tax department in Australia. It seemed to me that they had been doing a lot of checking up on me and I had to go to some conference. They drew me along to their offices and I sat in this austere room with two people, one of whom I might say very closely resembled GK Chesterton's description: his hairline began with alacrity, where his eyebrows reluctantly left off. One of these gentlemen said "We have quite a dossier on you Mr Humphrey." He even got the name wrong and there on the desk was the biggest book of press clippings I've ever seen. So I said: "You are obviously very interested in my work – if we can forget income tax for a minute, tonight is the last night of my show. Would you like to come along?' He said – "Oh no, that won't be necessary. No, my son has been to… er… one of your… er… er… shows and he has told me quite a bit about it, all I will need for my purposes." So I'm wondering how many of these Australia House blokes actually see, actually watch us, actually listen to us. In fact it's conceivable they don't at all. They'd rather watch the Black and White Minstrel Show… 'We hear that this long-haired Brian Humphrey and this other fellow Bentley… quite amusing. I believe ... my son tells me… but of course we're busy. We're working late at Australia House, but I have it on very good authority that they are doing the country no good." Do they think about Scobie Breasley [an Australian jockey]? Are they worried the British will think that Australia consists of a lot of dwarfs?

Bentley: Take this Edna Everage that Barry does. I think she is a very docile lovely old doll. I don't think there's any venom in any of this at all. There is no venom in his Sandy character and also – nobody mentions this – in his programme, he sends up some English figures, French figures and what have you.

Coleman: The argument these people put forward is that expatriates live in the past, migrants live in the past. For example, the Irish in America are always supposed to be singing Danny Boy and this drives the Irish ambassadors mad, as Danny Boy either never existed or certainly doesn't exist now. The Irish ambassador – like Australia House – wants to present the image of a "modern swinging country". They don't want Danny Boy any more. So they say that you expatriates live in the past, that you live in an Australia that is dead and keep on making jokes about an Australia that is dead, and why don't you look at current "swinging" Australia?

Humphries: Let's face this exceptionally despicable description of expatriates – exiles perhaps. The thing is that of course to accuse us of living in the past reveals their deepest fear. What they really are afraid of is that we might possibly be living in the future. We have the biggest slice of the cake over here and we get here what they might only be hearing about a week later…

Bentley: Let me talk about this giving of a false picture. I know of an Australian authoress who was doing a saga for the BBC, an all Australian thing. It covered a period when there was a really bad drought in Australia. She went to Australia House to get some film clips of drought and bushfires. And they told her – oh no, not in front of the British. So no drought, no bushfires, no bush – that's a strong point, don't show us all the bush, I know that point. Now on top of that I understand they are trying to give an image of no suburbia, because they quarrel about Barry's suburban satire. So if there's no slang, no drought, no bushfires, no suburbia, no beer drinking, no rough spoken people, as there are of course in every country in the world, if they are denying the existence of these people, I get very cross. I'm very fond of all sorts of people and, if they deny their existence, they're ashamed of them – and if they're ashamed of them, it is deplorable. Outside of that, they are just outrageous bloody snobs and they are rubbishing Australia by giving a false picture.

Humphries: It's interesting because it seems they would like expatriates to be their property. If we remained in Australia and did our work there, then we would be despised for that. It's like the story I told at the beginning "What are your plans Barry?" It's impossible to win.

Coleman: I remember, to give another illustration, talking to a High Commissioner and he complained of the London success of Nolan and Drysdale, in particular their landscapes, because they presented an image of Australia as having deserts and flies. This was bad for migration.

Humphries: Oh a very sensitive remark! We could put some plastic flowers on each picture…

Bentley: Incidentally, practically everybody comes from the suburbs. I was born in the suburbs – I was brought up in an atmosphere where if you ate spaghetti you were a bohemian and if you lived in a flat, how evil it was to live in a flat. I lived in a place called Auburn – Melbourne – and I remember meeting Sir Robert Menzies at a meeting of the English Speaking Union. I got in because I was very heavily veiled and I was standing near Sir Robert and he said very quietly – "Was it being born in Auburn that made you turn towards humour?" I think that this sort of kidding is fine – it's a nice quip, it's a bit of a sendup, he's not denigrating Auburn or rubbishing anybody. What was I supposed to do – punch him in the face? I think that there are any number of Australians who do this sort of thing and people don't give them credit for… their keen sense of humour.

Coleman: But you haven't met the argument that you get your humour out of past stereotypes, that your picture of Australia is no longer accurate, that there is a new humour waiting.

Humphries: They say that, but is it possible that they might lack a sense of humour?

Coleman: Very likely but…

Bentley: But what do they mean by passed? In the first place a comedian can't do the bloke next door; there's nothing duller than the bloke next door; a comedian is a bit larger than life. I've been in three of Barry's shows and in one I sent up a rather loud Australian who thought he was talking to a lecherous drinking American who is really a padre. As soon as the wife is out of the room I say we'll go out and get stinking with Bluey and Tomo and all that sort of stuff and I've got two tarts from where I work – all this sort of thing. It is only coarse for comic effect. If you're going to tell me that there are no course people in Australia…

Coleman: A lady in the audience asked why you always coarsened the Australian accent. She was not attacking you, but she was clearly annoyed.

Humphries: About stereotypes, I recently met a very drunken Australian journalist but a very intelligent fellow. He said "I don't see you very often now Barry but I used to get your records and thought you were terrific in the old days, when you used to play at small theatres and I went along with my wife sometimes and we thought you were very good, but the last time we saw you we were very disappointed." I said, I'm sorry about that. Why was that? "Well," he said, "I'm sorry Barry, but you've just gone off." Why? I said. "Well, there was auntie Edna on the stage and we used to think that she was terrific – a scathing indictment of suburban Australia – and suddenly we were laughing and the wife nudged me and there was a woman that looked exactly like Edna next to us – laughing." I said, what's wrong with that? "Oh," he said, "if you'd been any good she wouldn't have been laughing."

The strange thing is that an aunt of mine in Australia said "I quite like the show Barry." (In fact she's the aunt on which Mrs Everage is based.) "I love Edna, oh we love her. But there was this sort of bearded arty person you did on stage – I know the type – sort of university type. I don't think you hit the point – because next to us was a person who looks exactly like him, with a beard, a duffle coat, oh, a horrible protest badge – everything. And I tell you he was killing himself with laughing. So I don't think you're quite hitting the nail on the head." So what do you do?

Coleman: But stereotypes do come and go. For example, the Dave and Mabel characters – they survived in England years after they died in Australia, in the form of Ron and Eth. They were popular as English stereotypes. It would be difficult to have that kind of Dad and Dave humour in Australia now.

Bentley: I hear from the head of the ABC sound and various friends that the Glums are now being played in Australia and are really doing something for radio

Coleman: I believe they are also being played in Johannesburg and Hong Kong, so there seems to be something universal about their appeal…

Humphries: The comedian addresses himself to the public and not to a minority in the press, who might like to have the gift of making people laugh, who might like to have been entertainers, and who quite naturally must express their acrimony in some way.

Coleman: They also live by news – live by the idea of change. The journalist doesn't like to think that there is an eternal and unchanging comedy. He wants something new all the time.

Bentley: I think I would like to say here that if I thought I would never get on a boat and spend a week on the Hawkesbury River again, life would be a very dim prospect for me. And this is coming from someone who was born in Melbourne. I found myself at a dinner with very high officers of Australia House once by the way, we were all sitting round the table and a gentleman from Colombo said to my wife – "Is your husband's period of office finished?" One of the guests, the Victorian agent general, said: "You'll be going to Melbourne of course?" I said, no I'm not. He said, "You don't know what you're missing." I said, yes I do that's why I'm not going. And everybody laughed, nobody hit me. I was kidding. If you can't have a bit of a giggle… But there is a tendency to want to put you back into line when you return home.

Coleman: I think it's as simple as this, they see you making fun of Australian crudities and they feel embarrassed. You shouldn't swear in front of the servants.

Bentley: But you can be sure that when you get Australian entertainers together they never stop talking about home. There's a tremendous affection. And to anyone who says – well, if you like Australia so much, why not come back and work there, the truth about that is I approached someone in this very building, a member of the ABC, I didn't like to grovel on my knees but I did hint that I would be very happy to work in an advisory capacity. I must have picked up something, even with a brain like mine. I've been at everything for so long. I might have been of some help. But I'm afraid that I was suitably ignored – so one of my ambitions…

Humphries: I'm interested in Peter's description of the passé stereotype. The stereotype is something that persists, isn't it? Can a stereotype be passé? Dad and Dave are still going strong – but they are wearing different clothes, working for different newspapers. Ginger Mick and the Sentimental Bloke still exist. I think that at the moment Contemporary Australian Urban Society is congratulating itself on being more progressive than, say, California – but I think it's a little bit of a joke, because I just don't think it's true.

Coleman: And you remind us that it's not true, by means of comedy based on standard types, and this is unwelcome. I think this is the conclusion. People who are concerned to defend public images are just never going to like comedy, because comedy is concerned with the exposing of public images, official images. So you are always going to be on the outer.

Humphries: The kind of criticism that is addressed to a comedian would never be addressed to a soprano, a jockey, a ballet dancer or a cricketer. How dare you make us laugh, how dare you? What effrontery. Mr Breasley is it because you are a dwarf that you ride so successfully?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Gruesome Headline

I just noticed the ABC news headline at the moment: "Baby born on board chopper". Being born on a baby chopper would be even more dangerous but even on a board chopper seems irresponsible to me. Maybe people should get a licence before they have a baby. They should certainly watch this ad from the Gruen Transfer challenge series before they make up their minds. "I really hope they're ready for me" seems pretty apt in the circumstances.

A Cheery Wave

I glimpsed someone waving to me from a passing car on the way to work yesterday morning. When I looked properly, I saw it was a dog's tail wagging through a ute's open window, as he and his master bowled along the road. Such carefree creatures, dogs.

I thought of Charles Simic's sad poem, Two Dogs. Good nature is so easily trampled underfoot:

Two Dogs by Charles Simic
(for Charles and Holly)

An old dog afraid of his own shadow
In some Southern town.
The story told me by a woman going blind,
One fine summer evening
As shadows were creeping
Out of the New Hampshire woods,
A long street with just a worried dog
And a couple of dusty chickens,
And all that sun beating down
In that nameless Southern town.

It made me remember the Germans marching
Past our house in 1944.
The way everybody stood on the sidewalk
Watching them out of the corner of the eye,
The earth trembling, death going by ...
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers' feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That's what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Freecycle - I Know the Feeling

"Offer - Pram four-wheeler, with toddler"

(Disappointingly, I have to admit that the listing has now been corrected to:

"Offer - Pram, four-wheeler, with toddler seat" - so there'll be no patter of tiny feet round here after all. Pity: I had so many wonderfully ludicrous names lined up. )

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Ooh Look, There Goes Concorde Again

Pathetically, I cried when I heard John Peel had died - I didn't even know him. But he had a gift for massaging the boring into the gently amusing on Home Truths and for finding odd bits of audio (calling some of them music was stretching the truth) and giving them an airing. I knew I would miss both.

Among the many things Peel played was one track I've never heard again, but never forgotten. It didn't really have a melody, sounding more like a chanted poem than a song (a steady, slightly relentless voice droning something along the lines of 'Down grim streets, lace curtains twitch as I walk slowly ...') Its chorus was the title of this piece, 'Ooh look, there goes Concorde again, ooh look, there goes Concorde again, ooh look, there goes Concorde again', delivered at each repetition with a very slightly different but always mildly bored intonation. It seems a fitting way to alert anyone interested to this , a list of the websites that might help me survive life trapped permanently in an airport. The site is a new one, set up by Brit and Gaw and Worm and various others. Thanks to them all for asking.

Misguided Advertising

Has anyone else noticed the billboard advertising a restaurant on the way from Canberra to Sydney? It stands in a field of cattle, to the left of the road. It reads:

'There is room for all God's creatures - on the plate beside the chips and salad.'

Every time I see it, it distracts me. For a start, it seems tactless to place it right there in the midst of those poor animals. I don't think they can read, but still.

But that's not my main objection. My main objection is the phrase 'all God's creatures.' All? Are you sure? Do I really want to eat a praying mantis, or a snake, or a selection of pan-fried cane toads?. 'Grilled long pork for you love?' 'No, thanks, just chips this time, for me.'