Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Evening Classes

We were excited when the brochure for evening classes at our local tech arrived. We pored over the possibilities with interest. 'If only the beginners' bagpipes class was on a weekend, instead of a Wednesday evening', my husband sighed - he works long hours and would rarely be able to front up for something that begins at 6 pm. 'If only I knew what a soy-wax ear candle was for, I'm sure I'd want to learn to make one', I cried.

We both fell silent, as the next page revealed this opportunity for extending our horizons:

It was an enormous relief to discover that neither of us were even faintly tempted by that option.

We weren't too thrilled by the prospect of being taught how to solve crossword puzzles or construct formal documents by illiterates either:

In the end, in fact, there was only one course that really captured our attention:
There is a sit-com right there in Kevin Norton's four-session social chit chat programme. If I could manage to disguise my inability to shut up for more than two minutes, I'd sign up and go along.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Not Funny

"... we were given twenty-five dollars apiece, American war-surplus uniforms all made to fit the same fat man with a dwarf's legs, a purple banner per company embroidered with hearts and daggers, and ... sent ...down to the frontier...Discontent developed among the troops when it was discovered that the bulk of the rations consisted of macaroni letters of the alphabet."

This is a passage from Norman Lewis's The Volcanoes Above Us. I thought it was farce, until I read this. Now I realise it's just good old old-fashioned realism.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Words and Phrases that are Horrid

Kevin at Helminthdale has reminded me of the truly sickening word,  'repurpose'. I loathe it so much that I now have to lie down.

Battered Penguins V

Tender is the Night, by F Scott Fitzgerald, is set mainly in the South of France, Paris and Switzerland, between about 1919 and 1930. It tells the story of Dick Diver and the group of rich Americans he lives amongst in those post- (or, as it turned out, between-) war years. The title is taken from Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and the book is dedicated to the author's Antibes-dwelling friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose picture you can see here.

Unusually, the novel has two published versions. The first - and the first I was ever exposed to -  opens in the summer of 1925 in the South of France. A young American film actress called Rosemary meets Dick and his wife Nicole. The couple have a house somewhere on the French Riviera. They spend their days on the 'bright tan prayer rug of a beach' beneath their house, surrounded by their friends. The account of what happens as Rosemary gets to know the Divers takes up the first part of the novel.  In the second part, we are taken back to a time before Dick and Nicole were married and we discover what lies behind certain puzzling incidents we have witnessed in the opening section.

The second version - which is that contained in the battered Penguin I have just read - reverts to a chronological framework, beginning at the actual beginning of the story - that is, with the second part of the original - and then proceeding to what was, in the original, the first part of the book, where we meet Rosemary and watch events unfold in the South of France. This second version is apparently the result of a revision made by Fitzgerald following the book's initial publication. He was disappointed by its reception and decided the lack of enthusiasm with which it was met might be due to the disordered arrangement of the episodes of the plot. 
I am not clear which is the currently accepted or authorised form of the novel, and I am not quite sure which I think is better. In the original version, the book's opening is almost cinematically visual. We are plunged into a bright, exciting world and, together with Rosemary, we are dazzled by the characters we meet. We see them only from the outside, getting to know them in the same way that we might if we encountered them in real life. We form impressions, as we do when we meet strangers, based on their behaviour. We are charmed by the personalities they choose to display to the social world. Only then are we allowed to find out what lies behind the brittle but glittering facade that they have shown us.

The later, chronologically ordered version dispenses with the mystery the original managed to build around the Divers. It does not give the reader the chance to be seduced by the versions of themselves the Divers permit others to see. Instead of presenting a wide, sparkling panorama, peopled with colourful players, Fitzgerald focuses immediately on Dick Diver. Rather than offering the temporary illusion that Dick leads an enchanted life, right from the very first paragraph it is made clear that Diver's fate is unlikely to be a happy one. 'Years later, Fitzgerald explains, "it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly". A note of melancholy is sounded from the opening page.

Perhaps in this respect the revised version is truer to the spirit of the novel than the original. After all, despite the at times fevered gaiety displayed by the characters, melancholy pervades Tender is the Night, whichever version you choose to read. It is partly the usual Fitzgerald melancholy, which derives from the mismatch between life and his characters' dream of how life should be, but it is also the melancholy of the post-war world - 'the broken universe of the war's ending', a place where even apparently beautiful things, like Nicole herself, are actually dreadfully damaged. It is the world that is left after, as Dick puts it during a visit to the Western Front, an 'empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs'. 
Besides melancholy, of course, the two versions share many other equally powerful elements. In both, the reader encounters an acutely observed chronicle of a relationship, which captures 'the vast irrationality' of infatuation and the poignance of being loved more than you love in return - 'It made him sad when she brought out her accomplishments for his approval' - and which recounts with great acuity the way that the tide of emotion between Nicole and Dick shifts and changes.

In both versions, the reader discovers a striking portrait of a talented man who uses 'somewhat conscious good manners', even though 'often he despised them because they were not a protest against how unpleasant selfishness was, but against how unpleasant it looked' and who is trapped by his own charm - his 'power of arousing a fascinating and uncritical love';a man who, despite thinking 'that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise', is defeated by his addiction to pleasing others, (an addiction in which always 'some element of loneliness [is] involved - so easy to be loved – so hard to love').

In both versions, Fitzgerald uses Rosemary - who, in her role as film star, is described as 'cutting a new cardboard paper doll to pass before its[the public's] empty harlot's mind'  and who, even when she is walking across a Western Front battlefield, feels she is 'in a thrilling dream' - to represent the shallow, bright unreality of the new world of film. In both, he displays a sharp eye for snobbery, describing, for instance, how one character, 'made a quick examination of [a man] and, failing to find any of the hallmarks she respected, the subtler virtues or courtesies by which the privileged classes recognised one another, treated him thereafter with her second manner', and presenting another's reaction to an acquaintance's death as entirely focused on his club membership – 'It wasn’t the Racquet Club he crawled to – it was the Harvard Club. I’m sure he didn’t belong to the Racquet'.

In both, he displays great perception about character - 'Her emotions had the truest existence in the telling of them' - and about the gulf that exists between us all - 'You never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.' In both, his writing is so vivid that some passages read like eye-witness reports from the dawn of modernity - here, for example, is what I would lay bets must be one of the first descriptions in literature of motor-vehicle-induced smog: 'In the square as they came out, a suspended mass of gasoline exhaust cooked slowly in the July sun. It was a terrible thing - unlike pure heat, it held no promise of rural escape, but suggested only roads choked with the same foul asthma.'

In both, there are one or two slightly squirmy sub-Lawrence moments and in both, I'm sorry to say, there are far too many incidences of homophobia and racism ( and this last is not confined to skin colour; indeed Fitzgerald seems to have reserved his greatest loathing for the English, about whom he has Dick Diver make many observations, of which my favourite is this: 'he had long ago concluded that certain classes of English people lived upon a concentrated essence of the anti-social' [I should add that, although Australians only appear once in the novel, they do not appear in a flattering light either]).

Most importantly though, in both versions the reader will find a moving and beautiful novel, tracing the path through life of a man full of promise whose failure may result from his exemption from war service (he was deemed 'too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun'), or from his decision to marry someone with 'too much money ... Dick can't beat that', or from his overwhelming desire 'to be loved', or from the tension between being 'dignified in his fine clothes, with their fine accessories,' and the fact that ' he was yet swayed and driven as an animal,' or simply from his fondness for drink. In addition, as he did in The Great Gatsby (which I regard as a lesser work, because a) it is more schematic and less ambiguous and b) it has, like Brideshead Revisited, a static and, to my mind, annoyingly directing point of view and voice, that of an elegiac narrator), Fitzgerald not only displays his talent for exceptionally poignant final lines but also litters every page of the path to that final line with a wealth of wonderful minor details, including the glorious information that an incidental character is 'a manufacturer of dolls' voices from Newark'.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Purple Haze

Look: I grew these (yes, I am proud - and I don't mind admitting it [I think it's okay to talk about my vegetables isn't it, even if I do have to steer clear of my children?]):

They (the eggplant, not my children) look exactly like my brother-in-law's favourite shoes (although, obviously, he only has two of them - he's not Jake the Peg or anything). My brother-in-law never buys anything cheap, so that means these are pretty classy eggplant (or, at the very least, it means that they have the potential to be over-priced).

But, of course, I'm not going to sell them (you can't sell your children - I mean, vegetables - can you? I mean there must be a law against that - at least in the ACT [there's a law against everything, in the ACT, let's face it.])

But, given that I am not planning to put them on the market, I do need some ideas about what to do with them. When I planted the bush all those months ago, it didn't occur to me that I might actually achieve a crop of the things (there are half a dozen more out there, swelling as I write). Now that I am faced with the finished product, I realise I don't usually cook eggplant and have no real idea about what makes them taste especially delicious.

I therefore welcome all recipe suggestions, provided eggplants are the central theme.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Freecycle - More than Meets the Eye

It often surprises me how much a short advertisement conveys about the person who is lodging it. Take this one:  

"OFFER: Lots and lots of baby gear (I was saving it for my stepdaughter - who has now announced she doesn't want children!)
 If you decide you want this, think about your response, because I won't necessarily give it to who asks first. :)"

Does anyone else, a) detect a bit of friction in that stepmotherly relationship and b) perceive some evidence that the personality behind the offer may not be the easiest ever encountered? Just two short sentences and so much is revealed. Beware the written word.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

My Exciting Life

The other day, while ironing, I watched the first in a series of lectures from Harvard by someone called Michael Sandel. The title of the lecture was 'The Moral Side of Murder', which I found appealing, since my neighbours were being particularly maddening and I was hoping it might supply me with a justification for at least knocking off their dogs.

Needless to say, I didn't find what I was hoping for, but I did find some new - to me, at least - ideas. As this was the first lecture of the first year course in political philosophy, probably most of the content would be a complete yawn to most people - and my older daughter has already told me it's tedious rubbish - but, in case there is one other naive ill-informed person out there who might find it useful, here is a synopsis of the interesting bits of what Mr Sandel said.

First, he asked the students to decide what they would do, were they driving a trolley car towards five workers and they discovered that the brakes had failed but that they could steer off to the left, avoiding the five workers and only hitting one worker on the branch line. Needless to say, almost everyone chose to steer the trolley car onto the branch line, thus saving the five but sacrificing the one life.

Next, Sandel suggested that there was a trolley car whose brakes had failed heading towards five workers, with no branch line alternative. In this hypothetical situation, you would not be driving the trolley car but standing on a bridge watching the situation. Beside you, leaning right out over the bridge's parapet to see better, would be an exceptionally fat man. In order to save the five workers, all you would need to do would be to give the fat man a small push and he would fall in front of the trolley car and bring it to a halt. This did not seem such an appealing proposition as merely steering the trolley car off the rails. Most people refused to choose to push the fat man over. (Oddly, no-one suggested persuading the fat man to sacrifice himself.)

Then, Sandel invited the audience to imagine themeselves as doctors in an emergency room where five victims of a trolley car accident have been brought in. It becomes clear that one of them can only be saved if all the doctors work on him, but, if they do that, the other four will die. If the doctors choose instead to work on the other four, the one who is really gravely injured will die. Most people chose to sacrifice the one for the four.

Finally, Sandel puts forward the idea that we are doctors in an emergency room and the trolley car victims come in and it becomes clear that each of them can only be saved by an organ transplant - one needs a heart, one lungs, one a liver, one kidneys, one something else. There are no organs available. And then one doctor remembers that there is a man who came in for a minor piece of cosmetic surgery who has not yet come out of anaesthetic and is just down the corridor in the recovery room. It would be quite possible to sneak in and rip out all his organs and save five people, although he, of course, would die. Should you do that?

All of these, as my daughter pointed out impatiently, are absurd and extreme hypotheticals, but underlying them are real problems we do not usually choose to confront. Take the case of the final dilemma as an example: the idea that, if several people can be saved, an occasional healthy person should have their organs harvested does have a stark, although brutal, logic to it. If one recognises that, then surely it is necessary to try to examine why, in fact, it is wrong to put that logic into practice.

The way that Sandel explained things was as follows: he said that what our responses to the various problems highlight are that there are different ways to approach moral dilemmas. In these cases most people's responses oscillate between a Benthamesque kind of focus on consequences, where we decide that the rightness of our behaviour, the morality of what we do, rests in the consequences of our actions, as against a more Kantian approach where morality is located in certainties about duties and rights, regardless of any consequences. This last, Sandel referred to as a categorical approach.

No doubt everyone else knew this. For me, it was very thought provoking. I am amazed that I can be the age I am and still have such a lot to learn. I would have to add that I then watched a documentary called Secrets of the Tribe about the behaviour of anthropologists who lived with the Yanomami people and my newfound moral clarity did not help me at all to decide who, if anyone, involved in the whole sordid story covered by the programme had acted with good faith - it is a film well worth seeing, although it does nothing to raise the status of the dubious academic field called 'anthropology.'

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Words and Phrases and Nasty New Verbs

Last weekend, the Australian newspaper alerted us to a nasty new usage:

Stamp it out quickly, I say.

I Must Remember This

I just ran into someone I've known slightly for years. After we'd discussed his wife's sister's health problems and his plans to change jobs and the difficulties he struck while having renovations done to his house recently, he made the fatal mistake of asking me how my children were. It's a question that I always forget is actually supposed to be answered in the same way that the inquiry, 'How are you?', should be answered - 'Fine', you're meant to say, and then you should leave it at that.

Instead, because my children are among the most absolutely incredibly fascinating things in the world, as far as I'm concerned, I did what I do all too often (but have resolved never ever to do again) - I went into considerable detail. And, as I did so, I noticed a change in the expression in my acquaintance's eyes. At first I'd read there a level of mild friendliness, but, as I burbled on, all warmth vanished, to be replaced by a stony, barely concealed loathing.

I wound up as quickly as possible, reluctantly leaving large fields of information related to my favourite subject uncanvassed. I assumed that would be the end of our conversation, but, to my surprise, my acquaintance immediately began talking, despite no encouragement from me. 'Yes, Nikki' (his only child), 'is really enjoying Brisbane - the university up there is so much better', he told me, in answer to no inquiry whatsoever. And then on and on he went.

I listened with half an ear, and reminded myself of the true definition of a bore. I used to think the word applied to someone who wants to talk about themselves when you want to talk about yourself, but, of course, that's silly. Someone who wants to talk about their children when you want to talk about your own is actually, as his expression had warned me, the truest, most dreadful form of bore.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Burke and Wills - the Final Hours

The doomed journey of Burke and Wills interests me a lot - in fact, this blog became rather Burke and Wills focussed for a while last year, as you can see here and here and here. The story is one of the things I am mildly obsessed by, which is why I was glad to see this cartoon the other day - it's always good to have the things you take a bit too seriously made fun of, I think:

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Words and Phrases that Annoy my Husband

Senator Bob Brown of the Australian Greens Party here has given his house, deep in the countryside in Tasmania, to 'future generations', which is very generous. What annoys my husband though is that the reports of this in the papers all state that he has 'gifted' the property. 'What', says the spouse, 'is gifting - how is it different to giving and what is wrong with the word we normally use?'

All answers on A4 paper, by Tuesday, to the head of school.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Drowning in Praise

I used to learn to play the piano from a person called Mrs Remnant. I would go to her house each Wednesday afternoon and run through my pieces, and she would tell me how to fix the bits where I was going wrong. It's surprising remembering those lessons - and, especially, Mrs Remnant herself, (indeed, even her marvellous name) - to realise that, although it seems just a moment ago, my past is already something out of history.

One thing that makes it almost historic, I think, is the fact that I went off to Mrs Remnant's by myself, even though I was only 10 and the area where Mrs Remnant lived was, while not dangerous, certainly less than completely salubrious - it was on one of those gritty, truck-swept roads running north-south through West London, a house which found itself at the end of a terrace not through design but because where its neighbour had once been there was now a hole. This was in the 1960s, but I suppose that hole might well have been created by a wartime bomb.

Then there was the system of entrance, which surely suggested a more trusting attitude than might be the norm today: all you had to do was put your hand through the letterbox and feel about for a brass key that hung just inside on a hairy bit of string. Then into the narrow, dusty hallway you would go and up the stairs, covered in threadbare carpet, to a tiny sitting-room full of worn furniture and sallow plants.

In one corner of the sitting-room sat Mr Remnant - or perhaps he was Captain or Major Remnant; I don't recall that detail. There was a rug across his knees no matter what the weather, and he never spoke in my presence, although he smiled in an amiable way. He wasn't looking at his surroundings though; his eyes were fixed elsewhere, on some distant point of memory -  probably, I realise now, he was another bit of war damage, like that void in the street outside.

In the opposite corner stood what I was there for - a well-worn upright piano, complete with Mrs Remnant already at the keyboard. As I entered, she would lean round the edge of the thing and greet me with a cheerful games mistress grin and a hearty, Joyce Grenfellesque, 'Hello.' Even if I was late or forgot my music, she was never put out, never vexed. She was probably one of the nicest people I've ever known.

Recalling the details of her appearance now, I can see what I couldn't see then - that Mrs Remnant was already a creature in danger of extinction. Not much more than a mile away, Vivienne Westwood had opened Granny Takes a Trip a couple of years earlier, but Mrs Remnant showed no sign of being aware of this. All the time I knew her, she always wore the same skirt, which was made of pale tweed - 'Such an enduring material, tweed, ' I remember my grandmother (who, incidentally was not of the trip-taking kind either) saying - and which she teamed with leather lace-up shoes and a parade of alternating although remarkably similar and simple 'blouses', plus a cardigan - preferably hand knitted - over the top on cold days.  (The skirt was actually part of a suit, but the jacket only came out when we had to go to Kensington for music exams.)

Mrs Remnant's hair was fair and rather wiry. The top part of it was pulled back with a comb or a clip and the rest hung loose almost to her shoulders. I think she may have had a brooch of filigree gold with a couple of pearls on it, but that was her only bit of jewellery so far as I could tell. She did have a reliable looking watch  - fairly important when you're charging by the hour - but she did not wear it on her wrist. Instead, she placed it on the music stand, propped up beside whatever I was playing.

 Even at the time - and despite the fact that she displayed unfailing good humour - I could tell that Mrs Remnant's circumstances were not particularly easy. Various things told me this, most especially the fact that, beneath the piano's most regularly used pedal, the carpet had completely worn out, leaving a hole through which the boards could be seen.

Mrs Remnant laughed about that and told me how a pupil had promised to make a little rug for her to cover it with but somehow had never got around to it. There was no trace of resentment in her tone as she recounted this story, and it was probably that lack of rancour that gave me the impulse to try to remedy the problem myself.

I wonder how many other pupils reacted in the same way that I did, immediately persuading their parents to buy canvas, a hook and enough black and white wool to fashion a rug with the pattern of a treble clef and a couple of bars of music on it - and how many then, like me, after setting feverishly to work, got distracted and never quite managed to finish the project. Are there dozens of half-finished bits of carpet for Mrs Remnant mouldering in landfills all over west London?

Never mind. It was not that rug, but something else entirely that started me thinking about dear old Mrs R. Strangely, it was something I read in The Merry-Go-Round-in-the-Sea. It was an exchange between the main character, a small boy called Rob, and his friend's father, who rescues him after he falls overboard from his boat:

"'You didn't do that very well,' said Kenny Beaton's father, whose boat it was.
'No,' said Rob, shivering in his wet clothes. 'I know I didn't.'

That conversation between man and child struck a chord with me (excuse the musical terminology, in the context of music lessons). It seemed to me to come from a very different era to the one we live in.  It reflected a straightforward no-nonsense way of treating children.

It was the way that Mrs Remnant treated me and my efforts to master the piano. Just as Mr Beaton didn't pretend to Rob that he hadn't been rather hopeless, Mrs Remnant never pretended that I was doing particularly well.  Although encouraging and enthusiastic, she never flattered me or gave me false hope about my non-existent talents, telling me only if I'd improved, without ever suggesting that I would ever be really good.

That didn't bother me at all. We both understood that genius was a rarity and there were other things involved besides being always the very, very best. As far as I was concerned - and I think Mrs Remnant would have agreed with this - Mrs Remnant and I were engaged in the slow demanding task of making me a competent piano player. There was no need to hint at glory. It was skill not art that we were aiming for.

Funnily enough, (or perhaps there is a pattern of incompetent but pathetically eager lack of talent emerging here),when I tried to learn tennis I had a similar experience to the one I'd had at the keyboard with Mrs R. No-one tried to pull the wool over my eyes and pretend that I was actually okay at the game. In fact, at one of the schools I was at for a bit, they even went so far as to tell me that I was the worst tennis player they'd ever seen, (not unfairly, I should add - think a female Frank Skinner, minus beret, plus racquet, and you begin to get a faint idea of my on-court hopelessness).

But that was then - it would be a brave teacher indeed who would dare to make such a statement to a pupil today. Such naked truth cannot be spoken to students in the modern world. Like all the children in Garrison Keilor's Lake Woebegon, every infant these days has to be 'above average'.

The trouble is, while this policy may build self-esteem in the short-term - although I am even doubtful about that, since I believe children are pretty astute when it comes to assessing their own abilities, regardless of what they are told - it cannot fail to end in disappointment. Eventually the majority of people, however well they've been brainwashed, will discover that they are in fact average - or even a bit below - and that they have been set up and misled by well-meaning adults. Having been encouraged since infancy to believe that success is the only worthwhile option, that a glamorous life is the only one to strive for, what will they feel when they see at last that the pinnacles of success and glamour may never actually be within their reach?

Instead of creating false expectations, would we not be wiser to spend our time introducing our children to the pleasures of hard-won achievement? Instead of urging them to grab all the glittering prizes, might it not be better to show them the pleasure of perseverance and trying to master something hard?

Despite having no illusions about my playing, I still love hammering away at the keyboard (the neighbours only complain sometimes) and trying to get a ball to rise over the net and sail into some part of the marked court on the other side, rather than the bushes - and I also get huge pleasure from watching people who play piano or tennis superlatively; I feel the kind of awed admiration at their talent that comes from firsthand understanding of exactly how hard what they are doing really is.

I don't dream of stepping up onto the podium or of collecting prizes. While acknowledging that what I am working on is probably a passage that Mozart not only mastered but actually composed himself before the age of six, I do not dream of anything more than playing the thing with a little more fluency - and I get a lot of satisfaction when I sometimes manage to do so.

Rather than instilling in our children the idea that they will all be roaring successes, might it not be better to teach them that - as Robert Louis Stevenson put it wisely (although, some might argue, rather  miserably) - their 'business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in good spirits'?  It may be an approach that contributes in the long run to the sum of human happiness even though, at first glance, it probably seems a little grim.

The Prince's English

That nice (if possibly quite a lot less exciting that one might have hoped - or is that just viewing monarchy through a 21st century prism?) Prince William has been bringing good cheer to the people of Christchurch. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, this is what he told them, (while donning the inevitable US-style emblazoned cap [but at least not backwards]): "There was a lot of us who were in the military were gnashing our teeth to get over here." Leaving aside the 'munted' (to use the Prince's word to describe Christchurch post-earthquake, reportedly) use of the verb 'to be', 'gnashing our teeth' is new to me in this context. 'Champing at the bit' would be more my idea of the king's English - but then neither William, nor indeed his father, is yet a king.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells

I just read a review in the London Review of Books that began by suggesting that the novel in question made, 'Cormac McCarthy's The Road read like a walk in the park.' It went on to describe the novel's main characters:

'Gary and Irene are an Alaskan couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Gary is a graduate-school dropout who likes to recite 'The Seafarer' and who has failed, and continues to fail, in just about every enterprise he sets his hand to...Irene, meanwhile, is a retired schoolteacher whose mother committed suicide, and who starts toying with the idea herself ...their daughter, Rhoda has problems of her own. She's in a loveless relationship with a hapless, horny dentist called Jim, who throws himself into an affair with a half-crazed prick-teaser called Monique. Rhoda's brother, Mark, meanwhile, is a whacked-out stoner fisherman.'

I assumed that the reviewer was going to heap derision on this, to my mind, almost self-parodying parade of absurdly dreary humanity (particularly when it is revealed that a great deal of the novel's action is taken up with Gary's attempt to build a cabin which ends up looking 'like a hovel made out of sticks', leading to the scene where,' when Gary masturbates against the side of the cabin it is the culmination of his yearning and desire for a new way of life.) Instead, to my amazement, the book  is hailed as a 'great triumph.'

Of course, I haven't read the book, so I shouldn't rush to judgment. On the other hand, I probably never will, simply because its premise is so utterly unappealing - to the point, in my mind of being ridiculous (just read through those characters again and tell me you don't stifle a guffaw.) And I can't help comparing the matter from which this novel is formed - reminiscent of so many other unappealing current offerings, including the dreaded The Road - to the books detailed in a documentary about the origins of the novel that I watched last night. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy - they portray humanity with satire and scepticism but retain a kind of jollity and verve. Are their visions of existence hopelessly naive and optimistic? Have things changed so radically that we are reduced to narratives of self-hate and hopelessness as our lodestones in the literary universe? I'm not suggesting that Pollyanna should be the new template, but surely there could be included among the dramatis personae of literary novels  - just occasionally - a leading figure who loves their children, who doesn't mind the life they lead too much, who - but perhaps this really is too much to ask - possesses some tiny glimmer of hope.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Great Farce

I was watching our latest Prime Minister answer questions for an hour on the television a couple of nights ago, and I suddenly found myself feeling sorry for her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. This surprised me because I've never been especially enamoured of Kevin Rudd (at least that's what I tell my husband - no, it isn't; it's the truth). I mean, obviously, like anyone, I thought his departure from the top job was a very nasty day's work for all concerned, but I didn't feel upset the way I did when Charlie Cousins fell off the silo in Bellbird. I mean, I didn't shed a tear.

Nevertheless, as I sat there gawping at the new prime minister, (who does, incidentally, seem to quite relish the sound of her new  title, reminding me - amazingly, since in every other way they could not be more dissimilar - of my father, who once said, when someone greeted him as 'Your Excellency', years after he'd retired as an ambassador, "Ah, the two most beautiful words in the English language"), a strange wave of compassion came over me for our last leader. It had been a difficult week for him, I realised, especially the part where he would have had to swallow his bitterness as the woman who did him over appeared in a flame-red jacket and delivered a sick-making speech to the US Congress. 'What about me,' must have been wailing through the Rudd household on permanent replay that day, I'd guess.

But the thing that made me sorry for him was not his situation. It was the sudden realisation that, like all the kinds of people who divide the world into what is 'appropriate' and what is 'inappropriate', the ones who love process and paper and meetings and 'top-echelon', meaningless schmoozing, he has absolutely no sense of humour. All the avenues available to those of us like me, who enjoy pure silliness (a group that does not include our newest Prime Minister either, given that her favourite dismissive adjective seems to be 'silly') are closed to him - Artwiculate, hashtag games, idiotic blog posts, standing, as I did for ten minutes yesterday night, under a starry sky, watching a possum balance on my neighbour's tree and bend down the flexible new growth and crunch its way through the young leaves with gusto. Worse still, not even for a millisecond would he ever be able to see the funny side of his situation. Not even for one instant would he be able to step back and laugh at himself and the peculiar twists and turns he's been taken on as he's made his way through the weird labyrinth of life.

And without the ability to see the comedy in all the stuff that happens to you, you are doomed really - anger and loathing and disappointment will stalk you all your days. So shed a tear for Mr Rudd and all the others in that band of desperate over-motivated scrabblers - which, of course, includes his successor, along with many of the more self-important of the world's politicians and bureaucrats. Even though Gillard often talks about having a 'good old chuckle', I suspect that life for her, as well as for Mr Rudd and all the others like them, is actually a throbbing parade of jealousy, and fleeting triumphs followed by despair.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Distinguished Company

I mentioned the other day my hatred of the word appropriate. Now I've realised that someone much cleverer than me put it much better than I could some time ago. Here is Philip Roth sounding off on the same horrible usage, in his novel The Human Stain:

"Appropriate. The current code word for reining in most any deviation from the wholesome guidelines and thereby making everybody 'comfortable' Doing not what he was being judged to be doing but doing instead, he thought, what was deemed suitable by God only knows which of our moral philosphers. Barbara Walters? Joyce Brothers? William Bennett? Dateline NBC? If he were around this place as a professor, he could teach 'Appropriate Behavior in Classical Greek Drama,' a course that would be over before it began."

Freecycle - Optimism

Wanted: Oxford Companion to Australian Military History

Hi - does anybody happen to have a spare copy of "The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History" lying around.  I would be very grateful if you could let me have a copy that is surplus to requirements

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Modern Manners

Yesterday morning,  I was at the National Library, waiting for a book to be brought down from the stacks, (I love that phrase: it makes me imagine a footman in a dove-grey uniform, strolling between rows of hand-carved cedar bookshelves, hunting for my chosen volume, which, when he finds it, he slides out from its place with the gentlest of tugs [if a tug can be gentle; possibly, it has too much in common with a jerk to attain any kind of gentleness], before placing it on a sky-blue satin cushion, edged with gold and stuffed with Hungarian goose-down, and carrying it, with due solemnity, [pomp and, possibly, circumstance] down to the public reading room, to await my attention [it pays to cultivate a rich fantasy life in a place like Canberra, I should add]).

'What shall I do while I wait?' I thought. 'I know - I'll go over to that corner with the coffee tables and the circle of armchairs, where they provide the daily newspapers for people who are waiting for a book to be brought down from the stacks.'

So off I went, trying to suppress my inner, skipping Fotherington Thomas, (the bicycle route from my house to the library is more than usually 'Hello trees, hello flowers' at this time of the year). I needn't have worried - my ebullience was about to be deflated without my efforts. What I found when I reached my destination brought my joy and cheerfulness indicators abruptly back to their normal zero point zero zero seven readings.

For there, spread out on the coffee tables, I found, to my astonishment, not the full glory of the Australian press at its weekend zenith. No, far from it. What I actually found was absolutely nothing. I looked from left to right, from top to bottom, but there on the pale wood surfaces there was only a lone copy of the Domain section from last week's Sydney Morning Herald. I suppose some might argue that, in the strictest terms, that means that  there was not 'absolutely nothing' on the tables but, given that a) it was last week's edition and b) we are in Canberra and the Domain section is entirely devoted to the splendours of Sydney real estate, I believe it is not unreasonable to cast it into the outer darkness reserved for the concept of 'nothing', or at least, 'nothing worth reading'.

So where were they, these elusive newspapers that I had been expecting to find? Was it government cuts that had created their absence? Was it incompetence? Was it bureaucratic confusion? No, it was not. It was none of those things at all. It was something much more worrying; it was, in fact, a portent of the breakdown of civilisation as we know it: it was the behaviour of a single rogue individual that had caused this worrying disappearance of the free press.

Luckily, I spotted the culprit almost immediately, after completing my survey of the pale wood surfaces. She was sitting in an armchair diagonally opposite where I was standing. She was a woman of about my own age (for which read probably 10 to 20 years younger than me, since I still haven't caught up with imagining myself as the actual age I am). She was dressed in black trousers, a maroon stretch top with matching cardigan and shiny black running shoes, and she had a pair of sparkly chained spectacles perched on the end of her rather pointy nose.

This creature (oh all right, person, if you think I'm using unreasonably loaded language, [although I shall continue to think of her as a creature - in fact, secretly, I shall continue to use one of my mother's favourite phrases and think of her as 'a frightful shrivelled little creature who appeared to have crawled out from under a stone']) had gathered every single newspaper that had been provided for the public by the library and she had folded most of them up and tucked them between her body and the side of her armchair, out of the reach of anyone else at all.

She had the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times and the Australian Financial Review, (and remember we are talking here about the bumper weekend editions, each one of which contains enough reading for a week), shoved down beside her. Open in front of her, was the one other publication on offer, the  Weekend Australian. She appeared to be reading this paper, but it was the only one she was attending to, so far as I could see. Of course, she may have been absorbing the contents of the others by osmosis (one of the few concepts I fully absorbed - possibly by its very mechanism - during school science), but it did seem more likely that she was simply keeping them for Ron (later on, that is).

Faced with this situation, some people might have shouted. Some might have flown into a screaming rage. Some might have snarled at the woman, pointing out with menacing force that what she was doing was an assault on decency and the concept of the civil society. Not me, though - oh no: I am a model citizen (and a coward). What I did, instead, was smile very sweetly (oh all right, I simulated a rather unconvincing approximation of a smile) and speak calmly and clearly, making a simple, reasonable request.

'Could I have a look at the Australian Financial Review,'  I ventured, more or less successfully excluding any faint echo of outrage from my words. The woman's head jerked up. Her eyes swept over me. She sniffed and then she glanced down at her hoard. 'I'll be wanting it myself in a while,' she told me, 'sorry'. I leaned toward her. 'Let me have it, until you do need it,' I whispered, my tone pitched somewhere between a request and a command. The woman looked at me and sighed. She put down the Australian and slid the Fin out from its position beside her. She unfolded it on the table before her and looked at the front page with an expression that conveyed nothing except a strange greedy irritation. 'Thank you,' I said, grasping one corner of the paper and deftly whisking it out of her reach.

I sat down then in the chair diagonally across from the monster- I mean 'ghastly wizened little creature'; I mean, 'woman' - and opened my hard-won paper and began to read. I could hear her and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see her, shaking the Australian back open, clearing her throat, snorting, rustling and crackling the paper, as she turned restlessly from page to page. I endured this for a while but eventually, when I saw that my book was being brought in at last, I decided I'd had enough. I stood up, closed the Fin Review and reached down to put it back on the table between us, ready for any other library user who might care to have a look.
But my paper-hoarding acquaintance was far too quick for me. Snake like, she flashed forward and snatched the thing from my fingers, stuffing it back quickly into its former resting place. 'I hope you found what you were looking for,' she hissed as I stood up. I turned away quickly, stifling the urge to punch her on the nose

Friday, 11 March 2011

A Cockatoo Broke the Peace

I have already mentioned Jamie Grant and included one or two of his shorter poems here. I think he is a really wonderful poet - probably the one I admire the most, apart from Les Murray, in Australia today.

In this moving, intricate and beautiful long poem, in memory of Philip Hodgins, Jamie Grant talks about many things, including 'the value inherent in craft', which he demonstrates brilliantly as well:

The Invisible

i.m.Philip Hodgins 1959-1995, our Adonais

As the flight's destination was a country town,
the plane was not much bigger than a bus,
and was driven by propellers — looking down
from my window seat I could see one set of blades,
     seeming blunt-edged as garden spades,
fixed to the wing which would carry all of us.

The propellers started turning, accompanied
by a high-pitched whine, and became at first
two polished blurry discs, before they gathered speed
and disappeared, proving that solids need not be
     visible, as now one could see
through the spinning steel as if through glass. The worst

thing to do would have been to mistake transparency
for lack of substance. The plane was moving
out, as slow as a vehicle in a city
traffic jam, taking its place in a shuffling queue
     of aircraft. A perfect view
was before me, of the giant jetliners leaving

the ground. They would come to a corner at the top
of the runway, with the lumbering, awkward
motion of a circus elephant, and would stop
there for a moment, as if each was a pole-
     vaulter gathering strength, then roll
gently past a marker, and at last rush forward

with astounding momentum, to ascend a ramp
which was as invisible to the eye
as the spinning propeller blades. The tarmac was damp
from morning rain, and on it humans put their trust
     in atoms much smaller than dust-
grains which would raise their luggage into the sky

along with their lives. At once there were tilting fields
in the window's circular frame, followed by
a ridge of houses with swimming pools as shields
beside the tiled helmet-like rooftops. Some horses
     and their stables, green golf courses,
shopping malls, factories, hotels and matchbox-high

office towers rolled under us, before dense cloud
erased the scenery. It was for a while
as though a broadcast had broken down into loud
hissing silence. As we rose, next, into sunlight,
     a dream landscape of endless white
began, sheer vacancy except for a defile

on the horizon which seemed as vague in outline
as the rockery in an aquarium.
After a pause of undecided length, a decline
back through the cushion-stuffing surface of that world
     took place, and below there unfurled
flat fields with dams and windbreaks, and an emporium-

sized hangar surrounded by hedges. The landing
was smooth. We disembarked over the tarmac
and entered a hallway where people were standing
near the door in a loose semi-circle – mourners
     at a graveside. In a corner
my colleague was seated, reading a paperback.

The occasion meant that our greetings were muted.
We got the car, and set off in scotch-mist rain
which eased as we went. A town passed, and fluted
cliffs in the side of a hill, orchards, sheep farms,
     some road workers with folded arms,
distant mountains and the vision of sunlit plains

Though we did not talk much, our thoughts were of the man
whose funeral would be held that day, and to which
we were driving. He had been a friend, and, more than
that, the poet of the countryside the highway
     led us through. In the sky's matte grey
surface there were scrapings of blue steel, and rich

streaks of light fell on tableaus wherein cattle
and gumtrees were disposed as they are on the cover
of his second book. His decade-long battle
with the cancer which consumed his bone marrow
     had not begun when, at a narrow
table amid a rowdy function, he leaned over

to introduce himself to me. He seemed, then, shy
and modest, and taciturn in manner – who could
have guessed at the conversations which would lie
in our future, leaving the telephone earpiece
     warm as recently slept-in sheets
– and his dress and grooming was such as bespeak good

taste. Yet similar young men were not uncommon,
at the time, and in those circles, so our meeting
was close to dissolving from my recollection
when I saw a piece of his in a magazine
     and thought it especially fine.
A resolve to pass a compliment was fleeting,

as these intentions are, but then a phone call came
from a mutual friend, with the news about
his leukemia. And so nothing was the same.
No longer was there time for the coincidental
     encounters on which natural
friendship thrives. He had three more years. I sought him out.

We met, and, over lunch, found much compatible
ground in our versions of the true. A decade
younger than me, he made it appear possible
that the follies pursued by my own generation
     would be no more than a fashion,
bound for obsolescence. A role he never played,

though he fitted it literally, was the doomed
poet of romance, one of the poses favoured
by those elders. His impatience with the assumed
American style of an indulged middle-class
     who, in writing, hoped they might pass
for the outcasts and underdogs of the world, savoured

of plain good sense. Death was stalking him, and was not,
to him, romantic; instead, he resisted
with the nerve of a partisan. Indeed, he fought
so well that the day when he was meant to expire
     passed without mishap. The most dire
of forecasts, though proven wrong, still persisted

in overshadowing his life through the next ten
years. We sometimes dared to hope he would survive
us all, so full of life could he seem, yet often
a crisis would develop then pass, false alarms
     being part of the disease. Calms
ensued in an ever-changing pattern. Alive,

and vigorous, he joined a group of us to stay
over Christmas in the mountains. The cottage
we borrowed was smothered in creepers, and a grey
pall of neglect filled every room; the garden
     was overgrown, with a wooden
pergola fragrant with roses, and a wild patch

of vegetables had seeded by the kitchen door.
After a restless night, we set out walking
on a track which led through ferns and forest before
descending into a gully carved out of stone
     by a cool spilling stream. Alone
in that moss-hung, shadowy place, we started talking

of the need for content in art, of the value
inherent in craft, and of how one conveys
emotion. He knew technique, as each review
would note, as did few other writers, in an age
     when that was shunned. Every page
he worked on was polished and refined over days

through which the words resolved into rightness. They came
out with the sound of his laconic farmer's voice,
obedient to metre and to rhyme. When fame,
of a kind, touched his life, that voice remained unchanged
     although his explorations ranged
over much of the world. Climbing, we had a choice

between two pathways, and took the one which skirted
the face of a cliff. With jagged stone towering
on one side, next to a sheer fall, we were rewarded
by a view toward the valley which lies beyond
     the mountains, like a map opened
at our feet. A blue-tongued lizard and flowering

eucalypts passed by, before we made an ascent
of another rock- and moss-strewn gully, leading
back to the plateau we had set out from. Bent
over and short of breath, I envied him the ease
     with which he climbed, while my stiff knees
stumbled around boulders. Yet his life was bleeding

away, while mine was not. More scenery followed,
chasms, outcrops and waterfalls, and breathtaking
drops protected by wire guard-rails, which swallowed
up the very earth. One such descent had yawned
     before a fugitive, who, warned
to halt by last century's police, preferred making

a leap into the void to the fate of capture.
Gum forest, with its shades of lizard-blue, was hitched
to the horizon, and weathering had made sculpture
out of lichen-stained boulders. His talk revealed
     the schooling from which he was expelled
for a deed still unrepented, memories fetched

back for poems he would later compose. Light ebbed,
and we returned to the cottage with its layers
of dust, its broken, boarded windows and cobwebbed
ceilings, and he cooked a meal we ate in the dim
     dingy kitchen. We learned from him
the strength of resignation. 'Weep for Adonais,'

Shelley wrote of Keats, 'for he is dead.' Yet weeping,
we felt at the time, was unsuited to the humour
he used to face his fate. Tears were not in keeping
for one who wrote about urinals and goannas,
     of football supporters' banners,
and of setting brown snakes loose in a furniture

store. The country of culverts and haybales, of logs
with creatures in them amid the geometry
of empty paddocks, and of cruelty to dogs
as casual as kindness, accepted the fact
     of death, like the sexual act,
and took it for granted. Driving through that country,

we felt as if his living presence filled it yet.
The time for the funeral was now approaching,
but we still had to reach the town where it was set.
We had tried a short cut which became a detour
     through a preserved mining town, pure
as a Disney construction. My friend, reproaching

himself for the delay, had worked up a fever
of misdirected guilt and near-rage. The railway
bridge at the outskirts ended his fears, whatever
they were, and we arrived in time for the cortege
     to be arranged. Beyond the edge
of town there were old mine-workings, in fields as grey

as the craters on an asteroid, and the cars
processed through this landscape in a slow-moving file
like the aircraft lining up on a runway. Scars
of the gold-rush era were punctuated by fields
     where cattle grazed the barren yields,
while suburban-seeming houses appeared each mile.

Then the procession turned through a nondescript
gate, and a few scattered headstones could be seen
on the slope of a low hill, among the leaf-stripped
trunks of tall trees which resembled telegraph posts
     in their rigid uprightness, most
of their height beneath a cluster of olive-green

leafage being bare enough for light to flood
the ground. A crowd of people stood among those trees,
in a half-circle facing a hole dug through mud
and strata of clay and stone. Many had faces
     I had known from other places.
They stayed silent, though a cockatoo broke the peace

with its harsh call. Then the hearse – a humble station-
wagon – appeared, and four men hoisted a varnished
pine coffin onto their shoulders. Concentration
focused on them until the silence broke again
     with the sound of a woman's pain:
it was his widow sobbing, a pure, ungarnished,

heartfelt cry which made us envision our friend, laid
out as though asleep, within that brass-handled box;
her tears brought to mind his sardonic, well-made
face, his eyes and voice and limbs, which to her had meant
     more than to any of us, spent
and vacant now, descending past layers of rocks

without return. Something invisible had fled
from him, and now a mechanical hoist lowered
what was left from view. Weep for Adonais, he is dead.
Meanwhile, his children played among gravestones as though
      at a picnic, oblivious, so
it would seem, to their mother's grief. Motor-powered,

the slow descent came to an end, accompanied
by a rending groan which could have been the lid
prised open from within. But there was no need
for thoughts of resurrection. Instead of a priest,
      poets began what was his last
reading: That is no country for old men. He did

not want consolation for his friends, and neither
did he expect a soothing ceremony
to attend his burial. There is no life other
than that of words on paper, he believed, to look
     forward to. A loud chicken's squawk
from a farmyard nearby upset the dignity

of the occasion, but only for an instant,
reminding us all of life's continuation
in rose-bordered bungalows where a shrub's pleasant
scent overwhelms the fragrance from the poultry shed.
     Everything one could have said
was finished. We returned, as to the reception

after a wedding, to a room with sausages
impaled on toothpicks, asparagus rolls, warm pies,
and cakes and cups of tea, while light-filled passages
with polished hardwood floors reverberated
     to the kind of talk he hated
to miss. At length my colleague said his goodbyes

on both our behalf. Even though the afternoon
was close to passing, he intended to drive home.
We retraced our journey in waning light, which soon
became pitch darkness, and swept through swamps we
        could smell
     without seeing, towns with one hotel
and a single street-lamp, and ghost-gums white as foam

were caught in the headlights. By dinner we had reached
a country town which resembled an outer
suburb transplanted into a vast plain of bleached
pastureland: its flag-bedecked car-dealers' yards,
     supermarkets with discount cards,
floodlit takeaways, video stores, and utter

blankness of character, was less than inviting.
Fuelled by coffee, we continued to drive.
Time was passing, and already we were fighting
sleep, on the featureless road which unreeled toward
     the river flats at the border.
There were no other cars. The only ones alive,

that night, were hidden away, behind the porch lights
glowing out of farms which were lost among clumps of trees
the moonless sky revealed in silhouette. Such nights
of ceaseless driving are blurred in recollection
     and half-real, for each impression
is succeeded by an unrelated scene. Skies

smudged with cloud parted on a star-cluttered dome,
like a conjuror's glitter costume, while we wound
among the elephant-like trunks of river red-gum
forest and the clay banks of silent waterways.
     At midnight, we crossed a black space
in the ground, which was the river's channel, and turned

along a gravel-edged cutting through the folded hills
away from the main road. Another short-cut. Bowl-
shaped valleys, each one brimming with mist, as one fills
a pet's dish with milk. At first the pale liquid cleared
     with the next rise, but more appeared
in every crease of the land. A creekbed's whole

length would be trimmed with cloud. It was, soon, no
       mere mist
which covered all of the hollows like a blanket;
it was a fog as thick as the smoke-skeins which twist
from the chimneys of kilns. The road vanished from view
     before our eyes; we drove on through
a shroud, transformed by an artist's monotone palette.

It was like being in the plane as it pushed through
the cloud-ceiling earlier that day; an ideal
landscape, upholstered in white, appeared when we flew
over hill-crests, but then we would dive again, and crawl
     blindly through fog which was for all
the world like encroaching cataracts. We would feel,

through those long moments, as one does in a nightmare
of helplessness, and each new wave breaking over
us was like the sleep which was threatening to tear
down our wakefulness. The scale of time seemed altered
     as it is in flight; and we faltered,
groping, as the wheels churned up gravel and clover

from the verge before righting themselves. The stars
above us excepted, there were no lights, no farms
or railway sidings, and nor were there passing cars,
so a town came as a surprise, out of the mist.
     A few dark houses, a signpost,
and we came upon a main street with all the charms

of a former time's architecture: verandahs
over paved sidewalks, closed wooden shutters, and rails
for horses – empty as expected in the hour
after midnight. The fog swirled over a street-lamp
     like ectoplasm. An air of damp
unreality, as though upon the stage. Veils

of mist hiding the side-streets; a drinking-trough;
shopfronts with simple lettering – BUTCHER, GROCER
and GENERAL STORE; a feeble light winking off
behind a curtained window; no petrol station,
     no sign of modernisation,
though all of the town seemed newly made; buildings closer

together than in the outspread suburbs of our
age. In a film, or in someone's novel, a trap-
door would have opened next, on a strange adventure
through unknown dimensions; instead, nothing happened
     and we went on by the flattened
metal ruins in a car-wrecker's yard, a flap

of canvas pulled over old motor parts, and past
the town's last cottages and sheds. The dark country
resumed, and still each declivity breathed out mist:
at one point it was shoulder-deep, so that our heads
     skimmed over whiteness like a bed's,
in air clear as spring water, under symmetry

of stars. The ground started rising, at length, and less
cloud covered the road, which grew wider and more smooth.
Gateposts and other traces of populousness,
such as road signs and letterboxes, could be seen
     in the headlights' duplicate beam.
A radio transmission tower, a sharp tooth

outlined against the stars, and plantations of pines
and poplars – and then a reflective green placard
announced the main highway. Suddenly there were lines
of traffic, even though we were in the middle
     hours of night, so for a little
while we had to pause at the junction to let hard-

driven transport convoys sweep up the hill, with lights
strung like yuletide decorations on each trailer;
after hours of darkness, the effect of this sight
was as of coming to a shining and noble
     city amid the wild – mobile,
luminous, roaring; or of landfall for a sailor

approaching Byzantium. It was the city
of the future, it almost seemed, where emotion
will be replaced by machines, and technology
on wheels ruled all our desires. We had left the past
     behind, in the mist, moving fast,
and police cars prowled like sharks beneath the ocean.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Suffer the Little Children

Don't those boys look excited? They must be so thrilled that their school is complying with the government to reach some sort of wonderfully important target. Poor Jonah - I bet he wishes he'd been there with them: