Monday, 30 January 2012

Sunday, 29 January 2012

More About Mince

My childhood was not like today's childhoods - gosh, no-one's ever said that before, I'll bet. Still, I never said I was going to be original - and, in any case, however cliched, in my case the statement is absolutely true.

The reason for this is that, unlike their modern counterparts, my parents did not exert themselves to conjure up diversions and entertainment for their offspring. Instead, they devoted most of the little attention they gave to us to trying to offload us onto someone - well, anyone, actually - else.

Which was why we were regularly sent to spend holidays with a large family of cousins, all of whom we loved dearly but whose nanny was so utterly dreadful that whenever we returned home we would beg our parents never to be sent there again.

We were wasting our breath, of course. They took no notice and, sure enough,  a day or two after school was next over for the term, we'd find ourselves hurtled off into the terrifying arms of the starched old bag once more.

One blogpost - indeed, one lifetime's entire blog - would not really provide enough space in which to describe that woman's horribleness. Suffice to say, it came as an enormous surprise when, one wet afternoon, rather than forcing us all out of the house into the rain in insufficient clothing and then berating us for getting wet when she finally permitted our reentry, she told us all that we were going to be allowed to watch television.

It must be a trick, we all agreed, but that didn't mean we were going to argue. We arranged ourselves in a dutiful row on the green ivy printed white chintz of the drawingroom sofa and waited for the set to warm up. The film we then saw was so striking that I have never forgotten it. It was called  Carve Her Name with Pride, and told the story of Violette Szabo, to whom a memorial has recently been erected near Lambeth Bridge.

I have no idea why Nanny allowed us to watch it - at the time, I assumed she was hoping to pick up a few techniques from viewing the Gestapo torturers at work (in which case, she would have been disappointed by the lack of explicit detail [but more of that later]). Whatever her thought processes were - and I have no doubt they were weird and twisted - it is the one thing that, despite all her iniquities, I'm grateful to her for.

Mind you, I'd forgotten all about the film until I went for a swim this morning and listened to Simon Heffer talk about it  with what I thought was rare insight.

Just before the swim, I'd read a comment by Frank Wilson that yesterday's post wasn't "really about censorship" (or indeed organic minced beef) , "but about prudence and taste" .

He's right of course, and this was only reinforced by Heffer's observation that, were Carve Her Name with Pride ("the French are magnificent, of course, but they have to be organised"), to be made today, the film makers would be unable to resist showing the full details of how exactly Violet Szabo was tortured, sparing the viewer nothing. That's almost certainly true, but just as I can't see any useful purpose for much of the sensational information that is served up to us daily, I doubt the addition of more graphic scenes would have made a more moving or memorable film.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

In Praise of Censorship

As I was bicycling back to Canberra's pathetic attempt at a Chinatown, (when I went there the other day, I couldn't get what I wanted as the markets in Cabramatta had been closed for Chinese New Year and so supplies were delayed - boring explanation, but I wouldn't want anyone thinking I'm easing off on my attitude of haughty contempt towards the place and becoming a fan who can't keep away), I noticed this in the gutter:
For those who can't zoom in and see the detail, it is a pristine packet of Cleaver's 'Healthy Organic' beef mince, priced at a healthy - one might even say hefty - $8.74.

My initial reaction was to think, 'Oh, some poor person has ridden home from the shop, imagining they have a lovely mince-based meal ahead of them, (if it's possible to have a lovely mince-based meal, which is debatable), and then they've got home and found that somehow - oh dear, could it be the onset of ... no, don't even tempt fate by mentioning it - although they thought they went to the shop and bought the stuff, it turns out they only imagined doing so, in which case what precisely did they do during the past forty-five minutes, (and what's the betting that that leads to a quick slug from the vodka bottle and from there it's all downhill?)'

And then I thought, 'But, no, wait a minute, what if, in fact, that organic mince has been put there deliberately to trick us into thinking that, but really a maniac has taken an incredibly fine needled syringe, which can penetrate the plastic covering while leaving it apparently unperforated, and - in the hope that a passer-by might pick up the packet, thinking, "Oh, jolly good, here's a free meal someone's dropped", and take it home, cook it and die - has injected into the so-called 'healthy organic' mince a terrible toxin that will kill in minutes.'

And then I thought, 'Hang on, where did that incredibly mad idea come from?'

And then I thought, 'It came from having all sorts of idiotic so-called news stories, about maniacs injecting food in supermarkets and stuffing jars of baby foods with ground glass et cetera, shoved at me by the media over the decades, so that now I can actually imagine that there are people out there who might possibly be nuts enough to do weird things that I previously could not have come near imagining.'

And then I thought, 'How utterly useless it is to know that kind of thing, how unnecessary it is to be told such stories, how irresponsible it is of news services to provide information about things that are so rare and aberrant that they are never ever likely to affect most people and yet once most people are given information about them they will never be able to get rid of that information or the possibility that such things could happen. Their minds will be cluttered up with lunatics lurking with poison and grisly details about murderers who boiled up their victims or kept them in bits in office fridges or buried them under the paving of people they were working for, things that offer no enlightenment but merely terrify and leach away trust between human beings. Furthermore, having been introduced to the knowledge that certain individual human beings can behave in extraordinary and terrible ways, they inevitably are forced - by virtue of being robbed of their innocence, of no longer not knowing that such things are possible - infinitesimally closer to being able to actually commit such acts themselves, because they have gone beyond the initial utter shock and reached the point of acceptance that such things occur.'

And then I thought, 'Do newspapers and reporters ever ask themselves what good it actually does, when they decide to tell us many of the things that they do decide to tell us, usually without ever being asked to tell us?' Do they wonder to themselves about what exact important purpose is served by providing us with all the prurient details of individual  acts of gory madness?'

(On a separate note, I also think it's unforgiveable to insist people watch horrible things, just because you either like them or, more likely, want to spread around the trauma [and don't get me started on the night my friend went to see Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover and I said I wouldn't go because it looked too revolting and then he came home in a state of utter traumatised shock and insisted on cornering me and describing every scene in minute detail, thus ridding himself of his own horror and passing it straight on to me {I think what he did's called the talking cure, except that usually people pay - and did that really happen with the ... no, actually I really don't want or need to know}]. And, by the way, the mince is still there - in the gutter on Cowper Street, just after the intersection with Macarthur Avenue, should anyone be in the market for a free feed - although you might want to check the use-by date [and the possibly perforated cellophaned]).

Friday, 27 January 2012

Confessions of a Visual Illiterate I

There is a poem I like by Marianne Moore about looking at pictures:

When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,/
when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,/
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:/
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible/
than the intensity of the mood;/
or quite the opposite – the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,/
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,/
and deer and birds and seated people;/
it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,/
in letters standing well apart upon a parchment-like expanse;/
an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;/ 
the silver fence protecting Adam's grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist/.
Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts from one's enjoyment./
It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph easily be honoured –/ 
that which is great because something else is small./ 
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,/ 
it must be "lit with piercing glances into the life of things";/ 
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it./

I too, I'm sorry to say, 'fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments' when I look at pictures, although, unlike Moore, who remains concentrated on discovering the paintings' essences, the way in which they are, "lit with piercing glances into the life of things", I fear my love of narrative often distracts me from the paintings I'm looking at, diverting my attention toward speculation about their subjects and the stories behind them.

In order to illustrate or give a clearer picture of - and isn't it funny how the language of visual art seeps into writing - what I mean, here is a description of what happened when I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales the other day.

I started by looking at a portrait by a painter I'm fond of called Moroni, (I am fairly sure he came from Bergamo, which always makes me think of Earl Grey tea, [because it is flavoured with bergamot], such is the trivial nature of my thought processes):

Dragging my mind from the possibility of going to the cafe and ordering a hot drink, I was soon leaning in a little closer toward the canvas, not in order to look at the painting as such, but rather because I was trying to imagine what the person who sat for it was like when he was alive. What was his story, I wanted to know, and what would he be like, if I were to meet him:

The caption beside the painting urged me to notice the way the light flickers over the man's facial features, lending them vibrancy, but I was too busy trying to work out how Moroni had managed to control his brush in order to create the illusion of ruff and hairline and beard and skin:

I moved on to the neighbouring painting but was unable to take it in at all. Any thought of what it looked like was driven out of my head by my outrage at its donor and her absurd sense of what appears to be cultural cringe:

"What was she thinking?" I asked myself, feeling quite baffled.

Unfortunately, my mind was still on such matters - in this case what the sitter was thinking, rather than the donor, (but still, alas, I was not considering the painting itself) - when I shifted my gaze to the next work, by Ambrosius Benson, a diptych of Cornelius Duplicius de Scheppere and his wife, who was the object of my focus:

I'm convinced her main thought is, "Bloody Cornelius, I wish we'd got Holbein - it might have cost a bit more, but you get value for money with Holbein."

I imagine her spending the rest of her life looking at this picture and trying to persuade herself that it's okay, while all the time noticing that the fabric of those cuffs doesn't glow the way Holbein's would have:
and that, although her skin's not badly captured, the eyes Holbein would have given her might have been filled with sparkling life:
The more I looked at the picture the more certain I became that every time Mrs de Scheppere looked at Benson's attempt to render the gauze underlay and fur edging of her garment, all she could see was how exquisitely Holbein would have managed them:
The painting, in fact, probably ended up in an art gallery purely because Mrs de Scheppere couldn't stand having the wretched thing in her house a minute longer.

By now I was beginning to realise that, as well as wanting a hot drink, I was getting hungry. As a result, instead of looking at the whole of the next work I came to:
my attention was drawn to one particular detail - the ham. This led me off into quite irrelevant thoughts about what the book Beatrix Potter wrote about two mice who get into a doll's house was called (because I seem to remember a scarcely less well-painted ham in that):
I focussed on the oyster in the same painting after that. I do like oysters but I couldn't help wondering whether this one would give me food poisoning, supposing I were able to actually reach out and grab it from its place among the grapes, (my mother, after all, has always claimed that you should never trust a European oyster, as she got terribly sick after eating some on one long gone occasion, although my father always counter-claimed that that was only because she ate nine dozen at one sitting [such helpful interventions may have contributed not a little to their eventual divorce]):
"Is being fascinated with an oyster on a par with Moore's interest in the 'artichoke in six varieties of blue'?", I asked myself as I stared out the picture's window (no, not the picture window, the window in the picture, although it might in fact be a picture window, for all I know - I've never been clear what the phrase 'picture window' actually means), my eyes drawn, inevitably, by the distant landscape in the background. What is it about background scenes glimpsed through openings in paintings - they almost always fascinate me more than the foreground I'm supposed to be looking at. I think it is their mysterious quality, the hint of other lives going on just out of view:

Karel Dujardin's 'Italianate Landscape with Shepherd and Peasant Woman' was next on my unscholarly agenda. Instead of appreciating the colour and composition, I found myself speculating, as I looked at it, on whether Dujardin, unable to find a female model at short notice, painted a bloke and added a phwoar kind of cleavage to him, in the hope of deflecting viewers' attention from the creature's manly stance and face. The peasant woman reminded me somehow of the Little Britain performer, David Walliams:

Similarly ignoble thoughts afflicted me when I turned to Blanchard's painting of Mars discovering a sleeping vestal virgin, (an event that the caption explains, opaquely, resulted in the birth of Romulus and Remus). Yet again I failed to consider the painter's method of paint application, his sense of colour or general composition, puzzling instead about whether or not what the caption coyly describes as 'the sensuousness of Blanchard's art', might not also be classifiable as high-class soft porn. Certainly, the virgin's face is not what Mars appears to be mostly interested in:

Out in the Australian section of the gallery, I came next upon Eugene von Guerard's 1865 painting of Sydney Heads:

In my philistine way, it was again the 'odd thing' that attracted me, the detail of the scene rather than the quality of the work of art - really, I suppose, a photograph would have suited my purposes equally well, since what intrigued me was looking at this now transformed but still familiar landscape and seeing all the vanished details, captured by von Guerard, of the pristine nature of the North Shore of the time:

The next canvas I came to was a painting of Milford Sound, which tured out also to be by von Guerard, even though I'd always believed it was by Caspar David Friedrich:
As usual, my mind quickly began trying to transform the thing into a narrative. Instead of absorbing the whole work as a visual object, I was soon dividing it up, as if it were one of those medieval religious story paintings, into little sections, finding small pieces within it that each had the potential to produce a story of its own.

I discovered a section depicting a bunch of people about to launch onto the water in a small boat:

and another section showing a similar vessel already floating out upon the water:

Meanwhile birds could be seen, flying above the water, unaware of the human activity beneath:
and over on the right of the canvas a mysterious steamer with unknown passengers was moving slowly across the lake's glassy surface (is Milford Sound a lake?):

while a waterfall thundered in the distance:

beneath a livid sky:

Is it all right to do this, to wander around galleries in such an ill-informed way, enjoying and admiring the displays but understanding practically nothing? I worry that the manner in which I approach these outings - outings that I love, I should point out - is the incorrect manner. I'm concerned that really I ought to be doing serious preparation. I fear I should be more intent on discerning 'piercing glances' and 'spiritual forces', rather than treating the whole visual experience with as much respect as I might the unfolding vista glimpsed through a car window on a long journey.

I worry, in short, that I'm a visual illiterate. But then I comfort myself with the fact that the New South Wales Art Gallery's curators appear to be linguistically illiterate, which, in my world, is just as bad.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


I know Canada has one too, but most self-respecting countries don't have a day on which they celebrate being them. We do though, and it's today - we call it, unsurprisingly, 'Australia Day' and it makes me uncomfortable.

The thing is, I love this country but we are already revoltingly smug, (with undertones of anxiety that we're not actually quite as great as we think we are). Rather than self-congratulation, self-criticism - not self-hatred, but a proper sense that, while we have achieved a lot and created a very nice place to live, there are still plenty of things we could improve, (as there always are, everywhere) - seems to me to be the healthy option. Instead, we have our immigration minister today stating, if the Sydney Morning Herald is to be believed:

"We say without a shred of arrogance or parochialism that Australia's the best country in the world."

This government inspired 'celebration of a nation', (actually I think that phrase was for the bicentennial, to be completely fair), has, as do most government inspired nation building exercises, a faintly North Korean tinge about it, in my view, (although - and perhaps this is one of the areas we could reflect on as we indulge in the self-criticism I recommend - we're not self-disciplined enough to do the synchronised displays they are so fond of.)

(If there are no more blog posts here in the next few days, it will mean I have been kicked to death by a crowd of green-and-gold, (dreadful colour combination), wearing Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-Oy-Oy-Oy zealots.)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Works for Me

Sometimes I feel in need of something to lift my spirits and I find this rarely fails.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Just now, in the short street that has been rather imaginatively renamed Canberra's Chinatown, (it's not a town and it's not enormously Chinese [although I have to admit that it is probably more Chinese than anywhere else in Canberra]), I was locking my bike to a bike rack when I became aware of a person standing rather close to me.

What made me become aware of this person was, I suppose, the fact that he suddenly bellowed, 'It's a pity you have to lock up your bike', right beside me, in a Scottish accent. I straightened up and looked at this person, whose voice I didn't recognise but who nonetheless appeared to be addressing me. The main thing I noticed was that he was a man who had quite a few teeth missing and that his face was rather closer to mine than I might have liked. 'It is a pity,' I agreed and bent down again, to extract my key from its padlock.

'I went to Japan once,' the man yelled down at me, as I did this. I glanced up and gave him what I thought was an unencouraging nod. 'They don't need to lock up their bikes there,' he continued, clearly too entranced by his subject - or perhaps the sound of his Scottish lilt - to notice encouragement or the lack thereof.

'Oh yes,' I said, straightening up again and putting my key away in my pocket.

'Do you know why they don't need to lock up their bikes in Japan?' he demanded, shoving his mug so forcefully into my vision that there was room for nothing else. I inched away, shaking my head. 'Is it because no-one steals bikes over there?' I ventured. 'Yes, but do you know why they don't?' he asked.

He didn't wait for my answer - which was lucky, as I didn't have one - but went straight on. 'I asked them why, you know, and they told me. They said it was respect that stopped them doing it. They have respect in Japan, you see, but we've lost it.'

Before I could argue - or agree - with this statement, he turned on his heel and marched off.

I looked after him. What he'd said was not totally uninteresting, even though he was probably fairly mad. I didn't really have any particular objection to his diagnosis - I did wonder though if the loss was entirely a bad thing. After all, could it not be argued that an excess of respect led to no-one challenging authorities with sufficient vigour to prevent the building of nuclear power plants along an earthquake fault line?

If it's a choice between the odd stolen bike or a nuclear catastrophe, I think we may have got the better part of the bargain. On the other hand, it would be nice to never lock things up.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Stratford's Sayyid Qutb

I suppose everyone else in the world is already aware of this latest piece of evidence that the world has gone stark raving mad - somehow The Tempest has fallen foul of a law that is designed to prohibit teaching that promotes the overthrow of the United States:
Any education system that promotes the avoidance of discussion of any topics is a faulty education system, I reckon. Of course, 'discussion' is the operative word - that is, all possible points of view should be aired, rather than simply one doctrine. Rather than banning things, however, wouldn't it be better if the authorities involved ensured that the teachers they employ are dedicated to seeing that issues are discussed in a thorough, uninhibited, unbiased way?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Never Ignore the Short Form

Someone told me the other day that Alfred Hitchcock said films should not be made from novels, but from short stories - novels were too complex to be distilled into a feature length form. As I've pointed out (at great length) before, I think the novel form should not be tinkered with at all - if you want to put something on the screen or the telly, make up your own stories.

Anyway, before I go off on another 19,000 word rant about that, let me explain the actual point of this post: after puting up all those pictures (or rather all those potential Trollopian novels), yesterday, I realised that I'd left no scope for those who do not want to embark on such a large undertaking but may, like Frances's little sister Gloria with her string beans (from that great Russell Hoban work, Bread and Jam for Frances) -

- wish to practise with a short story (whether for potential adaptation by Mr Hitchcock's disciples or simply as a narrative in its own right).

So, not wishing to leave out this category of hopeful writer, I am adding this picture to yesterday's offerings :

Needless to say it is, once again, taken from Yass District Hospital, (this time circa 1915). To me it seems full of Chekhovian possibility.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

"Creative Writing" - Exercise II

In "Creative Writing" - Exercise I of the famous ZMKC online "Creative Writing" course, readers were offered the opportunity to craft stories based on the scraps of overheard conversation I picked up while walking up my local hill (and, by the way, I forgot to include the one that I think may in fact offer the most dramatic potential: "It was only afterwards that we realised they were Japanese.")

Now, in Exercise II, I offer you these photographs, taken at Yass Hospital, where I've been spending a lot of time lately, (long, boring story), and challenge you to conjure full-length period novels from them. You have the choice of a couple of early 20th century settings, or the 1950s. Your cast of characters is large and varied. Doubtless, most of them had friendships, difficult families, disappointments, complicated lives. All you have to do is imagine the details (and I'm even giving you the names, to make life easier).

In the first group, you see the staff circa 1910 (back row, "Nurse, Matron, AB Triggs, AC Wood, front row, Dr Doolan, Dr J English, 'unknown', Dr Thane, Mr W Thompson, Nurse, Mr Griffin, [wonderful how the women have no names recorded]):

In the second group, we jump forward to 1957, where women get names and everyone seems the happier for it, (back row: Mick Nash, Ray Hammil, Bill Cook, Joe O'Connor, Lloyd Parker, Front row: AJ Shannon, Naomi Oxley, Matron Besley, Ken Hartigan):

Then back we go again to 1925, which looks oddly more remote than 1910 and where again, despite their numerical preponderance, the women remain nameless (Dr J English on the right, and Dr Colquhoun on the left):

Finally, we go right back to 1895, when the hospital was only a twinkle in the planning committee's eye (BA Nichols, W Thomson, A Wood, T Comins, Dr English, AW Thomson, T Colls, AB Triggs, TJ Sheekey, Dr Doolan, THF Griffin, J Waddell, EJ Howard, G Bates):

They were a rum looking lot, but I think what their efforts produced was beautiful: