Tuesday, 27 August 2013

How Blonde Was Blanche Du Bois

Finding myself in Melbourne during the Melbourne Writers' Festival, I decided to take the opportunity to see Boris Johnson give a couple of talks - I was going to say 'see Boris Johnson in the flesh' but somehow the word 'flesh' in connection with the words 'Boris Johnson' conjures too many worrying half-formed thoughts and images, at least for me.

I was interested, partly because Johnson - (I can't bring myself to call him Boris - the matiness such familiarity implies gets in the way of really standing back and looking at him clearly) -  has established a reputation for being entertaining, but also because he is touted as a future Prime Minister of Great Britain. What most intrigued me was whether the clown/would-be leader combination could actually work.

My first Johnson outing was to Melbourne Town Hall, where he was to deliver the keynote address for the festival. It was a wet and windy evening, but still hundreds of Melburnians - including several women in wedding dresses protesting at something they thought Mr Johnson had said about university educated women, (which the next day he claimed he did not say [it was just a matter of 'assortative mating', Your Honour]) - turned out to listen to the London Mayor's thoughts, (or, in the case, of the bridal wear ladies, to shout outside and not listen to him).

Those of us there to listen were herded into the magnificent central hall of the Town Hall and given the pleasure of: a) Auntie Carolyn's reflections on the Kulin Nation; b) Heidi Victoria's reflections on the arts and Victoria; c) the director of the festival's reflections on the excitement of having Mr Johnson come amongst us; and d) Mayor Doyle's surprisingly interesting reflections on Napier Waller (see footnote)

Then, at last, the man himself - Johnson that is, not Napier Waller - appeared before us. The world's blondest blond bombshell bounded breezily onto the stage,. He's shortish and stoutish and those features, combined with his eagerness to be loved, created the impression of a slightly overfed golden retriever.

'I couldn't believe my luck', he boomed at us in fluent Fink-Nottle, 'when I got this invitation. My secretary had already drafted the refusal when I leapt across the office and tore it up.' Gorgeous Australia, couldn't resist coming here, such a great country, do you all know how lucky you are: on he rattled, clearly aware of how susceptible we Australians, (in common, I suppose, with all humanity - but possibly a little more so?), are to flattery. Sure enough, we lapped up every word.

Which is possibly why the small matter of Johnson's speech having nothing at all to do with its advertised topic - The Power of the Word - seemed to bother no-one, (except me). Most of us were transfixed by his compliments about our marvellous ingenuity.

We listened spellbound as he recited an admiring - and alliterative - list of our nation's inventions, including: the pacemaker; penicillin, (actually I think he missed that one - the British do prefer to think it was Alexander Fleming's achievement all on his own); the polymer banknote; and the Polly waffle, now vanished, much to Johnson's chagrin, (bought up by a Swiss company and deliberately extinguished, according to Johnson's theory , before its popularity could eclipse that of the Toblerone, [and, to go off on a digression worthy of B Johnson himself, can I just say that it has suddenly occurred to me that, were it still in existence, Tony Abbott would not have needed to comment on Rudd's prolixity the other day; he could just have produced a Polly Waffle with a flourish and offered it to his opponent]).

Anyway, he - Johnson - went on, very entertainingly, waxing lyrical on the remarkable qualities of our nation, drawing attention to our two countries' never-ending interchange of talent - while we gave the UK the matchless gift of Patricia Hewitt,  they managed an ingenious retaliatory donation to us in the form of Julia Gillard - and then, finally, launching into the main body of his address

It was about cities and how great they are, especially London. With the hasty addition of the odd Australian reference - brief asides re Banjo Paterson; the colonisation of Australia, (which arose from the growth of London, he argued); the popularity of RM Williams clothing (which he -Johnson, not RM himself - thinks represents a romantic yearning for the country) - he gave us what I would bet my bottom dollar is a stock speech usually trotted out for London Mayoral activities. Dressing the thing up with a few decorative Australian tassles and flounces was as much effort as he'd been prepared to make.

So, in exchange for air tickets and accommodation and being shown a really good time, Johnson gave us flannel. And when he'd finished, and the director of the festival reemerged beside him, he staged a little pantomime of mock contrition for having ignored the topic of his speech.

'Oh cripes, lor, lummy, I was supposed to talk about the power of the word, wasn't I,' he cried. A flurry of hair tousling followed as he stuttered out requests for forgiveness. It looked a wellworn performance to me, a joky, faux grovelling gambit that he knew he could get away with.

'I mean, gosh, you know, I did mention Shakespeare and Banjo Paterson', he protested. 'You will be understanding won't you?' If he'd been a woman I might have said he was simpering, but never mind - the fact is the whole absurd carry-on worked an absolute treat. Everyone adored him, everyone indulged him - that is everyone except for me.

The following day at lunchtime, I went to the Sofitel on Collins Street and viewed Boris Johnson for a second time. This time he was to be interviewed by Annabel Crabb, who began by asking Johnson to comment on a lovely bit of Byron by telling us what his favourite thing about being English was.

At first, Johnson responded by obfuscating, recalling instead what Stanley Baldwin and John Major had come up with in answer to similar questions and how hopelessly outdated their nominations now appeared. Pressed by Crabb, he eventually identified: a Cornish pastie on a cold winter's day on Reading station; a sense of humour - lots of other countries try to claim a sense of humour, he said, but none successfully; and hopeless embarassment, epitomised by the figure of a man trying to undress behind a towel in the wind on a beach and falling over.

From then on, Johnson skilfully diverted the interview, ensuring that it constantly meandered and never reached a point where he could be pinned down and made to give anything away. Crabb asked good questions but Johnson ducked and wove, parrying each of them by turning everything into a joke. He launched successive charm attacks on Crabb - which she admirably resisted; deployed his new 'Mmmm? mmmm?' variation of the Georgian 'What, what' style of ending sentences; digressed into anecdotes, including one about John Redwood, (who Johnson claimed predicted the GFC, years and years before anyone else), which led to a discussion of how to fudge the Welsh National Anthem - sing, 'My hen laid a haddock on top of my head' - followed by the horribly accurate assertion that  'Every government gets elected on a programme to bribe people with their own money' and then a discussion of assortative mating.

From there it lurched off towards the subject of education and Johnson's belief that boys achieve more when faced with an adrenalin inducing regime of regular competitive tests. Ski machines, fizzy drinks and the importance of studying the Classics - the Greeks and Romans produced the greatest literature, philosophical and political works the world has ever seen, Johnson reckons - plus the revelation that he is known as 'Boris' because people at school liked Boris more than his first name and he was 'too pathetic' to object, were all stations on the  way.

The result was often terribly funny, but, amidst all the hilarity, one thing became clear - Johnson relies heavily on 'the kindness of strangers' .An expectation of forgiveness and understanding, (already observed the evening before), is fundamental to his strategy for life. For instance, when Crabb quizzed him on his style, which she described as unusual for a politician in this era of ever-vigilant and instant media coverage, Johnson admitted that, while he has tried being buttoned up and cautious in the past, it has always been a disaster. He said that the only way to behave is to be unafraid and keep saying what you think, taking a, 'Bugger it' approach in your political life. While you will 'always eventually come a cropper', he argued, 'people are forgiving and understanding'.

Again, later, after asserting that 'People want politicians to get on and do the job; they want to have a sense that the politicians have got a vision and are more or less in command of their brief,' he once more mentioned that people 'are forgiving and understanding'. As the words rang in my ears for the second time in the space of an hour, I saw the narcissistic figure of Blanche du Bois rise before me, superimposing itself on the tailored dishevelment of the London Mayor.

By that stage, I should add, Johnson was in full flight, quoting huge chunks of the Iliad from memory - or at least that's what he said he was doing; given his wizard wheeze re the Welsh national anthem and his evident lack of thoroughness the night before, I was suspicious that he was actually pulling the wool over our collective eyes.

But never mind - he was by now in his element. Almost an hour of our rapt attention had replenished his reserves of energy. He'd sucked up the love in the room with the urgency of a vampire. His charm and wit had provided him with our admiration and he was drinking it in.

But that's the trouble with charm and wit - so often they are a tool used as a means to an end. In my experience, people who are charming tend not to see others as individuals. Charm dazzles us, but it is needy and self-centred, and I don't trust it. And I especially don't trust it in a politician.

From politicians, (and also doctors and engineers and plane mechanics), I want substance and application and thoroughness. I expect them to work hard to earn my respect, but I don't expect them to crave my laughter. People like Boris Johnson, who wing their way through their lives, thirsty for admiration and reliant on the power of their personalities, are fine if they stick to being entertainers. When they go into politics though, I suspect they go in for the wrong reasons. Instead of wanting to make things better, they do it to make themselves feel better. That is no use - at least it's not to me.

Footnote re Napier Waller - Doyle explained that he was the artist who created the murals in the great hall - he went to France during World War One, was wounded at Bullecourt, lost his right arm, returned to Australia, retaught himself to draw with his left arm and then became so skilled that he was able to create the murals that surrounded us, a parable of artistic determination, according to Mayor Doyle.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

High Horses

Something I read the other day on one of my very favourite blogs reminded me of the story I heard years ago about Emperor Franz Joseph and the architect of the Vienna Opera House. According to the story, Franz Joseph, trying to make conversation, asked the architect of the opera house why he'd put statues of two men on horses on the roof. Interpreting this as criticism, the architect went off and committed suicide, after the Emperor had gone home.

On hearing the news of the architect's death, the Emperor decided he would never make any attempt to question or comment on anything his subjects did ever again. Thus, he devised a standard phrase which he used on all the occasions he was expected to say something about something thereafter.

If the Vienna State Opera House site is to be believed, this story may well be apocryphal. All the same the phrase itself is a very useful one, and I've borrowed it for my review of the play I saw this afternoon at the Malthouse in Melbourne.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


Today is my very best friend's birthday. Sadly, I won't be celebrating it with her, because on 2 September it will be ten years since she died.

We met when I started high school. We both took the same bus to Hammersmith - where the school was - from Chelsea. Sitting on the top at the back - there used to be a particularly nice seat tucked behind the stairs in the old Routemasters - we would discuss the books we were excited about and add up the digits on our bus tickets. If the result was 21, it was a stroke of good fortune., (don't ask me why)

Our first bond was a shared love of John Verney's books about February Callendar. Later, I enjoyed having the film Far From the Madding Crowd described, over many trips, in such minute detail that when I did finally, some years later, see it for myself, I felt exactly as if I had already seen it several times. Probably the most thrilling thing that happened to us during these years was glimpsing Terence Stamp getting into a mini on the Fulham Road.

When I left London and went to boarding school in Australia, I used to receive long, enthusiastic letters from my friend in her spiky italic writing. Her personality was so vivid that even on paper she seemed more present than most of the people with whom I was actually spending my time. I wish I still had those letters but, in an act of hard-to-forgive vandalism, my mother threw them out when I was away one summer, (together with a full set of Beatles autographs - but, if I could have only one of those things back, it would be my friend's letters).

Whenever I'd go back to England, we'd pick up the friendship again, as if there'd been no break in contact. This was testament to my friend's personality. She was not someone who ever bothered with being petty or irritable. If you were her friend, she was also your greatest supporter and encourager and most enthusiastic partner in crime.

And then astonishingly, she was diagnosed with late stage cancer. I say astonishingly because, of all the people I've ever known, my friend seemed by far the most alive. I don't know how to explain it except to say that she seemed always to be burning especially brightly. It seemed impossible that such a spirit could be extinguished.

But it was. Somehow the illness got the better of her and all too soon she was gone, leaving a six-year-old child behind her. And the terrible thing is that it needn't have happened, if only her doctors had been more vigilant. I don't know if one should blame them - maybe they also were unable to imagine that someone so very alive could really be in danger. Anyway, for whatever reason, they told her not to worry, to ignore her own symptoms - and then it was too late. Almost nothing could be done.

I suppose the only positive to be drawn from this is the reminder that doctors are not infallible, that, if you feel unwell and are not satisfied with what your doctor tells you, don't let them fob you off. Get a second opinion - and a third and a fourth if necessary. My friend gave up after three separate doctors told her that, although they couldn't explain her stomach pains and anaemia, she was obviously much too young and vigorous to have anything seriously wrong with her. Perhaps a fourth doctor might have taken a harder look and actually done something before things reached the stage of A&E and never leaving hospital again. In other words, if in any doubt, don't hesitate for a moment. It's better to be thought of as a neurotic than to suffer my friend's fate.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sweet Disappointment

Although there are no longer any Hungarians selling cakes on Acland Street, St Kilda, there were once - or at least I've long cherished that belief. But, like Hungarians everywhere, the original Acland Street Hungarian cake shop owners, (if they ever actually existed), worked hard, and as a result they have long since become rich and successful and moved on to bigger and better things. Their cake shops remain though, as good as ever, despite being under new management.

Which is why, when I woke up this morning and decided that what I wanted for breakfast was a vanilla slice, I headed for St Kilda. After examining the offerings of several establishments, I settled down in this one:

I have to admit I don't eat a vanilla slice terribly often - not often enough to be able to say whether the shop's claim that theirs is the best vanilla slice in the state is fact. However, I can say that it was definitely the best vanilla slice I've had in years.

An odd thing happened though, while I was eating it. Two old birds (actually they were probably only my age, but they both wore expressions of such sourness that they looked much older [or at least older than I imagine I look]), came into the shop, having spent several minutes examining the contents of the window from the street outside. The girl behind the counter greeted them when they entered, asking how she could help them. They looked about the shop, their faces expressing increasing dissatisfaction. 'We're after something savoury', they replied.

Just take a close look at that window display again and tell me that wasn't a bit unreasonable, (and I should point out that Acland Street does also have a lot of cafes and restaurants where things other than cakes can easily be bought). It made me wonder whether, while many people lead genuinely unhappy lives, there aren't one or two of my fellow humans who seek out misery and disappointment for peculiar reasons of their own.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Mum's the Word

This morning, in Melbourne, I was sitting in a cafe, minding my own business, having a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, when two women sat down at the table next to mine. Although we were so close to each other that one of them managed to knock a bottle of water off my table - and smash it - as she made her way round to the chair beside me, they didn't seem aware that I was there.

Unless they were actually some kind of dadaesque performance? I do hope so, because it would make me worry less about their extraordinary conversation, the topic of which was their sixteen year old daughters, Isabella and Corinne.

Apparently, both girls are getting interested in boys, and boys are getting interested in them - and, indeed, taking them out on dates and inviting them to parties. As a result, the mothers next to me are worried about their girls losing their precious 'good names'.

'I said, "Darling, once your name's gone, it's gone forever"', the one across the table from me told her friend.

'I know', said the one who'd broken the bottle, 'which is why I told Isabella, "Have fun, darling, but just don't be adventurous - I mean kiss him, if you want to, but don't hang upside down with your knickers off or let them start licking chocolate off your tits."'

I started gathering up my stuff at that point. The conversation was getting too disturbing. I mean was this advice the product of the woman's own experience, (in which case, shudder)?

'What did she say?' the woman across the table asked, as I edged out between our two tables.

'She was horrified', Isabella's mother shrieked, laughing as she recalled the scene. 'It turns out she's scared of doing anything, even holding hands.'

I keep thinking of Isabella. And of Philip Larkin. It seems he was right about parents: we may not mean to, but still we do it, time after time.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Unexamined Prejudices and Things Best Left Unsaid

Years ago I heard someone who claimed to have been a test tube baby talking on the radio. She said the best thing about being such a person - apart from actually being alive, of course - was that you never had to accept that your parents might actually have had sex. I think most people would agree that acknowledging to yourself that your relatives have been involved in Ugandan activities (a Private Eye phrase that Wikipedia claims was invented by James Fenton) is something most of us would rather not do.

Similarly, the majority of people would very much like never to have to think about their politicians in any state but fully dressed and working hard at dull, government affairs. As far as I am concerned, it was this - the introduction of the subject of sex into the arena - rather than the issue of whether or not he was showing respect to a woman that bothered me about Australia's Leader of the Opposition's idiotic decision to mention a candidate's supposed 'sex appeal'.

Of course, the possession of sex appeal is not something that has any bearing on whether someone will be competent as a politician. On the other hand, it is dishonest to pretend that a woman's good looks are not noticed by those around her. I don't believe anyone in Australia who's seen her has not immediately thought that Kate Ellis is far and away the prettiest woman in the House of Reps. What is more, I bet her life is a great deal easier than it would be if she was short and fat.

In fact, I believe the worst sexism in political life is not to be found in the utterances of well-meaning but nittish men in their fifties who haven't yet understood that they are supposed to pretend they don't notice when a woman looks attractive. I believe the worst sexism in political life actually resides in the scorn that people - particularly those on the left - feel free to heap on unattractive female politicians, especially if those female politicians commit the sin not just of being unattractive but also of being on the right.

For example, when I lived in Britain, I was astonished to realise that, of all the ludicrous politicians on offer, Anne Widdecombe - (I was going to put a link under her name, but all the ones I found were so unbelievably foul about her, using combinations of 'fat' and the c*** word lavishly, that I didn't want to give them space) - was singled out as someone who could be routinely scoffed at with utter impunity. She was the regular butt of jokes, involving little more than the mention of her name and a sneering tone, by such 'comedians' as David Mitchell and Marcus Brigstocke. She was an absolutely routine object of mockery on programmes like the News Quiz and the Now Show on Radio 4. There seemed no limit to the verbal cruelty she was subjected to, and it seemed to me that this was, ultimately, because she committed the sin of making no attempt to be a woman interested in attracting the opposite sex. She enraged people by being a dumpy virgin and not having the decency to be ashamed of it.

Here in Australia, Sophie Mirabella is another rather rotund, not enormously attractive woman. I am not suggesting that she is particularly charming. However, I bet she is no less charming than many of her colleagues on both sides of the House. Somehow though, she gets pilloried far more than any other member of the federal parliament. I believe the intensity of venom she attracts is due to the fact that she is a conservative woman who doesn't have a pretty face or a good figure - and yet still has the audacity to assume she has a right to be heard. Were she a man, or a woman who had 'sex appeal', I don't believe her political opponents would dare to be so rude.

Mark Latham's hilariously point missing response to Tony Abbott's 'sex appeal' comments seems to support my theory about the expectations of those on the left. His objection to Abbott's remarks was not that he shouldn't have made them but that the person in question wasn't good looking enough. 'I had a good look at Fiona Scott [the candidate in question]', he told the nation, 'and she doesn't have sex appeal at all.'

Ideally, discrimination based on looks would disappear forever, but humanity is irrationally attracted to beauty. To my mind, the sin of expressing admiration for someone's appearance is a great deal more forgiveable than the sin of dismissing someone because, to quote Latham, they're 'not that good of a sort'.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Baz Is Not Bad

It's hard not to notice that F Scott Fitzgerald's greatest novel, Tender is the Night, is full of the shock and horror of a world recovering from the First World War. This observation from Dick Diver makes it explicit:

"See that little stream--we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it--a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation."

Until I saw Baz Lurhmann's film The Great Gatsby, I hadn't recognised that the same might also be true of the book from which the film is derived. And yet, looking back at the text now, I see that right from the beginning Carraway signals that it is precisely from that perspective that the story will be told:

I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being the warm center of the world the middle-west now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe--so I decided to go east and learn the bond business.  

No cinematic images will beat, for me, the lush perfection of Fitzgerald's descriptive skill - here are two examples taken completely at random:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths 

Nevertheless, Luhrmann, with his own fondness for lush, overblown imagery, is probably the ideal person to translate Fitzgerald to the cinema. Here's what I think of the job he did on The Great Gatsby

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Cricket's Dream Ticket

This isn't so much a blog post as a bookmark to a link the amiable Andrew Sholl shoved in my direction, after I mentioned that Henry Blofeld said to the formidable journalist Leigh Sales, at the end of her interview with him, ''Thank you very much, my dear old thing.'

By putting it here, I can find it easily and return to it whenever I need cheering up. I love the thought of Gussie Fink-Nottle making 'the most awful hash of bringing out the drinks'.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Changing Views

On my way back from Wattle Park the other day, I spotted an architectural salvage yard through the tram window. I find such places as irresistible as stationery shops, so I jumped off the tram at the next stop and went to have a look.

What had first particularly attracted my attention was this pair of doors:

 There were plenty more of a less figurative style:
 Plus windows, matching or otherwise:

There were assorted tiles and lamps and light switches:

and even some original paint, for those restorers truly dedicated to authenticity:
There were old fire places:

and a basin I swear came from the house we lived in in Kuala Lumpur when I was a child - the bathroom there was exactly that teeth setting shade of green:
Sadly, when you looked at the streets adjacent to the salvage yard, it was all too easy to see where most of the salvage had come from - it appeared that quite a few lovely buildings had made way for boxes and graffitied corrugated iron:

The odd thing is that I worked in this exact area of Melbourne when I was 20 and somehow I never noticed how pretty the buildings were. It was pretty rough at the time, but all the same, I can't understand how I missed the basic charm of the architecture. At the time, I loathed the place, but then again, I was working on the counter of the local Social Security office during a recession and that job would have jaded anybody's view of the world:

It appears that there are lots of people who still don't appreciate these sweet little houses and prefer to knock them down and put up something made out of packing cases instead:

Now that my eyes have been opened, I much prefer the older way of building, with its fondness for decorative details, none of which I ever noticed when I used to pass them each day:

Who was Eleanor, I wonder

I never noticed these great piles up the road either - presumably they were owned by the people who employed the people in the little houses down the road:

The second one looks as if it is trying to ape Government House, Melbourne, which, in its turn, is thought to have been imitating Queen Victoria's Osborne on the Isle of Wight.

I know I harp on about it, but I do think, despite their often being more spacious and practical and light and so forth, that the buildings of today are much less interesting to look at and much less pleasing to live in than those of earlier times.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Strike a Light

Vienna to the short-term tourist looks a bit like a perfectly ordered fairy tale world. It is perfectly ordered, in a way, but it isn't fairy tale exactly. The various more unsavoury aspects of city life exist in Vienna just as they do elsewhere. However, rather than trying to get rid of them, the Viennese arrange things in what I think they regard as a perfectly sensible - well-ordered, you might say - manner.

Thus, prostitutes are permitted - or ignored anyway - provided they ply their trade exclusively on the Gürtel, so that driving along there at night you are often confronted by a woman whipping open her fur coat to reveal she has nothing else on, except a pair of very high heels. Similarly, a blind eye is turned to drug addicts provided they do their dealing in the Karlsplatz or Kettenbrückengasse underground stations.

Perhaps as a result, the two stations - Karlsplatz and  Kettenbrückengasse - attract quite a few peculiar types. When we lived in Vienna our apartment was between the two stations and it was hard to decide which to choose, as most days there were fairly nightmarish scenes taking place in both. The Karlsplatz station though was darker and somehow more grimy and unbearable so, provided I was using the U4, I tended to go for the  Kettenbrückengasse option.

One afternoon having made this choice, I boarded the train and found myself in an empty carriage. I sat down and then, just as the doors were sliding shut, I was joined by someone else. Despite the fact that the compartment had no-one else in it except me, the new passenger walked straight over and sat down on the seat next to mine. Once settled, he pulled a packet of matches from his pocket and began lighting them and then dropping them, one by one, still flaming, onto the floor at my feet.

I was reminded of that incident when I went to the cinema on my own earlier this week. I was just thinking how lucky I was to have a completely empty cinema to myself, (tempting fate, in other words), when the door creaked open and a hunched, bearded figure shuffled in and looked about him. Having taken in the rows upon rows of empty seats, he came and sat in the seat beside me. Perhaps this unnerving experience skewed my view of the film, which was called In the House. I wrote down what I thought of it here.