Thursday, December 29, 2005

Education: what is it?

Irritated beyond endurance this morning by one too many Right Wing Death Beasts over at Larvatus Prodeo banging on about how schools of humanities are the dens of the devil and humanities academics the spawn of Satan, I astonished myself by furiously tapping out a spirited, nay passionate, reply in defence of the humanities.

It made me think hard about what an education is. I had a liberal arts education and was obliged in the course of it to learn the basic things (and the basic thinkers) in history, politics, philosophy and literature, including big chunks of social theory that came as part of all of those things. Then there are languages, psychology, fine arts, music, classics -- sometimes in smatterings or informally or on the run. But they are all part of each other and you can't be a halfway decent scholar in the arts without knowing at least a bit about all of them.

Here, however, are a few of the things I know almost nothing about: economics, law, accounting, business, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science. I get the strong feeling that some of the commenters at LP who freak me out the worst have backgrounds in one of those disciplines: some materialist area or other that deals with the concrete and tangible.

Does an education in the 'hard' fields, to the neglect of instruction in abstractions, leave you with a terrible yearning for the ineffable? And if it does, is this why so many of them have become Christians? And why are so many of those Christians Christians of the worst kind -- aggressive, crusading, critical, self-righteous, dogmatic, narrow-minded, punitive and/or bigoted?

Why are they convinced that everyone not for them is against them, that non-Christians are their enemies, that the word 'moral' is about other people's sex lives rather than about the generosity or otherwise with which one behaves towards other human beings in all things? Does being a self-proclaimed practising Christian somehow get you off the hook of having to at least try to love your fellow persons through the exercise of such things as tolerance and generosity, or, failing that, to at least try to be more interested in understanding their behaviour than in judging it?

An education in the liberal arts teaches you not only to analyse things, but to want to analyse them. It gives you an inexhaustible desire for answers to questions that begin with 'why'. But ironically enough, perhaps the most valuable thing it gives you is an essentially religious, or maybe I mean spiritual, habit: the habit of self-examination and a reverence for the examined life, in the belief that the unexamined life is indeed not worth living. On a daily, sometimes hourly basis, one asks oneself endless questions: Was that the right thing to do? And was it a good thing to do? Are they always the same thing? Why did I say X? How did I come to believe Y? Have I done those things I ought not to have done, or left undone those things I ought to have done?

It's ironic to me that these practices and these ways of thinking and talking about them have their source in the religious life, and yet that so many non-religious people live like this automatically, as a result of their alleged brainwashing in the schools of humanities so feared and hated by the religious right. At the same time, and even more ironically, many of the religious right themselves seem incapable of questioning their own behaviour or beliefs: they seem to be projecting their own unexamined selves onto some perceived orthodox Christian template, rather than introjecting the ideals that Christianity teaches.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The 'Seven Things' meme

I took up blogging just too late to cotton on to the 'seven things' meme that was doing the rounds at the time. But since I've been idly scrolling through the archives of bloggers I like and have found it there, and since it's December 28th and there is, after all, bugger-all to do because all the Christmas leftovers have been thrown out and all the Christmas mess cleaned up, I'm reduced to lightweight yet irresistible blogger games. So here we go:

7 things I want to do before I die

1) Go (back) to Florence
2) See Nashville, New Orleans, New York and Quebec
3) Swim with dolphins
4) Write that novel
5) Live by the sea
6) Learn to play the cello
7) Get fit (hah)

7 things I cannot do

1) Relax about cooking for other people
2) Fix any computer-related problem without sweating and swearing
3) Find out who my great-grandma Quigg's parents were
4) Suffer fools gladly
5) Understand what motivates conservative politicians
6) Play the cello
7) Get fit

7 things that attract me to the opposite sex

1) Sense of humour - the only non-negotiable requirement
2) Talent -- Imran Khan was right when he said that doing something, anything, very well is very sexy
3) Articulateness
4) Responsiveness to other people (e.g. me) and to what's going on around him
5) Good hair
6) Grace of movement
7) Power of presence

7 things that I say most often

1) Holy moly.
2) Hello, Blossom.
3) Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey!
4) Oh, not again.
5) Take care.
6) Get down off my chair! (To cat)
7) I did not.

7 celebrity crushes

1) Johnny Depp, what can I say.
2) Colin Firth, and do we care that Peter Craven doesn't get it?
3) Bruce, the Boss. Yes yes, I know he's getting on, but hey, so am I.
4) Dave Hughes -- it's the headgear role-playing segments, I think.
5) Ralph Fiennes, but I haven't seen HP4 yet.
6) Robert Carlyle (makes hissing noise through teeth).
7) Michael Ignatieff. I loves me a sexy intellectual.

End-of-year aging blogger blues

Having arrived in an age band where one is actually quite pleased to have made it through another year with all one's faculties more or less intact, I've been congratulating myself over the last few days on surviving Christmas without fighting with anyone, or forgetting any vital card, call or present, or putting on any weight, or needing, for any reason whatever, to take to my bed.

So it was a blow just a minute ago to see I'd managed to send a post to Larvatus Prodeo with not just one but two three typos in it. I blame their preview feature, in which the typeface is if anything slightly smaller than the actual posts. Clearly, I need it to be bigger.

Clearly, I'm way, way overdue for a visit to the optometrist.

So how's that for a depressing New Year's resolution? Twenty years ago, it was 'I resolve to be successful and gorgeous'. These days it's 'I resolve to get my eyes checked. Again.'


Friday, December 23, 2005

Cat photograph, about 95% gratuitous

'Twas the night before Christmas ...

This pic is posted in support of Kate and Laura and their campaign to put the cred back in pet blogging. The 5% non-gratuitousness is of course the seasonal appropriateness of looking up the chimney.

It saddens me that a cat photo might be enough to make someone bugger off from one's blog in disgust and never look at it again, but what does that say about them? Does one really want ailurophobic or otherwise unimaginative readers? Personally I think of it as a form of triage.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

More weird habits

comicstriphero is tagged for the weirdness! (See below.)

Weird habits meme

Well this is a new experience isn't it. I have been tagged by Elsewhere and must now follow these rules:

The first player of this game starts with the topic five weird habits of yourself, and people who get tagged need to write an entry about their five weird habits as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose the next five people to be tagged and link to their web journals. Don't forget to leave a comment in their blog or journal that says You are tagged (assuming they take comments) and tell them to read yours.

The last bit will be the hardest, as I am only an apprentice blogger and nearly all of the people I would have the gall to tag have already done this one. (I'm guessing it's bad form to tag total strangers.)

But to the meme: FIVE WEIRD HABITS

1) When a book gets very exciting I will unconsciously mash and crease the corner of the page as I read, something I have done from a very early age. My mother, when she saw me doing this, would say in tones of deep sorrow 'Oh, poor book!' If this was intended to be an appeal to my better self, it didn't work.

2) I sing along in improvised but lame and uninspired harmonies while listening to great singers who would be much better off without my help.

3) I correct people who say infer when they mean imply, laying when they mean lying, disinterested when they mean uninterested, and 'I cannot help but think' when they mean either 'I cannot help thinking' or 'I cannot but think'. I persist in doing this even though I know it will make them hate me.

4) I will not travel anywhere further away from home than 100 km without wearing the St Christopher medal my folks gave me for Christmas 1987 and yes I know he's been debarred or unfrocked or whatever it is.

5) Nine times out of ten when I shop for clothes, I come home with something black, although I'm not a superannuated Goth or anything and don't do it deliberately. Black is slimming, it hides the dirt, it suits me, and it goes with everything: what's not to like?

Tagging: I'm a new girl in the blogosphere and am going to bail on the full tagging trip (will this get me expelled? Will I disappear in a puff of smoke? Will my scar hurt?) until I know a few more people. The only person I "know" even remotely well enough to tag, and who doesn't seem to have been tapped for this one so far, is ...


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Consider the egg

In marble halls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.

Eggs are in the SA news this week. Big eastern-states producers are deliberately swamping the market with inferior and stale but incredibly cheap eggs at prices with which the local producers can't hope to compete. It's something to do with differing State regulations; nobody seems to be quite able to provide a clear explanation of what the problem is, but the local egg producers were out in force yesterday, showing their displeasure outside Parliament House and being, erm, egged on by Independent and parliamentary gadfly Nick 'No Pokies' Xenophon.

And today the Advertiser is running a shot of legendary local chef Cheong Liew holding a frypan with a fried egg in it in each hand. On the left we have the yucky, watery, tasteless, stale and badly shaped 'imported' Queensland egg, and on the right, the richly coloured, perfectly round and yummy-tasting local free-range product from down the freeway on the fertile and gorgeous Fleurieu Peninsula, home to some of the great wines of the world.

So today I went to quite a lot of trouble to make sure that the eggs for the mayo for the Christmas Day deluxe potato salad, and for the custard for the Christmas Day deluxe trifle, were local and fresh. (I wouldn't put it past my sisters to start agitating for devilled eggs as well, which means that by Boxing Day we'll have used up our cholesterol quota until Easter.) On either side of me in the supermarket, fellow punters were scanning the sides of the cartons for the same information.

The general consensus is that the eggs rolling in from the eastern states are crap and that most loyal South Australians are prepared to stump up quite a bit extra to support the local product, especially as it's manifestly fresher and better. But if free trade prevails and the SA producers end up going under, I'm going to have to take extreme measures and revert to my rural childhood. I've got a great big back yard and there is absolutely nothing to stop me (I know this because the bloke next door has chooks, so clearly the council doesn't mind) from clearing a patch of it, building a coop, and acquiring half a dozen little clucky ones of my own.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The examined life

From Susan Horsburgh's article on American artist Barbara Kruger, this year's winner of the Venice Biennale's lifetime achievement award, in today's Australian:

'In her works, Kruger aims to arouse uncertainty and knock her audience off balance. "That's to me what art can do, but that's what all commentary does to a certain degree," she says. "It's not about being political; it's just about really trying to live an examined life ... to ask questions about what it means to take another breath."'

Full text here.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Putting the cat back in Magnificat

The 18th century English poet Christopher Smart, who lived only 49 years and spent four of those in an asylum, poor chap, is most famous for the epic poem he called his 'Magnificat': a series of verses, based on the antiphonal structure of Hebrew verses, that works as a sort of large-scale call-and-response and celebrates the creation of the world. The poem is called Jubilate Agno, 'Rejoice in the Lamb' (the Lamb being, of course, he who needs to be put back into Christmas, which is one reason for this post: I'm just doing my bit).

The other reason is that my stars yesterday said that I should express my appreciation and affection for my nearest and dearest, 'whether family, friends or little fur people with tails and whiskers'. And since the little fur people have been working overtime this week, draping themselves fetchingly about the furniture in artist's-model poses, cuddling up when I took to my bed with a virulent Christmas cold, standing guard on the night of the prowler, and, perhaps most astonishingly, not wrecking the Christmas tree, I thought I would post a tribute to them from the great Kit Smart, barking though he be. For the most famous part of Jubilate Agno is the passage about Smart's 'Cat Jeoffry':

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the Tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit ...
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Thinking of an angle

(Image from here.)

The leader of the country has chosen a weekend on which many Australians fear major race-based and religion-based violence to announce, with impeccable timing, that he wants to 'put Christ back into Christmas' (modest, too, the Rodent). His idea of how this should be done is for the department stores to bloat their already obscene profits further by selling nativity scenes.

He added in a neat, nay almost unnoticeable, twist that those who 'downplay' Christmas for fear of offending other religious groups are being 'intolerant'. Figure that one out.

Of course, this unspeakable piece of dog-whistling manipulativeness can no longer be named for what it is without getting had up for sedition.

I don't actually remember anyone taking the Christ out of Christmas. But it's a slow news season so the media does this beat-up every year and sometimes politicans jump on the bandwagon too if they think there's something there to milk. Like today, for example.

But look around you. There are more nativity scenes on sale than I've ever seen before. (Which is icky in itself, actually. Surely if what we are really concerned about is our spiritual well-being then it would be better for the soul -- believer or no believer -- to make one. Or better still, get your kids to make one.)

And it's not just nativity scenes. There are people belting out carols everywhere you turn; James Morrison, Casey Donovan, Wilbur Wilde and opera singer Ali McGregor teamed up for a blinder of a Little Drummer Boy tonight on, of all places, Spicks and Specks. What people are shopping for are the relics of the gifts brought by the Wise Men; every Christmas present is an allusion to the story. And most of all there are little kids doing the nativity thing, dressing up in teatowels, dropping the dolly, forgetting their lines, vomiting on each others' unsuspecting heads and making their mothers cry. That'll never go out of fashion.

And the only people I've seen complaining about any of it so far are a blond-haired, blue-eyed, hard-nosed family of resisters from NSW who say they're not Christians and they don't want their kids to have to go along with this stuff at what is supposed to be a secular State school. Oh, except for the endless moaning from people who are sick of shopping, cooking and cleaning, and/or are dreading spending a day with their families.

Personally I think those people who are downplaying Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Hogmanay are being intolerant, too. I wonder what sorts of profits the department stores could turn there.

In the household of one friend this year, the large and beautiful nativity scene that has had pride of place on the hall table for several years now -- my friend is a complex creature, an ironist with a convent background and an eye for beauty -- has been arranged as usual, but there's one small twist. Everybody in the scene -- kings, goats, shepherds, lambs, right down to Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus himself -- is gazing adoringly at the central object: her daughter's Dux of the School gold medal, propped up against a sheep.

Now that's really something to celebrate.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The story I'll never read

I've spent a big chunk of the last three or four days thinking and writing about, erm, thinking and writing, in comments exchanges on several different blogs. I thought about it some more this afternoon when re-reading (something I often do with favourite crime writers: it's comfort reading, perverse as that may seem) Kathy Reichs' Fatal Voyage.

Our heroine Tempe Brennan arrives back at the guesthouse near the plane crash site to discover that her room has been broken into and trashed:

'I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Then I closed my eyes and played a childhood game I knew would calm me. Silently, I ran through the lyrics of the first song to come to mind. "Honky Tonk Woman".

The time-out with Mick and the Stones worked. Steadier, I returned and began gathering papers.'

What this reminded me of was another favourite book, Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond saga, in which the hero is unknowingly tricked by his treacherous household cook into becoming an opium addict. Near the end of the book, deeply addicted, he goes cold turkey and gets through the first two or three unspeakable days by reciting poetry to distract his mind and stop himself from screaming.

Yes, there's a pattern emerging here. Stories, songs and poetry will always help. In Ted Hughes's astonishing Birthday Letters of 1998 there is a wonderful poem called 'The Rag Rug', about sitting reading to his wife Sylvia Plath while she worked on her 'rich rag rug':

Whenever you worked at your carpet I felt happy.
Then I could read Conrad's novels to you.
I could cradle your freed mind in my voice,
Chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence,
Word by word: The Heart of Darkness,
The Secret Sharer. The same, I could feel
Your fingers caressing my reading, hour after hour,
Fitting together the serpent's jumbled rainbow.

Even the Sturm und Drang of that toxic, doomed relationship could be momentarily transformed by storytelling into the warm calm of a reciprocal caress, a balance of mind and body, a couple at rest. Conrad: another voice telling a different story, one that was not the violent story of their marriage, giving them time out from themselves.

But there's one story I know I will never read. Decades ago now, in a tutorial on Anna Karenina, the professor teaching the class advised us that if we ever found ourselves in despair, in our worst moment, in a true dark night of the soul, we should -- for consolation; medicinally, as it were -- read Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

I haven't ever been able to bring myself to read it, and nor will I. Because to read it would be implicitly to claim that I had hit the bottom and that nothing worse was ever going to happen to me. And, hubris being what it is, something worse would immediately come along. Tolstoy's story, left unread, is a talisman protecting me from the worst that could happen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

If it's good enough for him ...

Longtime Fatwa victim Salman Rushdie on the realities and the virtues of multiculturalism:

"This is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere, and how can it insist on those values even when they clash with some citizens’ traditions and beliefs?

The beginnings of an answer may be found by asking the question the other way around: what does a society owe to its citizens? The French riots demonstrate a stark truth. If people do not feel included in the national idea, their alienation will turn to rage."

Read the whole thing here.

How did s/he sleep?

From an item in yesterday's online New York Times describing the execution of gangster Tookie Williams:

"And at about 11:30 p.m. Monday, the governor rejected a second request for a 60-day reprieve, a legal appeal that prison officials said slightly delayed the start of the execution, originally scheduled for 12:01.

Among the 39 witnesses -- including journalists, victims’ relatives, Mr. Williams’s lawyers and supporters and prison officials -- several of the journalists who said they had witnessed other executions described the lethal injection procedure as unusually long, as a nurse struggled to insert a needle in Mr. Williams’s muscular left arm for about 12 minutes."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Three things

1) announces in today's edition that next week it will be publishing the 2005 Crikey Honour Roll, comprising numerous awards for politics, business and media. Under 'Media' one of the awards will be for Best Blogger of the Year, which, no matter who gets it, will probably start a new round of Singing Bridges-type furore.

2) Also from crikey, here's a lovely note from Chris Graham, editor of National Indigenous Times, about the mob at Cronulla: 'As for the chant "We grew here, they flew here", the response going round Aboriginal Australia today is "We growed here, you rowed here."'

3) More great stuff on the Pakistan aid effort from Our Woman in Islamabad at Hotel Serena.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A practical demonstration of the Milne theory

You've got to wonder whether John Howard had read Glenn Milne's column (see below) when he walked out to the microphone today and announced with a straight face that the Cronulla riots were not about racism. His eyelid didn't twitch or anything.

That's us told then.

Maybe he thinks the way to change the meaning of a word is to get it pushed through the Senate. Piece of cake. '"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice,"whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."'

... and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There's a savage op ed by Glenn Milne in today's Australian, spelling out in no uncertain terms the federal government's contempt for the institution, the duties and the function of the Senate (to say nothing of the electorate) and its wilful stalling and stacking as it steamrolls through a whole parcel of legislation that will disadvantage the poor, the female, the sick, the old, the young, and every employee in the country.

Presumably the Truthful Rodent wants to finish rearranging Australia to his liking before he power-walks off into the sunset with Hyacinth, leaving the way clear for Captain Smirk to battle it out with Abbott, Nelson, Downer and Turnbull. Howard is a stubborn little sausage with a long memory and won't want to re-enact some of his own farcical public power struggles with Andrew Peacock, back in the mists of time; my bet is that he'll use control of the Senate quickly to score as many conservative goals as possible before withdrawing on his 67th birthday with what passes in politics for grace. In the ensuing bloodbath, my money will be on Turnbull.

In the meantime, however, the fact that a journalist like Glenn Milne is spitting chips in a paper like the Australian is some indication of just how far too far Howard has already gone. In 'PM drunk on political power', Milne describes the passing of the VSU legislation as 'the worst trashing of the Senate I've witnessed in 20 years of covering federal politics ...if the Howard Government continues down the road of ruthlessly emasculating the Senate, it will become an issue of both politics and principle that could ultimately threaten the Coalition's upper house majority at the next election. ... Drunk on power, the Government is now treating the Senate as its after-party pissoir.'

He finishes with a daunting quotation from de Tocqueville about the abuse of power, and his parting word is 'tyranny'. He doesn't quote 'Power corrupts ...', probably because he knows most of his readers will be thinking that already -- but you can practically hear him wanting to.

Of handwriting and memory

A post at long-toothed hinterland dweller a few days ago on the necessity to get one's recipes organised got me hunting out a precious document on the cookbook shelf: a tiny, battered, falling-apart notebook that my mother kept recipes in. The earliest entries are some household accounts, dated 1956.

After she died in 1999, my dad taught himself to cook, largely out of this book. For a long time I'd get three or four phone calls a week: 'What on EARTH does your mother mean by "fold in the flour"? How much is a scant cup of milk? What the hell is a smidgin?'

After my father remarried last year I took custody of this notebook, for so strongly does it project the aura and presence of my mother that we feared it would freak out his new wife completely. It's full of annotations, alterations and interleavings by my nan, my mum, both of my sisters, me, and now my father.

In it you can trace the shifting patterns of food fashions in Australia over the last 50 years; my own three non-negotiable permanently-on-hand ingredients -- garlic, olive oil and lemon juice -- barely get a look-in, even though my mother was a meticulous and imaginative cook, well ahead of her time. These notebook recipes are from an earlier era, before she started indulging herself in the luxury of buying new cookbooks. Cornflour figures prominently.

Whenever I want to conjure up and commune with my mother -- and Christmas tends to bring this kind of thing on for everyone, I think -- I go not to photographs but to this little book. The sight of her handwriting is a direct blow to the solar plexus; it's not a "nice" thing. It's powerful and spooky, the kind of thing that makes you understand why clairvoyants and psychics often ask for some personal item belonging to the dead or missing person. Handwriting's what Frank Moorhouse would call strong magic, an extension of both the body and the soul. You've got to hope that in the age of keyboards, keypads and voice-recognition software, it won't die out completely. Too much would be lost.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

VSU: some utterly predictable predictions

(1) Family First Senator Steve Fielding will be discovered -- eventually -- to have done some kind of Harradinian deal with the Coalition, probably about the same product. Said deal will be revealed to have been kept under wraps (translation: lied about) because of the current backlash over the Harradine/RU486/Telstra deal and the shambolic shemozzle that Telstra has subsequently become. Yes, ladies, our health and wellbeing are bargaining chips.

(2) The first university services on which the sword will fall will be childcare, followed by anything to do with cultural activities (books, movies, music), followed by student counselling and student health.

(3) Sporting facilities, particularly for rowing, cricket and all football codes, will not be affected; here the daddies will willingly cough up. Furballs will be nothing to it.

Pavlov's Cat applauds Senator Joyce's actions, but thinks jokes about dead pets are in questionable taste.

Thought for the day

I got this interactive DIY Einstein from Barista, who got it from Flop Eared Mule, who got it from For Battle!.

Gotta love the blogosphere.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Not even a mouse ...

This already-historical image from 2002 is my first Christmas card for 2005: to all reading this blog, good on yer, and have a very merry Christmas/Yuletide/holidays/whatever. Thanks for use of the cartoon to Peter Nicholson who as you'll see if you go here is apparently a very generous bloke as well as a genius.

Everywhere you turn

I haven't been able to open a page, an email or a window this week without seeing some reference to Brokeback Mountain.

New York Times movie reviewer Stephen Holden says Heath Ledger's performance is as good as the best of Marlon Brando or Sean Penn. The New Yorker's music citic Alex Ross (see December 4th post) likes the music, too: 'Brokeback Mountain is not merely the great gay movie that some of us have been waiting for our whole lives, but a classic portrait of American loneliness and longing. There's a haunting score by Gustavo Santaolalla, Golijov's collaborator on Ayre.'

Then there's the link in Wednesday's edition of The Reader to a good article in the UK's arts.telegraph about the importance of last lines in stories and novels, quoting good ones and bad ones and singling out for praise the last line of the Annie Proulx short story 'Brokeback Mountain' on which the movie is closely based, a line that takes your breath away and goes on resonating and resonating for days, something that's true of all of us, everywhere, all the time:

'There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it.'

Make yourself a great big tough drink and then read the whole story, from The New Yorker archives, here.


In today's Australian, Jane Fraser's 'Strewth!' column contains a sort of social-pages item listing the attendees at the Sydney launch of Michael Connor's book The Invention of Terra Nullius. Present was a predictable gaggle (school? pride?) of conservatives including Leonie Kramer, David Flint, Janet Albrechtsen, Christopher Pearson and Keith Windschuttle, who did the honours.

Windschuttle, having done his launching bit, will now get on with writing the second volume of his The Fabrication of Australian History, but he's not hopeful that it'll sell a lot of copies. 'The truth of it,' Fraser quotes him as saying, 'is that the Left buy books but the Right don't.'

Hang in there, Mr Windschuttle. Sooner or later, that other shoe will drop.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Harold Pinter, writer and citizen

Playwright Harold Pinter is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His incandescent-with-rage acceptance speech is published in the Guardian today.

Here's a taste:

"... the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. ... I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all."

Full text here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Creative diplomacy and the 180 undelivered lashes

A retired Australian diplomat with international-relations experience in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka argues in the current New Matilda that neither the Foreign nor the Prime Minister was prepared to 'play hardball' with the Singaporean Government over Van Nguyen, and that if they had, they might have been more effective.

Threats are the way to go, says Bruce Haigh (the John Hargreaves character in Cry Freedom, remember him?).

In 'Can Howard Play Hardball?' (New Matilda, Dec 7), Haigh tells the story of the two nurses, one British and one Australian, who while working in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in 1984 were arrested and sentenced to 90 lashes each for drinking alcohol.

Pushed for time, as the punishment was to take place immediately, Haigh got together with a senior British diplomat and cooked up an unpublicised deal. 'We met with senior officals and said if their country had been angry and embarrassed over a film depicting the beheading of a princess for engaging in premarital sex, it was nothing compared to the outrage we would engender by giving details of the case, and the penalty imposed, to major media outlets in Australia and Britain. Furthermore, I said I would release details of a case relating to the son of a senior diplomat from the country who had been picked up for drink driving on Northbourne Avenue in Canberra.'

The nurses were given back their passports and quietly deported -- de-sentenced and unlashed -- back to their home countries. Haigh suggests a few 'hardball' propositions that could have been put to Singapore, arguing that Howard's informal approach to the Singaporean PM at CHOGM was 'a sop to Australian public opinion'. Howard and Downer were both, says Haigh, 'out-bullied and out-bluffed by Singapore.'

Right up there with "collateral damage"

There's a new code-word floating around in Dubyaspeak: 'rendition'. If you thought you already knew that word and its meaning, get a load of this.

There's not an awful lot these days, as Pavlov's Cat enters the mellow years, that makes the actual back of her eyeballs go all red and steaming. But vicious violence done to the language in an attempt to cover up vicious violence done to other human beings is one of the things that will still do it.

Peace on earth, etc

It's started.

Got my first Christmas card yesterday, another one today. Time to decide what to do, Christmas-card-wise, this year.

Brought up in a determinedly secular family, I nonetheless spent decades innocently enjoying Christmas -- peace on earth and goodwill to persons, shiny things, good weather, heartbreaking music, Haigh's miniature plum-pudding chockies and so on. I love, in particular, the gift exchange, especially since I read Marcel Mauss's The Gift: '... the object that is given bears the identity of the giver. When the recipient receives the gift, they not only receive the object, but the association of that object with the identity of the giver.' I love this book because it explains so much, not least the reason why I can never bring myself to Feng Shui my house.

And most of all I love the music. The real music, carols sung traditional and straight as per Kings College Choir, I mean, not the pop/populist horrors. Sing O Holy Night to me and I'm anybody's.

So it was a shock when, some time in the early 1990s, a few of the cooler and younger dudes at the staff Christmas party gathered in a corner when the carol-singing started up and began muttering about 'the Christians'. It dawned on me, much more slowly than it should have, that these neo-Scrooges were up in arms at the ideological unsoundness of the rest of us in having the lack of coolth to be singing carols (though I did notice at the time that they had turned up all right and were scoffing the indifferent wine), and by 'the Christians' they meant, among other people, me.

So here's what I wondered then and still wonder now: is it really required of one that one not celebrate Christmas in any way unless one is a card-carrying Christian, which I most certainly am not? I was in awe of the cool young dudes at the time because they had read a lot of stuff that was unfamiliar to me, but that was then and this is now. And I now think that they were being a bunch of literal-minded, censorious, po-faced young prudes and I wish South Park had been invented to take the p*ss out of them.

But now that the effing Christian fundamentalists seem to be taking over the world, it's not that I can't see the young dudes' point. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon spells it out in this hysterical post from a few days ago (thank you crikey).

The trap there is, as always, reacting too far in the other direction. This is hard for Pavlov's Cat not to do when instructions come straight from someone called The Great Cat, but so far I am standing firmish.

For the Christmas mindset and aesthetic is a social, public thing. Seems to me that unless people are formally entrenched in some other belief system, and good on them if they are, Christmas for most westerners means that whether one likes it or not, one is saturated in memory and surrounded by celebration.

And you've got two choices: either you engage, or you go into denial about both your immediate social and physical surroundings and your whole elaborate interior palace of memory and selfhood. Engagement isn't necessarily pleasant, and for many, possibly these days even for most, there is an excruciating cat's-cradle of family negotiations to be got through -- the ambivalent stepchildren, the partner's hostile grown-up children, the siblings' bonkers partners, the widowed parent's new spouse's bonkers grown-up children (and here I speak from the heart), and so on and so forth. But denial seems worse: not just po-faced but icy-hearted as well.

So the Christmas Trifle will get made again this year: strawberries, raspberries, honey-poached fresh cherries, macaroons, syllabub etc etc. The tree will go up, the presents be wrapped, and the Kings' choir be sung along with whenever the telecast is, though I do draw the line at red felt antlers on the cats, who would never tolerate such a thing in any case.

And if anyone says Merry Christmas to me, then call me Forrest Gump if you will, but I'll resist the assumption that they're actually saying 'F*ck you' unless the greeting is accompanied by a rude hand gesture or a right hook to the jaw. I'll assume that what they're actually saying is, well, Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

In Pakistan

With the solstice less than three weeks away, spare a thought for the earthquake survivors of northern Pakistan as winter closes in. There's an aid-worker's-eye view at Hotel Serena.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sex, God, calendars, cheese

Today's Sydney Morning Herald is running one of the weirdest headlines I've ever seen: Calendars use sex to sell God and cheese.

It looks to me like the answer to a vocab test: 'Use these four nouns in the same sentence.' Or maybe a Babelfish translation from the Finnish.

Capitalism being what it is, the verbs seem to be the only stable words in that sentence. So very dotty is this headline that the nouns look completely interchangeable. God uses cheese to sell sex and calendars. Cheese uses sex to sell calendars and God. Sex ...

Oh, never mind.

Actually they're two different calendars, one a German production using the many naked girlies who feature in the Bible to promote, well, the Bible (which is full of sex, as anyone who has read it knows, not to mention violence), and the other a French venture trying to improve the image of pongy French cheese by associating it with, you guessed it, naked girlies. Who are, as everyone knows, synonymous with sex.

Call me a pessimist, but I can't help reflecting that association is a two-way street. Never mind improving the image of pongy cheese and the Bible; both of these calendars could end up doing the image of naked girlies all manner of harm.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The black canyon of Cashitude

Here's an enviable paragraph from The New Yorker's music critic Alex Ross on Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line:

'How the erstwhile Leaf got his voice so close to Cash's in timbre and heft is hard to know; it's kind of devilish. There's a good moment early on when Cash, stationed with the Army in Germany, is writing "Folsom Prison Blues." He starts out pitching his voice high, presumably in imitation of crooners on the radio. His voice flickers toward the lower register for a second, but he suppresses the impulse. He keeps working on the song, and, eventually, lets his voice slide all the way down the octave, into the black canyon of Cashitude (I think it happens on "hang my head and cry"). This gave me chills, as abrupt changes of register in music often do. Compare the moment in Schubert's B-flat Sonata when the main theme floats up an octave, into a luminous upper region that's just as heartbreaking in the end — it's blue sky out the prison window. Anyhow, the movie's great.'

Makes you want to see it just for that moment.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Claw marks on the piano: a Sunday meditation

After a long time in an inner-city environment, I moved some years ago into my current house. It's on one of those long narrow blocks, on a quiet street in an ancient suburb, and the biodiversity -- native, domestic and human -- is staggering.

There's a big backyard that's been over-planted with native trees now grown out of control, and every day those trees are full of rainbow lorikeets, making a racket that I can still hear with all the doors and windows closed. These birds buzz me while I hang the washing out, or solemnly swing round and round on branches for their own amusement like some kind of demented desk toy.

Sometimes a flock of them will settle in the bloke next door's apricot tree and transform it into a rainbow-lorikeet tree, a magical, nay, Shakespearean, sight. ('Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die' -- Postumus to Imogen, at the heartbreaking moment. Tennyson at 83 called for his Shakespeare, opened it to this speech, put his head down on it, and died. Happy, or so one assumes.)

My own trees and vines are full of nests: blackbird, honey-eater, pigeon. Honey-eaters nest deep in the thorny things, the bougainvillea and the climbing rose. There are geckoes living in the window frames and a huntsman spider that hangs out in the letterbox.

The apricot neighbour also has chooks -- 'Naughty girls!' I hear him say to them fondly from time to time, and wonder what in the narrow spectrum of chook behaviour might qualify as naughtiness -- who occasionally make that yearning chook noise somewhere between a burble and a croon. The neighbours on the other side have one of those very talky-talky cats, Siamese I think; she has her own netted enclosure in their back yard, whence emanate earsplitting yowls. In my own back yard there's a resident sleepy lizard that makes no noise but unnervingly materialises out of nowhere like an apparition; I keep expecting it to open its mouth and tell me I'll be king hereafter.

Then there are the really alarming creatures. Every year I have to evict the redbacks out of the plastic moulding on the underside of the garden chairs whenever I'm expecting guests. Last year, which was very dry, I lifted up a plastic drain thingy in the garden a few feet from the back door and out from under it and into the grass flashed, quick as thought, a handful of baby brown snakes. And today, on the inner side of one of the front veranda posts, I spotted something I assume is small wasps' nest, a delicately-moulded mud sculpture that looks like something out of Dune.

And then, of course, there are the musical cats, allowed the run of the furniture as compensation for being kept inside.

Working from home has many, many advantages, and one of them is the opportunity it affords to think about living with species other than one's own. Either you resist -- freaking out at the claw marks on the piano, the fruit-guzzling lorikeets, and the deadly little snakelets as they flash past your bare fingers -- or you sit back, let it all happen, and watch the universe unfolding as it should. I like the second option.

But I'll never make it into Better Homes and Gardens.

Whinge of the day

When did the word 'whore', used as a gender-neutral all-purpose term of abuse, make its way into the daily vocabulary of younger Australians? Has it oozed into the general consciousness (as I dolefully assume) from rap?

And am I alone in finding it really, really, really off?

Two stretchers

Memory is a wonderful thing on the whole and I look forward to not losing mine for a while yet, but just occasionally it manifests as a kind of interior cobra, striking out of nowhere and poisoning a moment.

Watching them remove Van Nguyen's dead, sheet-clad body from Changi Prison on TV tonight I had a most unwelcome flashback to the Thredbo disaster and the recovery of Stuart Diver, alive and conscious, from the rubble and mess. Each of these two men, after many hours of tension and stress leading up to an unbearable climax, was wrapped up and gently carried away on a stretcher from the place where he had been imprisoned.

Of course I'm not making general comparisons between the two men; what each had or had not done in life is not relevant to what I'm talking about here. I'm thinking through a superimposition of similar images -- a kind of palimpsest or maybe a form of pentimento -- seen on the same little TV screen, ten years or so apart.

In the case of Diver, the great swell of emotion at the site as he was carried up the hill was to do with the huge effort that had been made to save his life. Van Nguyen's case was the opposite: the Singaporean state had gone to considerable trouble and expense to take his life away. Remembering the desperation and determination that went into the saving of Diver, and the fact that everyone involved and everyone glued to the live TV coverage was willing him to survive, united in the conviction that his death must at all costs be prevented -- remembering all that, I found the sight of Van Nguyen's neat little body in its clean white shroud to be well-nigh incomprehensible, an image that made no sense. What a vast amount of implacable political will it must require to cold-bloodedly and deliberately take a life, when every human instinct is to try to save it.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A far, far better thing

Just this minute heard on the radio (ABC Adelaide) that gifted tax minimiser and generous Liberal Party donor Rob Gerard has resigned from his new post on the board of the Reserve Bank.

Presenter Carole Whitelock asked David Bevan, who was covering the story, whether there was any suggestion that Gerard had been pushed by Howard or Costello, given the flak the government is taking over his appointment.

Not bloody likely. This government clearly believes that falling on one's sword is for wimps -- look how long it's been since any of them did, even when it seemed to be the only possible option. Hard to believe that the late lamented Mick Young once resigned over an inappropriate teddy bear at Customs.

The reason given for his resignation by Gerard's lawyer Michael Abbott QC is that the fallout has damaged his health. Pity he went for the public-sympathy option rather than the Doing the Right Thing position, but even then it's still refreshing to see a public figure in a compromised position take appropriate action, rather than hang on grimly by his or her toenails while the cronies do protective things with smoke and mirrors.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Almost makes you want to give him a hug

Until yesterday one had never, ever, not ever, been remotely interested in anything that James Packer had ever said or done. But one did have to smile at something the poor sod said during the OneTel investigation, as reported in the SMH: 'I may be a f*ckwit but I am not a liar.'

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Taking the - erm - cake

Today from comes this link to a post at Blogebrity, asking 'Can anyone help explain female bloggers' obsession with baking and eating cupcakes?'

Love the 'all women are the same' rhetoric there. I'd retaliate with some comparable observation about male bloggers but I am too nice. I've never had a cupcake obsession myself, but this post has me intrigued. They conclude that it must be all about sex, because cupcakes look like breasts.

Earth to blokes: it's not women who are obsessed with breasts. (Well, not usually. And it's my understanding that those women who do like breasts prefer them to be attached to a person of some sort.)

The only cupcakes I ever found interesting were the ones called butterfly cakes, one of my mother's specialities circa 1959. This involves delicately cutting out a little cone of cake from the top of a plain cupcake, filling the hole with cream, cutting the removed cone of cake in half and sticking each half upside down into the cream at the angles of ten and two o'clock, so that they look like wings, and yes, I'm fully aware that I'm not explaining this very well. But if cupcakes really are all about breasts, then my preference for butterfly cakes makes me a complete sicko.

The torrent of memory being unleashed as I describe butterfly cakes is making me think I really ought to christen the special tray for making madeleines that I bought years ago from the Gabriel Gaté shop and have never once used, so maybe the blokes at Blogebrity are right and every woman really is just a fool for a petit four. I'll have a go at the madeleines and get back to you, but in the meantime it's really just an excuse to quote Proust (who wasn't interested, BTW, in breasts at all), writing famously on the mysteries of the senses as triggers of memory:

'... one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines', which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell.

... I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses ...

I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and begins to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. ...

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciouness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being?'

Sigh. They don't make sentences like that any more -- and that's just the translation.

(There are, of course, no prizes for guessing what this piece of writing is really about. Blogebrity is clearly onto something.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gravatar's rainbow

The blogospheric phenomenon of the gravatar, or Globally Recognised Avatar, continues to enchant. In an attempt to explain the concept of the gravatar to my family last night over dinner I found myself horridly entangled, not for the first time, in avatars and atavism. The fact that these two concepts overlap a little (the gods/spirits/ancestors nexus) didn't help. Nor did the fact that I have slight consonant dyslexia and am still coming to grips with the recent discovery that it's 'remuneration' as in munificence and not 'renumeration' as in counting the money again. If I'm not careful I'll end up saying things like nucular and advocado and not even noticing.

Resorting to the dictionary, we found that an avatar is the embodiment of an incorporeal being, particularly a god who appears in human or otherwise manifest form. Hence those little photos, caricatures, sketches and symbols that follow one's cyberpersona about. I want one -- but over at they appear to be having a bit of strife, so I will just have to be patient.

In the meantime, the power of the sorts of images people choose to represent themselves is making me think very hard about what sort of image I'd want to go with. As with the aliases they choose, most people's gravatars reveal far more about them than I think they intended to say.

And the reading for today is ...

'A Hanging', George Orwell, 1931

Monday, November 28, 2005


Adelaide in summer is one of the great beauties of the world. Even on the breathtakingly hottest days, there's a sort of crackling blue and gold shimmer, as in those medieval Florentine paintings of angels.

That weather will be on us in a matter of weeks, so it's all the harder to imagine how things are in the two places hardest and most recently hit by natural disasters: Louisiana and Pakistan. Because in both of those places, of course, winter is closing in.

Operation Eden was one of the first blogs I ever had a proper look at, and remains one of the best I've seen. It was begun as a way of managing desperation, the day that photographer Clayton Cubitt heard in New York that his mother and his little brother had gone missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and from there it has developed into an astonishingly moving photo gallery and journal; the guy is a born writer as well as a superb photographer. His most recent post describes a re-housing project being hurried along before winter sets in.

Across the world in Islamabad, aid workers from various agencies are trying to co-ordinate efforts to get supplies and shelter materials to remote villagers in the wildest mountain regions before the snow sets in and those regions become completely inaccessible. A friend working on the relief effort there e-mailed this morning to say the weather had broken: 'Heavy rain and snow on the homeless.'

Pick me, pick me!

Over at the amazingly lively Larvatus Prodeo there has been the most almighty dust-up over the topics of rape in particular and violence against women in general.

(My friend D, she of Sunday brunch (see below), majored in Latin, so I knew that if anyone could translate their name for me, it would be she. After she had assured me that my own guess, 'Caterpillars for God', was almost certainly not right, she told me a lot of stuff about second and fourth declensions but fell at the hurdle of what 'larvatus' actually means so I had to Google it later. I can now reveal that 'Larvatus prodeo' means 'I present myself masked', which is of course practically the definition of a blog, and is something originally said by Descartes which explains why I didn't recognise it, having hated Descartes with a passion and failed Philosophy 1 on the strength of him.)

The fights over violence against women -- one of which went over 300 posts and got very heated indeed -- have resulted in the banning from the site of one blogger, one of those right-wingers who can't resist playing with the lefties. His posts were irrational, ill-informed and unfunny as well as very nasty; a truly bleeding heart would have banned him for his own good, to protect him from his own reckless self-exposure. But now there's a debate going on over whether he should have been banned at all.

What madness is this? The blog was set up and is maintained by a handful of people and it's their right to allow or disallow posts from anyone they please. It's a good example of the way a highly-thought-of forum is regarded as public property no matter who actually runs it and pays for it.

The real issue is the playground one about group identification. The banned blogger should ask himself why he wants so badly to play with this particular gang.

Of course the irony of this situation is that the RWDBs themselves wouldn't agonise for a nanosecond about whether someone ought to have been banned from their sites or not. Wouldn't enter their heads.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The dinosaurs are coming

As I said to my friend D over Sunday brunch this morning (and we got the whole Advertiser Crossquiz filled in, too, unless you count the one we sort of made up for the name of some Irish legend's father, whom we dubbed Usribagh, pronounced 'Dave, mate'), D, I said, I fear the future. I have seen the future and it is unutterably horrible. Bird flu, crazed terrorists, relations with every single country to our immediate north-north-west comprehensively stuffed, halfwits and warmongers running the world, and we as late Boomers (as it were) despised by the coming generation who have said frankly that they blame us for everything and expect us to hand over our houses and jobs but they're not then going to look after us when we're jobless and homeless and our joints don't work.

Our joints don't work now, she said.

I was reminded by this conversation of the sleepy lizard I saw the other day in my back yard (and not only because his, her or its joints weren't looking too flash either; that's just how lizards walk). I was on the phone about some work thing or other when out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement outside on the pavers through the screen door.

It was the lizard I know lives out there but usually keeps its distance and its head well down. However, there she, he or it was in full view, stumping along in the sun over the hot pavers and heading purposefully straight for the back door.

And for a moment I saw it through an ant's-eye lens. This gigantic prehistoric alien was about to come blundering into my house, knocking things over, thoughtlessly eating me and the cats, and generally wreaking destruction and havoc like T Rex.

My pragmatic sisters would say that if this was a sign, then it was a sign that the back yard needs mowing and the chooks next door had better look to their eggs. But I know better. I think it was a vision of the future.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Kittypix alert: look away now

Cats in Window: for Auntie Elsewhere.

Cat haters please note: these two have been desexed and microchipped and live permanently inside. The Eastern Barred Bandicoot and all its fragile ilk are safe from me and mine. Now leave me alone. Thank you.

Further reflections on the death penalty

I've seen a number of bloggers and MSM journos make the point that Van Nguyen is after all a convicted drug trafficker, and that the anti-capital punishment people are distorting the situation by trying to portray him as an innocent victim and sacrificial hero.

As so often, there are more than two possible points of view here. One of the best books ever written about a murder trial in this country is Ken Inglis's The Stuart Case, about the trial and conviction of the Aboriginal labourer Rupert Max Stuart for rape and murder in rural SA in the late 1950s. After the movie about the case, Black and White, was released a couple of years ago, a new edition came out with an 80-page update by Inglis. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of race relations, Adelaide, or Australian law.

Inglis takes pains to point out that most of the people who campaigned (successfully, eventually) to save Stuart from being hanged thought that he was probably guilty. They were campaigning against the death penalty, not trying to prove Stuart's innocence. The case was further complicated by the fact that Stuart had been mistreated and evidence contaminated from the moment he was arrested. Two of the people actively involved in the campaign to save his life were the young Don Dunstan and the young Rupert Murdoch. Go figure.

Neither Van Nguyen nor Stuart is anything like as clear-cut a candidate as the subject of the last legal execution that I remember thinking about: US rapist and serial killer Ted Bundy was put to death in the late 1980s. Now THERE was a case to make a good soft-left pro-choice feminist wimp sit down with the Scotch bottle and spend a hard couple of hours keeping vigil and trying to work out what she really thought.

And I did.

It's wrong.

And at the hour of our death

Over at The View from Elsewhere there's a post on Van Nguyen, with a salutary reminder that there is something epic about this story of twins: one who stuffs up, and the other who pays for it with his life. What it keeps reminding me of is the Greek tragedy of Antigone, who will risk anything to make sure that her dead brother is properly buried, and in the end sacrifices her life to this cause.

What it also keeps reminding me of is the tragic turning of Christopher Hitchens, who used to be my hero. There's a story that Joan Didion used to sit for hours with the essays of Ernest Hemingway, typing them out as a way of trying to work out how he did it, as part of her own self-education as a writer. I used to feel (no, damn it, still do feel) that way about Hitchens. I can remember as clearly as anything the first time I laid eyes on one of his paragraphs. I came over all shivery and queer-like. That, I thought, is how to write.

It said:

'If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. ... With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where information technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favor of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza.'

Hitchens, having campaigned tirelessly and noisily for the abolition of the death penalty in the US, went off a few years ago to witness a State execution for himself, on the grounds that having banged on about it so much he thought he'd better see it for himself.

The essay he wrote about this experience for Vanity Fair was a chilled, subdued, slightly shellshocked affair. He was as undramatic about it as possible. The experience made him feel small and dirty.

I thought of this essay the night I saw Dead Man Walking, the opera not the movie, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Remember that joke about the definition of opera -- 'It's when the guy gets stabbed at the end, and instead of dying, he sings'? Dead Man Walking wasn't like that. At the end he didn't sing, he just died.

What I'm wondering is this. What happens to the belief system of someone who, for whatever reason, suddenly lurches to the Right? Do they automatically take up all the correct RWDB positions, after the fashion of a dramatic religious conversion? I know someone to whom this happened a few years ago, and I mourn the loss of his friendship still; what I admired about him most of all was his independence of mind, a commodity of which he now has none left.

I wonder what Hitchens thinks about the death penalty these days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On the population of the blogosphere

As I trundle wide-eyed around the blogosphere in search of an education, occasionally dipping a tentative paw into a discussion and more often than not discovering too late that what I thought was a goldfish has turned out to be a piranha, I ruminate from time to time on the various species and subspecies to be found frolicking and lurking, sometimes both at once, in the blogosystem.

There are a lot of people like me: punters of fundamental if not wholly reliable goodwill who are complete mugs for any form of communication. We are the ones who cannot let a phone go unanswered, a letter go unopened or an email program go unchecked. We risk Blackberry Thumb from too much texting and brain cancer from too much time on the phone.

But there's another, disproportionately large, tribe who seem to be basically just bastards. Lurking around the Comments section of various blogs that I've been told about or have found for myself, I'm struck, and I don't mean that in a nice way, by the number of people who seem utterly incapable of positive comment. Instead, they vent: everything from sneering and whining through libel and slander to outright vicious personal attack and sometimes downright threats.

And the worst of it is there's not even much honest pain or outrage involved. Most of the time I'd swear that they're just doing it to show everybody else how superior and cool they are.

Does the blogosphere hold peculiar attraction for these mean, twisted, stunted, evil or otherwise tragic creatures? Or is it just that being an unmitigated arseh*le is the new black?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fiennes runs away with HP4

Senior New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis says the high point of the new Harry Potter movie is a transcendent performance by Ralph Fiennes as uber-baddie Lord Voldemort.

Dargis argues that the dishy Fiennes is actually at his best playing evil psychos, and anyone who saw him as the mad killer in Red Dragon (the second filming of Thomas Harris' novel of the same name, the one that first introduced Hannibal Lecter; the first movie was 1986's Manhunter, also very good) is unlikely to disagree.

Judicial murder

It's official: as punishment for a one-off, amateurish, doomed attempt to help his twin brother, Nguyen Tuong Van is to be hanged on December 2.

And has anybody seen that fearless crusader for everyone's right to life, Tony Abbott, lift a finger so far to help him?

No, neither have I.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Save the planet: hang out your knickers

Climate-change guru and distinguished Adelaide local Tim Flannery appears in a new TV ad, backed by the South Australian government, giving a few chilling stats and making a few suggestions for thinking globally and acting locally. I saw this ad for the first time last night and it kicked in this morning when I was scooping a handful of underwear out of the washing machine prior to hurling it into the dryer and getting on with the next task.

Or so I thought. I got as far as the scooping part when the ad replayed itself in my mind. It's a beautiful sunny day today and there was absolutely no excuse not to spend five minutes hanging up a bunch of knickers. 'I don't have time for this,' I thought fretfully as I scooped the peg-bag off its hook and headed for the clothesline.

Hanging up knickers not being all that intellectually demanding, I had space to reflect that what I'd actually meant by 'I don't have time' was 'This doesn't have priority.' So I gave it priority, and will continue to do so. I might even go back to my local pharmacy and buy that cute shower-timer I saw on their bargain table yesterday.

I note that a new word for Flannery and his eco-aware ilk has crept into neocon rhetoric: "catastrophist". They really do seem to think that denial is enough to make something go away. Maybe they're right: Howard's method for dealing with anything he doesn't like is to dig his heels in, stick his bottom lip out and say 'I refute that,' or 'That's just wrong,' or 'No.' Seems to be working for him so far.

In the meantime, though, my peg bag itself is a monument to the principle of recycling. This stout little pale-green cotton bag with my initials appliqued onto it in bunny-patterned braid was made by my mum, 40 years before her death in 1999, as a book bag for me to hang on the hook at the side of my desk, the day I started school.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Beazley orotundities revisited

Subscriber Jean Burton is quoted today in the 'Comments, C*ck-Ups and Clarifications' section of 'I couldn't resist passing on my four-year-old's comment after he heard Kim Beazley on the radio from the Day of Action Rally – he said, "That man sounds like Admiral Boom from Mary Poppins."'

The death of Nadia Anjuman

Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, who under the Taliban regime was involved in the 'Sewing Circles of Herat' when not yet out of her teens, was beaten to death last week at the age of 25.

Two people have been arrested over her death: her husband -- and her mother.

She leaves a six-month-old daughter and her first and only completed book of poems, Gol-e-dodi, or Dark Red Flower.

'My wings are closed and I cannot fly.'

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Living in interesting times

The last week or two have been so filled with horror of various kinds in our hitherto tolerant, peaceful, laid-back country that somehow a pink-and-tortoiseshell blog doesn't seem a sufficiently solemn forum in which to mention it. Besides, the blogosphere is already ringing and buzzing with the shrill cries of the indignant or (far worse, of course) the triumphant. Some conservatives seem positively thrilled by the pre-terrorist bust, as though its whole point were to vindicate any government-endorsed violation of human rights you care to name.

It would be nice to try to be funny about all this, but it has all gone well beyond funny. This was brought home to me on Thursday, the night before the 30th anniversary of the Dismissal, when Kerry O'Brien dedicated a whole 7.30 Report to extended interviews first with Whitlam and then with Fraser. (See transcripts here.)

I found myself trying to remember -- not for the first time -- exactly what we thought about Fraser, and why, in the days of his Prime Ministership. I was a bolshie undergraduate and took a dim view of the discovery, coming at lunchtime out of the English 3 exam into a peaceful, sunny Adelaide afternoon, that Whitlam had been sacked. Some very funny sketches on the subject were rapidly whipped up for that year's university revue. Characters were assassinated. Unkind remarks were made.

But Fraser, in retrospect, was nowhere near as bad as this mob. He let a lot of Whitlam's reforms stand, especially in education and the arts. He has always been just as good -- better, alas, in many cases -- as any Labor leader on human rights, civil liberties and race.

So it's impossible to tell from this historical distance whether, as Whitlam hooted the other night 'He's improved' -- or whether it's just that, compared to the current crop of Coalition commandants, he looks really, really good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Beazley loses control of his vowels

Speaking as a feminist and lifelong Labor voter ...

Oh bloody hell, why bother going on? Everyone knows there's only one way this sentence could possibly end. Badly.

One night a few years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a mate of similar ideological persuasions who's also a professor of political science (and a woman, just in case there's anyone left alive who still automatically thinks 'man' on hearing a phrase like that), just before it looked as though the then federal Labor leader Simon Crean was about to be rolled in favour of Mark Latham -- which did in fact happen shortly afterwards, with the tragic yet ludicrous consequences we know.

My friend and I could not believe that even federal Labor at its most desperate would do anything as dumb as appoint Latham leader. Nor could we believe that federal Labor's values were still so dick-wavingly old-fashioned that they would think this was a good idea. Why in God's name could Labor not read the lipstick writing on the wall? 51% of voters have girly bits. I'm not flaming, I'm just sayin'.

My mate and I looked each other in the eye. 'If they elect Latham as leader,' we both said, more or less in unison, 'then I'm voting Liberal.'

We both then immediately broke out in an ugly rash, and ate something sweet till the feeling had passed. But it was clear to both of us that Latham would crash and burn, if only because no woman in the country would be able to bring herself to vote for him if it came to the crunch, which in the end it never quite did and just as well too. Indeed, the only thing that really seriously worries me now about Julia Gillard, apart from the motives of whichever so-called friend sent her to the hairdresser she's been going to lately, is her support for Latham.

For despite the huge self-preening fuss that he's been making about ACTUALLY LOOKING AFTER HIS OWN CHILDREN, he's anathema to most thinking women. Back when he was less well-known, he wrote (for Christopher Pearson; now there's an unholy alliance) some truly vicious pieces about feminism, pieces that make it clear he does not, at the most basic level, get it -- which for a man of his age with a tertiary education just does not cut it, even in private life.

His values are male-supremacist. He boasts about being a 'good hater'. He is proud of having broken the cab driver's arm. His election-eve handshake with Howard, despite the mitigating back-story, would have turned thousands and thousands of women off him -- even those who would dearly love to see Howard wrestled to the deck, just in a slightly more metaphorical way. But anybody dumb enough to allow that moment to be filmed ought to have been dumped that night.

Having made two spectacular leadership mistakes one after the other, anointing first Crean and then Latham, Labor took the 'running scared' option and recycled the affable Bomber. WHERE IS GILLARD? WHERE IS LAWRENCE? WHERE IS MCMULLAN? WHERE IS TANNER? No, scrap those first two. Labor in Australia, at both state and federal level, has a long-standing gender policy: give the women the poisoned chalices. Face the Future with a Woman on a Stick. Honour roll: Ryan. Kelly. Kirner. Kernot. Lawrence. I could go on.

Having spent some years now wondering why Beazley so often looks so desperately insincere despite his (probably deserved) reputation of being a fairly sincere sort of a bloke generally, I finally twigged today in the car, listening to RN.

It's his vowels.

When Beazley's just, like, chatting, he pronounces both the definite and the indefinite article the same way as the rest of us. He says 'thuh' for 'the' and 'uh' for 'a': that is, he uses thuh indefinite short-vowel sound that uh New Zealander would use in the word 'six'.

But when the Bomber goes into public-pronouncement-speak, his voice shifts into a register of portentous oratorical orotundity. And instead of saying 'uh' and 'thuh', he starts saying 'ay' and 'thee', as in 'Thee Prime Minster thinks that ay change in thee immigration policy would be ay good idea.'

Whenever the Bomber starts elongating his vowels, he immediately begins to sound insincere, even when (as is frequently the case) he really believes what he's saying. It's as sure and as instant a sign of heightened rhetorical self-consciousness as that incredibly annoying fashion started by Paul Keating for repeating particular phrases, repeating particular phrases, because he like the way they sounded. The way they sounded, Mr Speaker.

And it's an absolute dead giveaway. As with Keating, so with Beazley: he sounds as though he doesn't mean it. Even when he does.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A listicle

Today it was love at first sight when I laid eyes on the word 'listicle', which refers to the sort of newspaper or magazine article that consists pretty much entirely of a list: this year's most popular names for boys, your city's 'top' ten suburbs, the different horrible diseases from which people drop dead most frequently depending on where they live, or the inevitable What's Hot and What's Not routine when someone's really desperate to fill a bit of space.

But 'listicle' is one of those aurally evocative words that sounds like it could mean any one of a number of things, some of them not at all nice.

The really wonderful thing was the place where this word was to be found. At Double-Tongued Word Wrester: a growing dictionary of old and new words from the fringes of English, you can find such extraordinarily useful lexical items as the following:

'Blackberry thumb': RSI of the thumb caused by rapid and frequent use of tiny keypads on tiny gadgets.

'Four-boob syndrome': the appearance of having four breasts instead of the more usual two, caused by wearing a too-small bra.

'Deskfast': what you eat after you get to work, not having had time to eat before you left home.

'Shine': new word for bling.

'Spokesweasel': self-explanatory.

Touched By His Noodly Appendage

What with the sort of legislation that's being shovelled hand over fist through the Senate in ten-minute windows of opportunity whenever the country's looking in the other direction (a favourite trick; ever wondered why the Bakhtiari family got so suddenly deported in the small, dark hours following the tsunami? Tidal wave, horse race, it's all good) with no possibility of any effective opposition, it's obviously only a matter of time until, following Dubya's lead, we find creationism being compulsorily taught in schools under its spinny new name Intelligent Design, on the grounds that 'different beliefs' should be given equal air time.

That the most powerful man in the world doesn't understand the difference between belief and empirical evidence is something upon which perhaps we ought not dwell too long. But salvation is at hand (I'm sorry, I would have liked to put that another way) in the form of a third possibility that we had not even counted upon (ten points if you recognise this phrase), for there is a brave new religion afoot: Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, a.k.a. Pastafarianism.

No doubt the faithful deplore Pastafarianism as an attack on their religion as such. It's not, of course; it's an attack on the blithe disregard for the doctrine of the separation of powers in particular, and on institutionalised imbecility in general.

The central tenet of Pastafarianism is that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster (see picture above). But this is silly, since everyone knows that the world was in fact created by an elegant, self-possessed, in-your-face tortoiseshell cat. She's got the whole wide world in her paws.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

iTunes, therefore I am

Technophobic in many things, I have only ever committed my credit card details to the internet, kicking and screaming, in order to buy plane tickets from Virgin Blue, since it's so bloody difficult to buy them any other way. Otherwise I have stayed away even from irresistible sites like Amazon, fearful of credit card fraud even though I know perfectly well that hackers don't need your credit card number to do you over; they can get, through the banks, at the hard-earneds even of computerless people who are still keeping secret cash stashes in the teapot.

But a new era has dawned. iTunes Australia opened today.

THEY'VE got my credit card number. If necessary I would have given them my tax file number, my passport number, my front door key and my first-born, if I had one, as well.

I've already downloaded the live acoustic version from San Franciso of Missy Higgins singing The Special Two, as well as Steve Earle's Copperhead Road which still stands my hair on end, Jane Siberry's gorgeous The Life is the Red Wagon from what I think was her first album, and Emmylou Harris singing Hickory Wind which I haven't heard for about fifteen years. For some reason it won't let me download Sting singing Fields of Gold, and they haven't got Leonard Cohen's Alexandra Leaving at all. But it's early days.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The appeal of Colin Firth

Apropos the current movie version of Pride and Prejudice, the ubiquitous Peter Craven remarked tonight on Vulture that men, gay or straight, just can't see what it is about Colin Firth that makes women's blood pressure go up.

Pausing only to ask (a) how big Craven's sample was, and (b) whether he ever actually SAW the scene of Firth as Mr Darcy emerging dripping wet from the pond in his Regency underwear, I'd say it's to do with the message Firth is projecting. That message was written for women. It's being projected to women. And if men can't see it, it's because they were never intended to.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Night at the Opera

As so many Adelaideans still have reason to do, even now that it's getting on for seven years after his death, I blew a kiss last night in proper luvvie fashion (not my style at all as a rule) to the ghost of Don Dunstan, one of the most extraordinary politicians this country has ever seen.

Said ghost was hovering benevolently around the foyer of the Festival Theatre, mingling with the opening-night audience at the State Opera of South Australia's gorgeous production of La Traviata. Highly visible in the crowd were at least half a dozen (and that's just the ones my middle-aged eyes could still discern in the gloom) high-profile politicians and heads of government departments -- including Treasurer and attack dog Kevin Foley, who has rough edges that no amount of Verdi could realistically be expected to knock off.

I don't care whether they got anything out of it or not: it was just really good that they were there. And for the Festival Centre, for the high valuation that the city puts on the arts, and most of all the notion that opera's not just for high-end North Adders and Eastern Suburbs types, Old Adelaide Money and/or surgeons' wives (a notion that had a total stranglehold on Adelaide back in the 1960s), it's Dunstan we have to thank.

The first-night audience may have been awash with sequins and such, but it still had a lot more people in it than just the preening wives of rich blokes, most of whom wouldn't know their coloratura from their elbow -- though there was one such directly in front of us: a woman frocked up in a creation she was about fifteen years too old for, a truly extraordinary strapless floor-length gown with a sort of crinoline that massively inconvenienced the people on either side of her, talking mindless rubbish in a high, strident, nasal whine (the woman, not the frock).

But there were also lots of other assorted citizens: people who had obviously come straight from work, thoughtful-looking children, a startling number of young couples, and a hefty sprinkle of elderly European-looking women who had clearly seen many productions of this opera in their long lives and were looking forward to adding this one to their memory banks while silently critiquing all the while.

Home-grown soprano Kate Ladner, now living and working in Europe, was such a good Violetta that she made the rest of the cast look more ordinary than they would otherwise have done, which is always the problem when you have one supremely good cast member in any show. Fortunately Violetta is such a huge part -- I'm sure the main reason for the two intervals was to give the poor woman a rest, as she was onstage most of the time and singing for most of that -- that it didn't matter as much as it would in a more ensemble-type show.

The plot of La Traviata -- literally 'the woman who strayed', and the story on which Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge was based -- is full of holes you could drive a truck through, and reinforced my longstanding conviction (a) that opera plots are essentially silly, and (b) that this does not matter. Watching the onstage events unfold last night, it occurred to me that, while nothing could be further from realism than opera, people nonetheless really do behave like this: greedy, generous, thoughtless, passionate, sacrificial and repentant by turns, and very often inconsistent and illogical as well.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Crossing the floor

This Australian Politics Test on the Oz Politics Blog gives one a great deal to think about -- though not as much as a similar test I once did whose results showed that my patched-together DIY belief system made me some sort of default cross between a Quaker and a Buddhist. This new quiz reckons that my answers define me as half Democrat and half Green -- news to me, but there you go.

Mapped on the results graph as one is by a red (!) blotch covering the area from Centre Left to Far Left, it's a relief in a way to realise one has not yet become too rabid or too set in one's ways to be unable to make any approving noises at all about John Howard even when he does something halfway decent. Given the near-absolute power of his party, it's good to see him steadily ignoring his conservative-Catholic Health Minister's random thought-bubbles (as Julia Gillard calls them) about new and ever more insidious ways to stop women having any power at all over their own reproductive functions and activities.

Howard seems to be quite firm in his refusal to wind back this particular clock, as well as to have a relatively open mind on stem cell research and even -- I find this quite amazing -- the possible legalisation of RU-486. Good on the Liberal MP Sharman Stone for her activism on this, and indeed good on what seems to be a fairly extensive network of Liberal Party women at both state and federal level for their solidarity and hard work behind the scenes to make sure the Mad Monk doesn't get his way on these questions.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

So much to read, so little time

If I remember rightly, the venerable P.D. James swore some time back that she would never write another crime novel but the impulse obviously got the better of her, for here she is, recently turned 85 but obviously with all faculties still intact, still being stern about the decline in standards yet still saying 'which' when she means 'that' (something one of her editors really ought to have told her about by now; she's been doing it for 40 years), back on England's southwest coast with the Mr Darcy-like Adam Dalgliesh in the midst of another murder mystery: The Lighthouse.

She seems to be plagiarising one of her own earlier plots, for the old-fashioned house-party convention combined with the island setting is strongly reminiscent of The Skull Beneath the Skin, in which James's long-since-disappeared and much-lamented (by me) alternative detective Cordelia Gray was the one doing the sleuthing. For a while it looked as though James was going to line up Cordelia with Dalgliesh, but she obviously thought better of it and has provided him instead with a new love interest almost as stitched-up and humourless as he is.

NB this book is much better than I am making it sound. I once saw James speak: she is a tiny, forceful, badly dressed, serious-minded survivor.

And newly out: Espresso Tales, the staggeringly prolific and benign Alexander McCall Smith's sequel to 44 Scotland Street, also previously published as a weekly serial in The Scotsman, which carries on where the last one left off. 'She would tell Peter that she did not feel ready to go to a nudist picnic just yet. Though when would one be ready for such an event?'

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Watching the Vulture

I still can't work out why the ABC has called its new arts program 'Vulture'. Obviously it's short for 'Culture Vulture', but by that logic they might just as well have called it 'Farty'. Whoever thinks these titles up was having an off day, connotation-wise: a vulture is an ugly and disgusting creature whose presence lets you know that your death is imminent.

Judging by some of the reactions to the opening night, however, this could have been pretty close to the truth. One bloke said it made him lose the will to live.

I missed the first one altogether, and had to turn the telly off and hit the bottle about ten minutes into the second one. But I made it all the way through the program tonight and it is getting much better. They have removed the much-scorned cheesy sketches, having apparently decided that anyone choosing to watch an arts program on the ABC at 10.05 on a Tuesday night is probably going to have a longer attention span than a mosquito and therefore doesn't really need to be kept amused while the grown-ups have a talk; the only sketch tonight was the 'Nick Cave meets Neighbours' number right at the end. The rest of the time, they did something really daring and just let the panelists talk. Worked a treat.

The other thing they have largely cut out is the infuriating habit the panelists started out with of constantly talking over the top of each other; tonight several people were allowed to develop, uninterrupted, an idea or opinion beyond a couple of sentences, and as a consequence were able - particularly Helen Thorn - to show us why they'd been asked to go on the show in the first place.

Either Peter Craven has become mellower and more self-deprecating over the last ten years, or TV makes him look as if he has; either way, he's okay on this show, if you don't mind the lofty allocation of each work of art to some numbered rung on the ladder of taste. There's some finely calibrated hamming-up of the 'grumpy conservative' schtick, and his take on the schizophrenic Frenchman's sad floorboard art was a little masterpiece of extempore lucidity and eloquence.

The other high point of tonight's show was Fiona Katauskas, the woman who does those clever political cartoons for New Matilda. Katauskas was funny, sharp, elegant and relaxed; she's got the good taste to be a Chisel fan and she was wearing a jacket to die for.

But the best line on the show, alas, was not anyone's ad lib inspiration. It was something that had clearly been scripted (by producer and writer Guy Rundle, would be my guess) for host Richard Fidler, who does not look at all comfortable to me and who often delivers his lines in a way that shows he hasn't understood them properly. He got this one right, though: 'Nick Cave has written other screenplays apart from The Proposition - including a sequel to Gladiator. Go figure.'

Monday, October 10, 2005

Music in Adelaide: October 2005 Calendar

"I've been a music tragic all my life."
-- Danny Katz, The Age 6/10/05

Friday October 14th
Elder Hall, Adelaide University, 1.10-2 pm
* EGGNER TRIO (Musica Viva)
Adelaide Town Hall, 8 pm
Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, 8 pm
Bridgewater Mill, 7.30 for 8 pm

Saturday October 15th
Adelaide University, 6 pm (?? Barr Smith lawn)
* ELDER SCHOOL OF MUSIC - Handel's Israel in Egypt, conductor Carl Crossin
Elder Hall, Adelaide University, 6.30 pm

Sunday October 16th
Rundle Park, Hackney Road, 1-8 pm
The Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, starts 7.30
Adelaide Town Hall, 8 pm

Friday October 21st
The Governor Hindmarsh Hotel

Saturday October 22nd
Grace Emily Hotel, Waymouth St, 9 pm
* STATE OPERA OF SA - La Traviata
October 22, 25, 27 and 29, Festival Theatre

Sunday October 23rd
Rundle Park, Hackney Road , 12.30-10 pm