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.'