Saturday, December 30, 2006

Simple pleasures

After the sun had disappeared behind the trees in the back yard this afternoon, I took a bucketful of clean teatowels out to the clothesline, knowing they'd be dry by dark.

Two of these teatowels, one a souvenir of Hahndorf and the other of Victor Harbor, and both now with the very fine, soft texture of good-quality, long-worn linen, are relics of my mother's early days as a young farmer's wife and are therefore older than I am. A child of the Depression, she took minutely detailed care of everything she owned, which is why so much of it has outlasted her.

At the end of what had turned into a very hot day, a little breeze had come up, bringing with it the merest hint of the coast. It blew straight through the wet teatowels and onto my face. In the bucket there was also one hand-towel with a crocheted edge of a kind it was my mother's habit in her later years to add to these little towels, ostensibly to prevent them fraying but in reality, I think, to keep her arthritic hands moving for as long as she could.

There's a rhythm to hanging out washing. Peg, turn, bend, next item, peg, turn ...

I thought about Hahndorf, home of a beloved friend, and Victor Harbor, where I once saw a whale, and my mother, who lived, it seems, the kind of life that makes people go on thinking about you often and with love, for years and years after you die.

Every now and then I'd turn around and look at the two perfect Roma tomatoes on my first-ever successful tomato plant. They should be ready to pick tomorrow. There's basil growing in a pot under the verandah to go with them, and multigrain sourdough from the market.

Friday, December 29, 2006

God and all his angels and saints

Wow, cop the hubris of that title. Never let it be said that Pavlov's Cat concerns herself only with trivia.

And I suppose it needs to be said at the outset that while not a Christian I am open to suggestion about all sorts of more or less batty phenomena that are usually lumped (to my mind often quite wrongly) under the omnibus banner of 'spiritual', and that I have great respect for other people's religious beliefs and practices right up to the point where they begin to impinge on me but not, however, a nanometre further. If other people wish to be Christians then I am not going to lift a finger to stop them and I am happy to admire newborns in mangers and sing any carol you put the sheet music for under my nose. Just don't ask me to kneel down.

The religious hatreds currently circulating the globe, as they have of course always done, are utterly foreign to my own experience of personal feeling. I have no idea where this intensity and density of religious fervour comes from, although a year's blog-reading has given me some sad-making notions about how it too often manifests itself: a desperate, unvoiced, driven desire to signal one's allegiance to a tribe, and to give one a conduit for the venting of unformed, unacknowledged hatred and rage.

Anyway, there I was in the car last week, driving around as I usually do an awful lot this time of year and listening to the radio, which is something I almost never do unless I'm in the car, and there was Robyn Williams interviewing Richard Dawkins about his recent book The God Delusion.

Williams is a sublime interviewer of his peers, and his peers are relatively few. Unlike interviewers who have no particular store of knowledge and experience other than that of journalism itself, Williams is not a shark; he is not a thinker-up of headlines; he is not someone who gets a bunch of lowly, unsung slaves research assistants to do the hard yards for him and write his questions. What this means is that his interviews are genuine conversations, in which his questions and prompts are designed not for self-display but for the eliciting of the very best thinking and speaking that his interviewees are capable of.

Like, I think, most other people, I have a couple of friends in whose company you somehow find yourself rising above your usual conversational standard: saying more interesting things, and saying them better, than you thought you were capable of. Which of course makes you very enthusiastic about the conversation. This seemed to be happening in the Williams/Dawkins conversation. Dawkins kept saying in a surprised sort of way 'Oh, that's a very good question, isn't it, I'll have to think some more about that.'

But even more than this lovely dynamic, which is what makes any live interview really take off no matter what the situation -- I speak as a veteran of many writers' festivals -- what surprised me about the interview was something I hadn't really realised until I heard Dawkins speak.

For radio is a medium through which great intimacy is possible. The only thing available to you about the person speaking is her or his voice, and the voice thereby takes on great importance. As one knows from phone calls, you can often identify and conjure up the entire physical presence of a person the minute s/he speaks, even if it's just some kind of pre-verbal vocalisation, an indrawn breath or an 'um' or 'ah'. Voices are as potent as perfume in this regard.

Voice is also the thing that always alerts me, in the absence of any other obvious sign, to someone's mental state. When a voice sounds odd to me -- a buzz, a drone, a monotone -- then what one beloved ex-boss of mine used to call the 'maddie antenna' quivers like that retriever's tail in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. And as soon as Dawkins began to speak I thought Oh my God, he sounds like a Dalek. I mentally plotted him somewhere along the Asperger's spectrum. The phrase 'lack of affect' came to mind.

His voice has a sort of metallic, sawing, plangent edge, its effect reminiscent of paper cuts and fingernails on blackboards. Yet is not in itself an ugly voice, that isn't what I mean; its timbre, in fact, is rather unusually pure and clear. It's the voice of a brilliantly played brass instrument. A trumpet, say. A trumpet of an evangelical, military and/or annunciatory kind, of the kind that summons souls on the Day of Judgement, orders Adam and Eve out of Paradise, or announces sternly to the Virgin Mary that she's pregnant with the son of God and there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

And it was deeply ironic, I thought, that a man so loudly, insistently and unreservedly determined to pour scorn on any manner of theist, on spirituality of any kind, should adopt so successfully the Biblical modes of denunciation and command: the mode of evangelists and angels, or vengeful gods of any stamp. The mode of a bossy, overbearing, single-minded bully.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Taking a leaf out of Elsewhere's book, I have made/written/invented a meme, this time a Yuletide one. Nobody's tagged but I'd love to know if you do this one, so I can see what you said.

(NB: sincere apologies in advance to all for whom this meme has no meaning or relevance, including those of other creeds and those of Scrooge persuasion; I have great respect for your position but can't see the logic in suppressing my own secular pleasure in the Christmas mood and trappings on its account. So if you hate Christmas or are not interested in it, it's a bad idea to read on. Sorry.) I've been thinking about all these questions, as one does, so have put in my own answers.

1) Do you have a tree, and if so what is hanging on it?

Yes, a stylised tree of gold-coloured metal with a star on top and a lot of Leunig-looking curly branches for hanging ornaments on. It has all the ornaments I bought in Melbourne and overseas over the years to renew the stock for the family tree as things gradually got broken and shabby, and that I got back when my mum died; there are also various beautiful ornaments that people have given me.

Critters feature prominently -- there's an Austrian teddy in a hat and wasitcoat [UPDATE: I meant waistcoat, but I think 'wasitcoat' is almost better], a crystal cat, a Scottish rabbit swinging on a Christmas wreath, and a couple of lovely Victorian-style rocking-horses. Lots of musical instruments -- little harps and bells and violins and so on. There are also several angels, two strings of shiny beads, and some gold star tinsel that's been somewhat chewed at the lowest level. (Poppet, I'm looking at you.)

2) What's the most successful bit of Christmas cooking you've done so far?

The herb and garlic vinaigrette with home-grown herbs (parsely, thyme and chives) steeping in it as we speak is pretty impressive.

3) And the least successful?

I piked on real custard for the trifle and used bought instead. It's very nice though.

4) Which bit of your Christmas shopping are you happiest with?

I think my older sister is going to really like The Procrastinator's Planner for 2007.

5) Have you opened any of your presents yet? What was it / were they?

A bottle of Jurlique Rosewater Freshener Spray, a copy of Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons, 1967-76, a state-of-the-art garlic chopper-upper that is blessedly easy to wash, a copy of Ordinary People's Politics: Australians Talk About Life, Politics and the Future of Their Country, some beautiful little spicy German cookies that are basically a decorated version of Pfeffernüsse, and a compactly-sized portable personal evaporative air cooler.

So far.

6) Do you have any bad Christmas associations that will have to be tackled?

There was a very rough patch twenty years ago in my relationship with my younger sister, whose house we're having lunch at tomorrow -- when we were in our early to-mid thirties we would almost always have some kind of vicious, violent blow-up on Christmas morning over some incredibly trivial matter like how to clean the prawns.

I also feel worse every year about the fact that I'm not in the city at the Central Mission on Christmas morning making gravy and custard for the homeless. Next year I might volunteer to pack hampers or something.

7) What's your favourite carol? Why?

It used to be 'O Holy Night', for the buildup and drama of the music, and I've always had a soft spot for the Australian carol whose name I can't remember that begins 'The north wind is tossing the leaves / The red dust is over the town / The sparrows are under the eaves / And the grass in the paddock is brown', because in Curramulka where I grew up you could see every single one of those things while you were singing about them, just by looking out of the window.

But since I learned Berlioz's 'The Shepherd's Farewell' a few years ago with the choir I used to sing in, I've been very attached to that moment in the middle where there's a completely unexpected modulation out of the minor and into the major key. The harmonies are mind-boggling.

8) Which part of your Christmas plans is most likely to go awry?

I'm getting further and further behind with the List. And I don't think the handpainted silk shirt is going to look as good over the sleeveless top as I would like it to.

9) What's your most favourite thing about Christmas?

The sensory overload. Choirs! Champagne! Mince pies! Candlelight! Red and gold things!

10) What's your least favourite thing about it?

I always put on at least two kilos, which is something I really really seriously cannot afford to do.

11) What Christmassy thing have you seen or heard in the street or on the teeve or in the blogosphere that has
(a) touched your heart

Archie Roach singing 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' on the RocKwiz Christmas Special last night was something I'm very glad I saw.

(b) hit a nerve

Christmas cards in the racks in the shops saying 'Merry Christmas to a Wonderful Mother'. She died in 1999 and I'm still not used to it.

or (c) made you want to barf?

Nothing so far. But give me time.

12) Who do you wish you had contacted to say Happy Christmas but haven't so far?

Lyn, Darcy, Drusilla, Sally and Pete, Phil and Mary, Lucy and Julian, Angela and Grahame in Stirling, Adi and Irene in Klagenfurt, the Sydney Helen, one of the Melbourne Helens, both of the Barbaras, both of the Peters, all of the Christophers, and two old lovers -- you know who you are. Happy Christmas, you-all.

And to the Hivemind; to Cristy and Zoe and Armagnac, who will all have an extra mouth to feed custard into by next Christmas; and to everyone else who so nicely comes to Pav's Cat to read and chat, I hope you all have a peaceful, safe and happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Trifle (for Dogpossum)

Please note: this recipe contains no jelly, no port, no sherry, no tinned fruit and no bought cake.

Dogpossum has asked on a comments thread about trifle, so I thought I'd make a proper post out of it. This is what I plan to make tomorrow, up to the custard level, so that all the flavours can bed down together nicely by Monday.

Find a pretty, medium-to-big bowl, preferably see-through. (This trifle looks, if anything, even better than the one in that photo a few posts back, so it's nice to be able to see the layers.)

Ground floor: Savoyardis or other similar sponge-finger biscuits. Fill up the spaces with crumbled-up macaroons, Amaretti biscuits or similiar. Slosh some Kirsch on them (quarter of a cup for a small trifle, half a cup for a big one) to begin the softening-up process.

First floor: a generous layer of warmed jam, preferably strawberry.

Second floor: a very generous layer of fresh raspberries and sliced strawberries, plus some fresh cherries that you've softened by gently simmering in a bit of water with a couple of teaspoons of honey and a pinch of cinnamon. When they're soft enough to pit easily, drain them over a little bowl or mug, keep the liquid, and let everything cool.

You should then be able to pit the cherries by cutting them in half. Mix them up gently with the rasps and strawbs. Use some of the saved cooking liquid to soften up the biscuit layer a bit more (but don't drown it or anything).

Third floor: a finely judged layer of custard: it should cover or at least coat all the fruit and give you a more or less level playing field to decorate. Either use the homemade custard recipe of your choice (if you're going to take the trouble, you might as well do it using eggs and cream rather than custard powder) or a bought one if you want -- Paul's do very nice custard, actually, including a brandy-flavoured one. Also, this year I plan to introduce to the custard layer a few artfully deployed spoonfuls of King Island Creme Dessert (Toffee Caramel flavour).

Fourth floor: whipped cream decoration, using an icing bag and star nozzle or whatever, and making a pattern with cream swirls and toasted almonds and silver cachous and red and green glace cherries. Or whatever.

Here are the flavours in this dessert:

brandy (if you take the Paul's cucky option)

Here are the kilojoules in this dessert:


Dogpossum asked about a low-sugar option for a diabetic version but I'm fairly sure such a thing does not exist in nature. I think what I'd do is pick out the biggest, yummiest, best and most beautiful of the fresh berries and cherries, and save them for the diabetic person to eat out of a crystal plate with a silver spoon.

Elsewhere's TV meme

Elsewhere has made good her promise to invent a meme, and a meme is a thing I cannot ignore.

1. Earliest remembered television?

I Love Lucy. Which is still funny. But I also remember Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, Sugarfoot, Bonanza, The Flintstones, Pick-A-Box (starring a very young Barry Jones, who frequently challenged the official correct answers and was always right), The Bugs Bunny Show, Channel Niners, the telecast of the John Martin's Christmas Pageant, and ditto the Anzac Day march, where we would always be able to spot our dad if we looked for the Navy's 'Corvettes' banner.

Pick-A-Box: that's Barry Jones on the right.

2. TV series you would want on a desert island

Prime Suspect, if that counts as a series. All seven of them.

3. TV that made you laugh

The Games. John Clarke and Gina Riley are both brilliant; together they were stellar.

4. TV that made you cry

The Stuart Diver rescue.

5. TV crap that you enjoy

Funniest Home Videos. There, my secret is out.

6. TV you'll never forget.

Hamish Macbeth. Best. TV. Ever.

7. Favourite TV adaptation.

Middlemarch. Not even the ubiquitous Andrew Davies -- a screenwriter who still, after having totally cornered the market in Screen Adaptations of 19th Century Women's Fiction, does not understand that 19th century women's fiction is not about the male characters -- could wreck Middlemarch for me.

Besides, Rufus Sewell was in it.

Rufus the Breathtaking. What is it about a man at a piano?

7. Favourite nerdish program

I don't like nerdish TV. I get enough nerdish in my head.

8. One TV program you are currently watching

The cricket.

9. One TV show/series you have been meaning to watch

I'm with Elsewhere on this one: I think I should at least try to see the point of Desperate Housewives. But oh Lord it's hard.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Volume Seven ...

... is called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

You heard it here.

(Unless you, too, have read the latest Borders newsletter.)

If you are one of those people who hates the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, would you mind controlling your impulse to leap into the comments box and say so, presumably for no other reason than the desire to behave like a prat? Ta.

Bucketing down

Having practically forgotten what rain looked like, I didn't think to clear out the mush of leaves, unseasonably scorched and fallen, that had been breeding with the last of the bottlebrush litter in the gully-trap, even though I knew a storm was coming.

And that, Reader, was why 10 pm tonight found me sopping wet from head to foot, out in the deluge (sur moi, le deluge) and desperately wading though ankle-deep water on the flooded path to the garden shed, my way lit only by a non-waterproof torch (since the electrical storm had knocked out the power) and the frequent cracking flashes of lightning, to find a shovel to scrape out the muck of ages and let through the water that had flooded and overflowed, backed up down the unrelenting cement path and flooded the garden shed and the garage.

This is an old house and it could have been worse; it could have backed up the toilet as well. It has done so more than once before today. So far there's no sign of such a thing.

I may, of course, be speaking too soon.

Fresh Cherry and Toasted Almond Ice Cream


1.5 cups cream
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
60g slivered almonds
500g ripe cherries
1/4 cup water
2 strips orange rind
2 teaspoons redcurrant jelly


Heat the cream in a saucepan until is it bubbling on the edges.

Beat egg yolks with sugar until thick and gradually add the hot cream, stirring constantly. (NB wooden spoon is best.)

Return the mixture to the saucepan and heat, stirring until it has lightly thickened. Be careful not to let it boil. Remove from heat, flavour with vanilla, and stir occasionally till tepid. At this point, clingwrap over the surface will stop the custard forming a skin. Once it's cool, put it in the fridge.

While this custard mixture is cooling, toast the almond slivers on a tray in the oven, where they will burn extremely quickly if you don't watch them. Turn them once or twice till golden brown, then let cool on the tray. If you do this in advance, put them in a glass jar with a good lid and keep them in the fridge, but it's best to do it all together as the almonds stay crunchier.

Put cherries in a pan with water and orange rind, cover and leave to cook over a gentle heat until they are very soft. Add the redcurrant jelly, stir and let cool until you can remove the pips from the cherries. Puree stoned cherries in a food processor or blender, along with the bit of syrup in the pan. The puree should make one to one-and-a-quarter cups and it will contain tiny bits of cherry. Let it cool.

Mix cherry puree with custard. It should be a lurid fuchsia colour. If you're using an ice-cream maker, freeze the mixture acording to the directions, adding the toasted almonds at the finish.

Otherwise, freeze the ice-cream in metal trays in the freezer (personally I find a largish round cake pan is good) till it's just firm, then take it out and beat it thoroughly to mush with an electric beater, to break up the crystals. Add the nuts to the mush and return to freezer.

Best eaten within a day of freezing, or the nuts start to lose their crunch.

Serves four without accompaniments, six with. Suggested accompaniments: cherry compote, little meringues, langues de chat -- but probably not all of these things at once.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


I see in today's Advertiser that Peter Costello, en passant while discussing the likelihood that he will be in a wheelchair before he gets the top job (if then), has paid what he obviously thinks is tribute to the departed Kim Beazley by calling him 'a decent man'.

This must be the fourth or fifth time since he lost the leadership that I've seen this word applied to Beazley, and every time it has been said as though 'decent' were a high accolade, the nicest thing you could possibly say about someone, and a truly rare occurrence in the sulphurous air of Parliament House.

(No prizes for hearing the other shoe drop at this point.)

There are two very scary things about this.

(1) It suggests that decency in general is a rare and prized commodity, rather than the norm one would hope and believe it ought to be. Basic decency ought to be a starting point in the human character, not some kind of rarefied hard-won personal quality.

(2) It lends itself to one of the classic fallacies of Logic 101: 'Beazley is decent and lost the leadership, therefore he must have lost the leadership because of his decency.' This in turn suggests that only bastards should ever be elected to leadership positions.

It is of course in many people's interests to believe that a decent man is a man who will get the elbow. It provides such a magnificent excuse, after all, for behaving like a psychotic prick.

But five minutes' thought will recall that Beazley lost the Labor leadership for other reasons. He lost in spite of his decency, not because of it.

If experience is the best teacher, why do I never learn?

Hot tree-decorating tip: put the dangly baubly things (Austrian glass teddy, crystal cat, silver snowflake balls, Scottish bunny-in-a-wreath, pearly icicles etc etc etc) on the tree BEFORE you wind the slippy stringy things (red tinsel, gold star garland, string of red beads and pearly ditto) around the branches to define the shape of the tree.

I made this mistake last year and had to take the whole thing apart and do it again. Just like this year.

They say you have to repeat something consciously at least 21 times, or is it 27, in order to establish it as a habit. If that's the case then I will be well into my *coughcoughseventiescoughcoughcough* before I automatically decorate the tree in the order that works.

One of the cats sat in Sphinx position on the mantelpiece, paws tucked over the edge, and watched the whole thing over my shoulder. I pray that she has now lost interest.

Blogging the cricket

Why didn't somebody tell me that Gideon Haigh is blogging the cricket?

Actually I don't think I've got a single friend who's into both blogging and cricket. But still.

Eye on the Ashes is here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Astonishingly relevant anniversary post

Inspired by ThirdCat's blogiversary post, I looked back at my own archived post for December 14, 2005, and this (see link for the whole article) is what I found :

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."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How To Tell Whether It's Christmas: a Quiz (multiple choice)

You know it's Christmas when

a) the pianist in David Jones is playing carols instead of the Moonlight Sonata or I Could Have Danced All Night.

b) you're momentarily blinded at the wheel by the sun reflecting off the tinsel in the neighbours' rose bushes.

c) you can't even get into the corridor where the loo is at Myer, because it's full of what turns out to be a single extended family of young women and small, crying children clutching helium balloons who have all decided to go to the loo together.

d) you realise you've put your hand up for potato salad and trifle, which means you'll have to make both mayonnaise and custard, which means a trip to the Central Market in the middle of the Christmas crowds to get the good free-range Kangaroo Island eggs. Again.

e) you've got little paper cuts all over your tongue.

Memo to the Smith Family and the Salvos: the cards are very nice, dudes, but could you do something about the edges of the envelope flaps?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Some days you make the choice, some days the choice makes you

There have of late, in my corner of the blogosphere, been a number of brilliantly written and pensive posts (see links below) about the balancing, for women, of life and work, about creativity of both the Artist and the Offspring varieties, about choices made and chances lost, about what we choose and why we choose it and how we react when the gods step in and deliver some cruel, wild blow of chance.

The most recent of these posts is Ampersand Duck's heartbreaking tale of her recent days, and the end of what she says is her last attempt at having a second child.

A. Duck and I share a gynaecological peculiarity -- she's talked about it somewhere on her blog, but I can't find it -- that makes it considerably more difficult to have children and may explain, in my case, why I'm practically the only woman of my age I know who has never accidentally conceived. Or not, at least, to my knowledge; apparently, very early miscarriages can sometimes disguise themselves as a particularly challenging period, so you'd never know for sure.

I don't have kids, being from a generation of women for whom if you wanted to survive in academe it was almost fatal to get pregnant, and almost impossible to establish, develop and sustain the kind of relationship you'd want to be well into before you even thought about having kids. (Some years ago I wrote a whole essay about what academic life used to be like for women, and no doubt to some extent still is: it's here.)

By the time I got out of the academy, the maternal moment was well past; I think the day I realised that particular option had closed was the day the man in the furniture van delivered my new sofa, and I looked at its blinding, spotless whiteness and realised my subconscious had spoken.

I'd made a series of smaller situational choices along the way, choices about career and money and blokes and circs, but on the whole my non-maternal status had been an incremental closing-down, more like Gertrude Stein's line about her gradual estrangement from her brother: 'Little by little we never met again.'

The strange (normal for cats, though: I swear that this is true) malformation of the girly bits and the resulting limited capacity for (human) childbearing was only discovered in my late 40s when I went through a girly-bits reckoning with which I shall not bore you. Suffice it to say that when I looked back on the infinite time, trouble, money and mess involved over my decades of careful contraception, the irony of it struck me dumb for days.

Before this discovery, there was also the truly ghastly moment at which the gynaecologist, almost young enough to be my daughter, looked me sternly in the 47-year-old eye and said firmly 'Now, before we go on, is there any chance at all that you could be pregnant?'

I had opened my mouth to say 'Don't be silly, people my age don't get pregnant' when I remembered that she was, after all, a gynaecologist. The words died on my lips.

I thought about it.

Slowly and carefully, I lowered my head to her desk and banged it a couple of times. Hard.

Silently, she handed me a specimen jar and pointed down the hall to the loo.

Negative, of course. But in the interval between the head-banging and the test-checking, I faced a number of hard questions. Hypothetical father: impossible. Income: shoestring freelance. Age at the hypothetical child's 21st birthday party: 68. And yet, and yet ...

It wasn't the worst moment of my life, but it's on the shortlist.

But it's not really a matter of sadness or regret for me, not having kids. I would not have been the world's greatest mum by a very long way. I am absent-minded, and a bit over-anxious about the helpless and vulnerable. I dislike being financially or emotionally dependent on anyone else even for a short time, and I dislike being interrupted when reading or writing or thinking. Someone's had a lucky escape.

For those who think my absence of angst about this makes me an unnatural woman, I can only reply that what it makes me is an un-cultural woman. We live in a culture still deeply, deeply steeped in the notion that a woman with no children is some kind of pitiable freak, and a woman with no children who isn't hysterical about her childlessness must be evil as well. I've been fortunate in the circles in which I move, where those views aren't widely held.

Which brings me to my real point. Thinking about A. Duck's experiences and my own reproductive non-history brings to mind Virginia Hausegger, who is a former student of mine, so I am no doubt one of the traitorous feminists she blames for the fact that she has no children, because of 'the golden promises of our feminist foremothers' (NB: I don't know who she'd been reading, I'm sure) that she could 'have it all'.

But the very notion of being 'betrayed by feminism' is kind of bizarre. Those who live by any ideological framework and personalise it enough to be able to feel 'betrayed' by it when it doesn't meet their expectations were playing a mug's game in the first place.

My own take on this question is the exact opposite: feminism has helped me make my way through what has not, at this time and in this place, been a particularly typical woman's life. It's shown me that I had choices, shown me what they were, predicted (rightly) what the difficulties would be, given me a framework for understanding and dealing with those difficulties, and given me a vocabulary in which to think and talk about them. Institutional feminism, 20 years ago, provided for me a brand-new Equal Opportunity Officer with whose help I negotiated the crucial point in my academic career. Literary feminism, all my adult life, has given me an array of models for a thinking, reading, writing life without children: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Christina Stead, Colette, the Simones Weil and de Beauvoir and countless others.

I don't know what my life would have been like if I'd had kids, or how different it would have been. I've seen and done enough in life to know just how chancy the whole reproductive business is. But anyone who'd like to see me wringing my hands and wailing about having produced no Pavlov's Kittens for posterity is going to have to wait a bloody long time.

Lest some ill-willed sod should ever turn up with a camera in one hand and an overblown sense of symbolism in the other, however, there's always fruit in my bowl. Just in case.

More texts for Life Management for Women 101. Perhaps an anthology ... :

Ampersand Duck
Kate Moment

Heroines, every one.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Early days, but still ...

I know it's only the first week in December, but a hot contender for the Mind-Bogglingly Vacuous Statement of the Bloody Obvious division of the Sports Commentary Awards of the Summer has already emerged from the Channel Nine commentary box:

'And if England had had Shane Warne playing for them, they might have won this match.'

What book is that?

Does anybody recognise this book?

"And a recollection of trying to recall, in other years, a book I read as a child: somewhere, a warm kitchen scene where spices were special and rare, and had to be used carefully because the spice seller wouldn’t be coming to the house for another year. I can’t remember any more than this (how can I possibly hope to recover this book when this is all I can remember of it?), but the kitchen had something of the quality of Marmaduke Scarlett’s kitchen in The Little White Horse. I guess it's too much to hope this rings a bell with anyone?"

If it does, do be a petal and click over to Stephanie's, and tell her what it is. If it doesn't, go and have a read of her lovely posts about music, spice and summer anyway.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The brutality of the panties

This brilliant (does she ever write any other kind?) patriarchy-blamin' post by Twisty Faster prompts me to ask a question I have long wondered about.

Girls, what word do you use for your underwear? Not bras, camisoles, thongs, teddies, fantasy garter belts and so on: your underpants.

[UPDATE: looking at this and the previous post together, I can now see that the subject of this one may have been suggested by the phrase 'pants-wetting' in the last one. Clearly I have some pants issues to work through.]

I've always found the word "panties" to have a major eewww factor; it has soft-porn associations that remind me of letters to Penthouse, and I think I also dislike that gratuitous diminutive -- it's a teeny-tiny girlie version of "pants".

My own preferred word is "knickers". What do other women call their underpants?

Hens' night at the Walkleys

All the excitable pants-wetting over Milne v Mayne at the Walkley Awards ceremony the other night has completely obscured the fact that it was women journalists who walked away with nearly all the top-line awards.

Chris Boyd has a nice post at Sarsparilla about the awards night; he describes the pleasure of a journo from Bendigo who, to his own surprise, won a Walkley for his work on the water crisis -- but whose moment in the spotlight got edited out of the SBS telceast to make way for a replay of the Mayne/Milne face-off.

Similarly, the women whose genuine achievements were recognised have gone almost unnoticed in the press's coverage of its own prize night.

For the record, then, here are the top eight awards:

Gold Walkley - Liz Jackson, Lin Buckfield, Peter Cronau, Four Corners, ABC TV: Stoking the Fires.

Nikon-Walkley Australian Press Photographer of the Year - Kate Geraghty, The Sydney Morning Herald: Lebanon.

Walkley for Journalism Leadership - Michelle Grattan, political editor, The Age, and political commentator, ABC Radio National Breakfast.

Walkley for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism - Colleen Egan, The Sunday Times.

Print News Report - Michael Beach and Viva Goldner, The Daily Telegraph: Marcus Einfeld.

Sport News Reporting - Danny Weidler, National Nine News: Russell's Rabbits.

Radio News Reporting - Tim Palmer, ABC Radio: Bali Suicide Bombings.

Investigative Journalism - Caroline Overington, The Australian and The Weekend Australian: AWB Kickback Scandal.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Jes' fetchin' mah banjo

The Channel Ten morning news broadcast I just watched featured a sports report on the first day of the Adelaide Test, complete with voxpop from the crowd outside the Adelaide Oval. The newsreader, presumably reading off the autocue, mentioned the "excited locals" more than once.

She made it sound like a Naomi Robson visit in a helicopter to my home town of Curramulka, pop approx 150. But even there, you'd be surprised by how laid-back and clued-up the locals are -- never mind a city of over a million people that has "excited locals" queuing up and hanging off the rafters at every session every other year at something called the Festival of Ideas.

Everybody always knew that Channel Ten's stupid abandonment of independent production of local news in Adelaide would be a bloody disaster, and so it has proved. Just excuse me here while I play a few bars of 'Duelling Banjos'. It's so much easier when you've got six fingers on each hand.

'Available in different strengths and colours'

From today's online ABC news:

'A German company plans to launch a spray-on condom tailor-made for all sizes.

The Institute for Condom Consultancy is developing a type of spray can into which the man inserts his penis first.'

All that's left to ask, really, is whether whoever came up with that 'firm hopes' headline did it on purpose or whether it was some kind of Freudian slip.

So to speak.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


I just bet myself eleven thousand dollars that the screenplay of Prime Suspect 7, the first half of which I watched tonight, and which was brilliant and breathtaking in every possible way except in its actual subtextual message about women and work (which was Kinder, Kirche, Küche: 'children, church, cakes', or its colloquial English equivalent, 'barefoot and pregnant'), was written by a man.

And sure enough, his name's Frank. I win. Just as well. Most of that money belongs to the ATO.

More on this when the red haze has faded a bit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's only fair

Having whinged and bitched and carried on at some length a mere three weeks ago about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee's recommendation that the vaccine Gardasil not be subsidised, I'm thrilled to say I was completely wrong in most of what I said, and schoolgirls will be getting free vaccinations as from next year.

Many are cynical about the reasons for this, but frankly I do not care what they were. As long as we keep thinking in simple-minded binaries, we will never, ever get our heads out of the primeval slime, so I am not looking, just now, for angles that discredit the government. All power to whoever it was that got this fast-tracked, and if it was Howard, good on him, and if it was Abbott, good on him as well. I don't care who did it or what their motives were.

Never mind the means, look at the end. This will benefit everyone, and all the young daughters of all my friends -- Marina, Imogen, Marion, Flora, Phoebe, Sarah, Ellen and Ruth -- may all live longer than they would otherwise have done.

In memoriam JMCH, 1953-1999, whose eulogy I co-wrote six months after my mum's, and who might, if she had been born a few decades later or if this discovery had been made a few decades earlier -- as my dad pointed out on the phone today -- have lived to see the beautiful, principled, clever young woman that her daughter has become.

I don't like cricket, oh no ... I love it

From today's Crikey:

'Flintoff apparently shocked that Australia played to win

Nick Place writes:

Here’s a strange quote. English captain Andrew "Freddy" Flintoff, speaking immediately after Monday’s loss to Australia:

"Maybe it started with a few nervy lads knocking around and it took our time to get into the Test match. But having experienced that now and had a taste of what Ashes cricket is about playing (in) Australia … we can go into Friday knowing what to expect and how hard Australia will come at us."

This ranks, for mine, as the strangest comment heard yet in the saga of this Ashes series ... What was Flintoff saying? That somehow ... it hadn’t occurred to him or his team that Ricky Ponting’s side might come at them "hard" in the re-match? That playing Ashes cricket in Australia might need some sort of mental and physical preparation? ... And now, after a whole four and a half days of mostly one-sided action that saw Australia take a decisive 1-0 lead in the series, Flintoff says: Gee, this time, in Adelaide, we’ll be ready for the fact Australia will be playing to win.

You know what, Freddy? That’s an excellent idea.

No wonder Ricky Ponting had that dangerous and ruthless look in his eye when he looked towards Friday’s Second Test and said: "There’s not much time for England to go away and do much to get their games in order."

Earth to Freddy: Adelaide ain’t going to be no picnic either.'


Monday, November 27, 2006

Idol final highlights and lowlights


A talent competition was won by the person with the most talent. Unusual, but cheering.

Jess is a cute kid with a freaky voice, but she has no technique and persistent pitch problems, as demonstrated last night when she was a consistent quarter-tone flat all through her solos in one of the group numbers.


Intellectual giant James Matheson introducing Damien Leith's performance of that well-known anthem beloved of rev-heads everywhere, 'Nissan Dorma' -- a song he clearly believes to be about a sleepy Japanese car.

You could spend half your life waiting for the other shoe to drop

From a women's-mag pet advice column: 'My cat has gone blind. How will this affect her?'

From the same mag's 'psychic' advice column: 'My father died a year ago. Is he all right?'

Sunday, November 26, 2006


It's seventeen years today since I gave up smoking. Cold turkey, boom.

Having a glass of wine to celebrate.

(Just one.)

I wonder if they're all called Gordon

The gecko in the letterbox was cute. The gecko that fried the computer of the outside aircon unit was a good story. But the gecko trundling around in the bottom of my coffee cup this morning when, half asleep, I took it down off the windowsill came closer to giving me a heart attack than anything else ever has.

It had a half-grown-back tail, a process which apparently takes a long time, so it was clearly a creature of adventurous temperament that had found its way into a few strange places before today.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A post for White Ribbon Day

Here's a recent post from the astrological twin with whom I'm even more chuffed to share a birthday than I am with Cate Blanchett. The post is a few weeks old and does not refer directly to WRD, but it is so apposite that it might as well, and its suggestion that male violence is covertly enabled by the current prevailing values -- over and above patriarchy itself -- is one that needs some serious thought:

' ... the country has been inundated with bully culture, the culture of greed, for at least a dozen years. For many young professionals, that’s all they know in their working lives — the attitude of winner takes all, bigger smashes smaller and do it if you can get away with it. It might take a while to allow another more humane culture of getting along and nurturing each other and benefiting from each other’s skills and knowledge to rise from the ashes. At present ashes are pretty much all there is. Social animals know better than this — they seem to instinctively know that there are limits to what the bosses and the alpha males can get away with, and that cooperation within the group is how the group survives. Checks and balances — something that’s been missing for a while.

I sense this culture every day, on the streets and in the media. Every time a cop car ... runs a red light or speeds down a one way street the wrong way (just because they can, no other reason) and every time an SUV with darkened windows muscles other cars, bikers, old ladies and kids out of way — sometimes narrowly missing pedestrians as they run a red light — well, it’s all been sanctioned by [the politicians] who allied themselves with these bastards. They reflect and encourage one another. Push in line, build your building right in front of someone else’s, destroy a neighbourhood, be a winner, a survivor. To me, those reality shows “teach” bully culture — that’s the lesson that is imparted [as they] promote backstabbing, lying, duplicitous behavior and entitlement — all in a world where no one works.'

If you're surprised by the identity of the writer, it's probably because you know him as a musician. Found via Alex Ross at The Rest is Noise.

Friday, November 24, 2006

My stats are bigger than the same as your stats

I've always been amused by the competitive element in blogging and the apparent ease with which people ignore how easy it is to boost one's numbers artificially. But I long ago gave in to the Truth Laid Bear ecosystem (see sidebar), and when I encountered this dear little thingy at Kate's, I couldn't resist giving it a go as well.

If I put these two ranking systems together, it makes me a C-Listed Slimy Mollusc. How could anyone possibly resist me?

C-List Blogger

If you take your take your glasses off and squinch your eyes up a bit, it looks like 'C-cup Blogger'.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

One-word meme

One word? Moi?

Yeah, riiight.

Let's see if it can be done:

Yourself: overworked
Your partner: misnomer
Your hair: disappointing
Your mother: Casper
Your father: monumental
Your favourite item: numinous
Your dream last night: headachy
Your favourite drink: Laphroaig
Your dream car: Boxster
Your dream home: seaside
The room you are in: study
Your ex: multiple
Your fear: boredom
Where you want to be in ten years: travelling
Who you hung out with last night: cats
What you're not: naive
Muffins: chocotreats
One of your wish list items: windfall
Time: evening
The last thing you did: work
What you are wearing: tat
Your favourite weather: still
Your favourite book: Middlemarch [True!]
Last thing you ate: dinner
Your life: integrated
Your mood: resigned
Your best friends: firesigns [yeah, yeah; sue me]
What are you thinking about right now: elusiveness
Your car: red
What are you doing at the moment: musing
Your summer: restful
Relationship status: unorthodox
What is on your tv: nothing
What is the weather like: balmy
When is the last time you laughed: recently

Warning: this meme is a lot harder than you think. You might mistakenly deduce from some of the more oblique answers here that it's a word-association test rather than a questionnaire, but I was trying for maximum accuracy and scope of connotation.

And on reflection I think it was designed for people a lot younger than me. When I am less busy, I shall come up with one for persons of mature and discerning years.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Varmint update

# Last night I saw a white-tailed spider scuttling down the wall of my bedroom and out of sight behind the bedside chest of drawers. I hope the business about white-tailed spider bites causing necrotic ulcers and gas gangrene is an urban myth, but just in case it isn't, I have Baygonned the bedroom to uninhabitable levels.

# This morning, having already learned the hard way to be wary of giant hairy huntsman spiders lurking in the letterbox and hiding on the underside of envelopes, I discovered that this also holds true for geckoes. Considering that a few months ago, while it was still bloody freezing, a very tiny example of this species somehow got into the allegedly critterproof outside unit and fried several grand's worth of reverse cycle heating/cooling*, you'd think I would have thought of it before. The one in the letterbox was a handsome pale-grey speckled creature who boldly did not detach himself from his tail at the very sight of me like they usually do.

*Still under warranty, fortunately

# For a couple of hours in the middle of the day there was lots of particularly crashy-bangy lightning and thunder around Adders, as ThirdCat will attest; while it did not drive the cats actually under the bed, it still meant there were four very wide little golden eyes and four very pointed little ears and a lot of erect sproingy whiskers chez Pav today.

#And, finally, something is eating the just-visible embryonic capsicums in the vegie patch. All advice gratefully received.

Time warp

"They weren't compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country. ...

... he prescribed how and when men should come and go, how they dressed, when they ate, and the movements of thir arms and legs, the words they spoke. There were accepted facial expressions, compulsory signs of loyalty, accepted opinions, desirable morals, compulsory attendance on pain of loss of food money, and the rule, made by employers, that the prisoners must not refuse to work no matter how unfairly they considered they were treated. This had once been relaxed and the right to strike obtained, but this right was being eroded away and would soon be no right at all. ...

The days of five hundred lashes were gone but in their place were strike penalties of five hundred dollars a day. The word Democracy had been heard for centuries on political platforms but was nowhere to be seen in the daily earning lives of citizens. They knuckled under or they got out. ...

The funny thing was that with all this power, employers were not the State, they were free men. They could come and go out of one industry into another, they could employ or dismiss, make new rules and change old ones. No responsibility beyond the elementary one of providing themselves with a workforce able to work. If they didn't want to pay an extra cent in wages, they appealed to the prisoners' patriotism -- think of the economy's good. The economy's good consisted of each employer maximizing sales or profit or both: there was a maximum wage but no maximum profit."

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 3: In praise of middle age

'The appeal of Italian opera,' says Alex Ross in the article linked at the end of Part 2, 'is difficult to put into words, but it has something to do with the activation of primal feelings.'

In the next sentence it becomes apparent that he's talking about the primal feelings of the characters, but at first I was sure he meant those of the audience. Having so recently looked the Robertson Davies passages about opera (see Part 1), I was actually thinking of something he has one of the characters say in The Lyre of Orpheus:

'An opera has to have a foundation; something big, like unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honour. Because people like that, you know. There they sit, all those stockbrokers and rich surgeons and insurance men, and they look so solemn and quiet as if nothing would rouse them. But underneath they are raging with unhappy love, or vengeance, or some point of honour or ambition ... They go to La Bohème or La Traviata and they remember some early affair that might have been squalid if you weren't living it yourself; or they see Rigoletto and they remember how the chairman humiliated them at the last board meeting; or they see Macbeth and think how they would like to murder the chairman and get his job. Only they don't think it; very deep down they feel it, and boil it, and suffer it in the primitive underworld of their souls. You wouldn't get them to admit anything, not if you begged. Opera speaks to the heart ...'

I think this is most likely to be true of just such characters as Davies describes, stolid men of business and public life who don't set much store by art as a rule. But for someone like me, whose whole adult life has been about teaching and learning in the liberal arts, and who as a woman is in generally better touch with her feelings to begin with, there's not so much in the way of stirred-up and barely-understood suffering and rage, and insofar as any of my affairs have been squalid I have been only too aware of the fact.

(I must say, though, that the scene in Nabucco where Abigaille is wrangling and raging with her father did kick up a certain amount of dust and grime in the primitive underworld of my soul, as did the idea of being physically pushed and shoved around by male bullies who despise you -- though the schoolboy sons of Curramulka farmers circa 1965 might not seem at first blush to have much to do with fully grown lance-wielding Assyrian soldiers in chain mail. It's also true that there's more than one chairman I have fantasised about murdering, though not in order to get his job. And as for the wildfire qualities of sibling rivalry between sisters ...)

Anyway, what I felt the opera releasing as I watched -- the thing about interiority being its Tardis-like qualities; consciousness expands to contain all available data -- was more like a swarm of small precise memories than 'feelings' as such. Which is where the praise of middle age comes in, because by the time you reach about 45 (and I am, ahem, older than that) you realise you have a quarter of a century of adult experience, forming and re-forming intricate patterns of memory, knowledge and insight every day. And that is what you bring to the theatre: an unimaginably vast store of memories, any one of which could be unexpectedly brought into the light by something that happens as you sit and watch. Not necessarily on the stage, either, but the whole experience of being there.

For example:

1973 and I'm sitting with the Child Husband in this very theatre, in a box that we had all to ourselves, watching the Peter Brook A Midsummer Night's Dream. They were at the end of the world tour so they were all visibly knackered and sick to death of it, but we did not care. We had, of course, disappointed our landlord in order to buy the tickets. The following year we came back here again to hear Steeleye Span, who at the very beginning of the concert were subjected to a total sound-system collapse. They looked at each other, rolled their eyes, came to the front of the stage and sang half a dozen things a capella, led by the incomparable Maddy Prior in three- four- and five-part harmonies with no amplification, till the sound technicians got it fixed. It was, of course, wonderful. And it has been my benchmark for professional behaviour in the face of disaster ever since.


1998/9, manifestly a summer of lerve. Tonight at Nabucco there are two couples, all four of them friends, that I spy from a distance as they seat themselves in different parts of the theatre. Both couples got together properly that summer, as though to batten down the hatches before a new century began. They all look fabulous tonight and they are manifestly still, in both cases and after eight years, very happy to be together.


1987, the last day of winter: I sit at the hospital with my friend D's husband, periodically administering to him small restorative slugs of the brandy my father has suggested I bring (and has loaned me his hip flask for the purpose) while we wait for word that the elective Caesarean birth of their daughter M has all gone according to plan. Baby M, now nineteen, an Adelaide U Choral Society First Soprano just like her mother before her, and studying aerospace engineering in between the soccer team, the choir and the German Club, is my companion for the evening, sitting next to me and deeply absorbed in the director's program notes about Saddam Hussein and the Risorgimento.


1966, first year of high school and first-ever introduction to Ancient History: I recognise the Assyrian guards' outfits on the stage from illustrations in a 40-year-old textbook I'd given nary a thought to from then till now. I can smell the classroom: not a bad smell, just very schooly, with undertones of good, old wood. That was the year I got my head properly around the idea of '600 B.C.', as around the idea of 'minus one'.


1989 and I'm making more money than (as I now know) I ever have or had before or since, and I almost decide to splurge some of it on a really spectacularly beautiful dinner set. The featured colours in this pattern are a seriously OTT combination of gold and heavily saturated teal, the exact colours being used here in the Nabucco sets to suggest a kind of barbaric splendour. I know it'll be the only classy dinner set I ever buy and it is for some forgotten reason going at a bargain price: an 87-piece set of Royal Doulton Carlyle. In the end I don't, because I fear that in five years I might be a woman of different (read: better) taste, and come to regret the extreme statement being made by those colours. I had not thought of those 87 pieces of fine china for many years. But the colours, now onstage as then in the shop window, make something tighten in my chest and constrict my breathing.


2004: again in this very theatre, the State Opera of SA is staging Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, referred to by the cognoscenti as Cav'n'Pag, two short operas which are traditionally put on togther. One of the best-known bits of Cavalleria Rusticana is the Easter Hymn (listenable excerpt here), which is performed offstage; the set is a Sicilian village square and the sound of the hymn is coming from inside the church.

Instead of just using a recording, the State Opera's chorus master Timothy Sexton, also the musical director of the choir I was in at the time, decided to use us instead: a masterstroke, as we were a big choir and while considerably more tuneful than a hundred people grabbed randomly off the street might be, we were still musically ragged and amateur enough to sound like a very, very musical but otherwise ordinary congregation, and from all reports the effect was weirdly moving.

So as I sat in the Festival Theatre watching Nabucco I was somehow also in the wings, two years younger than I am now, and in the middle of a unique experience I subsequently described in an essay called Brothers' Keepers that was about choral singing in particular and, in general, the dynamic between individual and communal effort:

'A choir is like a big animal, a creature with its own life. When the SA State Opera put on Cavalleria Rusticana at the Festival Theatre last year, it was our choir that sang the famous Easter Hymn, which is meant to look and sound to the audience like congregational music coming faintly from inside the church in the little Sicilian village square. To sing it we had to hide huddled in the wings, black-clad for invisibility and soft-shod for silence. Moving through the vast dark caverns of backstage space to take up our position, we made a whispering, a rustling, a susurration; we were a black, shadowy, soft-footed mass, a ghostly panther with a hundred paws.'

So I can say with perfect truthfulness that I've sung in opera. And it was one of the great experiences of my life.

I suppose at any age you bring to any experience the sum total of what you've seen and learned. But for some reason, maybe some indirect knock-on effect from that unleashing of the primal that Alex Ross talks about so beautifully, a night at the opera reflects it all back to you. And in that huge, gilded, rococo mirror, you can see things you'd forgotten for thirty years or more.

What other kind is there?

Sign seen yesterday at Target:

'CLEARANCE: Underwear bras'

Red polka dots, purple lace, poison-green check and rhinestones: every one of them a bra that had earned its place on the clearance rack.

They were all underwired, too.

Friday, November 17, 2006

More avoidance behaviour

I should be examining theses. Or washing dishes. Or reviewing the panto I just went to. (Two stars, but one does feel so mean, trashing a panto.) Or writing Part 3 of the Opera series, subtitled 'In Praise of Middle Age'.

And so I am, of course, doing the remaining fifteen questions of the meme instead.

1. What shirt are you wearing?

I am not in fact wearing a shirt, and so will seize this opportunity to describe my favourite shirt, a beautifully made oversized man's shirt with double-buttoned cuffs that I bought in Austria in 1997 and wear as an overshirt. It's made of hand-painted silk, of a colour best described as 'buttermilk with balls', a sort of creamy ochrey paleish goldy sort of colour. Some of the painted design is quite solid and in some places gives the effect of very fine embriodery or beads, done in four variations on the theme of gold plus some very fine black dots and lines here and there. The design is of beautifully executed swooping lines and swirls and shapes inspired by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, who is this dude here --

-- with the designs on the shirt clearly and closely inspired by paintings of his like this (actually this isn't a bad approximation of the colour, either):

2. What brand of shoes are you currently wearing?


3. Bright or Dark Room

I like soft, indirect, complicated light.

4. What do you think about the person who took this survey before you?

She was an American woman in the link I pinched from Susoz at Elsewhere's, I think. I liked her attitude to not having a watch.

5. Where is your nearest 7-11?

I have no idea. My 24/7 supplier of choice is a dirty great big servo up on Grand Junction Road where the B-doubles hang out. They have soft-toy Border Collies, fresh flowers, and several kinds of fast Asian food, among many, many other things.

6. Who told you he/she loved you last?

That would be the Bloke.

7. How many drugs have you done in the last three days?

I am not, here in my prudent middle years, a do-er of drugs. (And was very little of one even in my wild younger years, actually.) Alcohol, caffeine, codeine, ibuprofen and a couple of prescription things are pretty much my drugs of choice.

8. How many rolls of film do you need developed?

None, for a change.

9. What do you do when vending machines steal your money?

Swear like a trooper. My repertoire is limited but heartfelt.

10. Are you touchy feely?

I worry so much about being intrusive on personal space that any touchy-feely tendencies are more reactive than otherwise.

11. Name three things that you have on you at all times?

(1) A small black wallet with bank, credit and various ID and other cards.
(2) Cat hair.
(3) A hex.

12. What was the last thing you paid for with cash?

A newsagent's carry bag containing the day's papers (yes yes, I know, but I needed to sit in a cafe and do the Sudoku puzzles), the 2007 Fresh Produce Diary (I'm so glad they've revived this), a box of Smith Family fundraiser Christmas cards, and the Cats of the Greek Islands 2007 calendar, my opening salvo in the Christmas shopping wars. A cat calendar was a traditional gift from my departed Ma to my younger sister, and I have kept up the tradition. The minute I got it home, Poppet clawed the cellophane and chewed one of the corners, but my sister will think this is funny.

13. Does anything hurt on your body right now?

Yes, my feet are killing me. (See shoe brand.)

14. How much cash do you have on you?

About 70 cents at the moment, I think, not counting the piggy bank.

15. What's a word that rhymes with “DOOR?”

ABHOR or ADORE, depending on one's mood. Also GORE, WHORE, RAW, SORE, TORE, RAW, WITHDRAW and DEPLORE or, more happily, AWE, LORE, MORE, PAW and ENCORE (pronouned the French way with emphasis on the second syllable).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 2: Verdi and Nabucco

Verdi's Nabucco is the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, more or less as per the version in the Book of Daniel except that there, of course, there is no question of female succession, or indeed any GURLS at all that I can see.

But in the Verdi version there is a complex plot involving Hebrew slaves, hostages, daughters legitimate and (as it turns out) illegitimate with competing claims to their father's throne, star-crossed lovers, the gods Baal and Jehovah, and a wonderful moment when Nabucco the King, declaring himself in a moment of hubris to be greater than either Baal or Jehovah and therefore the one true god, is immediately knocked flat by something from the heavens that, in this production, looks like a cross between a shower of blood and a bolt of lightning and made me think, by word-association rather than logic, of that wonderful phrase 'blood-boltered' from, I think, Macbeth.

Which Nabucco, after it hits him, also is: smeared and clotted with the stuff, writhing across the floor in a pool of blood that is not his own and apparently not human.

This instant manifestation of divine vengeance does not, amazingly, kill him, but he does go mad (as you would), which is what this William Blake painting of him is about:

And Blake, as you can see, was following his King James Version very closely: '... he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws.' (Daniel 4:33)

But everything turns out all right in the end; the madness passes, the lovers are reunited, and the illegitimate daughter and usurping queen takes poison and dies, but not before apologising first. You could do an absolute thumper of a feminist reading of this opera, and I would, but I've got too much marking to do.

In this production they use in one of the sets a truly bizarre and unfathomably naff poster-art portrait that Saddam Hussein had done; he fancies himself as the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar, here shooting with a bow and arrow at missiles, helicopters and warships:

As as Commenter 43 says here, 'Boy, you can't swing a dead cat in the Middle East without hitting some nutcase claiming to be some past or present biblical character.'

Verdi wrote this opera in 1841, still in his twenties and devastated by the sudden deaths of, in quick succession, his wife and both his young children. The most famous tune in it, and indeed one of opera's most easily-recognised, is 'Va pensiero', aka the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, which was one of the reasons why Nabucco was an instant hit; this choral piece was co-opted immediately as an anthem of freedom by the fragmented Italian states then labouring under repressive Austrian rule, and 'Va pensiero' became quite by accident an anthem of the Risorgimento.

Director David Freeman has said of this production, 'There are three powerful periods in which to set a piece of theatre: when the author sets it, when the author wrote it, and when the audience watches it ... We are playing Nabucco both "then" and "now". Trouble in 600BC was to be found in Babylon and Jerusalem.'

But to my mind this production's mixing-up of historical periods also includes a third: the costuming of the Hebrew slaves in clothes that are very reminiscent of photographs and footage from the early 1940s of the Jews on their way to the gas chambers. And the staging manages to add more than a suggestion that contemporary Israel has made Hebrew slaves, as it were, out of the Palestinians.

Anyway. Here's the review I filed on Sunday morning.

"NABUCCO: State Opera of SA
Festival Theatre
Until November 18

This production of Nabucco is everything opera is supposed to be: dramatic, spectacular and enthralling.

'Nabucco' tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Jerusalem, his defeat and capture of the Hebrews, his descent into madness and his final redemption. But the power of the story lies in the way that personal relationships, both familial and romantic, are intertwined with stories of politics, religion and war. This Shakespearean interweaving of different stories provides a solid and dramatic basis for Verdi's energetic, passionate music.

The chorus of Nabucco, directed here to hair's-breadth precision by chorus master Timothy Sexton, is almost a character in its own right and has some beautiful music to sing, including the famous 'Va, pensiero' and a less well-known but even more glorious a capella chorus, part of the ensemble piece 'Immenso Jehovah', in the last act. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted with passion and energy by Nicholas Braithwaite, is its usual assured and polished self.

The production is dominated by Maria Pollicina's magnificent performance as Abigaille, Nabucco's usurping daughter and the jealous sister of Fenena, the rightful heiress to Nabucco's throne. In this musically and emotionally difficult and exhausting role, Pollicina is flawless. Not only does she have absolute confidence and control vocally, but she is also an excellent actor, dominating the stage and holding the breathless attention of the audience.

The scenes Pollicina shares with Barry Anderson as her father Nabucco, now mad and broken, are among the most emotionally intense and engaging that I have ever seen onstage. Anderson's performance is also superb, in a complex role that director David Freeman presents as a kind of cross between Hitler, King Lear and Saddam Hussein but that Anderson somehow, miraculously, manages to make sympathetic.

Abigaille's sister Fenena, the gentle love interest, is played with great dignity and sweetness by Adelaide's Elizabeth Campbell.

If this production has a weakness, it's in the performances of two of the male leads, with Adrian Dwyer as Fenena's lover Ismaele sounding and looking strained and hesitant. Julian Konstantinov as Zaccaria the Hebrew prophet has the requisite sonority and gravitas that basses so often bring to figures of authority, but persistent pitch problems in such an exposed and major part tend to spoil the effect of his impressive stage presence, and in one or two places make life hard for some of the other singers.

The leads have strong support from local performers in smaller roles, particularly Deborah Caddy as Zaccaria's sister Anna.

Freeman's direction is imaginative and brave, using space and silence as effectively as crowds and voices in creating an overall effect of violent emotion, violent action, and a plot rushing towards its conclusion.

Dan Potra's imposing, dramatic design provides some moments of high drama all by itself, with crumbling walls, fallen idols and the violent, bloody wrath of God descending on the deluded Nabucco. The sets and costumes frankly mix up historical periods in such a way as to suggest the horrors and dangers of dictatorship and violence in any era, and this works surprisingly well, especially in the contrast between the glittering, sinister chain-mail of the Assyrian guards and the way the drab dress of their Hebrew captives quietly suggests the photographs and footage of Jewish refugees from the 1930s and 40s.

One reason this opera is so gripping is that it contains so many great themes: power, hubris, war, jealousy, star-crossed love and redemption.

All these things are sumptuously gift-wrapped by this production."

There's a brilliant, but very long and detailed, article about Verdi by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross (see blogroll) here. Even if you don't read any of the rest of it, do at least read the final paragraph, and the endnote.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Going to the Opera, Part 1: Fifth Business

There's a book I've wanted for twenty years to write and probably never will, a hypothetical book called Opera, Gender and Plot. It's (hypothetically) a cultural history of opera using gender theory, New Historicism, psychoanalysis, anatomy, narratology, and the history (and historiography) of classical voice training in western music. You see why I say I'll probably never write it, and besides, by now someone has probably written it already.

But I sang in a big Adelaide choir from 2001 till the end of last year, and I've been to the odd opera since I took up theatre reviewing for the local press a few years ago, and so one way and another have started to get very interested in these ideas again. What's fascinating is the way that certain voice ranges are keyed to particular character types and roles, and the way that these types interact both in the plot and in the music, particularly in duets, trios and quartets. So one might require, say, a bass not only in order to provide some villain or other figure of power, but also for technical reasons, to ground the chords and earth the music.

Brought up in a very tuneful but decidedly popular-musical household, I'd never given any of this stuff a single thought till some time in the late 1980s when I first read Canadian novelist Robertson Davies' Fifth Business (1970), the first novel in his Deptford Trilogy. This is what he, or rather one of his characters, says:

'... in opera in a permanent company of the kind that we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress, or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.

So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business.'

There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between voice part and plot: traditionally you've got to have roles for the various kinds of singers, and those roles are largely gender-determined. So either a story and libretto gets cobbled together to accomodate all four or five leads, or an existing story is used and adapted to fit them.

Nearly 20 years later when he published The Lyre of Orpheus, Davies showed this kind of thinking in action in a plot about a gifted music student whose PhD thesis topic is as follows: '... to flesh out and complete the manuscript notes ... of an opera left incomplete at his death in 1822 by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, the work to be done in a manner congruous with the operatic conventions of Hoffman's day and for such an orchestra as he would have known; this to be done as a musicological exercise in partial fulfilment of the requirements for ... the degree of Doctor of Music.'

The opera in question is entitled Arthur of Britain, and it falls to a bunch of Davies' characters, all of whom we've met before in earlier novels, to mount a production of it when the music is completed, including the task of writing the libretto. This they then meet, forthwith, to discuss.

'" ... We must have the Operatic Four. Soprano -- Guenevere, of course ... Now -- who's your contralto? There has to be one, you know."
"Oh dear. Let's see? Hm. Morgan Le Fay, do you think?"
"Of course! Arthur's wicked sister. A contralto, obviously. All wicked women in opera must have those rich, enchanting low notes. Now -- who's my tenor?"
"Surely Arthur himself?"
"No. Arthur must have authority. A baritone, I think. A fine, velvety bass-baritone. Make him both a tenor and a cuckold and you lose all sympathy, and Arthur must compel sympathy. But we need an even deeper bass for quartets as well as the plot."
"That must be Mordred, who destroys Arthur."
"But no tenor? Can you have an opera without a tenor?"
"Of course. The public expects a tenor. Must be Lancelot, the seducer. Tenors are great seducers."
"All right. That gives you the four you want. Five, as a matter of fact."
""So -- there we are. We'll want another woman for Elaine, the Lily Maid. Better be a nice mezzo -- good for pathos but not deep enough for villainy."

They realise later that they have forgotten Merlin, and belatedly cast as the great magician an elderly and much-loved counter-tenor: 'One of those high, unearthly voices.'

I had all this in mind last Saturday night when I went to opening night, in my capacity as a critic, of Verdi's Nabucco. Which is what Part 2 will be about.

I loves me a meme

Susoz kindly posted a link to this marathon meme over at Elsewhere's and I have pinched it without compunction or delay, and edited it so it's not sixteen pages long. I know of no more satisfying avoidance behaviour than a good meme, especially in thesis-examining season. NB I began this meme last night, which explains the discrepancies in the timing.

1. When you looked at yourself in the mirror today, what was the first thing you thought?
'How tragic that my hair looks better when it hasn't been washed.'

2. Favorite planet?
I've always fancied Venus, which is my ruling planet. Also Saturn for the rings and the breathtaking beauty, and for its part in a visualisation exercise I made up once to try to stay sane when I was doing two fulltime jobs at once. What you do is picture yourself as the planet itself, and all the things you have to do and remember are sitting on the ring as on a conveyer belt, slowly revolving around you. It means you keep sight of everything and never forget or lose track of anything, but at the same time you are kept separate from everything by the space between you and the ring and therefore none of the things going past on the belt can get to you and overwhelm you. Works like a charm.

3. Who is the 4th person on your missed call list on your cell phone?
Some landline number in Sydney that I don't recognise. I just hope it wasn't someone head-hunting me for a $200K pa job, with no boss, and an office with water views.

4. What is your favorite ring tone on your phone?
The one that goes 'ring ring ... ring ring ... ring ring...'

5. Do you “label” yourself?
Except to say that I'm a proud recovering smoker, which nobody who knew me earlier than 1989 would ever have believed possible, no. But I occasionally libel myself.

6. What does your watch look like?
Very small, rectangular and pewter-coloured -- almost a pale lavender-silvery colour -- with very simple numbers. I love my watch. It's beautiful without pretending to be expensive.

7. What were you doing at midnight last night?
Watching Muriel's Wedding, for the umpteenth time, on the teeve.

8. What did your last text message you received on your cell say?
'Lovely, wasn't it?' From my friend R, about 'Stepfather of the Bride' on ABC TV last night.

9. What's a word that you say a lot?

10. Last furry thing you touched?
Madam, the bolder of the two cats, who is sitting at my right hand, about three seconds ago.

11. Favorite age you have been so far?
Thirty-three. The career was established, the possibilities were endless, and I had not yet begun to get seriously ground down. I also enjoyed 45, which was my first year of self-employed, home-owning freedom, and four to seven, after I'd learned to read but before it had begun to dawn on me that I was a girl.

12. Your worst enemy?
Myself, always.

13. What is your current desktop picture?
A misty-lavender photograph of Florence that I took in 1983.
UPDATE: Why didn't I just do this in the first place? Der.

14. What was the last thing you said to someone?
'Finish your supper, sweetheart' (to the timid cat).

15. If you had to choose between a million bucks or to be able to fly what would it be?
Oh oh oh ... fly, of course.

16. Do you like someone?
Is this a 'crush' question? If so, no. I'm too old and tired.

17. The last song you listened to?
Either Richard Bonynge conducting Heather Begg, Glenys Fowles and the MSO on the Flower Duet from Lakmé or Tex Perkins singing 'You're 39, You're Beautiful and You're Mine' from Tex, Don and Charlie's All is Forgiven. Can't remember which.

18. What time of day were you born?
9.10 pm. I gather that's why I peak at that hour of the day.

19. Whats your favorite number?
Five. No idea why.

20. Where did you live in 1987?
In one quarter of a double-fronted shabby-elegant late-Victorian terrace house in Brunswick, Victoria, just off Sydney Road.

21. Are you jealous of anyone?

22. Is anyone jealous of you?
I have no idea. Are we making a distinction between 'jealous' and 'envious' here?

23. Where were you when 9/11 happened?
At home, having an extraordinarily unpleasant, surprising and upsetting telephone conversation with a male psychotherapist I'd consulted in desperation about violent mystery headaches and who was, unbelievably, hitting on me. 9/11 felt like some kind of insane objective correlative.

24. Do you consider yourself kind?
Not by nature, but I try extraordinarily hard. Maybe too hard.

25. If you had to get a tattoo, where would it be?
Hmm, I kind of fancy a tramp stamp. That or the ankle. I don't like tatts on women's arms. (Or at all, really.)

26. If you could be fluent in any other language, what would it be?
French. Or maybe Italian. If I had any brains, Indonesian and Arabic.

27. Would you move for the person you loved?
Yes. But not unconditionally.

28. What's your life motto?
'This is not about you.' (Meaning me.) I also like 'This too will pass', 'Stay calm', and 'When in doubt, wash.' (Cat literature reference, Paul Gallico's Jennie)

29. What's your favorite town/city?
Sydney. Vienna. Florence. Paris. Edinburgh. Brisbane. Ballarat, Arcadia Vale on Lake Macquarie in NSW, my SA home town of Curramulka, San Gimignano, Burra in SA, Cambridge, the ghost town of Inneston at the toe of Yorke Peninsula ... Sorry, what was the question?

30. When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone on paper and mailed it?
On my friend Peter's mother Elsie's 80th birthday.

31. Can you change the oil on a car?
No, but I can check it. And I could change a tyre if I absolutely had to. I'm better at changing girl things, like my clothes and my sheets and my mind.

32. Your first love: what is the last thing you heard about him/her?
I saw him a few months ago and his health is terrible, but he seemed cheerful enough. And yes, the buzz is still there, and we're talking about people in their 50s here. I don't know why I find this reassuring, but I do.

33. How far back do you know about your ancestry?
On one side, some Cornish Goldsworthys in the 1600s; on the other, the two First Fleeters: Jane Langley, convict, and Thomas Chipp, Marine, who were my seven-greats grandparents.

34. The last time you dressed fancy, what did you wear and why did you dress fancy?
I wore a dark figured velvet coat over a new sleeveless black top with a sort of scooped shawl neck, black pants, suede boots, much more makeup than usual, Chanel No. 5, silver earrings and my silver teardrop necklace from Tiffany's. Opera, opening night.

35. Have you been burned by love?
I don't think the word 'burned' quite covers it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

And now, Comicstriphero will have the definitive word on the Melbourne Cup

And what's with pretending like it is glamorous? Let me tell you, b*tches, the truly glamorous don't tend to hang out in an ill-fitting dress in a car park sipping pre-mixed drinks and eating party pies.

And oh, how I do so wish I'd said that.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Oooh, shiny

At this time of year, if I look up out of the kitchen window I'll often see a honey-eater vigorously digging for nectar in the bowels of one of the sublimely surreal blossoms on the passionfruit vine (I never get any fruit, which I now know from my friend S the master (mistress?) gardener, is because the rootstock has died) but it's a pretty covering for the galvo fence so I haven't pulled it out.

But today what caught my eye was the sparkle of water on the leaves after last night's rain. Actually it didn't just 'rain', it bucketed down like the wrath of God, which in itself was quite good fun -- I'd been to the opera with my friend D's daughter, now nineteen and soaking up experience of all kinds like a sponge, and as I drove her home the heavens cracked open with son et lumière thunder-and-lightning, culminating in a blinding flash directly overhead as we drove through some rather scary rain down Adelaide's main street, thick with Saturday night traffic, and knocked out all the street lights on the spot.

The opera was Nabucco, itself full of Sturm and Drang and more of which – I hope – shortly, so the weather really just felt like a continuation of the show. This morning it became clear to me that it had also been bucketing down here at my place, and had flooded both the laundry and the garage.

But who cares? Every single thing in the garden is sitting up smiling with its ears cocked like a Border Collie. The Roma tomatoes are visibly bigger than they were yesterday afternoon and I swear the mint has grown half an inch in all directions overnight.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I'm a taxpayer with a cervix AND I VOTE

'But former committee member and Newcastle University professor of clinical pharmacology David Henry said it was the committee's job to get the best deal it could for taxpayers,' says the Age this morning.

Fancy that, and here's me thinking a committee with a name like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee might have a job like, oh, say, getting the best deal it could for patients. Could their thinking be that Professor Ian Frazer's anti-cervical-cancer vaccine is for the use of women, who, let's face it, aren't very big taxpayers? (And gosh, I wonder why we're not.)

You wonder how they arrived at this conclusion. You wonder why this drug costs what it costs, and just exactly why drug companies can gouge reap their 'substantial profit margins' so apparently freely. You wonder what price they put on the life of a woman, in arriving at their conclusions. You wonder what the answer would have been if Professor Frazer had developed a vaccine that prevented some strains of prostate cancer.

And, most of all, you wonder about the presence on the Pharmaceutical Advisory Benefits Committee of this man: someone from the well-known right-wing think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies. Someone whose publications include a book on the 'adverse' effects of no-fault divorce laws and an online article about how capital punishment isn't as black as it's painted. Someone whose highest academic qualification appears to be an MA, whose most mentionable achievement appears to be his membership of the CIS, and who appears to have no medical or pharmacological qualifications at all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Emo-Pav, or, Anybody got any raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens they'd like to share?

For some reason that eludes me but is probably biochemical, as, these days, I think most things are, I'm having a nasty attack of the Dreads. Never mind war, terror, or wars on terror; never mind anomie, accidie, timor mortis or the cosmic blahs; never mind what happens when the dog bites or the bee stings (these, indeed, go in the Good basket; critters rock) -- at the moment even just the housework, the overdue tax return and the unpredictable, nay, hypothetical income are sending me back to bed with the covers pulled up over my head.

While I have never known the counting of blessings to fail, and one has just arrived in my lap purring as we speak, I could use some extra suggestions about blessings to count, or any other helpful hints on snapping out of it, from any fellow blogger or commenter kind enough to share. Thank youse.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cat's meat redux

Not really in the mood for blogging but feeling the need to make a gesture, I just hied me over to Blogthings to see what was new, and found something very pertinent indeed ...

You Are Duck

Exotic and unusual, you are a bit of a rare bird - literally.
You're known for being soft and succulent, though at times you can be a bit greasy.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

[Insert stone-throwing joke here]

Well, it's what they've always said and now we know it's true: the ABC is above giving a rat's about ratings. Even though this is in direct contradiction to their stealthy moves towards running ads.

For, if they cared about ratings, they would not have axed The Glass House:

The stars of The Glass House have had no contact with the ABC, which axed the comedy show despite it gaining some of the best ratings of its five-year run.

Prime Minister John Howard said he didn't pressure the ABC to shelve the show - which has been accused of anti-government bias - and the ABC denied the decision had anything to do with new editorial guidelines due to come into effect next year and the appointment of a new chief censor to monitor instances of bias.
(From here.)

Yeah, sure it didn't. And there will be a record harvest this year; Jess Mauboy can sing in tune; I am slender and gorgeous; there is no cat hair on the sofa; and the sun rises in the west.