Sunday, April 29, 2007

How to do literary criticism

' ... certainly he had begun them all, but in each case he had become irritated and impatient with the protagonist's indecisiveness, lack of common sense, apparent insanity, or sourceless melancholy. As far as James was concerned, these so-called antiheroes deserved everything they got. Surely it was obvious that the land surveyor, K, should have just forgotten about trying to reach the castle and gone home? Similarly, Ahab should have given up on trying to catch the white whale and gone home; Meursault should have lied; Vladimir and Estragon should have left Godot a note and gone to the pub; and Hamlet should just have made up his mind.' (Sam Taylor, The Amnesiac)

Really, this is a gold mine of possibilities. Raskolnikov should have said 'I done it, guv'nor, you caught me bang to rights' while the corpse was still warm. Macbeth should have ignored the witches and, like K and Ahab, gone home (or, given that Lady Macbeth was probably at home, to the pub with Vladimir and Estragon). Heathcliff should have pushed the execrable Edgar Linton off the cliff while they were all still children, married Catherine at eighteen and lived happily ever after.

Alternatively, consider CREATIVE WRITING, ASSIGNMENT #1: (a) Write an epic poem in which Joseph K, Captain Ahab, Meursault, Vladimir, Estragon, Hamlet, Raskolnikov, Macbeth and Heathcliff all meet. At the pub.

Or (b), if you can think of two more, you'll have an entire cricket team of anti-heroes. Assign them their fielding positions and batting order and speculate on their respective strengths, weaknesses and styles of play. It is, for example, quite obvious that Heathcliff and Macbeth will open the batting, that Hamlet is in constant danger of being run out, that Meursault won't care who wins, and that Captain Ahab can't catch for toffee and is going to need a runner.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Last night as it got dark I was out driving, with a good view of a pearly, opalescent skyscape full of palest blues and creams and greys with a few streaks of pink and gold. It was a late summer sky, not an early winter one, and even as late as Anzac Day the air was warm in a way you'd expect of March, not April.

But this morning the sky is a uniform if slightly fluffy grey, and I was woken by the steady patter and hiss of rain on the corrugated-iron roof and tyres on the wet road outside my window. It's not big freaky flash-flooding hailstones-in-the-gutter rain, either, like the storm last autumn that ended up running in sheets down the insides of the bathroom walls and costing me an arm and a leg in home improvements for stormwater management, thereby ensuring that it did not rain again for the rest of the year.

Nope -- this is lovely gentle normal rain, little rain, the kind I think they're talking about in 'Westron Wind'.

(Westron Wind, when wilt thou blow,
that the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Every plant in the garden is already sitting up like a grateful dog. And they're saying three days of it.

I suppose I could whinge and moan about not having had the resources (time and money, as usual) to organise a rainwater tank yet, but that's a bit Eeyore-ish even for me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Belgium, late November 1918

'The ground was covered with discarded tins, some puckered out like cone-shaped weeds, others embedded deep, as if they had been rolled and flattened by something heavy. The older ones were rusted black, but many still had legible labels. Sardine tins, tins of marmalade, a bright yellow label reading Fortnum and Mason, tins of something called Harrison's Pomade. Marden became engrossed with these, began following them as someone follows a trail. The tins, their labels, acted as homely captions to an otherwise unfathomable illustration -- the only thing he had seen so far that made any sense. The first band was more than twenty yards wide, then came a gap where there were hardly any tins, and then suddenly he was up to a new band, tins with German labels, and it wasn't more than sixty yards between the German tins and the British ones.

Tins. But not only tins. There were rags and buttons and chicken bones and soggy canvas buckets and razors and tobacco pouches and pages from pay books and dirty wads of money and pictures of music hall stars and punctured canteens and corrugated iron sheeting and empty cognac bottles and soles off hobnailed boots and shredded haversacks and flypaper and rum jars and cooking dixies and a legless wicker chair and telegraph wire and broken insulators and bits of harness and endless piles of four-by-twos, and in and around all these things, like a kind of dusting, the bright golden casings of machine gun bullets the shape and thickness of stubby pens.

The garbage lay thickest in the deepest furrows, and so it took Marden longer than it should have to understand these had been trenches.'

-- W.D. Wetherell, A Century of November

In memory of the grandfathers, one frostbitten, one shot, both gassed, both survivors; and of great-aunt Jessie, who caught the Spanish flu while nursing soldiers in the City Hospital, Edinburgh, the winter the war ended.

L.R.G. 1893-1969

G.A.K. 1897-1970

J. McA. 1897-1919

Grandfather Goldsworthy, Curramulka, South Australia, 1915

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Foxy butterfly chaser: a mini-meme

Natasha Mitchell was talking to the charming Jerome Kagan on All in the Mind on Radio National this afternoon. They were discussing childhood development and temperament, and at one point Kagan said this:

'Remember Isaiah Berlin talked about, there are 'foxes' and 'hedgehogs'. Foxes know a little bit about a lot of things and hedgehogs know a lot about just one or two things. Well similarly there are two kinds of scientists, then there's those who fit in neither group. But group one are hunters, they had a very strong need to discover an unambiguous fact, this is a permanently true fact, and I call them hunters because that's like you go out, you're going to get a moose and that trophy is put up on the wall and there it is - forever.

... Then there are butterfly chasers. Butterfly chasers fall in love with a certain aspect of nature, they know that all facts are transient, science is always changing but they're in love with this aspect of nature. And they want to find out something about it, even if it's a brief glimpse. So they're in a forest, they're looking for a particular butterfly and if they find it and can see it for 30 seconds, that's enough for them.'

So, what are ya?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

On listening to Matt'n'Dave's interview this morning with the Minister for Water Security

Memo to Matthew Abraham and David Bevan at Adelaide's local ABC radio 891: it's not good interviewing technique, whatever you blokes may think, to ask a question and then interrupt the interviewee halfway through her/his second sentence.

It's an even less good idea to do this in a hectoring and bullying manner. (NB M. Abraham.)

And it's an even less good idea again to do it in a hectoring, bullying manner with a state politician just because s/he is a state politican, or with someone you do not like/agree with/think in your secret heart of hearts that you can outsmart, like Dr Philip Nitschke. (NB M. Abraham in spades.)

I get the feeling these blokes think that hectoring and interrupting makes one look like a good journalist, not giving people a free ride and asking the so-called hard questions. (See that adjective? That's a bit of a clue.) Sorry, boys, that doesn't make one a good journalist. That just makes one a bad interviewer.

Showing my hand here: a National she may be, but I have always liked Karlene Maywald, the SA Minister (due to a unique deal with State Labor govt) for Water Security. She is articulate, realistic, intelligent, pragmatic, reasonable and civilised. She is also all over her portfolio and her constituency.

Matt'n'Dave, on the other hand, might do well to remember that just because they're biggish frogs in a littlish puddle, it doesn't make them kings of the world.

Nor does it make them invulnerable. Rooster, feather duster, etc.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Illness and recovery

Over the summer two of my closest friends came face to face with mortality. One is married to a man who not long ago was diagnosed with lung cancer, with an initially really terrible prognosis. Then, quite unexpectedly, the tumour turned out to be operable. He's now staring down chemo and radiotherapy, but the women in his life -- his wife, his mother and his 19-year-old daughter -- are all very happy Vegemites.

The other is my dear friend Stephanie, who spent the summer undergoing treatment for breast cancer and blogging brilliantly about it at Humanities Researcher. When I saw her in February she was well enough, but only just, to come over to Adelaide from Melbourne for a conference.

Here's what she'll be doing on Friday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Not very pleased to meet you, Ma'am: Chewygate at the Firm

Apparently Kate Middleton's mum was just too common a commoner.

Pffft. I bet Diana Spencer's mum mother always said 'lavatory' not 'toilet', and look how that all turned out.

Virginia Tech: more than twice as bad as Columbine

33 people died today at Virginia Tech in the worst mass shooting in US history.

President Bush says he's praying for them, which I'm sure will help a whole lot.

Others are saying they find it 'incomprehensible' and don't understand why it happened. Students and their parents are channelling their grief and shock into anger at the college administration for not sending them emails telling them to stay away from the campus immediately the first shots were fired.

So deeply ingrained is a sense of the so-called 'right to bear arms', so powerful is the gun lobby and so deep in denial the many Americans who can't see the connection between the country's gun culture and the fact that this kind of mass shooting happens periodically, that any real change in the gun laws across the US seems unlikely ever to take place. In which case, the massacres will continue and Americans will continue to be astonished by them.

In the last month I've read two extremely successful and widely-read American novels about mass killings: Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. In one, the teenage boy with the gun shoots an assortment of his classmates at school because they've been bullying him since he was a little kid. In the other, the teenage boy with the crossbow shoots an assortment of his classmates at school (do you see a pattern emerging here?) because he was Born Bad and his Bad Mother made him Even Worse.

Neither Picoult nor Shriver puts much, if any, emphasis on the possibility that a weapons-happy culture might be part of the mix.

There are very few things for which I will remember John Howard fondly, but his action on gun control in the wake of the Port Arthur shootings is one of them. Gun nuts and other denialists criticised this on the grounds that, or so they claimed, it didn't reduce the number of illegal firearms in the country, but whether or not that is true (and how could anyone tell, for presumably if they are illegal then there is no way of counting them), it also had the effect of reinforcing a public culture in Australia that was already mostly anti-firearm and soberly aware of the dangers of keeping weapons lying around the house.

"In the next part of the hall a sort of bottleneck had developed. Men were lingering over a particular glass case as if spellbound. I squeezed through, but it was only another spread of handguns. Were they better, cheaper, made by someone more famous? It was as baffling to me as if these men had been contemplating relics of some god whose name I didn't even know."

-- Helen Garner, 'At the Gun Show'

"I was Maxine's date on Friday for Alpha Omega Epsilon (engineering sorority) formals. She had German class this morning in Norris -- one of the classes where a lot of people were shot -- and she never came back from it. No one knows where she is. Her mother has called all of the hospitals in the area, and nothing."

-- Aciel on LiveJournal
[UPDATE, Wednesday 1.10 pm: Today's Crikey bulletin links to a Virginia Tech list of casualties. Listed among those confirmed dead: Maxine Turner, Senior, Chemical Engineering.]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Performing teacherhood

Julie Bishop was on the radio the other day talking about how awful it is that her idea of performance-based pay as a way of 'improving the performance of teachers' has been knocked back by all the state governments. 'Well, it was a good idea,' she said huffily, and then segued into "never miss a chance to bash the other side" auto-spin by remarking that the state [implication: Labor] governments probably didn't have any ideas of their own.

I don't know if 'idea' is really the word she wanted. Performance-based pay for teachers is wrong in so many ways that it would take more time than anyone has to unpack it all.

For a start, implementation of the idea that there's limitless potential for 'improvement' in human 'performance' is one that, as we now know, can end up driving people to suicide. And the idea that such changes are needed begs the question of whether teachers are doing their job inadequately -- which, as is clear to anyone who has the foggiest notion of what is currently happening in schools, is manifestly not what the problem is. The only people who think schoolteachers are not grotesquely underpaid and overworked are those who have never taught in schools and don't know anyone who does. This group contains a large subset of parents who think teachers should be doing their parenting work for them.

But the main issue seems to me the total dehumanisation of both teachers and students that's written into this kind of thinking. The idea of performance-based pay rests on the belief that human effort can be satisfactorily quantified, which of course it can't. Further, it would set teachers against each other and create a climate of suspicion, envy and unrelenting hierarchy. It's the (incidentally union-busting) 'divide and conquer' method of classic wedge politics: undermine any form of collectivity by setting up a divisive infrastructure. I'd really love to know how much Bishop is aware of this herself and how much's she's simply saying what she's been told to say.

But worst of all, what this kind of thinking suggests is that a school student is some kind of empty vessel which must be filled, and which has no active part in the education process at all. It implies that the student is a passive recipient of either 'good' or 'bad' teaching and that his or her own attitudes and efforts don't come into it.

Don't these people actually remember their own childhoods? My memory of school is that how well or badly I did from year to year and subject or subject depended almost totally on my own behaviour. I got some brilliant marks for subjects taught by incompetent and/or hostile and/or burnt-out teachers, and some terrible marks for others taught by brilliant, funny, hard-working ones. And the best help I ever got out of a teacher (she brought me her own old notes on the Impressionist painters from her Fine Arts MA at the Sorbonne) came as a direct result of my showing a bit of real interest and intiative in my work.

My school assignment and exam results had everything to do with my own aptitudes and preoccupations and almost nothing to do with what happened in the classroom. And the idea either that my brilliant maths teacher or my bloody awful BLANK and BLANK teachers (this is Adelaide: there's bound to be someone reading this who knows who I'm talking about) should have been held responsible by way of their pay packets for the fact that I wasn't very good at maths but was really interested in BLANK and BLANK is ludicrous and desperately unfair.

Is this what happens when pollies blindly follow the ideology of their parties? Is the economic-rationalist notion that human beings are merely quanitifiable units something that these people really believe? Or have they just stopped bothering to see whether the ideology matches up with the daily life as we know and live it?

But in the meantime, Ms Bishop, here's an idea for improving the performance of teachers. Leave them the hell alone, and stop putting even more unwanted and unwarranted stress on them than the load they're already carrying.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SA Libs move some more deck chairs

In an exemplary display of class and taste, new Leader of the South Australian Opposition, Martin Hamilton-Smith, chose his now erstwhile leader Iain Evans' absence in Canberra at the memorial service for the late Sentaor Jeannie Ferris as the ideal moment to knife Evans in the back, mounting a leadership challenge that saw him elected leader this afternoon by a slenderish 13 votes to 10.

Hamilton-Smith's first move as leader was to announce that the party would be 'more aggressive'. Oh goodie, I can hardly wait.

Former Liberal leader Rob Kerin, universally regarded as the archetypal good bloke, mildly pointed out on the teeve a minute ago that the timing really was rather unfortunate in its upstaging of the service for Senator Ferris. This remark could have been a bit of belated payback for Hamilton-Smith's unsuccessful challenge to Kerin's own leadership in 2005.

Deputy leader Vickie Chapman, elected 13 months ago on a so-called 'dream team' ticket with Evans despite the fact that the two were rumoured to dislike each other, will remain Deputy, something about which her fellow Liberal Isobel Redmond has declared herself less than thrilled.

Hamilton-Smith says he wants Evans on the front bench, which could mean a demotion to the back bench for former Treasurer Rob Lucas. Evans says he'll think about it overnight.

That is to say, everything's normal in the SA Liberal Party: they're all at each other's throats.

Of course, if the Libs had wanted to change leaders with a view to actually winning the 2010 election, they would have installed as leader not Hamilton-Smith but Chapman, well known in SA legal and political circles as the sharpest knife in the Liberal drawer and a highly personable and charismatic presence to boot -- far more so than either her former or her current leader.

Perhaps she's biding her time. Hamilton-Smith assured journalists this afternoon that she would remain as Deputy.

That's what he's saying this week, anyway.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Nature notes

This is a little house, a single-fronted maisonette with a front garden the size of a hanky, and only three rooms apart from kitchen and bathroom.

But then when you look out the back door, you realise the yard goes on forever, long and narrow. The large tract beyond the garage was pretty much reclaimed as bushland by whoever planted the fifteen or so native trees that have, since I moved in nine years ago, grown to twice the size they were when I arrived: eucalypts, acacias, ti-trees, bottle-brushes, Geraldton Wax, a pepper-tree that used to be a sapling but isn't any more. The back yard is so big that instead of the usual three neighbours (both sides and down the back), I have five. It's a very old suburb with some nineteenth-century law about subdivision.

So I was down there today, attempting some hopelessly small and fussy task by way of land management, when I heard an explosion of bird-chatter over my head and a little off to the right, which is, I read later in the bird book, what happens. I followed the noise, expecting to see a flock of noisy littlies -- sparrows? Honey-eaters? Or rainbow lorikeets, perhaps? -- but instead what caught my eye was a big, dark shape on a branch about twenty feet up. At first I thought it was a possum, but it was completely the wrong shape. Then I thought "cat" -- but no cat up a tree would sit in that position.

Then I registered that it was looking straight at me. Out of big, unblinking, yellow eyes.

It was an owl.

Four o'clock on a sunny Easter Saturday afternoon in suburban Adelaide and I'm being stared down by a boobook owl.

The bird book says they're active at night but roost in the daytime, when they are often buzzed by flocks of little birds, usually honey-eaters. (Honey-eaters are cheeky little sods and wouldn't think twice about buzzing a velociraptor, much less an owl.)

I don't think it took fright at me. We looked at each other for a bit -- if I didn't know better I would have thought it had come to tell me it was time to get down to Diagon Alley for next term's Hogwart's supplies -- but then the buzzy little birds started to annoy it and it flew away: low and slow and heavy, but silent, in that glider way they have. The most I heard by way of noise was a soft whfffff, like an arrow.

And then my heart, going kafoomp kafoomp kafoomp.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Friday Thursday mogblogging

[That's what happens if you sit up working till 3 am. I honestly thought it was Friday.]

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Reading notes: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The other day I bought a copy of something that everybody else read two or three years ago but that had passed me by. I hadn't realised it was a novel -- I thought it was some kind of dreary earnest American soul-searching self-help kind of thingy -- or I would have read it sooner.

I'm talking about Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Now I have been putting in marathon efforts to get up to date with the piled-up Magic-Puddingesque workload (I cut, it comes again) of other work apart from the weekly fiction reviewing, and have actually been making tiny inroads here and there -- ensuring in the meantime that I do not actually forget what my friends and family look like, run out of clean knickers, or die of botulism or bubonic plague.

But all such efforts have been blown out of the water over the last 48 hours. Because when I haven't been asleep or out, I've been reading this appalling, brilliant book.

I gather there's some amazing twist at the end. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT TELL ME WHAT IT IS and if anybody does I will stalk you down the Interwebs for all eternity. (Has it got something to do with her very very wonky 'handwriting' in the signatures? Are the husband and the daughter, in fact, both dead?)

In the meantime, here's how to win the Orange Prize: write a passage as good as this, and then keep it up for 468 pages.

'But I have a theory about Dream Homes ... Regardless of how much money you lavish on oak baseboards, an unhistoried house is invariably cheap in another dimension. Otherwise, the trouble seems rooted in the nature of beauty itself, a surprisingly elusive quality and one you can rarely buy outright. It flees in the face of too much effort. It rewards casualness, and most of all it deigns to arrive by whim, by accident. On my travels, I became a devotee of found art: a shaft of light on a dilapidated 1914 gun factory, an abadoned billboard whose layers have worn into a beguiling pentimento collage of Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and Burma Shave, cut-rate pensions whose faded cushions perfectly match, in that unplanned way, the fluttering sun-blanched curtains.'




Well, there's an almost Shakespearean breadth and transcendence at the very end, that looking-family-matters-in-the-eye-no-matter-what business that you get at the end of the four last plays, and quite a few of the others as well. 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.'

Cross-posted at A Fugitive Phenomenon