Thursday, July 31, 2008

... and two hours later, more liveblogging reading Annie Proulx: how to keep it up

Just in case you weren't convinced by the opening sentence (see previous post) that Archie and Rose are headed straight for grief, or that Annie Proulx is a fabulous writer, here's the bit I'm up to now:
Some mornings the wind stirred the snow into a scrim that bleached the mountains and made opaline dawn skies. Once the sun below the horizon threw savage red onto the bottom of the cloud that hung over Barrel Mountain and Archie glanced up, saw Rose in the doorway burning an unearthly colour in the lurid glow.

Great opening sentences: an occasional series

Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre, water named not for miniature and obnoxious flora but for P.H. Weed, a gold seeker who had starved near its source.

Not counting a short epigraph about how many pioneers simply failed and were forgotten, and the subheading 'Archie and Rose. 1885', this is the first sentence of 'Them Old Cowboy Songs' from Annie Proulx's new book of short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is.

An alert reader -- and this is the kind of exercise we used to do in university English Departments while they were still called English Departments and before capital-T Theory took hold -- would be able to have a bash at identifying the date of composition and possibly even the writer.

For example, if you were to set this sentence as such an exercise today, any student lucky enough to have read a bit of Proulx already -- especially if she or he knew there were two different mountain ranges in North America called the Sierra Madre (I've just had to Google this, myself) and one of them is in Wyoming, a state closely identified with Proulx and her work, especially after Brokeback Mountain -- might be able to identify the writer from the setting, from the style, or from the detailed, focused attention to landscape and the inextricable relationship of landscape to character.

(In fact, this is precisely the sort of passage that used to be set in exams as a trap for young players who might confidently mis-identify it as having been written in the 19th century. In the Adelaide U Eng Dept in the mid-1970s they used to do this tricksy business a lot, setting us things like a chunk of very early D. H. Lawrence that nobody had ever actually read, from a time when his style was not yet fully formed, or a poem containing the classical name of a major character in one of the four plays in our Shakespeare course but actually written in 1840, which almost everybody fell for and identified as Elizabethan, a mere two and a half centuries out. In Adelaide we called this kind of exercise Practical Criticism; in Melbourne they called it Dating, which South Australians and Americans thought was hilarious.)

Anyway, the one-word answer to 'What makes this a great opening sentence?' is 'Grammar', but talking about grammar always gets me into trouble so let's look at some other things.

It sets the scene by answering the questions Who, When ('staked out a homestead' points to the time frame) and Where. It comes up with names that manage to sound natural and convincing, a problem all writers wrestle with (though this is easier if you're writing about the 19th century and names like Alice, William, Jeremiah and Mary Ann are there for the taking). It subtly predicts the likely fate of Archie and Rose (look what happened to the last guy), and it suggests the sinister but all too likely possibility that P.H. Weed decomposed into the river: a river poisoned at its source, a powerful metaphor for all things that are doomed from the beginning.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Nine out of ten orthopedic surgeons recommend ...

... a dog ...

... or a bookshelf ...

... but probably not a box.

Hat tip to grow-a-brain.

Clean air would be nice, too

And furthermore ...

... as though to fan the flames of the undifferentiated ire I seem to be suffering from today, as gestured at in that last post -- don't you have days when general pissed-offedness just seems to pour itself thickly and stickily all over everything, like chocolate sauce? (No no, not like chocolate sauce. Over-used motor oil? Green slime?) -- one of my sisters has just sent me an email pointing out that if you think petrol is expensive, you should see how much some other well-known liquid commodities cost per litre.


Evian Water, $7.86 (hah, tap water must cost nearly as much as that by now, all up)

Red Bull, $11.80

Bundy Rum, $40.80

Robitussin cough mixture, $199.00

Visine Eye Drops, $379

Britney Spears Fantasy Perfume, $580.00 (to smell like Britney??)

L'Oréal Revitalift Day Cream, $599.00 (uh oh)

Printer ink, $1,040

Actually, that makes me feel kind of better. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

*Walks off whistling*

Autobiographical Wednesday Mogblogging

Monday, July 28, 2008

I just hope it's in the genes

My indefatigable 81-year-old father got up this morning at what my friend D calls dawn's early crack, hopped into his little 18-year-old Holden Astra and drove 200 kms, up one coastline and down the other, to attend the funeral of a man who lived on the next farm up the road when they were both children in the 1930s. No doubt at the burial he did a bit of surreptitious checking-up on the state of his own grandparents' and great-grandparents' graves.

Somewhat to the relief of his wife and three daughters, he's opted to stay the night in a coastal town about a quarter of the way back and drive the rest of the way home tomorrow morning, rather than drive a total of over 400 ks alone in one day with a funeral and fair amount of social catching-up in the middle. And an hour ago I got a text message: 'Good trip, excellent socialising, now propping up the bar. xx'

La séduction, la tendresse, la jalousie et la passion

Looky here at this gorgeous thing, Les Animaux Amoureux, found via grow-a-brain. The music is by Philip Glass (but it sounds an awful lot more like Michael Nyman to me).

Hands up whoever intends to fly Qantas ever again

A couple of weeks ago I made a vow never to fly Qantas again (an empty threat or at most symbolic, as I don't travel very often; I don't have any shares in Qantas either, but if I did I would at this point have sold them) when it was revealed that after a ten-year ban, Qantas were once again selling duty-free cigarettes in-flight. Someone at pointed out how swiftly this development took place after a former tobacco company executive was appointed to the Qantas board. What was the defence of this indefensible development put forward by Qantas? "Customer demand." Which I assume translates as "We'll make more money."

Now they seem to have moved on to "Black is white, and two and two make five."

The reason the pilots (= heroes) of the Qantas plane that started to fall to bits in mid-air over the ocean the other day had to get the plane down to 10,000 feet was so that the passengers could breathe. One reason the passengers couldn't breathe was that, according to passenger reports, some of the oxygen masks weren't working properly. One passenger reported that the mask didn't drop down the way it was supposed to, another that the elastic on his mask was perished. There were stories from passengers of people having to share their masks with two or three other people, and of whole rows of seats where the masks weren't working.

Last night on the ABC TV news they showed interviews with several different passengers from the flight vividly describing their difficulties with the oxygen masks. And then the camera returned to the admirably straight face of the newsreader, who said 'Qantas says there is no evidence that there was anything wrong with the oxygen masks.'

No evidence? What do they call the first-hand eyewitness (and lung-witness) testimony of the victims, chopped liver? How much "evidence" do they need?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

About reading

It's 18 months since I began writing weekly short reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald so that means I've read 304 new novels, not counting other reading, since the beginning of last year. They come from everywhere, translated from the French, German, Turkish, Danish, Italian, Swedish, you name it. (A lot of the novels out of Asia that find their way to Australia are written in English to begin with and arrive via the big Western publishing houses.)

If what arrives in parcels and boxes on my doorstep is to be believed, the fiction currently being written is mainly either chick lit of wildly varying quality, or novels about some aspect of the Second World War; the quality of the latter is more even and overall much higher. More than sixty years after it ended, WW2 is still coming out of the national and international consciousness of its heroes' and victims' children and grandchildren in the way that a vast, deep bruise will show up and blossom horribly on the surface of your skin over a long time in the wake of the original injury.

And so it was that today I found myself finishing a book I'd read by force of will, holding my nose: a bit of strident Noo Yawk chick lit in sub (very sub) Sex and the City mode. I'd struggled through more than 350 rambling pages peopled with incredibly annoying characters whining about lerve and how hard it was to find and men and how awful they were, all in the rowdy, fake-bright voice of a narrator whose values could only be described as diseased.

With a small prayer of thanksgiving, I put this book down and picked up the next one. 'As for me,' I read on Page 2, a mere handful of paragraphs in,
I don't know yet either that in ten years' time, I will recognise, in a heap of pairs of spectacles almost five metres high at the Auschwitz Memorial, the frames that my father slipped into the top pocket of his jacket, the last time I saw him ...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why they do it

Gardening mystery solved

Damn, I might have known I wouldn't get right through to the end of July posting every single day, but I have done for over three weeks and it's been quite revelatory in a number of ways. Never mind, here's a gardening post for today, and in a moment I shall select a LOLcat to make up for yesterday.

A few posts back I asked for helpful suggestions about what garden pest might have been eating my mint. With the help of a clear day, the trusty digicam and my reading glasses, I have finally found the malefactors.

At first I thought this chameleonic little dude here,

a lover of other herbs besides mint as I already had cause to know (they also like sage, another herb that mostly gets left alone by pests, and as with mint they blend in beautifully with the green) was the only culprit.

BUT NO ... the tiny woolly bears were in on the act as well. I know it looks like a giant monster here, but that is a small mint leaf, as you can see from its size in the previous photo relative to the tip of a modestly sized index finger.

Bastards. No prizes for guessing what happened to these creatures after they'd had their portraits taken. It's all very well trying to be Buddhist-like about living creatures and so on, but there are limits.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The post below promising an espresso and a free kitty to unattended children caught the eye of ThirdCat, who has also been seeing interesting child-related signs, which in turn reminded me of something I saw yesterday at the supermarket checkout.

You know those little recipe booklet thingies, maybe 5"x7", often put out by the Women's Weekly, on very particular themes and with maybe 20-30 recipes in them, one per page? There was a rack of them at the checkout yesterday and the title of the most prominent one had obviously been inspired by textspeak, specifically the practice of using numbers to signify words and/or phonemes, as in, say, "L8er, dood" or "Luv 2 ur mum", etc.

And several different people -- the writer, the editor, the designer, the publisher -- must have all had a nasty case of 3.30-itis, like the dude in the Continental Soup ad who lets the drug packages go through. Because the book was called

4 Kids To Cook

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Homage to Peter Cundall

I try not to do too much of this kind of thing, but since Peter Cundall of the ABC's Gardening Australia has announced his retirement, I thought I might put up, in homage, a condensed version of a piece I wrote about him for The Monthly in 2006.

‘But that’s what this program’s about. It’s about action, and the sheer beauty of it,’ said Peter Cundall recently in his introductory segment of Gardening Australia. For Cundall, gardening is simultaneously a form of activism and a form of contemplation: a way of self-sustenance, of landcare, and of eating good food that hasn’t been either literally or figuratively adulterated by the elaborate processes of capitalism, but also a means of recovery and regeneration. ‘If you’re in a world that’s a bit crazy, a bit mixed up, racing ahead,’ he said to the ABC’s Peter Thompson in a 2004 interview for Big Ideas, ‘no matter what you do in a garden, things still happen at the same rate. You sow seeds and they come up within ten or fifteen days … If you plant an apple tree or a lemon tree, you know it’ll be in fruit at a certain time ... And it’s that assurance and security about gardening. And there’s also a wonderful timelessness about it.’

Gardening Australia is now in its seventeenth series and seems to have survived the ABC’s recent decision to move its production from Hobart to Melbourne. Cundall himself, a proud Tasmanian, is the show’s focus and anchor but it also has a strong team of expert presenters from around the country. Unlike many programs that purport to be ‘national’ but are in fact firmly Melbourne- or Sydney-centric with only the occasional token, cosmetic gesture to other states and cities, Gardening Australia really does project the idea of a national presence, with regular features from cities, towns and climate zones all over the country.

Unusually content-rich for contemporary television, it rattles along at a great rate, with no vacuous chatter and no wasted time between the two or three main features and the three or four regular spots that make up each week’s program. With the more instructive segments – how to grow vegies in pots, or recycle your grey water, or protect your lime tree from frost -- there’s a lot of steady and highly illustrative zooming in and out, in close sync with the script.

There are constant shifts of scale, not just in the predictable and sensible variation of topics, but also in a more imaginative structuring of segments so that some are fine-detail examinations of tiny things while others are panoramic overviews of big urban and rural projects stretching over years, from aerial eagle-eye views of entire landscaped parks to magnified close-ups of tiny pods full of even tinier seeds. In one recent program, there was a segment on Brisbane’s Roma Street Parklands that featured sweeping shots of the city with an oasis at its heart, a former derelict railway yard that, over the last few years, has been magically transformed with graceful greenery and spectacular water-features making the most of the uneven ground. The following week, a segment on ‘the fascinating, wonderful world of fungus’ (and there’s a phrase you don’t hear on TV every day) featured lingering close-ups of a minuscule clump of finely-detailed Mycena clarkeana: seven or eight perfect little frilly-edged, dusty-pink umbrella-shapes, looking like a retro light fitting for a particularly funky doll’s house, or some miniaturized form of naughty nineteenth-century underwear.

Peter Cundall was born in Manchester in 1927, one of six children in a family he describes as the poorest in a poor district: ‘I actually thought, as a child, that to be rich meant that your Dad had a job.’ After the family had scrambled through the Depression, Cundall senior decamped to the army in 1939 and with the exception of one short visit on leave, they never saw him again. Peter joined the British Army and trained as a paratrooper, but the war ended and he found himself instead, at nineteen, posted to southern Austria and guarding the captive SS officers who had previously been in charge of the now-liberated concentration camps. Then one day, like a young man in a fairy tale, he besottedly and unknowingly followed a beautiful and mysterious blonde called Angela across the border into Yugoslavia, where he was promptly arrested as a spy and imprisoned in solitary confinement for six months.

After the war he saw an ad for recruitment to the Australian Army and responded as a way of escaping the miseries of postwar Britain; on arrival in Melbourne in 1950 he was immediately shipped out on active service as an infantryman to Korea, where his experience was educational but grim. Finally he was posted in 1955 to Tasmania, and stayed there; since then, apart from gardening, writing and almost twenty years in television, he has been a radio presenter, a foundry worker, and a spectacularly unsuccessful electoral candidate for the Communist Party.

Why do we love him? There’s that voice: the workin’-cluss, north-of-England accent that identifies him as one of Britain’s oppressed and therefore, like the Scots and Irish, oddly in league with Australians. There’s his passion -- for work, for life, for beauty and for action -- which is apparent in everything he does. We love him for his fearlessness, for the guts that got him unscathed through some truly dramatic life experiences and led him to say to himself, as the door of his Yugoslav prison cell clanged behind him when he was not yet out of his teens, ‘This is the first room of my own I’ve ever had in my life.’

We love him for his language about life in general and gardening in particular, and for the way he talks of both as though they were magical and wondrous things. In the July 1 program, he used the words ‘amazing’, wonderful’ and ‘enchanting’ in the first five minutes; they are three of his favorite words, along with ‘magnificent’, ‘beautiful’, ‘marvellous’ and ‘brilliant’. He means them all.

Finally, and maybe more than anything else, we love him for the fact that at 79 he seems still unjaded and unfaded, a cheerful, energetic, quick-witted and supremely fit old man, and as such he’s a walking reminder that old age is not inevitably to be dreaded but can be lived as a happy, useful, influential citizen.

Perhaps strangely for so joyous a man -- much less for one with so finely calibrated a sense of the miraculous -- he remains the uncompromising materialist that one would expect of a former Communist Party candidate, veteran of two wars, child of the Depression and Mancunian hard man. He wants no epitaph: ‘I can’t see the point,’ he said to Andrew Denton last year on Enough Rope, ‘of having a thing on your tombstone saying, here lies Peter Cundall … He died, right, and he lived a life. So what.’ And when asked by Peter Thompson to define the essence of wisdom, he replied: ‘To be able to reflect the world as it exists, accurately, and to be able to do something about it.’

Signs unseen

Can't remember where I saw or heard this but it speaks for itself, even if it only ever existed in the mind of someone who'd exceeded his or her tot quota for the day:


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Simple pleasures

* A mere few weeks ago it was getting dark as early as 5.15 pm. But I went out a while ago just before six and it was still light enough to see my way to the wheelie bin.

* In today's mail there was a copy of the new Annie Proulx, for me to read and review. Pav loves her work.

* For the last hour and a half, the oven has contained a large, dark cherry-red, fetchingly oval-shaped Chasseur casserole, a treasure that I was given as a going-away present by my Melbourne U English Dept colleagues in 1997 and that has seen a lot of action since, in which two lamb shanks are slowly cooking in an onion, garlic, tomato and white wine sauce with salt and pepper and rosemary from the garden, and the smell is wafting faintly all through this little house.

ZOMG!!11!!1 Six figures!

Oh yes, it would be nice if that title referred to my income ... heh ... but ... haha .. I probably wouldn't blog about it .... HAHAHAHAHAHA oh well. Sorry, let me regain my composure for a moment here.

No, the title refers to the number of visits to this site since I first installed the stats counter (the one with the numbers at the bottom of the page, not the country-counting one in the sidebar; that's more recent) in March 2006. I didn't expect to get to six figures for another few days, but a couple of links from well-attended sites yesterday put a positively alarming spike in the visitor stats.

I gather that many bloggers obsess about numbers of visitors and comments but I've given it much less attention than I thought I would when I installed the counter, which remains the very basic freebie one that doesn't do all that much fancy stuff. If one blogged in order to make money, I suppose it would matter more -- but then, if one blogged in order to make money it would be incredibly tedious and dreary and I wouldn't do it, so.

My favourite features of the stats counter are (1) the maps that show you where visits are from, (2) the details about visitors' computers, browsers, locations, addresses and so on that help you to stalk your stalkers, and (3) the often hilarious information about what search terms have led total strangers from Chile and Uzbekistan to finish up at your blog.

I haven't done a 'search term' post for ages, but an odd fact leaps out at me every time I check them out. Apart from the usual variations on the themes of 'Pavlov' and 'Cat', the two search terms that most frequently land people here are, wait for it, octopus tentacle porn and frog cake.

The latter now has its very own Wikipedia entry, complete with cross-section. Frog Cake t-shirts are also available.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Another border skirmish in the war between men and women

Over at Larvatus Prodeo there is debate raging on several different threads about various things to do with sex, gender and feminism. Assorted male commenters who have not done the reading are doing what such commenters usually do and instructing the female commenters (who have done the reading) on what feminism is, what women are like, and how to define such terms as 'patriarchy' and 'the male gaze'. Most of the definitions they offer appear to be matters of personal opinion; most of their instructions about what women are like appear to be based on particular personal acquaintances.

The terms 'patriarchy' and 'the male gaze' are cornerstones of feminist theory that have, over the years, built up quite precise yet complex meanings within feminist (yes I'll say it, because it's exactly what I mean) discourse. Those who have been following the debates in feminist and gender theory since the 1970s, or who came to it later but have done the reading, have very detailed understandings of how these terms are used within that conceptual framework.

Now someone's turned up observing, correctly, that it's impossible to have a discussion en blog about things to do with sex, gender and feminism because people always end up getting heated and unreasonable.

I wonder why that could possibly be.

Anyone would think they were trying to lose Mayo

(It's really hard to blog about the federal electorate of Mayo in SA without making tired old knee-jerk vinaigrette, blue-cheese and Thousand Island Dressing jokes. Oops, I did it again.)

Ahem. It's official; former Foreign Minister, Howard man and sometime Coalition leader Alexander Downer is set to be replaced as the Member for Mayo by a 31-year-old called Jamie Briggs, who according to this morning's online Age is -- are you ready for this? -- 'John Howard's former WorkChoices adviser'.


Apart from anything else, if Howard was using people not yet out of their twenties to advise him at that level of seniority on anything apart from technology, yoof issues and popular culture, much less on something as contentious and as demanding of thorough knowledge about the history and theory of industrial relations as an, erm, industrial relations policy, then whatever happened to him serves him right in spades.

And so now we have an endorsed Liberal candidate for the upcoming Mayo by-election (which Labor is not contesting, much to the well-placed scorn of Bob Brown) who is younger than most of the offspring of most of the Liberal voters in Mayo and I should think, in many cases, than their grandchildren as well. Yep, that'll work.

From the report in this morning's online Advertiser, Briggs has started out in the true arrogant Liberal tradition by ignoring questions from the press, shepherded out of the room and protected from the naughty old journalists by SA federal senator and eminence toxic slime-green grise Nick Minchin, which suggests to me both how Briggs won and whose orders he's likely to be taking.

I saw Briggs on the teeve last night and he looks like a standard-issue boxed-set Liberal politician. It's a private-schoolboy look: bad haircut, smug simper, expensive suit, and plump pink chipmunk cheeks. They keep it till they're into their 50s, usually -- but compared to his predecessor Downer and his close runner-up Iain Evans, both of whom also have this look, Briggs really is barely out of school.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Slice and dice, up to a point

Val McDermid, Thomas Harris and now Mo Hayder are probably the three genuinely creepiest slice-and-dice merchants in my extensive crime library. Patricia Cornwell thinks up some fairly disgusting scenarios but she is simply not as good a writer, or as intelligent, or as able to move far beyond her own image of herself being-a-writer, as any of those three.

But I'm currently reading, for work, a slice-and-dice called Blood Brother or Brothers by someone I'd not heard of before (you can tell can't you, that I don't have the book to hand and don't want to get up from this nice warm chair to go get it). And I was telling D and M over our regular Saturday coffee yesterday that this one is a little bit too icky even for me. The crazed serial killer's modus slaughterendi is very heavily gender-inflected (= wimmin'-hatin') and not in any kind of a nice way.

I've never actually worried before about my interest in icky crime -- I like books and TV shows about messy heads, not boring boys' games of spying and corruption and so on, which is why some Ian Rankins have appealed and others have not. Messy heads, profilers, pathologists. It's something to do with the power of narrative, the strong chain of cause and effect hauling the reader along, and the pleasures of problem-solving. The thing I particularly love about crime fiction is that the plot itself describes what is essentially an act of reading: of interpreting the state of the dead body, working backwards, or perhaps I mean outwards, from the state of the body to solve the crime.

But I was saying to D and M that I have started to worry a bit, for the first time, about the pleasure I take in these stories. I'd always resisted the idea that it's a bit sick to like violent crime fiction but my resistance is beginning to break down.

Coincidentally, Hannibal was on the teeve last night and I was watching it with the morning's conversation in mind. I'd forgotten just how unutterably and yet irresistibly unpleasant Hannibal really is. The novel (the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs) is a complicated story involving a number of subplots, each more awful than the last and all of them featuring Hannibal Lecter rearranging other people's bodies for them. The novel was rather cleverly simplified for the screen, with some subplots left out entirely and whole scenes reduced to highly effective vignettes and replaced in a different part of the story, as with the kid on the plane hopping into Hannibal's Dean and DeLuca boxed gourmet lunch. (One of the reasons I love Harris is because he can be very funny; the original scene in the book is hilarious in a disgusting sort of way, though in the book the food is from Fauchon's in Paris. This is of course partly because in the book he's on a flight going in the other direction.)

I thought it was a better movie than a lot of other people did, though not a patch on The Silence of the Lambs, but it kept reminding me of the pleasure I took in reading the truly gruesome novel, and I'm wondering what other crime-fiction-loving readers think about this. Am I allowed to like crime fiction, or do I need to feel bad about it?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Actually he was saying "cyclonic" ...

... but for a minute I could have sworn the dude on the teeve was saying "psychotic vacuum cleaner".

Not that it would have been any kind of a surprise. I've never known a vacuum cleaner that wasn't.

My current Miele Cat and Dog with Turbo Brush, for example, would vacuum up the actual cats if given half a chance.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Too much information

Darlene's post over at Larvatus Prodeo this morning about the perils of public transport (complete with fetching photo of chocolate sardines, a conceit that always makes me laugh though for the life of me I can never precisely locate teh funny; possibly it's the trompe-l'oeil aspect) has got me thinking about the way people talk on the phone in public.

When mobile phones first began to find their way into common use, anyone talking loudly on one in a public place was probably still suffering from the residual notion that the person on the other end couldn't possibly really hear them and therefore they needed to shout. It quickly became more a matter of 'Look at moy, look at moy, I haz gadjit!'

Since pretty much everyone now has one and is used to the way it works, one would think the loud talking to intimates about private matters -- sex, money, daily-life details that could not possibly be of any interest except to those immediately affected; a malfunctioning toilet, say, or an outbreak of ringworm at kindy -- would be a thing of the past. But it actually seems to have got worse. Darlene tells the story of a young woman yelling in a rage at her mother on the tram and for some reason I found this quite disturbing. The idea that it's perfectly okay to go ballistic in public, assuming you are a person over six years old of normal-range intelligence who is not drunk or on drugs, is one I'm old enough to be still repelled by.

I think the loud-talking-on-the-mobile thing is still something to do with showing off, but has morphed into a kind of exhibitionism about one's emotional life. Look at moy, look at moy, I haz intimates. People self-dramatise and self-expose in Jerry Springer mode on the phone to their friends, lovers, parents and children as a way of advertising, in a tram or train or waiting room full of random strangers -- some holding pen or other of public life -- that they have a life. What I don't understand is the need to do such a thing and force it on the attention of said random strangers, especially at football-stadium pitch.

If people want to conduct their most intimate relationships in public then that's fine as long as I don't have to look at or listen to them. But what always floors me is their oblivion to how appallingly intrusive their conversations are on other people's lives and thoughts and frames of mind. Or is that the point? Is this actually just attention-getting behaviour of the toddler kind?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I can has gardning advices pls?

Does anyone know what's likely to be eating my mint at this time of year? It's ordinary old common (or garden. Boom boom) mint and it lives in a pot that sits on the pavers. The shape of the eaten bits suggests caterpillars, but I can't see any.

If you can tell me what it is, can you also tell me how to exterminate it? All advice gratefully received.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Blog post du jour: 'Dead Flat Piece of Dirt of Grace'

This post-a-day business is quite demanding even when one cheats and posts a LOLcat. And tonight it is doubly difficult and delicate, because I know from observing the terrible mistakes of others -- there but for the grace of God, etc -- that if you have had more than two glasses of wine then blogging (or indeed any other form of communication) is potentially a really terrible idea, and I am, well, further on than that.

I mean, hey. I live in South Australia. Temptation finds me. This stuff, for example. Or this. Or, of course, this.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Catholic Big Kahuna calls for more bonking, but not for everyone

Archbishop George Pell, today:
"There is a crisis in the Western world. No Western country is producing enough babies to keep the population stable, no Western country," he said.

23 words, and three of them are 'Western'-- that subtext should be clear enough for even the masses to get the message. Wimminz, on your backs: you owe it to your country. And you non-Western folk, stop reproducing and get back to the jungle at once.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sucked in

I went to see Mamma Mia this afternoon with my friend R. We loved the movie and laughed ourselves stupid, though I think it may be a matter of generational taste. She and I, however, agreed that it was very Shakespearean and very operatic, full of the joy of life, and rife with some very funny sampling/hommage moments including two adorable bits of self-mockery from Colin Firth, in by far the best and most endearing of the performances by the three actors playing possible dads.

BUT ... the most exciting moment of the afternoon took place after we had repaired to the pub to post-mortem the movie and generally catch up.

Because she showed me her new iPhone.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday language whining, various


On the SBS News (the SBS News!!) tonight, two different reporters mispronounced the word 'nuclear' in two different ways. One, with an otherwise Australian accent, said 'noo-clee-uh' and the other, with a British accent, managed the classic Bushean 'nukular'.

I think what happens is that they see it coming up and panic, like nervy horses in a showjumping ring.


This is an asterisk:

This is Asterix:

As you can see, they are not the same.


Just tidying up old emails and came across an exchange with a former academic colleague about the end-of-year marking we were both doing; there is, as any academic will tell you, an occasional email exchange with one's long-suffering fellows of particularly choice essay bloopers, thus:

ME TO HER: 'I can't believe I've never seen this one before: "... the third-person omnipotent narrator ..."'

HER TO ME: 'Ah yes, an oldie but a goodie - in my experience they can express outrage at your pickiness for insisting that omniscient and omnipotent are different.'

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Menacing the Queen's flamingoes

One of this week's four novels for review (copy filed this morning; hooray) was Blake Morrison's South of the River, a 21st-century exercise in the sub-genre known for a century and a half as the 'condition-of-England novel'. Looking at the lives of five London citizens during the first five years of Tony Blair's leadership and the way their lives are shaped by the forces of history big and small, good and bad, local and national, the novel uses foxes as a kind of unifying leitmotif and postmodernish plaything, from the urban foxes of London's yards and gardens through the foxes hunted across fields by packs of hound and whooping English gentlepersons in red (known as 'pink'; go figure) coats on horseback to the magical and uncanny kitsune of Japanese folklore.

And as I was about to begin writing the review I indulged in a bit of classic avoidance behaviour and did a quick tour around my blogroll instead, rewarded immediately by Stephanie's first post from her London trip -- in which she reports that she 'went for a late-night fox-watching walk ... round Coram Fields.' I'd read about London's foxes before but I don't think I'd realised they had become quite so much a part of the urban landscape as to make this bit of synchronicity likely.

From my own rural childhood I associate foxes with destruction but also with elegance, brains and slightly magical properties: creatures that terrorised lambs and had to be done battle with but that were also, somehow, worthy adversaries. (As a child in the 1950s and 60s one was obliged to map one's Eurocentric children's books palimpsest-wise onto one's antipodean experiences, so the Aesop and Beatrix Potter worlds had to be somehow aligned with real experience, no matter how lumpy the fit.) One of my earliest memories is of seeing a fox insouciantly strolling across the open ground outside the farmhouse's backyard fence, and eyeballing me boldly -- I was about two -- as it passed, brush held alertly at three o'clock.

Reading reports of small children being attacked by foxes in contemporary London, something that features in the novel as maybe-more-than-an-urban-myth, I'm starting to wonder whether I didn't get off a bit lightly; this critter only looked at me, although I must say it was a strange, fairy-tale bit of eye contact. (Yes yes, I know, the fox has got my toddler, etc. The Chamberlains do in fact get a mention in the novel.) The little buggers really do look through you, in an ancient, witchy, I-know-all-about you kind of way.

So I Googled London+foxes and came up with all sorts of stuff, among which my favourites are the following:

1) 'Menacing the Queen's flamingoes, chewing on pet rabbits, and generally making a stink, the sly beasts have become common in the capital.' (Under the heading '10,000 Foxes Roam London', in National Geographic News.)

2) 'Foxes have even sneaked into the Houses of Parliament, where one was found asleep on a filing cabinet.' (Same article; this one made me wish I could draw.)

3) And finally, this. The woman with the camera is almost as delightful as the critters she is filming.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Louise Erdrich, Julia Kristeva, Dorothy Dunnett, music and the inside outside

This week's four novels include The Plague of Doves by Canada's UPDATE: North Dakota's Louise Erdrich, a French-German-Canadian-Ojibwe writer with a string of prizes and a tragic history behind her. Here's a paragraph I've just this minute read; the notion invoked there of the 'inside becoming the outside' immediately made me think of Julia Kristeva's writing in Powers of Horror on what she calls abjection, signified among other things by the involuntary spilling-over of what properly belongs inside the 'clean and proper body' to its outside: tears, vomit, urine, semen, shit and blood, substances that signify the breakdown of the boundary between self and not-self.

Kristeva's writing on this subject is quite beyond simplification or explication, largely metaphorical but wandering back and forth across the boundary between the literal and the figurative the way so much psychoanalytic discourse seems, shamelessly, to do, but for me one of the useful things about her work on this particular subject is the light it sheds on the the way this kind of bodily disorder can create a sometimes terrible shame, partly to do with the potential disintegration of the self once its bodily boundaries are breached. And that has reminded me that Erdrich has reminded me of the single best sentence I've ever read about music in my whole life, in Dorothy Dunnett's Checkmate: 'Music, the knife without a hilt.'

Here's Erdrich:

Here I come to some trouble with words. The inside became the outside when Shamawenga played music. ... The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors too. Things we'd lived through and didn't want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprising pleasures. No, we can't live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

But he knows what he likes

The Northern Territory News begins its article on the current Art Monthly cover with the screaming headline NUDE GIRL ART OUTRAGE and concludes with an implied whine about arts funding, of the kind you get on the blogs of adolescent male libertarians. In the middle they brag that the Arts Monthly editor Maurice O'Riordan is a Territorian and former art critic for the paper. Confused much?

Not that I think putting the offending (!) photo of the then six-year-old Olympia Nelson on the cover was any kind of a good idea. It may have been meant to be a daring and defiant gesture and I am in sympathy with the various principles behind it, but in terms of smart arts politics it was a really, really stupid thing to do.

Among other things it has the Prime Minister, who during the Bill Henson furore revealed through his attitude and choice of language to discuss it that he understands nothing about the arts and presumably cares less, now harrumphing about requiring the Australia Council to direct its funding in accordance with his personal quirks. Remind you of any other Prime Minister we know?

When I first read this report of Rudd's plans for the Australia Council I was reminded of two things. One was his announcement that he personally will have the final word on the lucrative new Prime Minister's Literary Award, something the judges weren't apprised of until after they'd been offered, and accepted, their positions as judges; presumably he means to continue as he began, making arts policy on the run by fiat when he clearly doesn't know his chiaroscuro from his elbow.

And the other was an image of the entire Australian arts community represented by the outraged figure of Daffy Duck in one of many classic Loony Tunes cartoons: 'Of courthe you know thith meanth war!' [UPDATE: Bugs said it too.]

In the wake of the Henson debate there was urgent need for the arts community and the PM to mend their fences but this is just going to make it worse. You'd think, wouldn't you, that an Arts Minister worthy of the name might step in at this point and do something intelligent.

Oh well.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Raising the dead on the intertubes

Idly searching out online (as you do) a variety of names from the past, I made the mistake of looking up some first cousins I've not seen in many years. No estrangement or anything, just distance and lack of common ground. But I typed one name into a search engine and up came a Facebook photo, and there were my mother's huge hooded blue eyes (which I, annoyingly, did not inherit), disconcertingly set in someone else's face and gazing at me out of the screen.

After I got over the ontological disquiet, the eeriness of the dead brought back to life, and the shock of being gazed upon once more after nine and a half years by the eyes I know best in the world, there was also an infinitely more banal yet equally important issue to consider: the internet is going to put private detectives out of business, and crime fiction will die a nasty, lingering death.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Saturday Bookblogging: Sacred Food

People seemed to like the animals-in-art book I posted about a little while back so I thought I might blog a few other books from my 'what an arresting and unusual idea for a book and isn't it gorgeous' collection.

Elisabeth Luard's best-known book is probably European Peasant Cookery, which I have the early edition of and which contains my default recipes for osso bucco and rosti among other things, so when I saw this book in Imprints (think a smaller and scaled-down but equally classy Adelaide version of Readings or Gleebooks), the combination of a familiar and trusted authorial name with a beautiful idea for a book was irresistible.

Like most of my favourite books, it's a mongrel: cultural history, recipes and truly sumptuous illustrations. There are four chapters, each holding forth on the food of particular events that happen everywhere in human life; one of the lovely things about this book is that it rises effortlessly above the notion of the sacred as contained by a single belief system and goes straight to the heart of the events and seasons that humanity has built its religious rituals around. So a lot of thought has gone into the way the table of contents is arranged, to signal that; it looks like this.





Chapter 2, for instance, goes from a description of the eastern European custom of 'birth baskets' -- 'a kind of edible baby shower ... ritual gifts presented by well-wishers to ensure the baby never goes hungry' -- to one of the classic Dickens illustrations of a huge Christmas pudding being carved up by a chubby mumsy type at a table crowded with rioting ratbag children. There's also a beautiful full-page photograph of a young Ghanaian girl contemplating the gifts of fruit, vegetables and cloth that she's been brought as part of the puberty ritual in which she is presented to the community, various members of which are standing around behind her, looking on. There's a recipe for German Christmas roast goose (lots of apple, cabbage and sage), an explanation of Hanukkah, and a description of the sacred food of the Iranian midwinter festival, its pagan elements similar to the Christmas ones:
The sacred food, ajeel, is a mixture of seven varieties of roasted nuts and dried fruit -- pistachios, almonds, chickpeas, melon or pumpkin seeds, apricots, raisins, dried figs. The vigil of watching through the night is known, appropriately, as shab-chera, night grazing.

Berber wedding pancakes, with chopped pistachios, preserved cherries and cream, plus the dish of honey in the middle and, apparently, a cup of 'tooth-achingly sweet' mint tea on the side.

The disquisition on Spanish 'pilgrimage food' gets shoehorned into Chapter 3 under 'opportunities for courtship' which I'm sure was just an excuse for Luard to wax eloquent about paella, one of her favourite things and an excellent illustration of the fact that food is so much more than fuel:
Among the most remarkable of the Whitsun pilgrimages is the long trek across the delta of the Guadalquivir, southwest Spain, to the sanctuary of the Virgin of the Dew, hidden deep in the sage brush and cistus scrub of a watery wilderness. These week-long picnics -- requiring eating and sleeping under the stars -- are a happy compromise between pagan and Christian preoccupations ... open to all who care to take the new road from Seville. The pilgrimage is a merry one ... guitars strum and drums beat day and night to accompany the dancing and singing ...

... in the old days -- twenty years ago, when I made the pilgrimage across the dunes with my children on a mule-cart -- people took nothing with them but rice and oil (well, maybe saffron and salt) in the confident expectation that the Lord would provide the rest. Indeed He did. Anyone with a gun could be sure to pick up a rabbit, or a brace of duck. [Anyone with a gun and decent aim, surely -- ed.] ... The children would be able to gather the exquisitely patterned snails, no bigger than a thumbnail ... or search out the spindly but delicious shoots of wild asparagus. You could always count on a variety of herbs ... fennel, thyme and rosemary.'

On the previous pages there's a full two-page colour reproduction of Goya's The Pilgrimage to the Miraculous Fountain of San Isidro, which like most Goyas appears to depict an assortment of bodies and souls in anguish, writhing in a half-dark hell and a very long way from singing, dancing or catching rabbits for the pot; on the following page there's a recipe for paella complete with instructions like 'the true paella must be prepared over and open fire, and only by a man' (pffft) and 'the only essentials are rice, saffron and olive oil ... The rest is whatever comes to hand in the countryside and will serve to flavour the rice -- wild asparagus, wild garlic, crayfish from the stream, snails, pigeon, partridge, rabbit, frogs from the marshes, fresh water from the spring.'

This combination of image, recipe and cultural history is typical and the pictures are beautiful: a nineteenth-century Chinese painting of a wedding banquet; a sixteenth-century German engraving depicting the moment of transubstantiation; a moving black-and-white photograph of a 1940s French provincial Nativity play complete with a raggedy, sad-looking sheep; a photo from southern India of a sacred cow with painted and decorated horns in fetching shades of gold, red and neon pink, with little bells; and several obligatory Breughel feast scenes that provide evidence for Barry Humphries' assertion that with Brueghel you can always find someone in the background having a quiet chunder out of a window.

It's probably safe to say I'll never make the Epiphany Cookies, the Afghan Betrothal Ravioli, or the Bacalao de los Muertos (All Souls' Day salt-fish). But if the day ever comes when I have to choose five books out of my food-and-cookbooks collection to take with me to my little room in the End of the Road Aged Care Facility, this'll be one of them.

Mexican sugar skulls, for taking with you to the cemetery on the Day of the Dead, though why you would take skulls to the cemetery is a question that remains unanswered.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Having got off to the worst possible start by not actually putting up a post on the first day of the month, I have nonetheless decided that July will be a blog-every-day month, for no reason other than that I've never tried to do it before. The default topic is Work.

Today's work:

-- read, grade and write an examiner's report on an MA thesis in Gastronomy that looks at the evolution and influence of food blogs

-- write and send invoice for same

-- do a whole heap of filing

-- start in on my tax

-- start reading Zoë Ferraris's (she makes a feature of the diaresis and who am I to muck around with someone else's name) novel The Night of Mi'raj for review. Sample:

Although it was her wedding, she felt a deep need to please her in-laws, or at least not disgust them. A few weeks ago, Nusra had arranged for a professional dressmaker to come to the house, and the woman had arrived with twenty dresses, every one of them gaudy and overpriced, bedizened with sequins and Byzantine embroidery, gold lamé and tassels, heavy layers of satin and lace. Some had real bone corsets and others had monstrous hoop skirts, which made her feel like a roundabout statue, something to gawk at. Worst of all, the colours were appalling -- mustards and hot pinks, chili greens and a hazardous, painful orange.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Merde: a list

1) Deadline day.

2) Skin cancer treatment (on face, though blessedly hidden by fringe -- sometimes) has now been painful and unsightly for over a month. (Painful and unsightly means it's working, but the longer this goes on, the colder the comfort.)

3) Member of inner circle of beloveds in hospital.

4) Harassment by phone and email from several quarters inc Animal Welfare League whose book of raffle tickets I have lost. Again.

5) House falling down around my ears.

6) Shocking news from bathroom scales.

7) Still no world peace.