Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A man for all reasons

There are some tasks it's not advisable to delegate

Ma Pants likes to get a man in. You can cease guffawing, it’s all perfectly innocent. I refer, naturally, to the engaging of trades people to carry out tasks one can’t manage or be arsed to do. For reasons best known to themselves, these very useful and highly motivated self-starters are usually men. Then again, perhaps it’s because Ma Pants doesn’t require anyone to do ironing, cleaning or take up her hems. I have previously mentioned Gunther Grass, the lawn mowing man who scrims, chops and boufs the greenery at House of Pants Snr with a tenderness that puts one in mind of Vidal Sassoon coiffing Elizabeth Taylor.

Being a senior citizen, Ma P is entitled to a free man servant to undertake small round the house chores like changing light bulbs and putting a new battery in the smoke alarm. This is a service she delights in accessing. Last week a Rob came to install a new set of door chimes and very charming he was too. Taking both pride and pleasure in his work, he amused himself for rather longer than I would have thought possible testing the functionality of the chimes. Enormous reserves of geniality are required sometimes at HOP Snr when least expected.

There’s a Roy who comes and makes new gardens with boulders and bark and takes away ailing foliage. He whistles very loudly and is partial to tea and biscuits. Ma P manages the aquatic facilities herself but every now and then a head scratching expert breaks off from important Nobel research to study the PH balance of the HOP Snr pool. This morning a Derek came to measure the windows and glass doors for cleaning and, following successful negotiations, he will carry out this important assignment tomorrow. Ma P enjoys having things cleaned. There is barely a surface at HOP Snr that has not been steamed, sanded, polished or buffed at some stage.

Recently she returned from Aldi with a DVD recorder that I think came free with a jumbo packet of Iced Vo-Vos. It was at least my worst nightmare, even more ghoulish than the one where Barney goes feral and mates with a nest of Queensland fire ants causing the worst environmental impact since David Attenborough announced his retirement. The HOP Snr media corner is a terrifying jumble of boxes and leads, the net product of which is the occasional ability to access terrestrial television and watch DVDs from Blockbuster. Or it was until Dave, the TV man Ma P hired after I broke down at the sight of yet another box of baffling technology and declared myself suicidal.

Whilst acquainting us with his entire genealogy, Dave hooked up the DVD recorder, activated the digital set top box so that we can watch repeats of shows we didn’t want to watch first time around and, most importantly, record programmes that come on long after I’ve lost the will to live for the rest of the day (around 7pm usually). After spending four days trying to decode the manual which is apparently written in Kiwi as it is virtually vowel-free, I decided to follow my instincts and last night set it to retrieve a discussion between Peter Carey, Ian McEwan and Paul Auster. This method usually results in a recording of motor racing. One can but hope.

Technology and I are on the edge of permanently parting company. I might get another mobile phone but never again a contract. You would not believe the drama over the last one. I am resigned to doing without television. I have several boxes of favourite films with which I will be perfectly content forever and eighty cartons of books that I am certain will outlive me. I may or may not persevere with the internet. This is where Ma P and I are quite dissimilar. I think I’d prefer to give up on trying to keep up with pointlessly evolving machinery. I’m fairly sure that’s not why I’m here, on the planet I mean. Ma P likes engaging with the world. Me? I want a divorce. I’m totally over it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Solving the Ruddle

This is how the madness begins. I preface what I am about to say with the caveat that I’m pleased as one of Muhammad Ali’s finest left hooks that Australia elected Kevin Rudd as its new Prime Minister. It certainly made for a far less gloomy homecoming for me. But watching and reading reportage of last weekend’s 20:20 Summit, involving a self-selection of a thousand of the country’s most earnest do-gooders has left me with the worst kind of retro headache. I have lived it all before and have all the threadbare tee-shirts to prove it.

I worked for nearly fifteen years, on and off, on big community projects in Britain. I started out being involved in the lofty and exciting sounding field of ‘regeneration’ and ended up in the anally retentive labelled niche of ‘performance management’. The thing is, I hadn’t moved. As more and more billions were wasted on follies, fads, fetishes and the implementation of ill-conceived and untested theories, the primary focus of the job shifted from identifying and solving socio-economic problems to a pathetic hunt for positive results to report from the intermittent flurries of directionless activity that occasionally took place in short intervals between visioning, scoping, planning, strategising, outcome focusing and target setting.

The end result, after eleven years of catastrophically costly hand-wringing, is that by any measure of equity you care to apply, the gap between the haves and have nots in Britain got a whole lot bigger. In the fine tradition of compounding insult with injury, many of the intended beneficiaries of those ‘quality of life’ interventions now feel a whole lot worse for being cajoled and corralled into active participation in ‘community-led’ projects that were simply facades. After falling prey to manipulation by vested interests that saw many of them starved of relevant information and tricked into spouting conditioned responses for fear of looking stupid, they also doubled as convenient scapegoats when it all, inevitably, went the way of the pear.

Now I find my lungs, newly escaped from the political pollution that is Bullshit Britain, collapsing under the toxicity of flipchart drivel all over again. The problems in Australia are real enough – increasing poverty and inequality threatens to undermine community solidity and, by extension, the welfare of the nation. The zeal to tackle these problems head-on is naturally the heart’s desire and prerogative of a brand new government after over a decade in the passenger seat. Chomping at the bit hardly covers it.

The cycle begins, where Australia is now, by gathering up all the old bathwater and tossing it out along with its incumbent babies. Fresh, bold ideas are what’s needed, the influential opinion formers agree. How many times have I been locked in a room with a flipchart for two days? I couldn’t even count them, my ability to count being irreparably and permanently damaged I shouldn’t wonder. I could have written those flipcharts in a coma, and I think I probably did for at least the last two or three years. The aspirations never, ever change and they are never, ever achieved. It’s the phoniest, laziest way of tackling serious problems it’s possible to imagine. You might as well have a nice game of pin the tail on the donkey. By the end of day two formerly innocuous words like measurable, outcome, inclusion take on the gravity of Satanic cant as participants struggle to regain their sanity.

So what did come out of it? Australia should become a Republic – a big idea whose time has come and gone so often it has its own key - and a dozen pictures of Cate Blanchett holding her baby. They should never have celebrities at these things because they just mesmerise people. I’m more than a little susceptible, I admit. I was, after all, the person who nearly choked on my own dribble in conversation with Ian McEwan in Jaipur. He’s not even vaguely charismatic but still managed to rob me of the ability to do anything but scream internally, ‘that’s Ian fucking McEwan, that is’. How is anyone supposed to think let alone populate post-it notes with grand plans for the betterment of humankind with the Virgin Queen and Wolfman looking on?

Seen in a sensible context, a consultation exercise like the 20:20 Summit might have been perceived as a gesture to announce the Rudd Government’s openness to new ideas, willingness to listen and commitment to the principle of democratic participation. But its not going to work out like that. In an effort to deflect media dismissal of the event as ‘just a talking shop’, Rudd has already had to inflate the importance of what has come out of it. The policy wonks, funding starved NGOs, vested interested ‘bizoids’ as Kevin likes to call them and celebrities intoxicated with their own importance will be expecting to see their ideas rolled out across the nation by Christmas. Those whose precious plans are shoddily rushed through for appearances sake will complain they were set up to fail. Those whose ideas fall by the wayside will be cross too. The media will wonder at the over-reaction to its sincere efforts to be a critical friend and mutual suspicion will grow, undermining the ability of the two parties to co-operate. The population will have trouble working out what is actually going on as the two sides start to tell very different stories.

This is where the spiral of delusion and disappointment begins. It’s difficult for many of us to remember now but Tony Blair once represented hope too.Why doesn’t Rudd learn from the considerable and very visible mistakes of the Blair Government? What comes off the top of people’s heads when you stuff a lot of them into a warm conference room is dandruff. Everyone knows that so why pretend otherwise? In no other area of life except shopping do we simply grab at whatever is put in front of us without stopping to scrutinise its value. Tony Blair was undermined by his arrogance, vanity and a pathological refusal to countenance any and all criticism, even in the face of blindingly obvious supporting evidence.

There are worrying signs that Kevin Rudd has already succumbed to the allure of imported lustre. Being a people’s prime minister isn’t just a matter of removing one’s tie and posing for pictures with celebrities. This is how Cool Britannia started – and look at how cheesy all that appears now. The steep and slippery slope begins right here. First they annex themselves to the limelight via pop and movie stars and next thing you know they’re sequestered under a cone of secrecy with a sinister cohort of market research gurus, pop psychologists and retail giants, the latter being a bit like seeking advice on Grandma’s welfare from the big bad wolf. When they start looking decidedly sheepish, you know it’s too late…

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Having a Butcher's

Butcher bird seeks inspiration at HOP Snr

I’ve been devouring books. I literally ate a couple the other day thinking they were rice cakes. Honestly, I sort of switch off at lunchtime. It’s the meal I have because it’s halfway to gin and tonic time and one must keep up one’s strength. Noosa Library is a very excellent place for books which is lovely because they are far too expensive to buy here. It occasionally exhibits pretensions beyond its station – like parking Lambrettas and Fiat Bambinos in its foyer to signify Italian month. I would have been perfectly happy with a complimentary glass of pinot grigio and a slice of pepperoni pizza. Besides, I had a rather unpleasant experience in a Fiat Bambino in Rome once which involved the large and morose jilted lover of a friend I’d gone to visit (who had scarpered without warning), and some extremely narrow cobbled streets. Suffice to say my backside was never the same again.

Noosa understands that the primary purpose of a library is a depository for books for loan. Consequently, the shelves are full of them and they are unlikely to run out while I am still able to read. They’ve even thoughtfully provided an impressive selection of large print books for when my eyesight fades. If they don’t have the one you want, they will get it. Not only do they have a lot of books, they are perfectly content to keep acquiring them – unlike British libraries whose guardians feel so bad that most of the population can’t read, they fill their libraries with toys and comic books instead. That’s not to say that literacy isn’t an issue in Australia. When I asked at Blockbuster for an Aussie film called Romulus, My Father I wasn’t all that concerned that the young woman at the counter asked me to spell ‘Romulus’. I guess they don’t teach Roman history and mythology anymore. It was when I asked for The Politician’s Wife and she asked me to spell ‘politician’ that I became alarmed. Disconcertingly, she was able to spell ‘wife’ without any difficulty.

I’ve read so many books these past few months, I’ve forgotten half of them already. I read Black Dogs by Ian McEwan and The Leviathan by Paul Auster - both good, weird, but good and A Theft by Saul Bellow which is not only lovely but provided me with the perfect inscription for my current project. A Thousand Splendid Suns is palatable but covers the same ground as Kite Runner and I found that a bit annoying. There’s only so many literary escapes from The Taliban that one can endure. I read two books in a row that were the end products of creative writing masters degrees. You’d never, ever want to do one of those if you’d read these. I can’t remember their names now. I also read another terrible book called Pros-somethingorother's Dream. (Not its real name, obviously, I just couldn't be bothered remembering it. I suppose a review job is out of the question_)

Shockingly, I have lately neglected books by women so I’ve got out Elizabeth Jolley’s posthumously reissued The Well and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods out. I love everything JW has written and most of EJ’s – although I’ve not read all of them. I studied American literature and it has remained the foundation of my love affair with the novel. If I had to pick one novelist on which to bestow the dubious honour of inspiring me to pick up the pen, it would be Jack Kerouac. I’ve just finished Rabbit is Rich by John Updike which I’ve been meaning to read for years. I read Rabbit, Run about the same time as I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my very favourite books and then just didn’t get around to completing the series. I am now moved to do so having received a refreshing and timely reminder that fictional characters need not carry the burden of redemption, ennoblement or death. They can just be if that is their desire.

When I wrote The Way of the Pear, I wanted to create a female character in the tradition of Rabbit Angstrom and Ignatius C Reilly. I don’t know whether it’s because she’s the wrong gender or just in the wrong time, but Heather doesn’t come across like that to most of the kind people who have read some or all of Pear. Only one person truly saw Heather the way I thought I had portrayed her, (Yo Jim!). Of course it could just be the way I write but, judging by what the people who most disliked her said, there was a general refusal to accept a woman behaving like this. Heather rather pugnaciously takes it upon herself to challenge the world as opposed to merely being frustrated by it or quietly scheming to manipulate it to her will.

More than one person advised me to tighten up the beginning as most readers make up their minds about whether or not they like a book in the first five pages, apparently. Two people advised me to read a book called The first five pages. I didn’t because I don’t believe the premise to be true. I don’t make up my mind about whether or not I like a book until I’ve finished it. That’s not to say that I haven’t cast aside one or two but not because I’d made up my mind I didn’t like them, rather that they were appalling enough to prompt me to decide my time would be better spent sending death threats to their authors. Even then I usually last more than five pages and it’s rare that I don’t give a book a fighting chance. I did finish Pros-somethingorother’s Dream, even though it was diabolically bad. Fundamentally, I believe that it’s the reader who is in debt to the book rather than the other way around. Engaging with a book is an investment of my time that I take very seriously. I’m not going to play mind games with it or impose upon it a pointless agenda like demanding it enthral me at a time of my determination. I trust the book to reveal its purpose to me as and when it chooses. The only thing I require of it is that it doesn’t do anything daft like undermine its own givens. I’m prepared to accept whatever world it lays before me unconditionally and I’m very much in favour of excellent editing.

Another piece of advice I’m always getting is ‘show don’t tell’. Why ever not? It’s a book, not a movie. Every submissions advice list I’ve ever read has contained that one and ‘the reader does not want to read your opinions’. Tell that to Updike or Bellow. I personally love opinion spouting from the mouths of fictional characters. So many contemporary novels smack of being processed through this absurd regulatory prism. The whole point of literature is that it can do what it likes, surely. There are no rules. Rules exist to keep rugby players from knocking eighteen kinds of shit out of each other, not to keep novelists honest. Salman Rushdie, interviewed in The Australian on Saturday says,

‘.. if you’re going to add to that heap [of books in the world] it’s got to be because the book feels necessary.’

You could argue I suppose that the ‘necessity’ factor is subjective, a bit like asking yourself ‘do I look all right?’ before you go out. You’re never going to say, ‘hell no, I’d better stay in’. Writers are going to find their books as ‘necessary’ as bakers find their bread I shouldn’t wonder. However, I do think it’s a much healthier preparatory preamble than to commence the writing of a book as if it were a cake to be baked.

Now all this talk about books has made me hungry and it’s G&T time…

Friday, April 11, 2008

Irwin on the side of caution

Swapped at birth - Brendan Nelson and Butthead
(Lovely photo of Brendan comes from

No change to report. I’m still steeped in that ‘what have I done?’ phase. I knew it would be bad but, even by my standards, my current sense of other-worldness is severe. I miss all the tedious things I used to complain about, not least of all because I now have so few of those daily irritants that used to keep my mind active. Consternation was such a big part of my being. Life seems somehow empty without daft politics, absurd celebrities and insane episodes with service providers.

I believe I am thoroughly cured of television. My last viewing investment met with so little reward that I believe one’s not so beloved ABC owes me money. I take cash, credit cards and book vouchers people when you have a moment. Readers may be familiar with the wonderfully odious Irwin family of Australian ‘conservationists’. Steve Irwin famously perished a couple of years ago failing to observe the conservationist’s golden rule – conserve yourself. You certainly look like a bit of a twat if the thing you’re trying to protect repays you with a fatal dose of its best foe repellent.

Post Croc Hunter, the family business (modestly called Australia Zoo), has hit the headlines for everything from chronic tax shyness to accusations of animal neglect. Irksome Irwin urchin ‘Bindi’, aptly named after a noxious weed, beams from every available flat surface cuddling whatever slithering thing has foolishly strayed into range while vile Mom Terri puts in the hard yards commuting between cash registers. Rumours of a rift between founding father Bob and Terri had ignited the airwaves so I tuned in to see Bob on Australian Story the other night. His interpretation of ‘revealing all’ in a frank and fearless interview was to say absolutely nothing so there was more than enough unsaid for several sequels if the ABC can wrest itself from its torpor of smugness for long enough to ask a question. The reason for Bob’s coyness became apparent this evening when a handsome ‘retirement package’ was announced. Funny how one’s reservations about quality and integrity seem so easily alleviated by large amounts of money. I’m fairly sure it would work on me should anyone feel inclined to test the theory.

I have been quite cheered by the success of the Tibetan protests. The fire extinguisher in London was a stroke of genius. Whoever thought of that one has a Palme Pants and a large glass of sauvignon blanc awaiting them at the Wetherspoon’s of the their choosing. Paris was a blast too. The thing’s only got as far as San Francisco and already it’s got more security than Hannibal Lecter. Respect.

Less cheery, in fact downright gloomy, are the unfolding and entirely predictable events in Zimbabwe. Where are all the assassins when you really need them? Come back Carlos the Jackal, all is forgiven. And what about a little condemnation? Yes, I’m talking to you world ‘leaders’. Nothing runs faster than a white man accused of racism. All that despicable piece of excrement Mugabe has to do to get the entire developed world to look the other way is to toss out the c-word every now and then. Just to clarify, that would be ‘colonialist’.

Our own Kevin Rudd has been in Beijing doing his bit too, dressing down the Chinese in their own tongue. Or maybe he was just ordering lunch and asking for a copy of House of Daggers to be sent up to his room. I don’t speak any Mandarin so I can’t be sure. I have to be a little careful what I say about Kev as Ma Pants is his biggest fan. He is the great milky hope. To Ma Pants, he is the political equivalent of a Magnum Blanco. That he’s as naff as nylon doesn’t seem to bother her one polyester iota.

Whilst the Milky Bar Kid has been out and about advising the world on making itself a better place, the opposition leader, Dr Brendan ‘Butthead’ Nelson has been meeting ‘ordinary’ Australians in places where they most like to congregate – supermarkets and petrol stations. It was only fairly recently that Brendan found out that Australia was in fact populated with actual Australians. He wasn’t able to convince any of them to vote for him but he did receive $3.05 in tips and an Employee of the Month award from Woolworths. He now says he will definitely be getting out more and has developed great respect for beer.

I suppose in time I’ll begin to see the humour in my surroundings but reading back on some of my old material, I can’t imagine at this moment there could ever be a politician in this country with a mastery of the preposterous to match a John ‘Chopper’ Reid, a Ruth ‘Head Girl’ Kelly, a Tessa ‘The Scowl’ Jowell or a Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown. Brendan has promise though…

Friday, April 04, 2008


A letter came today to tell me my stuff had arrived. By ‘stuff’ I mean the contents of House of Pants, late of Hackney, East London. In the nearly four months we have been adrift from each other, I was able to fantasise that I lived the life of a traveller, free of encumbering chattels and burdens. Staying at HOP Snr requires no sacrifices as Ma Pants has at least three of everything you could ever imagine needing. My sojourn without familiar possessions has hardly been the life of Isabelle Eberhardt. Now, in a lonely storage facility somewhere near Melbourne, sit the items that make up my London life. But I am still in Noosa. Problem.

The planned road trip did not eventuate and the exchange rate remains doggedly inopportune. I am even further from discovering a purpose in life than I was when I first set out. In short I have no idea what to do. I have made no efforts towards establishing myself as a citizen of this country and, what’s more, I can’t even imagine where to start. I have done nothing beyond write 45,000 words of a new novel, which although worthy by most people’s accounting, is not really getting the job of securing my physical and emotional future done.

Australia is full of stuff and the population is obsessed with getting more of it. As in Britain, there are television shows devoted to having too much of it, storing great quantities of it, buying it cheaper, going into therapy because of it and, like the dog who drops the bone in the river, losing it all because you can’t stop help coveting it. The HOP Snr letterbox collects so much literature advertising all manner of it on a daily basis, I almost missed the important letter telling me my stuff was looking for me. Above is today’s selection. I hauled it in with my last morsel of remaining strength after completing my early morning run down to the river and back. It is a measure of my total resistance to acclimatisation that this morning I realised I had been saluting pee wees for weeks. What is to become of me?

Clive Hamilton, the Australian economist, has been banging on for years about a thing he calls affluenza, a chronic illness afflicting the Americanised western world. It’s a brain degenerating disease that causes blindness to the fact that a great many people are succeeding in persuading you to part with money you don’t have for goods you neither want nor need. He says the way we live now is a triumph of marketing over morals, or words to that effect. I don’t have Growth Fetish, his excellent treatise on the subject, to hand as it is nestling somewhere amongst the eighty boxes of books that comprise the overwhelming bulk of my stuff. In all there are one hundred and ten boxes and packages. Two of them are clothes, one is shoes, one kitchen bits and bobs and one bedding and towels. Also there is the Dyson vacuum cleaner I sentimentally purchased in the Argos sale because I wanted one iconic British product as a keepsake and I’ve already had a mini and a red telephone box. I have about ten boxes of diaries and drafts of various projects and another four of DVDs and CDs. The rest of the packages are batches of paintings.

I don’t think I’m in any danger of succumbing to affluenza. However, I may not entirely escape the remarkable range and versatility of the marketing phenomenon. You see, I suspect I may fall into a category of people for whom there is just as fierce competition between those insidious little people who try to sell us things. Much as I am loath to think of myself as such, I am probably one of these work/life balance fanatics they call a sea-changer or simple-lifer. These are people who, fed up with being stuck on the highway to hypertension, decide to move their protesting families to windswept islands and teach them all how to spin llama wool. Although I have no wish whatever to spend entire days hand pressing enough olive oil to drizzle on my home grown basil and tomato salad, I fear that not only will I be competing with these crazies for a quiet and picturesque residence, I will very likely end up with them as neighbours. If not now, eventually. The trick will be to find somewhere that’s too naff ever to be a candidate for a grey nomad makeover.

So now my new life must begin. Any ideas on where to start will be gratefully received, especially if they involve me getting paid a great deal of money for doing little else but think for a bit and then type for a bit…