Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pants in Transit (with apologies to Venus)

Into the Sunset - the view from my bedroom window

Greetings from Winnebago of Pants, that is the road wreck otherwise known as my life. Through the generosity (or perhaps insanity) of Ms Ann O'Dyne I am now curled up in rural Victoria in a place called Yeo which I am assured is pronounced Yo! as in Yo! Blair or Yo! Sushi. True to her word (and Barney's continuing amusement), Ms O'Dyne appeared at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport wielding a large sign with 'Pants' scrawled on it in waxed crayon, despite my entreaties to her that I wished to remain incognito. I had suggested that she might hold up a typed, laminated placard reading Welcome Mr Sakimora of The Intelligent Design Group, but no, that would have been too sensible.

Ms O'Dyne has taken Barney off to Ballarat for a few days, He has been invited to speak at the inaugural 'Out of the Bottle' conference. This is not, as you might imagine, a convention of winos - although Barney is getting to be a bit of an expert in that area - but a celebration of the positive aspects of being the product of genetic modification. I am to spend the time getting down to some serious writing. I have little else to do except keep warm, confront the mystery that is the Apple Mac and develop a relationship with twenty-two chickens. I have learned several things already from the life changing experience of being on a farm. The first is that if you go to a shop and buy free range eggs that have bits of straw, feathers and lathers of excrement on them, you should be aware that these embellishments have been added in a factory by child labourers because real liberated chickens produce perfectly pristine eggs. I have also discovered that it is not that difficult to keep a fire going as long as you have a blowtorch handy and nothing better to do than stand waving a newspaper all day. I would be grateful if someone would explain to me why it is that bush fires can seemingly ignite themselves from the butt of a cigarette and burn for days but when you deliberately start a fire in a hearth, it requires constant fanning and a bumper packet of heat beads to keep it going. 

I have to say that Barney has coped with the move to Australia admirably which is more than can be said of me. While I've been scouring the country for my tax file records and my misplaced peace of mind, he has already been nominated for an Order of Australia, turned down a job teaching genetics at Monash University and become engaged to Cate Blanchett's baby. I was all for him taking the teaching job as we need an income but he assures me that he's fairly certain we can get by on his inspirational speaking. Rather unfortunately, the farm has a copy of I'm OK, You're OK and it has given Barney some strange ideas. He has, for example, taken to lecturing me on blue sky thinking! I intend to return the compliment by fully acquainting him with my full treatise on the subject of sticking it where the sun don't shine, baby, just as soon as I have finished a draft of my new book. Given that I have had a complete mental collapse, it has all been progressing alarmingly well.

Whereas I have had a complete crisis of identity, Barney has embraced the genetological smorgasbord that is Australia and, in particular, his newest 'relatives'. Uncle Bob and Buddy (pictured) are the latest addition to the Greater Family of Pants. 

Warning - Not a toy

They are Spoodles - a hypoallergenic dog that doesn't shed hair all over your black skirt but still eats your homework, as Niece Pants was relieved to discover. Barney has insisted on becoming Codfather (a sort of religious mentor in hybrid terms) to these adorable innocents. Already they are behaving abominably. Go figure.

So, I am somewhere and nowhere, doing nothing and something. I wonder what the poor people are up to. Barney will you please go practise your affirmations elsewhere! Thank you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fresh Breath

Making Waves at HOP Snr

At last, a reason to live. I’ve just finished reading Tim Winton’s Breath. In the last few weeks I’ve waded through a sludge of awful Australian novels. I’ve near enough drowned in bottomless quagmires of syrupy metaphors. There is only so much I can take of being told the sky/land/sea is very like something related to food/sex/madness. I’ve all but choked on prize-directed worthiness and been conned into taking gratuitous side trips to London or New York serving no other purpose than to woo the UK or US market. Rubbish writers please note – I do not require you to actually have been to these places, you do however, have to make me believe you are taking me there. A little less reliance on the London Underground map and a little more on the imagination s’il vous plait, my time is precious.

But Tim, ah. This is how it should be done. I have taken it upon myself to read some of the other reviews. They’re mostly bollocks, falling over themselves to explain to me that this novel is a bildungsroman – no kidding. What is with literary reviews these days? Breath is about a boy (Brucie ‘Pikelet’ Pike) and his mate (Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon) who do dangerous things in water when the adults aren’t watching. Who’s not picturing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Would it help if I told you the name of the logging town in which Breath is set is called ‘Sawyer’. It recalls that wonderful time in the sixties and seventies when you were left pretty much alone after the age of twelve to imperil your young life at will. Parents were far too busy working, sleeping or obsessing about something that would never happen to remember they had children. It was the last great age of juvenile risk taking.

Patrick Ness in one’s beloved Guardian informs me that this is not a story about surfing. I beg to differ. This is all about surfing, and in particular, big wave surfing. The eloquent explanations of the technical problem-solving that goes into conquering a unique wave go way beyond mere metaphor. It’s not just about lunatic courage either, although it is very much a book about plotting the often arbitrary line that separates life from death. Pikelet concludes,

'Some risks it would seem are beyond respecting. Meanwhile, everyone is terrified that this whatever life has become, is it. And what’s worse is it’ll be over soon.'

Anyone interested in wave weaving will love Breath, although you don’t have to be a foam-head to enjoy it. When it comes to water, Ma Pants is the Persian cat of the Pants family but she adored it. Not that I know a huge amount about riding giants – I did bolt from an uncommon five foot swell at Noosa Beach once screaming ‘tsunami!’ so you know I’m no warrior of the waves. It seems to me Winton invokes some famous surf quests to illustrate Breath. The boys are mentored by the mysterious and legendary surfer Bill ‘Sando’ Sanderson, who sets them a series of progressively more death-defying challenges. Surfing around rocks is an extreme sport with the possibility of crashing and burning being very real. Northern California surfer Jeff Clark wasn’t much older than Pikelet and Loonie when he became the first to master Mavericks, near his home. He rode these previously deemed too dangerous to surf waves alone for fifteen years without incident. Then Hawaiian big wave professional Mark Foo was killed on his first time out. Old Smoky in Breath is Like Mavericks – mad but not impossible, with survival being as much down to luck as skill and experience.

Pikelet rides at Old Smoky but draws the line at the Nautilus, a killer break that both Loonie and Sando attempt but neither rides successfully. There are suicide waves in surfing that only the madest and/or bravest will attempt. In 2000 Laird Hamilton, considered the greatest ever big wave surfer, became the only person to ride Tahiti’s Teahupo’o break where wiping out equals certain death. Pikelet tells us that Loonie ‘surfed like someone who didn’t believe in death’. The triumph of this book is that Winton judges neither the rider nor the refuser. In the real world no one thinks every surfer apart from Laird Hamilton is a pussy.

Sando’s wife Eva gets her glimpse into the black hole of mortality via erotic asphyxiation, a practice in which she involves Pikelet when Sando and Loonie piss off to Indonesia. These flatlining experiences, along with a chance encounter with a fatal car wreck and a real death closer to home, define Pikelet. Whereas Sando, Eva and Loonie will all need to leave Sawyer to escape its perceived stifling ordinariness, Pikelet will become a paramedic. This is ultimately a book about being alive, a notion that proves to be Pikelet’s great interest and provide his future calling. As a paramedic, he steps up to meet death's challenge to life and finds his purpose there. He concludes,

'Now I knew there was no room left in my life for stupid risks. Death was everywhere – waiting, willing, undiminished. It would always be coming for me and mine and I told myself, I could no longer afford the thrill of courting it.'

Salman Rushdie said a book should ‘feel necessary’ and shouldn’t bother coming into the world unless it does. After the dross I’ve read in the last couple of weeks, I can only heartily agree. Here we have a great idea, simply cast and beautifully executed. A high water mark has been reached with Breath. It's a masterclass in being necessary...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Drowning in a small pond

The House of Pants Snr lily pond

I suspect I’m experiencing a kind of madness. It’s not normal to think everyone hates you, is it? No doubt I’ll look back on these days as something of a watershed, or perhaps just a therapeutic cold shower. It’s not that I’m having a bad time in Australia, far from it. Ma Pants feeds me on a nourishing diet of cardboard, grass and polyurethane and I’m on the verge of qualifying as Kate Moss’s great aunt’s double. Even alcohol rationing, while tedious initially, can be adjusted to eventually and results in a certain tautness of belly that has been absent this past year or so.

Each morning I jog down to the waterfront. Whereas being overtaken by highly competitive power-walking retirees with orthopaedic straps holding their thighs together is not great for one’s self-esteem, I find I’m able to lose myself in my own thoughts semi-indefinitely. These largely comprise imagining that I’d had an entirely different life. There is little else to do in Australia but contemplate, and that can be very liberating for a time.

Who needs a stimulating media? When I left this country to go and live in Britain, its primary social concerns were inflation and motoring accidents. The great advance in twenty-five years is that the country is now fondling the worry beads for teenage binge drinking as well as inflation and motoring accidents. Current affairs programmes contain tutorials on how to make sandwiches and peg your clothes on the line. Who knew there was a correct way to hang up washing? If reporters are feeling particularly probing, you might be treated to the tragic tale of a family of ‘battlers’ whose six bedroom house has been repossessed because they spent all their money on Happy Meals and had nothing left for the mortgage or a scholarly investigation into whether it is possible for a family to survive with just one car, which apparently it isn’t.

‘Battler’ is a peculiarly Australian term meaning a person on a low income. It assumes of course that everyone who falls into this category is doing their utmost to contribute to economic growth. If you are surviving perfectly happily on little money and covet nothing, you are not a ‘battler’ and furthermore, you should be ashamed of yourself because you have no ambition. I have not quite come to grips with inflationary theory yet. No one ever bothers with it in Britain as British people think that even things that are free are too expensive, rendering actual prices more or less irrelevant. What I have been able to glean is that some kinds of spending (e.g. increasing salaries for low paid workers) contribute to inflation and are bad whereas other kinds of spending (the purchase of unnecessary consumer goods) boost the economy and are good.

Like Britain, Australia has no interest in the elderly, disabled or unemployed as these people don’t pay tax and hardly buy anything. Yesterday the new Labor Government brought out its first budget. On the face of it, the most exciting thing in it is the proposal to ask the wealthy people to pay a little tax. Like the elderly, unemployed and disabled they don’t pay any at present. This is not because they aren’t eligible to be taxpayers, it’s just that they would rather spend their money on buying airlines and Pacific Islands than building hospitals and schools. It’s a radical concept and no one has tried it in Britain since Moses got his first iPod. If you ask wealthy Brits to cough up their share, they just threaten to move to Monte Carlo and slag you off in their friends’ newspapers, which can be highly counter-productive. Australia is fortunate in that no one else wants its wealthy people living in their country except Brazil.

Australia is also desperately worried about global warming and would definitely make some effort to reverse it if it weren’t for the fact that the damage caused by China and India is so great that it would render any gesture meaningless and tokenistic. Besides if we didn’t sell them coal they would just get it from Russia and everyone knows the Russians care far less about the environment than we do. So that’s another thing I need not lose sleep over. I am getting rather a lot of sleep lately.

Since I have little else with which to concern myself now, I often gratefully surrender to whichever form of external entertainment chooses to fling itself across my path. I am very much looking forward to catching the new Harrison Ford film - Indiana Jones and the Lost Superannuation. Ma P and I often gorge on Bollockbusters DVDs on Cheap Chewsday when you can get four for $8. We have enjoyed such thrill-packed senior filmic moments as Die Hard 4 – Of Natural Causes and Rocky V – A Bout of Flu. Who would have guessed that the only people with jobs for life in the twenty-first century would be newsreaders and action heroes? Apart from the fact that I have been John Malkovich for the last three days, I think I’m doing just fine…

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Living on Boris Time

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson - Mayors of London

I’m not being perverse but I like Boris. He’s an idiot, a classic Tory upper class twit. But he’s by no means unintelligent and, if you read his newspaper columns, he can make a refreshingly weird kind of sense. London can certainly handle a madman for a mayor, in fact the position almost demands it. Ken wasn’t exactly crazy, just prone enough to demented outbursts to reassure the public. Boris is a clown’s name. If you think of all the other Borises – the Chekovian Yeltsin, the Bavarian Becker and the Draculonian consort of Natasha in Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mayor elect Johnson hails from a rather fine tradition of loveable buffoons.

Ken Livingstone was a great mayor. As I’ve said before I’m one of those people who felt the top job in the reinstated Greater London Authority was his by right and if his name had not appeared on the ballot paper in 2000, I would have written it in myself and put a big cross beside it. When Labour refused to endorse him as its candidate and he stood as an independent, London cocked its collective snook at the puppeteers and voted him in, prompting his expulsion from the party. Four years on it was begging him to come back and not because the lost love had been miraculously rekindled. It was more a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. It’s therefore ironic that he’s now being presented as the first election casualty of Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown’s disastrous leadership. But that’s politics. It rears up and bites you on the bum eventually.

After a while, people get bored with incumbent politicians and want a change. Ken had eight years this time around and five in the eighties as leader of the GLC. In fact for the last twenty-seven years when there has been a boss of London, it’s been Ken. The capital was without local government for fifteen years. Apart from transport going down the .. er.. tube and there being a noticeable lack of hot air balloon races and stilt walking festivals, it made little difference to the functioning of the city. Public transport has always been Ken’s pet portfolio and after eight years of his full and undivided attention, London Transport is now about as good as it’s ever going to get - plenty of vehicles, not too expensive, as reliable as anything in Britain can be. Ken vacates The Hedgehog (City Hall) leaving a substantial legacy in the Oyster Card and free rides for teenagers. He’s done as much as he can for London. It’s time for him to take his rightful place contributing to the revival of the radical left. We could do with that sooner rather than later Ken btw.

Mayor of London is the perfect job for a politician like Boris Johnson. He’s far too eccentric to be anything but a minister for fun and the new look Tories are anything but. Assuming they’ll return to power as soon as the McDuck locates the decency to fall on his sword, Boris would have ended his days languishing on the backbenches and shopping for fishnets in his tea break. Tossing his pom-pom into the ring for Mayor of London was a stroke of genius. As I write, I picture him storming around The Hedgehog, easily the most impractical building in the world - it’s like being inside an ice cream cone, screaming for the Fair Trade CafĂ© in the basement to be turned into a pork pie shop immediately and for public transport to be banned along with young people and world music. London’s cookie has crumbled. Those interesting times have arrived…