Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Literary Affliction


Ma Pants's Dali inspired simnel cake


When I announced my intention to return to Australia, a close friend warned me, (rather more emphatically than was strictly necessary but then again that’s the kind of friends I have), that I ought not to expect to be welcomed with open arms, or indeed at all. As if I would dare! Besides, I’d had a hint of what might be in store last year if I got too near to any festering cans of worms.

You may recall that I was contacted by a brash opportunist whom I’d never even met demanding information and material for some retrospective venture he’d cooked up. Polite enquiries about the contractual arrangements for use of material which would be offered for sale resulted in an email earful of the kind of petulant bluster that indicates one is dealing with a complete dolt, a charlatan or possibly an unpleasant combination of the two. It was a group decision so I conformed as I found I couldn’t muster the pettiness required to continue with the protest and it mattered so little in what I rather hope will end up being a much grander scheme of things. Besides, I don’t suppose man throws hissy fit at thought of not getting own way was ever going to make headlines anywhere. I daresay though that at some point in the not too far future, I will be obliged to perform the inevitable and unenviable task of uttering profoundly a sentence commencing with the words well I did say at the time… I don’t suppose my CD is in the post either.

Once bitten as they say. I had no intention whatever of resuming or even revisiting any aspect of my former life when I landed in the old country. As I have discovered already, there really is no going back. If you leave the past untended for long enough, someone will come along and re-authenticate it to suit their own specification anyway. That’s one of the reasons I chose to devote myself to fiction. Hopefully I can control what happens in it without being subject to the whims of others. Truly, the whole point of the move was that I could find a suitable wilderness in which to be left completely alone in order to get on with the serious business of writing yet another obscurity-bent novel. There’s no point in being surrounded by irresistible distractions if all you want to do is work. In that regard, the planning is not going all that well but I have not yet achieved a suitably surreal personal hiatus from which to describe with any finesse the nothingness that is this work in progress.

As a matter of curiosity as opposed to earnest wishing, I’d hoped that my birth country had finally gotten over itself enough to concede that, the Adelaide Arts Festival and Sydney Harbour Bridge New Year’s fireworks aside, it is a bit of a cultural cul-de-sac. There is no shame in that. So is Belgium and it doesn’t seem to bother the Belgians much. They are perfectly content to provide the world with chocolate and tennis players. At this time of year, they come into their own in no small way. Last weekend, Belgium was the most important place on the planet!

Everyone knows people come to Australia for the scenery rather than the scene, which is why it was so baffling to witness the knives flash for ex-Aussie Peter Carey who now lives in New York. Why, oh why, demanded literary festival-goers and media alike in an orgy of abandonment-fuelled angst, doesn’t he live here? If any of them had ever been to New York themselves, they certainly wouldn’t need to ask that question. Interestingly, no one here demands to know why Peter Andre has deserted us. It’s a sign of immaturity not to be able to appreciate a world bigger and more interesting than your own and a sign of madness to take it personally when someone decides to move, surely. I do wonder how he gets any writing done over there though with all the other time-snatching options available. In any case, Carey is not at all happy with us since we would rather discuss his address than his fiction. Australians only interested in real estate? Who knew??

I can safely report that I’m currently most assuredly distraction-free and the media have left me well alone. Fortunately I was able to intercept Barney’s press release before it arrived at the offices of Noosa News so no one is aware of our proximity. My usual diversion of politics is not even a vaguely attractive time-waster. Australian politicians (or pollies as they are known to news commentators here), gobbit their way into office not by proposing absurd policies that we can spend hours gleefully lampooning but by tattooing little messages on their chests. Kevin in 07, Tate in 08, Big Bob for the Big Job, Leo Sayer for Mayor. OK, I made that last one up but you were a bit scared, right? You cannot easily take protracted issue with a slogan. Current affairs shows are generally a cross between an episode of Jerry Springer and an infomercial and news bulletins only cover motoring accidents, house prices and sport. There is an occasional crumbling of a local council under more scandal and intrigue than a week’s worth of The Bold and the Beautiful and even though it’s likely to involve town planners sleeping with developers and the mafia sleeping with and then blackmailing both of them, I find I’m so over corrupt local authorities that not even the prospect of unearthing links with Al Qaeda could raise a curious eyebrow.

Oh, and there’s not even a beach at Noosa any more. It’s been completely washed away. No such thing as climate change, eh? In short, nothing to do but work … and find a place to live. Even I’d rather work than look at houses. I miss the wide world already. What’s to become of me? Barney will you…

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Too marvellous for curds




Ma Pants has reached that time of life when she doesn’t mind being referred to as ‘marvellous’. Recent observations have led me to believe that there is a hierarchy of ‘marvellousness’, seemingly calculated by multiplying one’s age by one’s ability to tango until dawn. Ma P has a close friend, Ms E, who is eighty-six and still playing club tennis. Ms E has no doubt attained the dizzy heights of ‘bloody marvellous’, so elevated is she on the marvellousness scale. When they’re not training for the marvellous Olympics, Ma P and Ms E like nothing better than to adorn themselves with suitable finery and take themselves off to the theatre. In this venture they are almost always accompanied by Mr R and Mr N, sprightly septuagenarian intimates of Dorothy.

At present Ma P is preparing to host an extended family lunch this coming Good Friday which has triggered a week of provision purchasing, budget Easter egg hunting and fresh fish reconnaissance missions. Inevitably this involves the running into of many marvellous souls with similar planned outcomes and rather lengthy discussions about the relative values of chocolate confections. I do not easily slot into this kind of scenario, preferring to spend these lost moments hovering above myself and wondering what it would be like to be in a coma for six months.

In addition to stocking the house with enough fancy goods to trigger spiralling inflation, Ma P also insists on a top to bottom house clean. To this end she deploys such strategies as leaving the Hoover in the hallway in the hope that I might make the connection between it and my side of the house. I expect the penny will drop some time on Thursday afternoon when I will also have conjured enough community spirit to Ajax the bathroom. Hot cross buns have been frozen in anticipation and salad responsibilities delegated. The ornamental pond has been cleared of algae and the lawn mown by the redoubtable Gunther, known around these parts as Gunther Grass for painfully obvious reasons.

The culinary conundrum at House of Pants Snr when a family occasion looms is invariably what to serve for dessert. This year Ma P has opted for a simnel cake, apparently a traditional Easter offering. I had never heard of it so I think it’s fair to assume it’s rather dormant as traditions go. Ma P set about scouring her recipe books for appropriate instructions. She was certain she would find it in the W.M.U. Cookery Book, the 1949 edition of which she was gifted by her own mother. When we found neither a recipe nor a translation for the acronym W.M.U, I was left to speculate hollowly that it represented the revolutionary wing of the Country Women’s Association since it contains recipes for both chocolate bullets and sherbet bombs.

Ma P had to phone Mr R and Mr N to arrange tickets for Gigi (seriously), and Mr R had a recipe for simnel cake, which I am assured he retrieved from a cookery book and did not pull off the internet. It turns out that it is basically just Christmas cake with miniature chocolate eggs instead of holly pressed into the marzipan. Our most recent edition of the OED doesn’t refer to it but I did find it in our 1964 version. That entry merely offers a speculative derivation. The word simnel applies only to the cake which bears its name and is thought to have originated from the word simila meaning finest flour. I do believe Ma P will be using supermarket brand self-raising but I’m sure both that it will taste delicious and that no one will have any room for it after the hot cross buns, fish, salads in the double figures and Easter eggs.

The HOP Snr refrigerator is roughly the size of Wisconsin. Were it full to bursting with sauvignon blanc, I would find little fault with this. However, it is stuffed to the gills with half full jars of olives from biblical times and penicillin cultures in various stages of development. Ma P says that because I always have a go at her for buying too much it means she has to go to the shops more often. Somehow it was always going to be my fault that the fridge contains enough of a surplus to influence GDP.

I blame the following on a genetic dysfunction that I obviously can’t do anything about. Yesterday I joined two friends on a trip to the historic town of Kenilworth. Like most historic towns it contains little else but art galleries and cafes. It is, however, home to a very wonderful cheese factory. After gorging on twenty different varieties of the local malling, I felt kind of obliged to buy something and came out with three blocks of cheese and a kilo of mango and macadamia nut yoghurt for which I spent the rest of the afternoon searching for space in the fridge. You could say curds got in the whey of common sense in this instance. Marvellous…

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In loco parentis




Whilst I have been gainfully occupied pondering the actual gloom of things for artistic purposes – I invoke Sartre merely to amplify the severity of my condition in case there is any Gaulois-induced cloud of a doubt – Barney the owly-cat has engrossed himself in genealogy. Australia kindly offers up a double helping of Who do you think you are? on a weekly basis and, after tearfully following David Baddiel’s valiant effort to be recognised in Golders Green in the cause of history, Barney embarked on a quest to reconnect with his roots. Mercifully, it has temporarily stemmed his loquaciousness.

I would like to think that a television programme might have been required to reacquaint the hypoallergenic one with his origins - we certainly could do with the income – but the names of Barney’s antecedents were in fact right there on the paperwork that came with him in his hermetically-sealed pet pack from California. Pictured above are Barney’s birth parents, Kitty Spears and Septimus Clooney. Locating them was simply a matter of tracking them down to the Denver trailer park (Kitty) and Wyoming animal refuge (Septimus) where they currently reside. Not too difficult as they both had impressive criminal records.

As you can see, they are young, disturbed specimens who clearly would be judged at risk if they were human. Unfortunately for us all DAFT (Department of Animals and Furry Things), is more than happy to turn a blind eye to the origin of hypoallergenic species. Ms Spears has subsequently gained a certain notoriety in her home country. She went on to have a litter of kittens with a rapacious Tom. They were immediately removed by the Church of Scientology and sent on a rocket ship to source a planet where simple-minded religious folk can live free from the persecution of common sense. That was hard news for Barney to take. He’d just discovered a litter of half-siblings only to learn they’d been lost in space. He cheered up a little when I offered to send an email to The Robinsons to ask them to keep a look out.

Worse news was ahead when he researched the Clooney family. Septimus was hounded out of the family barn for refusing to participate in the Hollywood writers’ strike. He tried to explain that he was an owl, as opposed to a writer, but that cut no ice. You were either with the Clooneys or against them. Besides, if he was having a problem writing, he needed to see someone rather than deny his whole being. Septimus declined their offer to pay for a session with Dr Phil and, after a kicking about as an extra on the last Harry Potter film, sought sanctuary at the Owl Alone Refuge.

Discovering that both his parents were outcasts who deliberately rejected him was a severe blow to Barney’s self-esteem but made perfect sense to me. If I’d known what he was like, I wouldn’t have wanted him either. It’s fair to say that both of us have suffered crises of identity in the last couple of weeks. In his short life, Barney has already been shunted from a Silicon Valley GM laboratory to the prospect of a bleak future in Britain testing cosmetics for Body Shop – they’re introducing animal testing to meet the perceived demand by animals for jobs – who’d have guessed? Then he trailed me through India, always fearful for his life. We saw very few cats
and a lot of hungry dogs. We only saw one owl and it appeared to have two heads. Barney didn’t feel at all safe in
India.

It was rather easier to get Barney into Australia than I’d expected. Our plane was on turnaround and customs officials were so concerned to ensure that residents where not taking oversized bottles of sun screen lotion out of the country that it was easy to slip Barney through in his cryogenic state. My heart fluttered a bit when he went through the x-ray machine in his travelling flask and two partially digested Koi were clearly visible, (apologies to Changi Airport – I know they’re quite valuable). As luck would have it, the woman behind was trying to smuggle some baby food onto the plane – the nerve of some people - so the slumbering Barney whizzed through without a fuss.

Barney has actually settled into Noosa better than I thought he would. He has made friends with the kookaburras who he believes to be fellow hybrids. You may recall I previously told him that the kookaburra is an animal that lives underground where it cooks its own gourmet food. Barney has been sniffling at the sizzling delights wafting in on the evening air and has been vociferously polite to the kookaburras in the hope of securing an invitation. He has not been at all put off when they laugh like drains at the suggestion. Plucky little fellow.

When I can muster the patience, I will discuss with him our next move. In the meantime, Barney is happy to pursue his new interest of populating the family tree. I just hope we don’t need to call the fire brigade as I’m not certain our travel insurance covers arbour rescue. I have suggested to him that he might consider penning a misery memoir since the genre is inexplicably popular and Barney has a remarkable capacity for exuding angst no matter what the situation.

Based on his discoveries so far of the makeup of his frankly odious ancestors and his general appearance and demeanour, I very much doubt the public would have any difficulty in believing he had been raised by alcoholic wolves in the slums of Mumbai after being abandoned by his drug-addled, cradle jumping, mixed heritage parents and, after having a kidney stolen, smuggled across the Pacific to a lead-lined vault in Silicon Valley by Captain Jack Sparrow himself where he was groomed to furnish the insatiable cravings of westerners for lifestyle-specific house pets.

Once I’d overcome the guilt I harbour for my own complicity in his wretched little life, which incidentally lasted for several minutes, I suggested a gratuity of ninety-nine per cent of whatever advance he is able to extort from a greedy publisher would be appropriate in compensation for my agreeing to put up with him. Naturally he agreed as both his needs and his mind are simple, and set to work immediately. Happy day. We may have a future after all…

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A goat in a coat




Pretend it’s Wednesday, okay? I’m having a day out with Ma Pants tomorrow and my internet access problems have been well documented elsewhere. I present to you an elegantly, if inappropriately attired goat. He was as sartorially splendid as any other inhabitant of Jaipur and is eerily illustrative of my present mood. I find myself incapable to fitting in. Now there’s a surprise.

It is exactly a month today since I arrived in Australia. It’s awful, obviously. I knew it would be. Not because it’s a horrible place, far from it. It’s like being put back in the house where you grew up after a lot of other people have lived there, painted the outside a hideous colour and divided the lovely, big, airy rooms up into heinous little entertainment pods. It just feels all wrong.

The worst part is I have succumbed to emotional paralysis. I have no notion what to do next. I’d had ideas, none of which seem even vaguely viable in this hemisphere and half-baked plans, all of which have burned to a crisp while I’ve been huddling in a corner wondering why the world doesn’t like me. I made a decision that I would no longer live by the random crumb method of advancement. The problem is, I know no other strategy.

Paranoia that is normally kept under lock and key has surfaced as sacks of forwarded mail arrive. It’s all stuff that I have already dealt with. Service providers simply cannot grasp the concept that you are moving abroad. They want to cling to you like a love-sick limpet. If they feel that strongly, they should top themselves. It’s the only honourable exit. Yes, Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse, I’m talking to you. With bank statements flying willy-nilly around the globe, my longstanding fear that whatever I manage to scrape together will be extorted from me sooner or later, seems more of a clear and present danger than a frivolous fantasy.

You can sympathise, I hope, with why I might be feeling more than a little besieged.

In this mounting crisis, I’ve done the only thing I can think of – I’ve started writing another book. When I can do nothing else, I can still think and type. That should be a useful transferable skill but is not, sadly. The book is about a father and daughter. They are the only surviving members of a Sydney family. The son was killed in the Vietnam war and the mother died of breast cancer. I enjoy inventing other people’s suffering. It takes my mind off my own misery. I’m torturing them with nightmares, dilemmas, disastrous decisions and the odd insidious external force. Better them than me.

I’ve sent The Full English off to one or two agents in the UK. No joy yet. I’m pleased with the way it turned out. The sleepless nights while taming it to a satisfactory conclusion towards the end of last year while I was attempting to disconnect my London life and pack for India were not appreciated at the time I might add. The snooze account has been balanced now and my physical self is in reasonable nick. I could do with a hair cut though.

If all I had to do for the rest of my life was write, I think I could manage. Ironic really as a lot of people who get paid to write have difficulty getting the words on the page. It’s never been my problem. I have to find something to do. I don’t mind working, once I’m there. I simply have no idea where to look. If there are employment opportunities in Australia for someone like me who is quite good at a lot of things but not at all good at describing any of them, they are heavily disguised. I might as well be in Tibet. If it’s all about contacts and networks, then I best hotfoot it to the nearest welfare outlet as I’ve none of those. The last time I lived in Australia, Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister.

I have the greatest admiration for immigrants. I can more or less speak the language unless it gets too technical. Someone has kindly explained to me the meaning of the word ‘bogan’ which is excellent because now I have a word to describe the vile family next door. I’d thought they were dugong, initially. But I have not set up a bank account, purchased a mobile phone or thought any more about where I’m going to live. My roots are flailing about helplessly. This was an insane idea. They don’t even have free health care here I don’t think. Not that I’ve ever needed it before but I’m bound to now. What have I done? Barney, will you shut the fuck up.