Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pants in shorts

It’s been a frightening time for too many reasons so I’m immensely relieved to find that I still have feet. That’s one less thing I have to develop crippling anxiety about. I haven’t actually seen my feet for some time as they’ve been concealed in Boots the Chemist flight socks for the better part of the year. To die of deep vein thrombosis when I hadn’t taken a long-haul flight would have been too depressing and embarrassing so I thought it better not to take the risk. Today I emerged from the four layers of clothing and the same of bedding in which I have been permanently sequestered to find that spring has arrived in western Victoria. Admittedly it was well after midday. I was beginning to think I’d landed in a climate-free weather zone. As the sun roared down confidently, I dug out the peddle-pushing puddle-jumpers and Bob was my red, red robin-loving uncle. I discovered that the farm’s trampoline makes an excellent sun lounger and was able to read by natural light for the first time this year.

I also ventured out into the adjoining woodland to find the lovely frisky horses next door brimming with seasonal joy and eager to pop over for a chat and large clumps of well-watered grass from my side of the fence. Some things don’t change. My mission for this year has been to get over myself, a project that has had more downs than ups. I blame the lack of sun, amongst other things. There wasn’t much sun in England either but neither did I expect it and it was a situation that was easily remedied by devoting a tea break to I nearly always went in search of places where clouds aren’t a measurable contributor to GDP in September and October after the inevitable abysmal excuse for a London summer had finally acquired the decency to slink away. But now I believe I might be in for something approaching seasonal clemency. You could forgive England for its climactic caprice but not Australia. What else is there?

I knew when I came to live here that I would sacrifice my instant access to mainstream culture and my easy proximity to the rest of the globe. There’d be no meeting friends in the bar at the Tate Britain and popping downstairs to see the Frida Kahlo exhibition, no flying into town on the No. 26 bus on the last Sunday afternoon of the El Greco. No Damien Hirst. No Tracey Emin. No Turner Prize. I knew I wouldn’t be able to flit off to Calais for a spot of shopping or take the Eurostar to Paris just to have lunch in Montmartre and stroll along the Boulevard Saint-Michel. There’d be no long weekends in New York, Vienna or Prague. No getaways to Cuba, Cyprus, Croatia. I still think I’ll be okay with all that if I can just get some sunny sodding weather.

When I knew I was leaving London for good, I spent a year on a solemn pilgrimage around all my oldest favourite places. I had pasta at the Pollo Bar which had been recently gutted and remodelled to look exactly as it had always, only slightly cleaner. I ate Tandoori chicken in Brick Lane which had thirty-five million quid thrown at it in the nineties and came out dirtier. I ordered the superb şiş kebab at the Mangal II in Dalston which also pissed away thirty-five million squids with the nonchalance of a gambler who’d hit the triple rollover on Euromillions. I once saw a tramp sauntering down Dalston Lane carrying two Armani suit bags full of grubby plastic Costcutter carriers and vintage copies of News of the World. Says it all really. Gilbert and George were at the Mangal II, as they have been every evening for several years. I used to think it was because they fancied the waiters, who by and large are pretty yummy – I know someone who married one of them. They don’t make very good husbands. One evening when I was having dinner with an art historian in seats recently vacated by G&G, she told me it’s because they have that ongoing project where they use their faeces as the raw material. Cheaper than oils I guess. They have to eat the same thing every day to guarantee consistency of quality. It’s this attention to detail that makes them world class I suppose but it was probably not the right time to be considering that particular piece of information. I was very glad I hadn't ordered the kofte.

I’d passed two tranquil months in the British Library typing out all five published works by my G-G-Grandfather who was transported to Australia in 1819. You can’t photocopy rare books so I undertook this as a labour of love and with the intention of some day using it as the basis for a novel about him. I was satisfied I’d spent ample time in the BL but even so, on the last day as I walked to Euston Road to take the No. 30 bus back to Hackney Wick, I knew that I would really miss it and I do. Every summer day last year that clawed its way into the double figures, I took a tuna sandwich and a couple of cans of Stella Artois over to Hampstead Heath to spend the day sunbaking topless at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, my absolutely favourite place in all of Britain. Once or twice I even dived into the freezing natural pond to swim about with the ducks and coots and watch the kingfishers and dragonflies hover about at the far end. On a really sunny day, there’s no lovelier place to be.

I’ve never in my life been as cold as I’ve been these past four months in western Victoria. I have never before worn all my clothes to bed and still been cold, not even in Russia in the middle of winter. The Russians may not have much else but they have heating and vodka. The mountains of Japan run a close second, the difference being that with all my clothes and four futons on top of me I did actually warm up eventually, after lots of hot sake. But now I might have something to look forward to. Where there is sun, there may be more sun and… and… Ms O’Dyne and I have been offered free accommodation in a fabulous seaside mansion and, with luck, the two phenomena might coincide. Is there a God? Name Ra by any chance?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Less is not fewer

Paternity suit - is it just me or are these fashionistas related?

I’ve become so frazzled and confused trying to work out how to assimilate into Australia – believe me, many ponder this - that I’ve resorted to seeking solace in the oddest distractions, as opposed to engaging in more practical activity like speculating on viable ‘rest-of-life’ scenarios. This pursuit has ‘too-hard-basket’ smeared all over it in a particularly garish and age-inappropriate shade of lipstick. I’ll give you an example: I’ve wasted many minutes fantasising over the resemblance between the once reviled and now nationally treasured, (á la Mistress Thatcher), former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser; musical giant of Brisbane and its environs Robert Forster and tedious tennis titan Roger Federer. I don’t mean to disparage any of them except Monster Fraser who is still the devil’s chauffeur in the book of Pants and especially not Robert Forster who is an old friend, (although possibly not now). Roger Federer I have no history with but you have to admit that they all have a certain je ne sais quiff.

It’s as if my raison d’être has baked itself into a stale old pain au raison of late, with an emphasis on the pain rather than the raison. Watching that little Fairy Wren relentlessly propelling itself against a window for hours over the last week has been surprisingly life-affirming. The tiny creature seemed to me to be demonstrating empathy in the most touching way. In fact, I’d even go as far as to speculate that it was pecking out ‘I feel your pain’ in its quaint Fairy Wren version of Morse Code. Perhaps it just coveted my croissant. Either way, respect to you little dude and to your mother, Nature.

When I lived in Britain I despised Tesco because it built a vast store with nothing worth buying in it very close to my home. The proposed provision of a fish monger and delicatessen was welcomed by both planners and residents because Hackney Central didn't have either. Within a year or two of opening, the fish and deli counters were replaced by a pharmacy and bakery. Hackney already had an abundance of both. I was not happy. I stopped going there, along with a few other like-minded locals. Tesco sent me loyalty points long after I became a traitor. I used them to buy alcohol – in France.

I’m now chuffed to see that colossus of commerce capitulate to public pressure and correct a long-standing grammatical error in its signage. Lovers of the richness and exactitude of the English language will finally be best pleased. For years, like a grumpy old literate, I mumbled ‘fewer’ under my breath as I grudgingly assembled in a queue to purchase the ‘ten items or less’ I needed because I’d foolishly omitted them from my list of things to buy from a) France; b) Abel & Cole; c) Carol’s husband who drives a lorry. The successful outcome of the pressure on Tesco to rebrand its express lane, ‘up to ten items’ is attributed to The Plain English Campaign. Regular readers will know that I haven’t always been a fan of the PEC. It has a grand record of failing to distinguish baby from bathwater. However, in this particular battle of the bumf, the PEC has come up trumps, mutely trumpeting its victory over compulsory vernacularisation here.

In any sane person’s consideration, this is a vote for our language maintaining its richness of meaning. There are still enough of us around for whom this precision of expression has purpose. I don’t much mind what happens to the language after I’ve passed into Pants oblivion, but while I’m here, I’ll support the retention of its uniquely distinguishable words and phrases. Not so The Australian apparently which opines menacingly,

A GLOBAL war is raging over the word 'less' and how to label express checkout lanes in supermarkets.

This is a national newspaper of some note so the non-sequitur in the opening sentence, given that this is a piece about language usage, is baffling. What then to make of the journalistic imbroglio that follows?

The conflict began when British retail giant Tesco was forced to tear down the '10 items or less' signs on its quick lanes.

‘Conflict’? ‘Forced to tear down?’ This is Tesco n’est-ce pas? Surely you mean 'were reluctantly persuaded to offer a gratuitous gesture assuaging the sensibilities of the aging middle classes who comprise a significant proportion of its consumer base'. The only 'conflict' that could possibly have arisen is with the marketing gonks battling for ‘less’, one of retail’s key ‘added value’ words, to retain its high checkout profile.

Seemingly oblivious to even the most crude retailer/customer compact, The Australian sought to churn the storm in the teacup into a full-blown cuppa-wuppa,

Signs in the new stores are to say 'up to 10 items' after a brouhaha from purists who objected to the use of the word 'less' in that context. They contend the correct term is 'fewer'.

Contend? Sorry, the rules for the use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are no more contentious than the rule that says a red light means stop and a green light means go. But still The Australian forges on combatively,

This has prompted a call from grammar guardians, the Plain English Campaign in Britain, for colonial retail outposts to clean up their acts.

Well, this is what the PEC actually did say,

Over the last few days there has been a lot of press coverage about Tesco's new checkout signs. Some of this coverage suggested that the retailer chose the wording of their new signs based on our recommendation. However, this is not the case.

Reflecting public opinion about the signs, we wrote to Tesco some months ago suggesting that they changed the wording of their 'Ten items or less' signs, as it is grammatically incorrect. We suggested that they alter it to 'Ten items or fewer' or 'Baskets only'. It became apparent that the company had received a lot of other correspondence on the matter.

No mention of compelling the colonies to conform then. The British solution is a good one. I’m pleasantly staggered that Tesco, of all companies, would defer to the public in this way. It means far more than is superficially apparent which is why The Australian seeking out an ‘expert’ to support its view that the originators of our language don’t know what the sod they’re on about is bonkers, but here they go again,

However, according to Macquarie University's emeritus professor of linguistics, Pamela Peters, it is the British who are wrong.

In any other circumstance I might agree but when it comes to the language they invented, I’d tread more cautiously, especially if I were like totally incorrect, dah,
Professor Peters said it was an example of people going overboard.

Did she indeed? I certainly hope no one drowned while waiting in line to pick up a two-for-one Evian offer.

Professor Peters, who is also the author of The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, said: 'It is one of those points of grammar British people feel more strongly than others.'

What I’d give for a red pen right about now. Still it's useful to know that if you want to see a Brit suffer, all you have to do is poke him with a point of grammar. Ouch! And then this,

Professor Peters said the word ‘fewer’ was a mark of older-style speech. ‘It's not used much in speech,’ she said. ‘So when people write it, they don't have a strong sense of its place in ordinary English idiom.’

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to work out that we wouldn’t even be discussing this if it weren’t for the fact that sloppy grammar usually compromises meaning and that’s what living, breathing language users don't want to happen. I agree that 'fewer' is an archaic-sounding word that we could conceivably live without and it will probably fall into disuse eventually. This should happen naturally and as a consequence of etymological evolution rather than be short-circuited to mollify the sensibilities of people whose job it is to sell us groceries. I further agree that there aren't that many opportunities for confusing the sense that its universal replacement with 'less' conveys. Obviously if one has 'fewer' sheep it's clear one has had a barbeque but if one possesses 'less' sheep it could mean the poor fellow hasn't been getting enough grazing time in but not many people would lose sleep over that one, provided there were enough sheep remaining to count in order to fall asleep.

Here’s how PEC spokesperson, the unfortunately named Marie Claire responded to a grilling from The Australian,

‘If you let language go off course, you have got nothing for the future. English is now the universal language and if you start making those rules too blurred, you are going to lose track of the whole thing.’

I’d love to be able to say I couldn’t have put it better myself but I do honestly believe I can. Language is a tool and, unless your toolbox has been possessed by Disney, you are in control. We use language to communicate with each other so it’s in every English user’s interest to ensure the language serves us as well as it can do by preserving the integrity and common understanding of its words and combinations of words. Spoken English is beautifully fluid and is being constantly enriched by its interaction with other languages but our formal civility is increasingly dependent on our shared understanding as communicated through written signage. This may seem like a silly little pedants' game but society is not well-served by long queues of grumpy people at check-outs stewing over word usage in my view. That really is hell in a handbasket. Their time would be much better spent pondering the big questions in life like whether Robert Forster could be Roger Federer’s dad. Look at the eyes and they have the same initials...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The blue bird of haplessness

Suicidal Fairy Wren by Pants

I am crawling out from under a deep murky fog, both literally and figuratively. As spring teases frozen Victoria with frost-resistant daffodils that are no doubt some sort of insidious agri-mutant, we the demented optimistically rip ourselves from our cocoons of gloom into a consciousness of sorts. At least that’s how I like to see the seasonal behaviour of this fairy wren whose disturbing daily head-banging ritual is doing nothing for my tenuous adhesion to the tentacles of reality.

Every morning I shuffle into the drawing room, hair dryer trailing a long extension cord and blasting the icicles from my eyebrows. I open the fridge to savour a gust of warm air, (any port in a storm), before stoking up the sad excuse for a fire for one more valiant but ultimately futile battle with the cruel elements and non-existent roof insulation. And when is this country going to wake up to the virtues of heated towel rails pray? Oh, and did I mention the bog’s out on the back verandah? It might as well be in Newfoundland.

So, while I’m pointlessly sacrificing logs, da liddle boid bowls up and starts battering its funny fauny self against the defiantly un-double-glazed windows as sure as night is followed by something that looks very like night but is not quite as dark and a little more wet. What’s this all about nature lovers? Maybe he thinks we’re the only two beings left alive. Of course there’s Barney but surprisingly few natural creatures regard him as a living entity. Most of them are pretty sure they’ve seen things that look like Barney in the bargain bins of The Reject Shop.

Unlike my old Nikon, the Kodak doesn’t have motor drive so it took more effort than four seasons of Bill Oddie stalking badgers on Springwatch for me to get this shot. Then again, the Kodak doesn’t use up half my baggage allowance on budget airlines which is why the Nikon is parked in a storage shed in Laverton North and the Kodak is parked in my jeans. Is it certifiable to admit you miss Springwatch? Good Goddie I hope so. I also intuited that the people I’m house-sitting for in the wildest wests of Victoria may not appreciate me building a twitcher’s bunker in their drawing room. Although they might have been pleasantly surprised at how warm they can be and I naturally would have kitted it out with a Baby Belling, a Teasmade and four tonnes of recently killed whale’s blubber for which I would even prostitute myself to Japanese enviro-vandals. Yes I have been that cold.

I have never before experienced a requirement for a long-sleeved woollen vest. Now I have four of them and I wear them all at once. Electric blanket? Haven’t seen one since I was a child growing up in Sydney, a city so in denial of its appalling climate it should have its own support group. Now I break down weeping uncontrollably if I find an unelectrified bed. Staying in Melbourne with friends who had inexpensive and efficient gas heating that they reluctantly switched on and set to 15 degrees only after one of them contracted pneumonia was instructive. I was roundly pilloried for not having enough warm clothing. In my own defence I submit that this is the very same clothing that survived a London winter without me even having to wear more than a couple of pieces of it at any one time. Then again, I wasn’t sitting at a bus stop 24/7. In Melbourne, I might as well have been.

Tempting as it was, I have not yet been reduced to re-configuring the repatriated Barnster into a stole. Barney arrived back from Britain disguised as my long awaited e-Bay purchase of a 1970s special edition Bay City Rollers Tartan Bagpuss Deluxe still in its box. I couldn’t resist the cheerful thought that a child had received this for Christmas, was immediately told to register it as a pensionable investment and promptly decided to liquidate. Barney knows me too well. I have to say I admire him for knitting those duds himself and I know for a certain fact that he fooled at least two acknowledged experts from the Antiques Roadshow.

Reunited, we headed off to survey innocent and unsuspecting towns along the length of the Victorian coastline for possible locations in which to launch our joint initiative aimed at influencing civic well-being that we have dubbed Lowering The Tone. It’s early days but we think we may have found the perfect victim for our future activities. I can’t say anything yet as we don’t want to alert the law although the temptation to spook the market with our interest is enormous. Hackney has never recovered from our prolonged occupation. We could make a killing if only our homicidal knowledge extended beyond how to kill each other, which even we are smart enough to realise is counter-productive.

The Subaroo, which for some reason Barney has taken to smoking pot with and speaking gangsta to late at night, has conveyed us across the country with suspicious calm. It is disquieting to have a car select your music for you, particularly if it constantly reheats Coldplay which must be very unhealthy. I suspect a conspiracy. I’ve seen I Robot - more than once. Barney has at least made an effort to mingle, insisting that we stop to congratulate a wombat who made it across the Princess Highway intact. We had certainly seen many of the fallen so even we knew that this was a feat for the somewhat less than fleet wombat. All was going well until Barney asked the exhausted marsupial how he managed to keep his hat on while sleeping hanging upside down. It's a long story and one that involves an ill-conceived economy with the truth on my part. Will I never learn? I was grateful for the Subaroo’s central locking system and custom Barney cage at that point.

I know the bible talks about there being a purpose to every season yadda, yadda, yadda but that was before this whole global warming palaver thing happened and all bets are obviously off. I’m more inclined towards the sentiments of the great jazz lyricist Fran Landesman who said spring can really hang you up the most...