Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tinsel Clown

Masked Woman by Pants

When Hugh Jackman erupted into song, lap-dancing his merry way across Hollywood’s most mega A list, the Oscars seemed destined to sink indecorously lower than the elimination rounds of X-Factor. I know, I’m not even supposed to have a television. Blame Ann O’Dyne. I was perfectly content to believe that my stuffy English TV, gainfully employed playing DVDs, would never deign to transmit anything but the BBC. Ms O’Dyne does love a technical problem and within hours of her arrival at Seat of Pants, the LCD was persuaded to accept the local fare. So I settled down yesterday with a fresh brewed coffee and a plate of scones to have my well-honed preconceptions about Hollywood well and truly confirmed.

I don’t suppose you can expect the Oscars to be anything but self-congratulatory but the tone this year was even more Team America than usual in its zeal to bestow harmony upon a troubled world. Sean Penn, accepting the Best Actor award for his portrayal of murdered gay politician Harvey Milk, shared with us his disappointment at the recent electoral rejection of gay marriage but noted his pride in living in a country with the courage to vote in an ‘elegant man’ as president. Is ‘elegant’ the new black? Or perhaps black is the new God. Dustin Lance Black tearfully interpreted his Best Original Screenplay award for Milk as a vindication of his whole life which had been an intolerable hetero nightmare until he discovered the purity and authenticity of show biz. Perhaps he’d not had the chance to read On The Origin of Species when he informed us that not only did God create and love gay people but he would be arranging for ‘equal rights across this great nation of ours very soon’ – the minute he gets back from his KKK meeting presumably.

For a lavish celebration of all that is American, there were embarrassingly few American wins this year. Predictably, Slumdog Millionaire cleaned up the big awards for being ever so fashionably Asian. Heath Ledger was always going to get his Best Supporting Actor gonk for being ever so fashionably dead and Kate Winslet triumphed, well, for being ever so fashionably Kate Winslet. Momentarily overcome by a bad attack of the Halle Berrys, she blurted out her childhood fantasy of practising her acceptance speech with a shampoo bottle, something that should never have materialised into actual words, never mind for public consumption. Hyperventilating like an extra on ER, she was so anxious to share the great moment with her DNA donors, she screeched for her father to whistle and reveal their location. He did – forever scotching the reputation of the English as reserved.

Penelope Cruz (best supporting actress) also hovering in that peculiarly thespian intellectual netherworld where statements need bear no regard to actuality proclaimed, ‘this ceremony is a moment of unity for the world.’ Why do we need Hillary Clinton? Let’s just send Wall-E to the Middle East. But then again Cruz was wearing a wedding dress so it was hard to take her seriously even in this context. When Sarah Jessica Parker also fronted up dressed for the chapel, you wondered if a re-enactment of Bride Wars was in the offing. Not to be upstaged by the bride of Jack Skellington, her co-presenter Daniel Craig appeared absorbed in a dyslexic trance or perhaps he’d rashly chosen to debut a new pair of contact lenses.

There was something strange going on with presenters generally as if they had all been told they were auditioning for Waiting for Godot rather than giving someone a prize. Ben Stiller’s routine with Natalie Portman as foil was joyless and weird, although she came within a miraculous whisker of rescuing it. That woman has untapped comic potential. Steve Martin was ruthlessly funny in a way that suggested he hadn’t slept since he heard Hugh Jackman had clinched the hosting gig. It would have been even better had he trusted Tina Fey with an active line or two. Sophia Loren has looked 62 for thirty years. Michael Douglas has looked 52 for thirty years and Mickey Rourke looks like his wilderness decades were spent as a crash test dummy.

Bafflingly, every winner claimed to have been born as far away from Hollywood as it’s possible to get which I guess means they all hail from Mauritius. It can be quite painful to watch people who so obviously see a pair of the cat’s pyjamas when they look in the mirror trying to convey humility. The women always succumb to hysteria – aren’t they supposed to be trained not to do that? It’s difficult to get a statistically reliable sample as there are only ever two women accepting Oscars but they do seem to scream rather a lot. You don’t get much more diversity from the men even though at least four of them appear for every technical award. After they’ve methodically run through their name checks of everyone who could possibly be of use to them in the future, they hector their children to believe in themselves and their dreams and go to bed this instant. Perhaps it’s the only time they ever communicate with their offspring.

It’s said Hugh Jackman was chosen as host because of his song and dance credentials. I didn’t see The Boy from Oz or the London revival of Oklahoma!so I don’t know how well he sings in a decent setting. All I know is the opening song was an abomination and it plummeted from there. Jackman introduced the absurd production number that pointlessly dissected the event with the info-bite that Mamma Mia! had out-grossed Titanic and then lunged into a cannibalised medley of show and pop tunes with the improbable Beyoncé Knowles. How can I put this delicately? It was infinitely more cheddery than an American Idol ensemble piece and almost as curdling as Randy Jackson perennially howling ‘whaddup dawg’ at every male contestant like a dad demonstrating the Boogaloo to potential in-laws after one too many Captain Morgans.

‘The musical is back,’ thundered a delirious Jackman to tepid applause. I guess everyone else had made the obvious connection that there was not a single musical in contention for any award and neither had there been for a generation. Further, of the three tunes up for best song, two were forgettable dance numbers from Slumdog Millionaire and the other was an excruciating novelty from Wall-E. It was easily the paltriest collection of songs in the history of the Oscars. In any case Mamma Mia! is no more a musical than Titanic was but such trifling details were clearly superfluous. As a final flourish, Jackman pointed to a sheepish Baz Luhrmann and revealed that it was he who’d conceived this atrocity. At this stage, Baz had already lost in the two minor categories for which Australia had been nominated. Safe to say, it hadn’t been Luhrmann’s finest afternoon.

You had to feel for Baz though. I’ve seen both the universally trashed Australia and the universally acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire and if I was Baz Luhrmann I’d be feeling a bit hard done by right about now. Slumdog is brimming with both Hollywood and Bollywood clichés. Like Australia, it engages the magical through the vehicle of a child and you know that means someone’s going to wind up getting hitched under the stars. And the plot of Slumdog is far more preposterous than Australia’s. To enjoy the film, you have to accept the absolute howler of a device that enables its momentum. I loved both films because I am always willing to jump in that particular car and be taken for a ride. They both telegraph their intent from minute one and remain true to it throughout and that’s fine by me. The rejection of Baz’s vision and the embracing of Danny Boyle’s is irrational in critical terms and says a great deal about the whimsicality of movie world. Perhaps Baz’s musical smorgasbord was revenge rather than consolation. I like to think so. Looking forward to your remake of The Great Gatsby Baz. Please make it a musical, a proper one and please, please, please can you make all those lovely shirts dance?

Monday, February 16, 2009

To tree or not to tree

We are a society that won’t readily accept defeat, even when the fight ends like an Ali/Liston bout. We grew up on David and Goliath and The Guns of Navarone. The plucky little chap with the slingshot is supposed to knock down the big bad guy. And we aren’t able to easily comprehend violence, even when it’s the kind that nature flings at us in its caprice. A tsunami, an avalanche, or a bushfire are the kind of furies that no one with any sense would expect to demur to our rules and reason; yet we do expect precisely that. We demand Queensbury conformity from nature – like it should put up its dukes and pronounce en guard clearly and precisely before pouncing.

In Australia we are unused to killer events. Our mountains don’t explode and our earth doesn’t crack open. Individual lives are highly priced and our risk-averse population is conditioned to believe that accidental and disastrous death is not only preventable but unforgivable. In our arrogance, we assert that we can and must control all the elements in our living sphere. We don’t believe the horrific fire events that destroyed great swathes of Victoria last week and snatched around two hundred of our precious citizens should have been allowed to happen. Someone should have prevented, or at the very least stopped it before lives were lost. By this logic, someone must be to blame. Our belief system broke down and the recriminations have already begun even before all of the dead have been identified. The hunt is on for the person or persons on which to pin the ‘why?’

There were a lot of very brave but scared fire fighters out there on the ground last weekend risking their lives to save others and there were also some brave but scared commanders in control rooms flying as blind as tyros in a snowstorm. None of the systems they’d been trained to rely on were adequate for the scale of the challenge facing them. Communications towers melted severing vital links between command centres and operative crews. It was too dangerous to send reconnaissance planes up and satellite images showed only vast clouds of smoke so no accurate overview was possible. I affixed myself to ABC Gippsland all last weekend and heard the frustration coming from people who couldn’t get crucial information and those who’d tried and failed to get authorities’ attention about imminent threats. With the plethora of personal communications tools available to us, it ought to be within our capacity to develop a more effective and cohesive warning system and that should be a priority. Having said that, the most sophisticated communications systems imaginable would not have saved the towns of Maryville, Kinglake or Strathewen that were set upon and engulfed in minutes.

While blame is levelled at civil authorities by the media for a perceived lack of preparedness and mishandling on the day, anger is building against green leaning policy makers and city escapees who like to live our in the countryside surrounded by untamed flora. There’s a history of friction between the hands-off environmentalists and professional foresters on the question of how Australians can live safely and responsibly in a country so obviously hostile to being customised to House and Garden templates. Environmentalists take a kind of free market view of bushland – that it ought to be left alone to self-correct by spontaneously burning off at whim. But they reckon without the deep human intervention that has already irreversibly altered the land’s characteristics in compound ways.

Foresters are fundamentally managers and like all managers, they’d ideally like all elements within their sphere to conform and not cause them any bother. Tree-hugging folk think of them as vandals and the vassals of evil timber barons who would turn every tree into a fitted kitchen if they had their way, a reputation not entirely unwarranted as they often appear to be siding with corporate interests. The division is mirrored in the general population with traditional country people taking the forester view that land must be strictly managed and the newer, tree change and city fringe expansion settlers advocating for total non-intervention. Both have good and unselfish reasons. The price of a bushfire for farmers might be their entire livelihood. They could lose hundreds of animals who would die horribly. Widespread losses of pastoral land threaten food supplies. Tree changers are not only concerned with their own lifestyles and vistas. They want to see the habitats of native species protected. At an individual level, we've got one householder gloating because he was hit with a $100,000 fine for ripping out trees but his house survived and others blaming local authorities' refusual to let them clear land for the loss of their property. Both sides are right and wrong in the same ways.

The governing fault is in the rigidity of these opposing points of view and the short-tempered and impatient way in which they are argued. The two sides have to make peace, cease calling each other names and surrender the contested moral high ground in favour of a common sense approach to a concrete problem. Human development’s contribution of synthetic systems and products has irretrievably altered the forest’s pristine state. Human intervention is a done deal. Some fires are deliberately lit and others ignite because of the presence of introduced flammable materials. And then you have to factor in climate change. Whatever the sceptics say, temperatures in the mid to high forties centigrade are a recent phenomenon in Victoria and the hotter the day the higher the risk. Even if global warming isn’t yet a verifiable factor, we know it soon will be because there’s no great rush to do anything to halt it.

Policy-makers must deal in actuality. People live where they live, regardless of whether some opinion holds they shouldn’t. And we’re not just talking about a few remote settlements here. Hundreds of thousands of Australians live in rural towns and cities and on the leafy metropolitan rims. There is talk of forced evacuations. In Victoria the police don’t have powers to force people from their homes so that would require a legislative change. Besides, you can’t evacuate a whole state which is the scenario disaster planners would have been presented with on that blistering Saturday. If they had evacuated any one of the risk areas, chances are they might have sent a crawling convoy of families into a direction-shifting fire front. Almost every even vaguely rural area was vulnerable to fire outbreak on that day. Fire authorities rely on residents extinguishing the flying embers that spread fires. Of course there are sad tales of people who wouldn’t budge even when the home defence battle was lost but most people did not die from stubbornness but because they had no time to react to the threat. We can all learn more about managing fire risk and no doubt we will have to but we can’t stop the sort of catastrophe that visited us last week any more than we could prevent a volcano from erupting.

Although it makes no sense, retribution is demanded. One arsonist has already been caught and he currently has the life expectancy of a housefly. The hunt for official rolling heads has already thrown up a seemingly willing victim. You have to feel for the obviously traumatised Russell Rees, chief officer of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, whose despair translated into a pitiful combination of anger and self-reproachment following his weekend in the disaster command centre. Here he’s quoted in The Australian (14/2),

‘Fundamentally, our community is choosing to live in a way I can’t, and our people can’t, guarantee their survival. Why do we choose a system of civilisation that puts itself at so much risk?’

Almost everything about that statement is misguided but it provides a useful insight into the boardroom assumptions authorities make about their duty to the public and the reciprocal expectations of which the public remain largely unaware until there is a disaster. Yet practically, when it comes to doing their human best, the people they’ve trained and deployed to save lives and property in an emergency, perform superlatively. No one expects their survival to be guaranteed as if it were an electrical item. Quite the opposite occurs in a real life-threatening situation. People expect to die and view their survival as a miraculous event and their rescuers as angels. Even sadder is this,

‘If we choose to live in this way, then who do we blame? My fear is that people will say the fire service failed (last Saturday) and I will go to my grave saying we fought our guts out.’

I just want to say to him ‘relax Russ, you’re not the head of Enron. No one thinks you did wrong. In fact the opposite is true. We rightly worship the fire fighters. So please get over yourself quickly so we can move on to helping the people who need it. Then we can talk about what’s doable in terms of managing future risk while discharging our duty to nature.’

Readers who’d like to donate some money can do so through www.redcross.org.au. This money goes directly to victims. Over 7,000 homes were destroyed so there are a lot of people out there who need cash urgently.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Fire Alarm

Fire Demon by Pants

Seat of Pants is safe, thanks for your concern. Gippsland is a very big place. In fact it’s probably bigger than Britain. That said, much of it either is or has been on fire at some point this past weekend. Larrikin’s End has been spared everything but a couple of hours of mild smoke in this dazzling demonstration of nature’s fury. A great swathe of the Australian state of Victoria has burned down in the worst homeland disaster in the country’s history. So far over a hundred people have died, many of them in the little town of Kinglake, just north-east of Melbourne where more than five hundred houses have been destroyed and the town has been obliterated. And the news is only going to get worse because some of these fires are still burning out of control. Whole communities have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of animals have perished. People have been burned in their cars while trying to escape. The Prime Minister told us last night, ‘the nation needs to prepare itself as the full facts become known.’ That's a sobering thought.

We knew it was going to be tough. Saturday was predicted to be the hottest day on record in most of Victoria, winds would be high and it hasn’t rained since before Christmas. These are perfect conditions for a bush fire. And then on Friday night nature hedged its bets by tossing in a phantom storm – lots of scary thunder and lightning but no rain. Lightning strikes ignited some of the fires, some had been smouldering away since last weekend and, almost inconceivably, it seems some were deliberately started by a mutant version of our own species. On Saturday morning I went for a swim. The beach was gorgeous. There was not yet much sting in the day. I was in buoyant mood as my first visitor was coming, no less than the redoubtable Ms O’Dyne. When I got back home I put the radio on. The first thing I heard was that some train services had been cancelled. Ms O’Dyne made it onto a train but was turned back an hour into her journey. I retired downstairs with some cold carrot and celery soup, set the air-con to a comfortable 26 degrees and played every DVD I could find with snow in it – Ice Ages 1 and 2, Polar Express, March of the Penguins.

In between films I checked in with the radio. By late afternoon the pungent aroma of burning timber arrived in a searing sirocco. I assume it was coming from a fire over a hundred kilometres away. By the evening it was clear that the scale of the catastrophe was much bigger than either authorities’ or individuals’ disaster plans could possibly cover. I stayed glued to ABC Gippsland, a regional radio service that had been converted to a 24 hour emergency facility, from early evening through the entire weekend. I followed the progress of the fires on a big map, never worried as I knew I was not in a danger zone. And I listened as people phoned in with their experiences. Some had only minutes to get away once they saw the fires coming towards them. They told of grabbing the kids and the dogs and powering through flames even as their car tyres melted beneath them. News started to come through of those whose flight had failed. One woman was found dead in her car with a box of crockery on the passenger seat. To imagine her bewilderment was utterly chilling. A charity shop announced it was opening its doors for displaced victims to come and get free clothing and they were putting on a barbeque supper as well. It seemed wildly inappropriate but somehow guilelessly Australian.

The radio has been the only source of information for many people in threatened areas. Almost all of the television networks have been affected with relay stations being knocked out and many people are without phone coverage. A woman phoned in from Paris having heard from a friend in Holland who was streaming ABC Gippsland that there was concern about a couple who were the next door neighbours of the Paris woman’s parents. She phoned her parents and found the neighbouring couples safe together. It soon became clear that authorities had been caught on the hop. In many instances their advice was hours out of date and in others woefully inadequate. The most accurate and pertinent information was coming from escaped fire victims and the radio was doing a sterling job of co-ordinating it all. To be fair, these were no ordinary fires. They were the gruesome product of an evil collaboration between parched land and spiteful wind and moving much faster than anyone had seen fires move before. Mistakes were made. Beleaguered announcers often didn’t know if they were coming or going as they struggled to connect talkback lines and deal with the volume of information coming at them. And there were howlers as errant microphones picked up crass asides and cluelessness. Half of the state must have listened along with me in horror as Victorian Premier John Brumby rehearsed his ‘distress’ levels, asked his advisers for feedback and then delivered his ‘emotional’ speech with the emotion tastefully notched down. I guess he's only human. In the face of such a monstrous disaster, a politician has to strike the right tone or risk a grand slagging but it sounded disrespectfully cold and detached in the circumstances.

By Sunday morning I was snuggled up safely under the duvet and by midday I had on a fleece. The temperature in Larrikin’s End had halved, a cool southerly was blowing and I could no longer smell smoke. It seemed Armageddon was on a fixed contract. I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about what I would do in an emergency. I have a huge wooden house but I don’t even have a hose. Regular readers might recall that I was put off acquiring a hose by the sheer enormity of the task of absorbing the daunting plethora of accompanying regulations and decided a watering can might suffice given my only watering requirement is a small herb garden. I’m thinking now that it would be quite difficult to damp down a thirty foot high house with a watering can. I’d need either a crane or a hose for that. A hose would certainly be more cost effective and coming to grips with the regulatory information marginally simpler than obtaining a crane licence. I would not stay and defend the house, fond of it as I am. I’d only use the hose to deal with burning debris. My plan would be to head for the river. If push came to shove, I think I’d rather drown.

Well, I did choose to live here, fully aware of the untamed nature of this country. If I’d stayed in London I’d be snowbound and kicking myself for not acting on my instinct that the British economy was about to collapse. So, in for a penny. I’m off into town now to donate some money to the disaster relief fund and find out if there is anything else I can do. My phone is now not working. Happily I called the family yesterday but now I don’t know if Ms O’Dyne is on the train. I guess I’ll meet the shuttle bus just in case. Good night and good luck…

Monday, February 02, 2009

Flue Epidemic

Casualty of woe

It was always going to happen. Previously I’ve mentioned that small winged things have a habit of toppling into my fireplace. The origin of the term bird-brained is no longer a mystery to me. Usually they make such a racket pecking away at the glass door that I hear them and affect a rescue. However, I have to be home for the system to work. The beach is just too enticing at the moment for that to occur, being as the temperature has maintained itself at approximately that required to temper steel for the entire week. Consequently, I have just now buried my first kamikaze. I don’t know what made me look in the stove. I just had a hideous feeling. Nothing had gone wrong in several days and I found myself thinking, ‘oh there must be some appalling life experience of the fresh hell variety awaiting me somewhere in this great big old house of biological horrors.’ Et voilá! There was this poor little chap, lying flat on his little downy back in a bed of ash with his little curled up legs pointing heavenward, as dead as George W Bush’s dinner circuit prospects.

The burial service was short but dignified. I’d no sooner re-shelved my Auden than fuck me if there wasn’t another near tragedy. Hearing the all too familiar frantic pecking resound through the house, I opened the front door and then carefully released the stove door. Instead of flying out, the latest captive darted upstairs and immediately trapped itself in a skylight. I thought, ‘who am I dealing with here, Sylvia Plath?’ So I opened the deck door, got out the broom and a tea towel and improvised a coaxing ritual that was probably more matador than Attenborough. Eventually it worked but not before a dozen flies had taken advantage of the lapse in security. So I spent the next half hour chasing around the house with a rolled up newspaper. Not that there’s much to attract a fly in my kitchen. All I’m interested in at the moment is gin, sauvignon blanc and ice cream. Flies don’t seem to have the capacity for strategic reconnaissance, more’s the pity.

It’s Australia, innit? There is not one creature on this whole continent that is not either suicidal, homicidal or boorishly keen to join you for lunch. How is it that fauna can be so benign on one continent and so aggressive on another? Flies are a case in point. In Britain you can happily leave all your windows open throughout the summer. Flies will come in but, instead of raiding your smorgasbord or testing your ears to see if they contain undiscovered culinary treats, they simply circle the centre of the room is if they were gleefully Morris dancing the afternoon away, leaving you to concentrate on the delights of Wimbledon interactive. It’s a master class in symbiosis. I don’t know what British flies eat but it certainly isn’t barbeque. These are the same animal but their national characteristics are pure Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose some humourless science buff will email me to inform me curtly that the British fly’s DNA is closer to that of the sperm whale than to its Australian namesake. Come to think of it, you don’t usually have to shoo sperm whales away from your coronation chicken so it may well be the case.

I had a flatmate in London who was so scared of spiders that you could casually remark, ‘Oh Chris, I thought I saw a spider go into your room this morning,’ and he’d leave town for a fortnight. It was pretty handy if you wanted the place to yourself for a while. I have a spider in my kitchen that is the size of a Messerschmitt, just as mean looking and possibly even faster. Unhappily for both of us, it thinks my toaster is Manumission. There are creepy centipedes commuting through my garden and I’ve no doubt snakes lurking in any number of dark and mysterious culs-de-sac just waiting for the moment to re-enact Anaconda for my entertainment.

There is not one single dangerous spider or snake in the whole of Britain. Again science nerds, I know about the adder but when was the last time you heard of someone being bitten by one? It would be more sensible to live in fear of being bum-fucked by a unicorn than to worry about meeting an adder in Theydon Bois. My kitchen spider is a huntsman therefore, although huge, hairy and capable of travelling at the speed of light, is not actually a threat except in the gothic sense. But the other day, I had to escort a rather more unnerving looking arachnid from my shower stall. In Australia, it’s the little harmless looking spiders you have to worry about, even I know that.

One tries to live in harmony with nature but it’s enormously difficult when nature is so relentlessly combative. Apart from ants for which I have no sentiment, mosquitoes (clearly self defence), and flies of course, I don’t like to be responsible for animal fatalities. I think I ran over a lizard on a bush track last week. I didn’t get out of the car to look just in case it wasn’t (a) a lizard (b) dead. The other day I was mortified when I accidentally dispatched a bee. Thinking it was a fly that snuck in during an unavoidable door opening event, I flattened it with a copy of the Larrikin’s End Examiner. Flies shouldn’t be allowed to buzz, it’s far too confusing. They aren’t in Britain. Perhaps the Australian fly is a cross between a bee and a child brought up on McDonalds. It’s upsetting enough to erroneously eliminate a honey bee but being the mistress of a perpetual death trap flue is unacceptably unnerving. I expect I’ll have to do something about it although what that might be I can’t imagine. Perhaps I could put up some warning signs. Barney’s just suggested ‘mind the gap’. I can see the logic in that. They’d think they were at Bank Station and obviously immediately turn around and go back. No one goes to Bank Station unless they absolutely have no choice. It’s worth a try…