Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To the lighthouse, darkly

Kiama Lighthouse by Pants

Part 1 - The window
Moments of clarity aren't generally a feature of Pantsworld. The nearest I come is a durable and unerringly reliable flight instinct, which has been well and truly enabled by the proliferation of budget airfares. Timely consolidation is the only explanation I can offer for my relative financial security. If I had to rely on trust, reason and hard work, I'd be living in a cardboard box. Instead I live in a comfortable and roomy house with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the sea. Instinct is not a bad substitute for insight, if acted upon decisively.

If looking out at the world could provide guidance as to how to live in it, I'd be off fulfilling my destiny right now instead of writing this post. It isn't that simple. When I look out, I see only that there is something to be seen. I do envy people who have a life plan and/or a sense of purpose. It is tempting to believe that we are all wallowing about in a postmodernist fog of indecision but I've read enough books to gather that at least a few people know what they're talking about. My question to myself, as yet another year parks itself in a used diary, is why don't I? I like to think I know enough to at least place myself in the path of enlightenment.

I've tried to keep it simple. Easy on the Heidegger, Kierkegaard Lite, slavish devotion to ABC Radio National's The Philosopher's Zone, that sort of thing. I even read Eckhart Tolle. Books treat the symptoms but they don't cure the disease. Besides, although I'd very much like a few hints on what a well-lived life might look like, the last thing I'd want to do is to try to follow someone else's rules. I have trouble enough keeping up with motoring regulations.

Part 2 - Time Passes
The continuing source of my angst is that I am yet to find a snug fit for myself in this big ole world. It's like being in a shop with every possible jacket, except for the one that actually keeps you warm. I have fallen between two conflicting cultural stools. Having left Australia for Britain in my twenties and returned in my fifties, I find I have missed several tectonic shifts in national perception, resulting in my having no idea what everyone is on about most of the time. The perennial Australian quest appears to be a search for identity and authenticity, which is not what I'm looking for at all. I know well enough who and what I am, I just don't know what it is I'm meant to be doing.

I don't think it's a question of requiring a sense of place or home. It took me a long time to work this out because the pressure to believe in 'belonging' is relentless and moving around has been so much a part of my particular sojourn. Actually, with one or two very short-lived exceptions, I have loved the places I've ended up in. In fact, I've never actually been to a place I didn't like. I'm lukewarm where Florence is concerned but I think that's because, by Italian standards, it's a fairly ordinary place. If Florence were to relocate to, say, north-eastern Victoria, I'd probably go there every other weekend.

I was happy in Hackney, London. I'm happy in Larrikin's End, Victoria. I'm even happy in Noosa, Queensland where I'm currently holidaying, even though the surf has been rubbish and it's rained incorrigibly for the last week. For me, contentment is not related to being part of a tribe, although it would be nice to occasionally find some people to agree with. I don't want for company and I certainly don't require approval.

Neither am I dissatisfied with anything I've done in the past. My only regret is that I could have done more of quite a lot of it without breaking sweat and I sometimes wish I had. But there is no missed sleep because of it, nor feelings of guilt for that matter. The discontent comes from a lack of understanding as to how all these fragments of toil and experience go together to form something I'd like to call a 'life' but feel it's not quite worthy of the name yet. It's rather more like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that remains shrink-wrapped even though the picture on the box is fading with age.

Part 3 - The Lighthouse
This year I have tried to read my way clear of the worst of the confusion, I like to think with some success. Mostly I read philosophy, artists' autobiographies, books about Australian art and novels. And a little bit of poetry and popular science. Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf led me immediately to To the Lighthouse, which I studied at university but had not read since.

The painter, Lily Briscoe, (whose initials I share in my real world existence), makes a decision to separate vision from ambition. Like Woolf herself, she works not for fame and fortune but to solve the dilemma presented by her very existence. If I am here, what am I for? Lily must run the gauntlet of societal expectation and confinement. Taunted by Charles Tansley that women can't write and can't paint, she doggedly pursues 'something clear as the space which the clouds at last uncover - the little space of sky which sleeps beside the moon'. Like Lily Briscoe, I have no compulsion to compete in the market economy or hunt down the artistic holy grail of recognition. That 'little piece of sky which sleeps beside the moon' seems to me a far greater prize.

This year began with a head trip and ends with a road trip. The road trip was occasioned by the need to deliver three paintings to the family members to which they had been promised. These paintings, entitled Something in the City, I, II and III, came about accidentally. They were my response to a typically incoherent art school set task. That bothered me for the longest time but I finally got over it because everyone seems to like them, including me. I have decided to make this my 'oeuvre', at least until I can think of something I'd rather paint. Believe me, given my mental state for most of this year, this qualifies as a huzzah moment.

I hoped the slow road trip around the east coast of Australia might serve to ease the standoff extant between me and the birth-mother country for the last three years. Two weeks before Christmas, I packed up the Pantibago with a week's worth of clothes and energy bars and set off under the threat of torrential rain and flooding. My plan was to drop in on a few people and places that I probably wouldn't get to see unless I drove there and end up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, where all the immediate Pantses reside.

For eight hours I drove through thankfully light but nonetheless dreary drizzle. An entirely unseasonal and positively unAustralian fog chased me into Kiama on the New South Wales south coast. As I arrived, it enveloped the town, transforming it into Wuthering Heights. To the Lighthouse opens with a planned trip to a lighthouse being cancelled because of deteriorating weather. Brushing aside any threat of a bad omen, I made my pilgrimage to Kiama lighthouse where I was promptly drenched by the most spectacular thunderstorm. It was so intensely electric, it crossed my mind that I could be struck by lightning. It wasn't quite the artistic awakening I had had in mind. After giving me nothing more than a sound waterboarding, the tempest rolled triumphantly out to sea, leaving behind a brilliant sunset and a glimmer of belief in a particular piece of sky.

More on the road trip later...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

A drop in the notion

Drops, Kodakotype by Pants

In 1953, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a serious stroke and was taken to his country home to recover. Under these circumstances, you would expect the PM's deputy to take over. Unfortunately, Anthony Eden was also quite sick. What to do?

The solution was to keep the job in the family and the British public in the dark. Churchill's closest aide, Christopher Soames, who also happened to be his son-in-law, sat in an outer Whitehall office gleefully making executive decisions which he then legitimised by forging the prime-ministerial signature for the four months of Churchill's recuperation.

Brushing the impropriety aside decades later, Churchill's daughter, the Baroness (Mary) Soames, ruefully quipped that people knew how to keep confidences in those days.

Fast-forward to the year 2010 and the WikiLeaks melodrama now stalking the world's stage like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In other words, a highly anticipated statement of the bleedin' obvious with crass song'n'dance routines but the kind of train-wreck allure that compels you to line up for hours in order to throw good money at it, despite the certain knowledge that the only thing 'hot' about it will be the air it exudes.

The whole 'who knewness' of the dripfed titbits is a cheap sideshow. US embassies acting as a spying network? Get outta town! Karzai corrupt? Bombshell! Russia controlled by Mafia? Zdra-stvu-eetee! Berlusconi vain, feckless and anybody's? Mamma Mia! Gordon Brown rubbish? Here's a feather - go your hardest! I know this stuff. Next door's cat knows this stuff. The Hermit of Mink Hollow knows this stuff.

The main event here is not the information itself, but the wholesale capture and dissemination of it, and what that means for the kind of opaque, fork-tongued 'diplomacy' that is the status quo. We are all John le Carré now.

The lust for the head of Julian Assange is also a sideshow. It's a case of training your WMDs on the messenger. Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Atlantic says,

The "culprit" is the Internet, and how it facilitates asymmetrical power and transparency and removes any individual's responsibility for that transparency and asymmetry. No single editor or newspaper editor had to take the hit for this. No one could stop it. Even if every MSM outlet refused to publish these, the blogosphere would soon swarm over downloads which could be shifted from server to server.

The only way to stop this is to ensure that no one in the entire government has access to non-top-secret info (impossible) or that government itself return to the days of carrier pigeons. This is our new reality. The character or crimes of Julian Assange are a red herring.

Culprit? Now that is a word that implies agency, even if you hang quotes around it. Blaming the internet for this is a bit like blaming the washing machine for turning your underwear pink or the oven for burning your cake. And, as Sullivan points out, that particular genie is out and proud.

So, let's return to the Churchillian AWOL from high office. The proprietorial assumptions Mary Soames deploys to dismiss what is clearly a very wrong thing to have done are outrageously risible but the only thing that has really changed in the last sixty years is the potential for damage flowing from the badly kept official secret.

Officials still do very wrong things and expect to get away with them. We are all Spencer-Churchills now. The most junior public servant, not to mention your average fourteen-year-old with a laptop and the price of a Big Mac, is capable of the cyber equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

That world leaders and their diplomatic representatives behave like petulant children and worse is no big revelation. We all knew that. It is palpable. The real leak here is the poison that is leaching into every aspect of global society by the march down the ranks of such arrogant venality. When it was confined to the aristocracy, the bad behaviour was containable and didn't appear to corrupt everything. No one ever looked to the Lords for moral guidance.

But now every developed-world municipality has a frontline of robotic little Hitlers poised to pounce on the slightest civic infringement while their bosses bounce from conference to conference in the name of 'networking'. Ostensibly, they're claiming to be sharing around their 'best practice' but since no better ways of doing anything at all ever result, we can only assume these beanos are actually dedicated to shag surfing and job hunting. Accountability - don't make me laugh. The quest for personal power at the expense of decency is universally lauded, and it's learned much lower down the management ladder these days.

If there is now no such thing as an unguarded moment in diplomatic circles, then surely this is a timely opportunity for a review of personal motivation and behaviour on the part of those we entrust with maintaining global civility. What it should not be is an excuse to hunt down a man who sets up a website to serve the public interest on what appear to be trumped-up rape charges. Given that most rapes are cynically dismissed and the victims vilified rather than supported, it is shameful to be exploiting rape as an excuse for a show trial in this context.

There's an old saying, 'it's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world'. My message to all the reprobates whose tongues got caught in the WikiLeaks mincing machine would be, if you don't want your ships sunk, keep your lips together and your fat fingers away from the keyboard, especially after you've had a few. And if you don't want to come across as an arsehole, don't act like one. Much more efficient to change the culture than to go back to using carrier pigeons. Less messy too...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Snape Charmer

Snake Charmers, Jaipur, India by Pants

There may be some karmic explanation for why I always pick a freak scorcher of a day to book my car in for its annual service, but since I'm not naturally a tuned-in type of person, I cannot intuit it. I chose a mechanic in the next town rather than one right here in Larrikin's End because he came enthusiastically recommended, and because 'mechanics' in Larrikin's End seem only to occupy garages when the fishing is no good.

I have learned it is best not to take your car anywhere near a garage that is not endorsed by at least three people who can prove they have no immediate relatives working there. I keep going to my garage because any mechanic who can look under your car and find nothing to tinker with is the motoring equivalent of a field of shamrocks made out of real emeralds.

Having alighted from the Pantibago into a day hot enough to qualify as a tandoori oven, I realised my only chance of survival was to find a place in which to pass the requisite three hours of servicing time. Since I did not have any chicken about my person, opening a tandoori stall was out of the question. I would need to find other employment for the duration, preferably in a freezer somewhere. The coldest place in town is always a cinema, so that is where I headed. As luck would have it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 was just powering up.

I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter books, by which I mean, I tried to read the first one and gave up after a few chapters. In the world of Pants, that qualifies as significant rejection. It is rare for me to give up on a book. We have to be irreconcilably incompatible for me to withdraw my bookmark with this level of haste. I do, however, love the films and have seen all of them - some more than once. The relevance of this concentration of engagement becomes apparent as I'm watching the film as I've already been exposed to a number of reviews.

They were carping on a scale stretching from niggling to downright affronted. Some claimed the plot is hard to follow and relies too heavily on revelations contained in previous films. Well, yes, that's series for you. Recaps and flashbacks disrupt the forward motion and I'm glad the makers of the Harry Potter films have resisted the temptation to handhold the uninitiated. I don't have much of a sense of humour where condescension is concerned and I figure if I can remember a few basic plot lines, then anyone can. I do not want to be paying again for something I've already seen.

Granted, the film is short on those ingenious little magic tricks and trappings that abounded in the first couple of films. And if that's the thing that levitates your enchanted galleon, then you may be disappointed. There is no gratuitous gadgetry here. And there is no Hogwarts in which to stage all those grand ceremonial set pieces that temper the tone. In this episode Harry, Hermione and Ron are cast adrift on a creepy treasure hunt to locate and destroy a series of 'horcruxes' - objects in which über baddie Voldemort has secreted fragments of his soul. All part of his grand plan to attain immortality.

There never has been anything particularly original about the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling's talent as a storyteller is that she can effortlessly lever in common and recognisable tropes from other stories or historical events, needing only a passing reference to import their meaning.

The films are even better at this type of shorthand. The presence of a black leather trench coat on a Ministry of Magic employee signals just how sinister and serious the pogrom on 'mudbloods' is likely to become. At one point, Harry wears a horcrux in the form of a locket on a chain around his neck. He becomes aggressive towards Hermione who orders him to take it off. She needs only to verbalise this and we immediately recognise that, like Frodo's ring, the locket corrupts. No lengthy explanation is needed.

The narrative niftiness and an almost complete absence of any other characters besides the teen trinity leaves a lot of space for some introspection. This hasn't gone down well with everyone. Some reviewers have scoffed at the long, lingering looks and painfully strained relationships. HP7P1 has a cinematic eternity to travel before it reaches the time-frozen excesses of Twilight gazes. Let's not lose that perspective. We've seen these kids grow and their burdens grow with them.

As dramatic trajectories go, I think the film has the character development about right at this point. When you're sixteen-going-on-seventeen, life really does slow to a torpid pace as you drag your adolescent self through those torturous final years of schooling towards adulthood and the freedoms it represents. And no one does tell you anything and you really do have to work the world out for yourself. And even if adults did try to advise you, you would never, ever have given them the time of day.

In one scene Harry leads Hermione into a tension-busting dance. They are holed up in a tent in the New Forest. Ron has scarpered and both are feeling mentally and physically beat. Harry extends his hand with youthful manliness. Hermione, for once, suppresses her inner control freak. They dance along to some music playing on an old-fashioned battery-operated radio, echoing a thousand films past. But this is no seduction scene. What we get is neither sexy nor romantic. It's the senior prom these kids were never able to have. This is the dance of transition. A small gesture from the seventeen-year-old who is destined to battle evil on behalf of all humanity, whether magical or muggle, indicates a rite of passage traversed. And it doesn't call for compromise on the part of Hermione. What we have here is a maturing of equals. In a cinemascape awash with girls depicted as legs with lips, I'm personally very glad of the individual that is Hermione Granger.

The parking of adult business while all this growing up is occurring is quite brilliant, I think. We are reminded at intervals that the mature-aged constants are mobilising on their various sides. The exception is Hogwarts head Albus Dumbledore who is killed by the series chameleon Severus Snape in the previous episode, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Snape has been, from the very beginning, the bellwether character, the one who is always on the winning side. He is the one you know will always return in some pivotal way to turn the action.

Snakes have been used sparingly over the course of this series. But when they do make an appearance, they scale up, (sorry) the fear factor exponentially. Harry Potter, as any gule kno, is a parselmouth - someone who can speak and understand the language of snakes. He discovers this ability early on via a quality encounter with a friendly giant python at London Zoo. By the time we reach Voldemort's conference table in this penultimate episode, the serpent has become a terrifying enforcer of master's will.

There is no great mystery to the quest of Harry Potter. He's going to save the world. We all know that. It's what heroes are created to do. The skill involved in building suspense despite the outcome being uncontested territory is not to be underestimated. I was perfectly happy to have arrived at the destination at which Part 1 terminates and very much enjoyed the ride. It's selling this film short to dismiss it as 'one for true fans only'. It's way better than that. But it is a serial episode and you do need to have been following the story. It seems bizarre to me that reviewers should claim a right to expect that a cinema film must be comprehensible as a stand-alone product when it clearly markets itself as one segment of a whole. Serialisation is a tradition that is centuries old and one that has always met with popular appeal.

The decision by Warner Bros. to split this final book into two movies may well have been motivated by a desire for greater profit. The last time I looked, film companies were not in the primary business of elevating public culture. It's a bit like chiding a casino for promoting gambling. It's not like we're being horribly and cynically exploited here. I doubt there will be many people moaning that they'd have preferred to see a movie series that has transfixed a decade done and dusted this year.

I'm looking forward to the 2011 finale. As I said, I haven't read the books, but I know what will happen. I just don't know how it will happen. I do know that the Pantibago will need a service about the time it comes out though. Wainsdale will have to wait until 2012 for that tandoori stall...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I could whale away the hours

Beached by Pants

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale. I can only say I identify with poor Jonah. I very often feel that I have been swallowed by a whale. I even more often feel the need to recount the story of what happened to me inside that whale. It strikes me that everyone's experience as temporary krill is going to be different.

Last year I complained at some length about the interminability in which time itself seemed to have been frozen by dint of my concurrent attendance at that wretched art course. A leviathan in the pantheon of learning conveyances if ever there was one. But at least I got a lot done. It may not have been work I particularly relished doing, but it got completed. This year I can make no such claim. Unfortunately, when left to my own devices, I achieved very little.

I can make a case for having my head so jiggered and my spirit so buggered that it has taken all this time to get over it, but not even I entirely swallow that. It is true that I needed to step back and assess the assertion that it is better to be doing something than nothing.

I have always notionally supported that idea, not least of all because it feels better to have done something than to have let a day, or a week or - horreur - a year pass without something to show for it. And it certainly feels good to corral a conundrum into a neat little picture or phrase.

A work of art is the map of a thought. Or, at least, that's what I think it should be. I guess the begged question was, and is, does the quality of that thought matter? Is its origin pertinent?

Last year I created a series of pictures that turned out rather well. I liked them and so did the teachers. Mistress of the brush even tossed about some hints that she would consider buying one. I was mortified and stamped on the suggestion with both feet. The nerve!

Before you move to stage an intervention, let me elaborate. As much as I like the pictures, they are the solution to a fabricated problem, one that would not have existed had the teacher not contrived to invent it. In fact, the gestation of these pictures was so random and inane, it's a wonder they turned into anything at all. Can it even be art if there is no causal link to deliberate intent?

That hardly seems a fitting overture to a life's work to me. That the teacher even entertained the thought of owning such a thing struck me as distastefully vain. I, of course, can overcome my disdain as any splash of colour on the vast deserts of magnolia that pass for walls here at Seat of Pants can only be considered an improvement.

I suppose it's a question of 'process'. Always a difficult consideration for me. I know well enough that the perfect idea is likely to be on the bus after the one Godot caught. And there is merit and satisfaction in turning a naff idea into a painting decent enough to not shame a wall. But what really troubled me about the whole 'process' was that where teachers appeared to see some USP-shaped niche based on something a student was coerced into producing under entirely manufactured pressure, all I saw was the total absence of vocational inspiration and that just wasn't going to work for me.

So I haven't painted at all this year. But I have written, a bit. Yes, I am struggling through revisions on my third attempt at a publishable novel while staving off the temptation to start on numbers four, five and six, which all have the cleverest titles ever conceived.

Everything I've done this year has sort of sucked which is the opposite of what you'd expect from a whale ride. Sadly, all the blow is in the past, I fear.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In a vegetative state

Every Saturday I buy The Weekend Australian newspaper. It's bilge but it's the best on offer. It has the whole week's TV in it. I don't watch the TV but it's nice to know I'm not missing anything.

It has two Sudoku puzzles which can take me several days to solve. Usually I get the 'advanced' one out before I conquer the 'easy'. Make of that what you will. Mostly I read the newspapers on-line, but the weekend seems to demand some unwieldy broadsheeting, at least in my world.

So I open up The Weekend Australian with well-honed low expectations and I find this gem,

New investigations team

The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell and editor Paul Whittaker today announce the formation of a national investigations team to leverage the newspaper's story-breaking credentials.

'To leverage the newspaper's story-breaking credentials.' Let us stop for a minute and try to imagine the intellectual environment that might have produced such erudition. Barney is fairly sure Polish vodka was involved.

Intrigued, I read on expecting to discover that the esteemed editors have assembled a team comprising Woodward and Bernstein, Erin Brockovich and Julian Assange but were just being extremely modest about it, as is the Australian way.

But no, what Mssrs Mitchell and Whittaker are attempting to articulate is the fine detail of an office reorganisation. What they appear to be saying is that four people who already work at The Australian will be sitting together in the future.

Leading by example, Mitchell and Whittaker subject themselves to exacting self-scrutiny when defining the role of this new team,

'The Australian has a proud record of investigative journalism and we are now building on that with a dedicated team of first-rate reporters who will have a wide remit.'

Well, how reassuring is that? It's excellent to know that people who have undergone the terrible disruption of having to move desks will pretty much be able to do as they please by way of recompense.

You are wondering how I'm going to tie in the vegetables? Does the word Rupert mean anything to you?

We low-income earners for whom pension eligibility is increasingly reliant on Leprechaun connections, pan for quality bargains like movie people scout for coordinated infants to complete their rainbow families. Our local 'supermarket' (I don't know when the word supermarket came into use for a shop that's really quite small, but I don't have any other word to describe what, in Larrikin's End, passes for a shop that will stand between you and starvation provided there is not a major sporting event on).

Sorry, that diversion was so long, I think I might have to abandon it. It reminded me that in the film Up in the Air, Alex (Vera Farmiga) calls Ryan (George Clooney), 'a parenthesis' and all I can think of is this is George fuckin' Clooney. So what is her idea of concrete sentence? That man I would like to meet.

Sad to say that George was not included in the vegetable selection above, and it was no worse for it, given that I'm not eating meat these days. Sorry George.

Larrikin's End Shopahoy, (well, it is a fishing town), randomly offers shoppers the chance to grab as many fresh fruit and vegetables as they can cram into a bag for one Aussie dollar. They never advertise when they're going to do this for obvious reasons. Today I was lucky enough to be right there before all the good stuff had gone. That's two bags full above. Two dollars. The mango alone is worth that. As you're reading this, it's almost all been cooked up in sauces and soups and quiches.

Shopahoy is not my only source of glee bargaining. Larrikin's End Library regularly de-accessions books and sells on donations that don't fit their strict selection criteria (westerns, romance, fishing, golf). Today I got a book on Turner for $1 and Plum Sykes's Bergdorf Blondes for 50c.

The Weekend Australian costs $2.60. I can't eat it but I can burn it. Most of it will get pulped to keep me warm next winter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hail Mary full of pants

Mary MacKillop by Pants

We Australians simply love to be the centre of world attention, and we don't scrutinise too closely the credibility of its premise. I submit in evidence the sisters Minogue.

Speaking of sisters, the cause célèbre this sabbath is the canonisation of Mother Mary MacKillop, founder of the order of The Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart or, as we compulsive diminutisers like to call them, The Brown Joeys. To this end, throngs of salivating believers and non-believers alike have gathered in Rome and all related orbits.

Interestingly, when it comes to sainthood, which is right up there with virgin birth at the leg-pulling end of the belief spectrum, one does not have to be an adherent to join in the celebration, apparently. The Catholic Church has shown a great generosity of spirit in offering Mother Mary as a saint for all Australians.

Speaking at a mass in Sydney, Father Graeme Malone gushed,

"One of the important things about a canonisation is that ordinary events and ordinary connections in life take on a grace dimension. Our history becomes holy while our present remains messy."

"Today we reflect on many things but especially on Mary's constant pursuit of justice even beyond personal persecution and a misunderstanding which in part evoked her excommunication from a church she deeply loved."

Well yes, that's all well and good. Mary MacKillop did open schools and hospitals and orphanages and shelters for the homeless and vulnerable women. And she did achieve independence for her order from the Pope to keep it from being corrupted by a spiteful priesthood. And she was ex-communicated for daring to challenge a paedophile priest. And she did this all over a hundred years ago before even the first wave of feminism. And she did it from within a stultifying organisation and in defiance of a Goliathan power base.

But this is not why she's being made a saint. No, she is being canonised because a couple of people got sick and then got well and they also happened to have prayed to Mary MacKillop. In the absence of any medical explanation, Mary is the default penicillin. Just so we're clear, the entire world, (so we are led to believe), is preparing garlands not for provable and proven acts of courage, compassion and all round jolly goodness, but for events with which a causal link to Mary MacKillop never has and never can be evidenced. She was, after all, dead when these events known as miracles occurred, which in my admittedly secular view, is a fairly big minus when it comes to demonstrating agency.

To be fair, it does take a long time to ascend to the canon of saintliness - well over a hundred years in MacKillop's case. It is quite unlike a Nobel Peace Prize, for example, where you can have one foistered upon you before you've actually done anything. I'm sure Barack Obama would have preferred to slate up a few more achievements in addition to being a pale enough black man to get elected President of the United States.

And you have to be dead to be a saint as opposed to being barely born to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Henry Kissinger won one and there is no evidence that he was ever actually born. It's interesting to note that very few women have won a Nobel Peace Prize, given that we start so few wars. Just sayin'.

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year and sometimes it's quite hard to find a man who can stay out of mischief for that long. Sainthood isn't hampered by deadlines and, by Jehovah, doesn't that show. Some popes have a taste for it and it seems a fast track has been installed at the Vatican since the last white smoke event. Perhaps it's a case of new graces, new faces and god only knows (sorry Brian), the church has sustainability issues. There was a backlog to be churned through, but the current pontiff's appetite for ceremony has clearly benefited our Mother Mary.

It is a long and winding road. First comes death, obviously. You can do nothing to further your ambitions in Simon Templardom until you've firmly carked it. After a decent interval, say seventy years, comes the beatification or, as we Aussies prefer, being 'rendered beaut'. Mary reached that milestone in 1995, after several arch plots by evil scheming clergy to besmirch her memory. How she must have fumed up there in her new home of Hevnabuv and determined to get her own back by randomly selecting terminally ill cancer patients to ...

Enough. So why are we still playing this silly game? It's like saying it's only possible to have sex if you have completed a few rounds of Twister as a preamble. It's as if the children are keeping the Santa myth alive for fear of breaking the parents' dear little hearts. Can we not just grow up and honour Mary MacKillop for being a real woman who dedicated her life to the genuine care of humans with whom she actually came into physical contact? And what's with the Catholic Church and its sheepish obfuscation - who does it think it is, JM flippin' Barrie?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sealing fan

The seals of Larrikin's End by Pants

Herman Boerhaaven, famed botanist, humanist, founder of clinical teaching and subject of a biography by Dr Samuel Johnson said,

The great seal of truth is simplicity.

For your pleasure, the great seals of truth. What are they doing? Why lolling about of course. I am here to tell you that seals have the secret of life cracked. I always knew that there would be aimless drifting involved.

If you want to know how pointlessly complicated life can be, drop me a line and I will send you my friend Sheila. She has made it her goal in life to render me insane. I don't know why. I have nothing worth stealing and, as far as I can recall, I didn't ever murder any of her children. But Spring arrived with Equinoxical punctuality, heralding the beginning of the visitor season. And Sheila is never far behind that fateful moon.

Fortunately, Sheila is married to the most amiable man who ever lived. Paddy brings me wine in large quantities, quality hand-me-down furniture and near-new gadgetry. All of which I gratefully receive. He drinks. Why wouldn't he? He scours my house for repairs to carry out. He finds plenty, believe me. This gives him an excuse to make multiple trips to the hardware shop where he can hold a long, logical conversation with a soft-voiced man of a certain age who knows about fasteners and shares his passion for joinery and tranquility.

One needs a high level of strategic skill to deal with the frenzy of Sheila stage-managing activity that will occur quite naturally of its own will and volition. Breakfast, in my experience, is much more pleasant if it is not accompanied by the 43rd repetition of her speech on the correct way to prepare compost. I moved here because it is quiet. I forgot to account for the fact that cacophony is almost always mobile.

If you take her out on the water, she shuts up for a few hours. It's bliss. You show her great holy seals and a kind of hush falls all over the world. You can almost feel it putting itself to rights. In addition to making very little movement, seals are almost entirely soundless. I was rather hoping some of this ambiance would last longer than the boat trip. Not a bit of it. When we get home, I run off some of my photos onto a disk for her. Her response? She rounds on her hapless husband with the retort,

'Paddy! Why doesn't our camera take pictures like this?'

Nothing to do with the person holding the thing, of course.

One's adored Guardian today publishes a story on the mysterious reappearance of species thought to be extinct. One of these is the Guadalupe Fur Seal, which was believed to have been hunted to extinction over a hundred years ago. But the seals did what any sensible species would do if faced with a ferocious predator threatening its very tenability. They moved.

As I have also discovered, this doesn't always work. Laying low and minding your own only works up to a point. The great seal of truth may be simplicity, but that seal is easily broken by synthetic complexity. You can be lying about, perfectly contentedly, doing no one any harm, least of all yourself, when someone can randomly come along and chop you up to make things that no one really needs. If that makes sense. Cut me a break. It could be a week before I start making sense again...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Swan Theory

A family affair by Pants

Most people, when they buy a house, have a list of essential and desirable criteria to aid them in the decision-making process. They will want a certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms, recreation rooms and car parking spaces. Adequate shoe accommodation and a home theatre will be on some people's lists. Others will want to know how many walking and/or driving minutes are involved in trips to the shops, medical centre and schools. Almost everyone will want a house with street appeal.

Although I do get a bit thingy about natural light and have been known to thoroughly test hot water systems and water pressure because I use my morning shower as a CPR substitute, there are really only two essential requirements for me in a living space. I must be able to see the water and there must be swans.

That's right. I said there must be swans. Swans are on my essential list. It has not always been this way. When I bought the flat in London where I lived for eleven years, I did so because it was beside a tranquil canal full of great big fish that I could see from my top-floor windows and the flat's east/west aspect maximised light capture. The water pressure wasn't bad either. I knew there were swans on the canal because for the previous twelve years, I'd lived in a council flat nearby. What I didn't realise is that when you see swans all the time, it becomes impossible to survive in the modern world without them.

The swans on my canal in London were Mute Swans. They are the most beautiful. Their ability to luminesce by moonlight gives them the edge. I get where Tchaikovsky was coming from. And Julius Reisinger, choreographer of the first Swan Lake. And Matthew Bourne. I have seen many performances of this scrumptious ballet including one at the Kirov in St Petersburg - although it was called Leningrad when I went there. The last one I saw was Matthew Bourne's, which I adored. Swans are strong and muscular and not a little ill-tempered. The all-male swanery clobbered the characterisation in the most delightful way.

The Mute Swan, despite its almost unfeasibly compact elegance on the water, is a huge and ungainly creature out of it. Like all its less glamorous anatid relatives, it waddles. When you see one lope awkwardly across the water on takeoff or skid drunkenly on landing, you realise with glee that there is a delinquent side to this bird. The sight of one dive-bombing the annoying rowers who'd shatter the Sunday morning peace would have me chuckling for days. I used to wish they'd attack the trainers who followed on their bicycles and tormented their charges, and anyone else within a ten-mile radius, through deafening megaphones in preposterous, home-counties lisps.

In London, the Mute Swans nearest me annually built an enormous nest on the water, anchoring it to some long-redundant towing apparatus. My flat was along an old towpath. My building replaced the derelict Matchbox Toys factory. There was a time when factories lined the whole waterway and horses hauled their produce down the canal to warehouses, or out to The Thames. Now it's a haven for waterbirds and people who like to watch their dogs chase them.

You would never see the Mute Swan cygnets until they were near enough fully grown. They still had their 'ugly duckling' brown feathers. It would always seem to me that the first outing would be by full moonlight on a beautiful summer evening. I would look out the window and there they'd be, a parent leading, the cygnets following in a disciplined line and the other parent bringing up the rear. They were like a maritime Von Trapp family.

The year I first moved into that flat, there were six pairs of Mute Swans hanging around and they'd often glide by my windows as if they were auditioning for Busby Berkeley. I never saw that many again. A single Black Swan sometimes appeared with them. It was only about three-quarters of the size of a Mute Swan. The first time I saw it, I phoned the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I very excitedly told them that I had discovered Australia and disproved Juvenal.

They weren't the least impressed. Exotic birds are not at all uncommon in London. They escape from zoos and private aviaries all the time. Being able to fly is a big advantage if escape is your agenda and the temperate climate provides a fair chance of survival. This Black Swan was tolerated, if not exactly overwhelmed with affection by the group, even though it had no hope of finding a partner. It was a remarkable thing to witness, literally a Black Swan event. The symbolism is a thesis in itself. I have some photos somewhere. One day I'll scan them.

Here in Larrikin's End, the swans build their nests on the shores of Lake Larrikin, trusting souls that they are. The council comes along and erects great fences of orange plastic around them. They know the local youth better than the swans do and they also like to make Lake Larrikin look as unattractive as possible. The Black Swans' faith in humanity extends to promenading their gorgeous cygnets when they're very young.

Will you just look at those gorgeous little fluffies! Pants categorically disproves Hans Christian Andersen. Presumably my doctorate is in the post.

I may have chosen my house on the most flaky criteria that ever existed but a day doesn't go by when I'm not thrilled to be here in this big yellow box which is the ugliest of ducklings in real estate terms. It's beautiful on the inside and, luckily, that's the bit where I actually live.

I may not have swans passing by below now but they pass by above often enough, and there are pelicans as well. If you start me on pelicans, I won't ever stop, so don't even think about it. Every day I take an elderly jog along Lake Larrikin. This morning, while I dodged delusional swooping birds for whom I personify either an egg snatcher or David Attenborough, I took a moment to reflect on swans and how we might think of them as a metaphor for multiculturalism. And then I remembered the South American Black-necked Swan. It's got a black neck and a white body. At that point it all got just a bit too complicated. Perhaps that doctorate should go back in the freezer, for now...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Beggar's Belief Opera

Source : AP

I was just sitting here thinking - I don't feel nearly miserable enough about the dire state of our gross national psyche. What would be top of my wish list for a paradigm-shifting event designed to plunge Australia's dignity into irrecoverable depths of debasement? I know, we could offer the world's tackiest billionaire, plus three hundred favourite white goods-obsessed, triple-choc muffin-scoffing, guru-worshipping parasites, a free holiday.

Unfortunately, 'Sir' Richbastard Brandname wasn't available. Besides, he can have a free holiday in Australia whenever he likes. Apparently, we can't get enough of his loathsome airline and creepy communications systems. But Hosanna! Oprah roars into view to meet our seemingly insatiable appetite for world-class ghastliness. Yes. Australian governments, of whatever hue, have an enviable lineage in dribbling sycophancy when it comes to the legends of louche.

Visions of Dr 'Sir' Lesley Colin Patterson dance about before my eyes as I read the news that Oprah Winfrey, Queen of Crass, Empress of Excess, Duchess of Daggy, has been invited to personally introduce her highly destructive brand of extreme self-actualisation to our culture in the cause of ... well ... no one seems entirely sure what exactly.

But we do know that the hard-nosed professionals at Tourism Australia, who are seasoned in the tough art of negotiating celebrity freebies, drove a titanic bargain with Oprah. It must have been a tense twelve months in which the concept of 'complimentary' was debated to within an inch of its stretch limousineness. Obviously out-manoeuvred, Oprah capitulated with a conciliatory,

You had me at the words 'Sydney Oprah House'.

Possibly a misunderstanding.

But it's all so, gosh, thrilling. And John Travolta, bona fide QANTAS pilot and darkly weird cult follower, is going to fly them all here on his own personal 747. I have to admit, when I close my eyes, I fantasize about dodgy pop rivets, cheapskate flotation devices and corner-cutting developing-world servicing.

In many ways, Australia and Oprah are like very needy sisters, sharing an abused childhood, complicated family history and pathological ambition to be universally admired. Oprah is the better known, so I guess she's the big sister. So it's only fair that the younger sister foots the bill.

The estimated AUS$3.5m we are donating via tax revenue that might have otherwise been spent on services for, say, the desperately disadvantaged Aboriginal communities the billionaire Oprah and hangers-on are keen to gawp at, is insignificant, according to former Tourism Minister, John Brown,

'We spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years without much effect, I must say that honestly.'

And that's an argument for chucking a couple of million dollars at one of the few people in the world who would regard such an amount as conceptually meaningless? Oprah's probably spent more than that on chocolates and Christian Louboutin shoes. The phrase 'good money after bad' springs to mind. Ex-minister Brown continues,

'The publicity that Oprah will bring to Australia around the world is something you couldn't buy.'

Except that we have, apparently.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Real Julias 2, Rabbitohs 1

And don't you ever try that again. Kodakotype by Pants

The Punch & Judy Show that is Australian politics has thrown up a result at last. That happened on Tuesday. The country managed perfectly well without an elected government for a couple of weeks. I don't think the sheep knew the nation was in crisis. Asylum seekers got a brief reprieve while our constitutional viability hung by a thread and no one started any wars or introduced any taxes.

I have been in no real rush to pronounce on the denouement. It is something of an anti-climax after the nail-biting seventeen days, three hours and forty-nine minutes-but-who's-counting in which three unknown country independents played a very long hand of Texas Hold'em with our GDP.

Real Julia (aka Muzgalard, aka Judy) won. Her opponent Rabbitoh (aka Mezdarabbit aka Punch) also won - in his imagination. It seems the Rabbitohs do not think the result is 'fair'. The Australian people clearly wanted 'a change of government', they say. The Rabbitohs got more seats, more actual votes and a higher percentage of the preferential vote, they say.

Well, no, no and no, actually. The Australian Electoral Commission hasn't quite finished counting but the Real Julias (aka Australian Labor Party), are ahead of the Rabbitohs (aka Liberal/National Coalition) on all three measures. Admittedly, there's not a lot in it but it's difficult to see how less can be made to appear more in this instance.

The Rabbitohs would have us believe that, by this flimsy token which also happens to be a giant porkie, the Real Julias have not achieved 'legitimacy' as a government. I could be wrong, but I don't think it quite works that way.

It's a bit like saying the bigger the jar of Marmite, the more authentically Marmite it is. This is plainly erroneous. Even a hospitality sachet of Marmite is still Marmite. Unless of course it's mislabled and is, in fact, marmalade. Although not terribly pleasant if, like me, you love Marmite but are pathologically ambivalent towards marmalade, such an occurrence is extremely rare in politics.

You may not be able to fit a policy Rizla between the fiercely opposed teams vying for control of this great land, but it's still fairly easy to pick the players who've had Marmite for breakfast.

Then there is the question of the collective intent of 'the Australian people'. Now, to take up the Marmite metaphor again. Say I am a single molecule in a jar of Marmite - you wouldn't be the first, believe me. We may all be able to recognise that collectively we comprise Marmite but I very much doubt that we would be able to collectively will ourselves to turn into marmalade, no matter how desperately the politician holding the toast might desire it.

I also suspect that we would find it equally difficult to convince someone spreading their toast with Marmite, that they would prefer to be eating marmalade. It would be an uphill battle with me, I can assure you.

So, I hope that clarifies the situation for my international friends. These things are enormously difficult to understand, aren't they?

I must say, it does seem a very good time to be a 'regional Australian'. Larrikin's End, while possibly not the sort of place most people would consider to be a good investment prospect, is set to prosper from this particular roll of the electoral dice. It's what Vernon God Little would call a new 'power-dime'. If anyone can jiggy a fucken lurk from a shifting power-dime, it's the layabouts of Larrikin's End.

How has this miracle of fortune come about? National government in Australia has basically been a two-hander for all of my longish life and beyond. There have occasionally been other parties. In the time I lived abroad, the peculiar Australian Democrats came and went. For a period they ruled our upper house, the Senate. From July next year, the Greens will wield in the Senate, hopefully with gentle intent.

For reasons I cannot explain, we elect a batch of Senators a year in advance. Perhaps they need to go on preparatory viaduct-building seminars and attend workshops to perfect their theatrical hissing and snarling skills.

Sorry, you wanted to know about the Larrikin's End windfall. Australia's political arsenal always has a couple of time bombs in it. You will usually find them described as 'colourful', meaning you can safely assume they are mad but no one else was willing to stand so they are it.

When the numbers had done with their crunching and the dust finally settled on the world's driest continent, three dudes were left holding the balance of power. Incredibly, only one of them was mad.

The nation's media, whose cultural reference palette runs an impressive gamut from HBO to Hollywood and back on a good day, dubbed them 'the three amigos'. They are three country independents whose natural affiliation would have been with the Rabbitohs except they'd been chucked out or something else generally unpretty had happened.

Real Julia needed only two of the three. Real Julia had the high hand. The payout to 'regional Australia' is one billion of our fine Aussie dollars. Not a lot in today's money. What does a billion get you? An Olympic swimming pool? It's rumoured that Rabbitoh promised a lot more. The game was up when 'due process' revealed that Rabbitoh's offer was made up of betting slips and pawn tickets.

Ever the optimists, we Larrikin's Enders look forward to a chip off that billion coming our way. We probably won't get enough for a new gas cylinder for the community shark'n'neeps fryer but we might get a new awning over McDunny's. That would be handy as the one he's got up now doubles as the respect quilt for road fatalities and I'm not sure that's entirely hygienic.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The god of small minds

View from our window by Pants

I am very lucky. Seat of Pants has a spectacular outlook. I can't imagine ever living in a house with no outlook. At the moment, I'm more reliant than ever on confirmation that the world is, in fact, a very big and diverse place. Having an ocean to look out upon helps a lot. An ocean is proof that your insular, myopic country has a boundary. Beyond this point there may be dragons but also, quite possibly, intelligent life. Sadly, for me, the nearest landmass is Tasmania. It's a version of Australia as envisaged by Quentin Tarantino. But never mind.

Soon there will be whales. They can't arrive soon enough. Whales come from elsewhere, bringing all the promise that elsewhere exists. I think of how desperately I wanted to leave Australia when I was young and how I miraculously did and how brilliant that was except that I came back and it had regressed, so hideously and unimaginably. I left in the early 1980s and returned three decades later in the early 1950s. My only consolation is that being an American repatriate is probably much worse.

Timothy Egan in The New York Times writes about the escalating ignorance of Americans. An increasing number believe that President Barack Obama is (1) not an American citizen (2) not a Christian, despite the official reproduction of his birth certificate and evidence of his religious practice appearing with pointless regularity in every possible media crevice.

Of course it's worrying that Americans are still cloaking racism in cultural convention, but hardly surprising. What's really shocking is their flagrant willingness to suspend the distinction between factual and conjectural information. Did anyone ever question that Dr Martin Luther King was (1) an American citizen (2) a practising Christian person? There is nothing quite like an inability to distinguish verifiable fact from unknowable conjecture as a gauge for rank stupidity.

I have had a related experience this week. Occasionally, I make a bid to offer my usefulness to society as a volunteer. I regret to say these efforts have yielded uniformly negative results to date. Perhaps some of that is my fault. I've had a lot of experience of evaluating community and voluntary organisations in receipt of government money. Suffice to say, my eyes are significantly less bright and my tail pitifully less bushy than they might otherwise have been as a result of this direct witness. It's a sad thing when the only evidence of an organisation's creativity is in its gift for subterfuge.

I had it in mind to contribute to literacy. There exists, apparently, a national literacy programme. After a longer internet trawl than should have been necessary, I managed to track down a contact info@ address. A week or so later, I received a 'don't really know much about this but you could try...' response. In my experience, this sort of reply is routine when you try to follow up on an 'initiative' with blanket TV advertising and a call centre number. I didn't phone the call centre because I knew the 'person' I would end up 'speaking' to would be programmed to collect 'data' and would not be remotely capable of dealing with my inquiry.

So I did try phoning the contact number given by the vague 'you could try...' person. It connected to Larrikin's End Community College. I am reasonably sure it's the place Joseph K is taken in The Trial, so I approached with some hesitancy. A woman with extreme salon hair and scary talons sat me on a broken typist's chair and explained to me authoritatively that literacy is 'not about reading and writing'. When I cautiously raised an eyebrow, she sternly informed me that 'students don't respond to a classroom environment'. Oh, so that would explain why my own education was such an unmitigated disaster then. I felt like the meat in a Derrida sandwich about to be demolished by Foucault.

The 'literacy' programme at Larrikin's End Community College comprises a cooking class and a gardening class. The gardening class is taken by someone whose own English is, shall we say, in development. Can't be too careful with these things. Wouldn't want to confront our learners with intimidating expertise now would we? Wouldn't that do desperate things to their self esteem to realise that there are people in the world who have transmittable knowledge from which someone might benefit? God, I'd be suicidal too if I had to face the possibility that there was someone in the world with a more advanced understanding than I have, about anything.

I know it's pointless to argue with an automaton so I don't. There are ethical issues, to be sure, but if you think an automaton has more hope of grasping these than it has of telling fact from conjecture, then you need to check your pulse. I was handed a form to fill in. Naturally, it was designed to solicit as much demographic information as it is possible to collect without appearing voyeuristic. I put down my name, address, email and mobile number and backed out of the room very, very slowly.

I did not complete the copious questions about my interests, skills, abilities and the inevitable one that asks 'how did you find out about us?' You'd need to set a month aside to tackle that one. It's like a Cluedo question. Clearly, they make it as difficult as possible to 'find out about us'. They appear only to want you to discover them and then plot your trail for posterity. They have no interest at all in engaging you further. It seems like a motiveless crime.

To deal with the modern world, you need a strong bunker. But the bunker needs a window. Sea is great but nothing quite beats sky. Many of our metaphors for mood come from sky. Blue skies, grey skies, dark skies, bright skies. The moon in all its psychological phases. Clouds convey storms, glooms and obfuscations. And the sun. It rises and it also sets. A neon reminder that there will be a tomorrow. I have them all. I need them all because I can only think outside the metaphorical box by being able to see beyond my particular home box in a way that isn't filtered or censored or reinterpreted. It's just me looking.

Thank you Seat of Pants for all your spectacular picture windows and skylights because you never let me forget that there is a universe out there and that it is my responsibility to see it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Four men and a mobile

Kodakotype by Pants

The Australian election. Root canal treatment without anaesthetic while watching a scoreless draw with teams made up of Belgian Big Brother evictees and Turkey's Got Talent rejects. It goes to a penalty shoot out and guess what? No goals. And no government. So all that suffering was for nothing. Nothing! The CIA has already patented a selection of sound grabs from the interminable witterings of our parliamentary candidates which they plan to use to drive Colombian drug barons from their mountain lairs.

When I discovered my passport was out of date, I nearly did myself in. And you know the worst of it? The Australian election cycle is officially three years but governments usually barely last two and often go to the polls after one. This means that politicians are never in anything but re-election mode. It's one long, insufferable me-fest characterised by unseemly neediness and a freakish disdain for coherency. There is a limited perverse pleasure in watching people so desperate to be heard struggling to find the ability to speak, I suppose.

Thinking the end is mercifully nigh, I hold on to my sanity by ignoring the local media and reading only foreign papers online. Election day finally dawns. I pootle down to the Larrikin's End Bingo Hall to exercise my compulsory free democratic right. In the lower house, the choice is between two Darrens. There are an awful lot of Darrens in this election. Darren could be a generic term for Member of Parliament for all I know.

It's not been easy to decipher actual information in this campaign. One could be forgiven for thinking it's all been one long charitable plea for compassion towards the intellectually disadvantaged. Please give this halfwit a job. He could never survive in the real world.

As always, I have a book with me. I've learned never to approach a potential queuing situation without a book. A book is portable defensible space. Most people will respect that someone with their nose in a book is telling you the doctor is definitely not in.

I arrive at the Bingo Hall. A monstrous matron with salon hair and orang-utan lips shrieks at me on behalf of blue Darren. I manage to escape with my hearing more or less intact. I'm for red Darren and I've already memorised the order. The last time I voted in an Australian election was 1980. I made it my business to bone up on the form beforehand. After all I've been through, I don't want to end up with a spoiled vote.

The book is an excellent idea. It's a seriously large hardback that screams do not disturb. Actually it says Sebastian FaulksA Week in December, but it has the same effect. Inside the Bingo Hall is a line of people going all the way around the outside wall. The last time I was in a queue this long there was a jumbo jet involved. This is a half-hour queue. I open the book immediately. The man two behind starts one of those pointless conversations that immediately identifies him as a nutter with the woman directly behind me. Don't know why we bother. Doesn't matter who you vote for, you end up with a politician. Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Thank you Sebastian.

Half an hour later I get to the registration table. I'm exceptionally good at judging queue duration. Methuselah's grandfather asks my name. He hears my reply on the fourth attempt, as does everyone else in the room. He finds my name, ticks it off and hands me a small green paper listing a selection of fine Darrens. He also hands me a white paper that looks like something the Andrex puppy dragged in. The senate ballot is three feet long but short on Darrens.

On my way home, I stop into McDunny's for three portions of our world famous local specialty shark'n'neeps. Barney and the Question Why very sensibly sent in postal votes. This handily dispensed with some awkward eligibility issues. I'm not sure quite how they managed to enfranchise themselves but they have been taking an unusual interest in the death notices in the Larrikin's End Idler of late.

Shark'n'neeps all squared away, we gather around the television with a big bowl each of Barney's fine vodkamisu. What a shock. We are used to the BBC's Peter Snow and his frenzied waving arms and his maps with lots of flashing lights and his state-of-the-art swingometer thingy. But what do we get from Australia's national broadcaster? A quartet of pale stale males and a mobile phone.

That's it? says the Question Why. For seven hours we follow two journalists, one with his face permanently buried in a laptop, and two grimacing senators. It would appear their priority is not to provide an engaged perspective to a television audience. The senators spend the evening taking calls from their central offices because this is where all the information is coming from. It's like sitting in an accountants' office for a whole day and watching them quietly getting on with their work. Although they probably wouldn't let you spend the day downing vodka slammers in an accountants' office. I suppose from the senators' point of view, the experience is akin to inviting the whole country along to your job interview. Whichever way you look at it, it's weird.

Every now and again the head presenter, Kerry O'Brien, (who at least has the decency to have hair that is a colour other than grey), locks onto a camera and demonstrates the delicate art of stating the painfully obvious. To relieve the tedium they occasionally cut to a woman overlaid with a bar chart. A bar chart! Where are our bells? Where are our whistles? Why don't they just calculate it all on an abacus? At least the sound might be an interesting distraction.

All that is going to happen is done by 7.30 but the broadcast continues for another five hours. Why don't they adjourn to the pub and throw peanuts at each other? asks the Question Why. We certainly would have done that if we'd been in the swivel chair.

We appear to have a dead heat, with an emphasis on the dead. At some point we will get a government, although what use it will be is another matter. We don't know much about what either side intends to do. They were all so busy telling us what they weren't going to do that they never actually got around to outlining any actions. It would appear that electoral reform will be on the agenda. Barney has come up with a proposal that sounds quite good to me. He suggests that MPs should be chosen in a community game of Spin the Bottle. He says he'll even provide the bottles. Policy matters should be decided by a couple of rounds of Truth and Dare. This would all be over quite quickly and we could then spend the rest of the night throwing peanuts at each other. Sounds like a plan to me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Real Julia - not a Spanish football team, but close

Real Julia by Pants

Many megapixels ago, Ma Pants popped a little Kodak under the Pants family artificial Christmas tree. Ever since that happy day I have used it to subvert the basic claim of digital imagery - greater clarity.

Recently, I made a tiny incremental upgrade to a Canon Powershot because they were going very cheap. It's an ill GFC don't blow no one some good. The Canon is better for everyday pics where I want a pelican to look like a pelican but the Kodak is my instrument of choice for one of my favourite occupations.

I admit it's a bit weird to want to use new technologies like digital cameras and flat-screen TVs to create a very old effect like a double exposure. On a certain aesthetic level, a much better result could be achieved in a few minutes using Photoshop.

But I grew up with the obligation to spent a long Christmas holiday with the happy-clapping country grand-parents. The big box of old photos was a source of great imaginary journeys through a family who gave little away. My other choice was to fashion felt figures into pre-determined biblical outcomes. What would you pick?

My grand-parents were all born more than 100 years ago and some of the photos in the big box were of their grand-parents. The photos that I loved the best were the big family portraits where at least one face was lost to history because its owner could not stay still for the requisite minutes required to secure an accurate fix. My family are big sneezers. I've always been interested in the more blurred aspects of life anyway.

I admit I was only half engaged in the discourse transpiring on the ABC-TV programme Q&A when I made this Kodakotype, but I must own to being chuffed when my meagre efforts were rewarded. I need little incentive to remain in bed during this turgid winter so it's absolutely thrilling to me to be able to create while maintaining a resolutely slothful demeanour.

Our electronic media typically refers to our Prime Minister as Muzgalard. This nation will live to regret the latent skimping on elocution tuition that frequently forces previously distinct words into one long sausage of strangled syntax. Adds a new dimension to the term 'mincing words'. Although I'm all in favour of visual blurring, verbal bubble'n'squeak is more difficult to take pleasure in.

The PM's name as it is writ is Ms Julia Gillard. Our media mouthpieces like to place a strong stress on the Ms so that everyone will know how terribly clever and modern we are to have a post-feminist, unmarried woman PM. She's also an atheist but it's a bit more difficult to represent that in speech.

Anyway, the PM has had something of an identity crisis of late. She began her re-election campaign as if she were embarking on the first reading of a part she wasn't all that sure she wanted to play. The all-important opinion polls reacted. She took a painfully long time to settle on a suitable personal style, which was more than a little rattling as her opponent, Mezdarabbit, is thicker than two short planks with George W Bush in the middle. Then she compounded the error by treating us to a running commentary on how she intended to pop herself back on the casting couch and re-emerge as a reinvented 'real' Julia. This little 'making of' featurette did little for her credibility.

But it did give me the opportunity for a neat, if trite, visual metaphor. I am, after all, ethnically Australian so it is in my DNA to be shallow.

Those of us who are pathologically dissatisfied like to fancy that there is an alternative to this world and that the portal through which it can be entered is discoverable if only we can bring ourselves to a worthy state of divine idleness. It may appear that the double-exposure Kodakotype is merely the lucky result of clicking at the precise moment the director makes a decision to switch cameras but to me it is proof of another, more engaging world. It is the hope that keeps me alive.

Our political landscape is a dismal thing. Fortunately, any idiot can run Australia. Many have before and many will again. Meanwhile, I shall keep searching for my fractal escape hatch...

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Char baby, let's call it a day

Hearth break by Pants

I now understand why the poor waifs who attended to cleaning duties in the great houses of Britain were called chars. Seat of Pants is hardly a stately manor but it does require great efforts on our part to keep the house functional. I say 'our' but it's actually down to me to sort our collective creature comfort. Barney is all paws and claws when it comes to anything practical and the Question Why is annoyingly inclined to revert to type to no useful end at the sight of a domestic dilemma.

A southern Australian winter is tough on us soft Londoners used to double glazing and cheap gas-fired central heating. Although we do have some oil heaters and a reverse-cycle air-con thingy, I much prefer to use the wood fire as it heats the whole house evenly and at predictable cost. Larrikin's End is in a forestry-managed part of the world so we are burning locally grown timber brought to us by admittedly dodgy geezers who don't charge very much and do their best to cheerfully stack the logs in the shed, however complex an operation that would appear to them to be.

The Pants hearth doth create a lovely warmth. Unfortunately, one has to have the skill and timing of a whole Royal Navy engine-room regiment to keep the fucking thing going. Happily, enough trees either die from neglect or get knocked down in storms to provide kindling for the year. I buy newspapers for two reasons. The other one is that I can't work out how to do sudoku online. I'm terrific at getting the fire going. But I'm always busy doing something else when the right time for another log rolls around.

The stove is perfectly located for heat distribution. It's on the ground floor, right in the middle of the house. The problem is, I'm usually on the upper floor. You can't see it from the photo but the flue extends up to the second floor and acts like a radiator. I only notice that the temperature is dropping when it's too late to just chuck another log in. That means I either sacrifice precious kindling to get it going again or reacquaint myself with the beaver lamb coat I bought at Camden Market in 1982 and only ever seriously wore in a Russian winter.

Maybe it's just me. I've never had to deal with a wood fire before. I've been in houses with open fireplaces that had carpet and soft furnishings that were unabashedly cream. I'm sure I have. And their owners didn't seem the least bit stressed. And the creaminess of their decor didn't seem the least bit compromised. It must be just me. My fire isn't even an open one but the soot just gets everywhere. I've cleaned it up for the picture. It took a great many minutes, I can tell you.

I was lucky that the previous owners of Seat of Pants left the fireplace implements as they didn't leave anything else. When I relinquished House of Pants London, I left my successor an entire folio of operating instructions for the flat including manuals for all the important appliances. How difficult can that be?

I've been established at Seat of Pants for nearly two years and the other day I found a light switch in the kitchen I hadn't discovered before. That could be an indicator of how much time I spend in my kitchen.

The soot, however, isn't as easy to ignore. I now understand the concept of spring cleaning and why our ancestors used to beat their rugs. Happily, my rugs are all machine washable. With your permission, I shall beat Barney instead.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Sub-Prime Ministerial Crisis

Neckeneck by Pants

If I begin by quoting Princess Diana, you will have no trouble locating the business of this post in the index of gravity I know you keep meticulously for matters of world import.

'There were three people in this marriage. It was a bit crowded.'

Yes, that is what the koala-eyed martyr to style over sense told BBC Panorama interviewer Martin Bashir back in 1995, leading many of us watching to speculate more about what had become of the famously serious and probing Panorama than to muse over the skeleton of the royal marriage. It had been three years, after all, since the Wales's separation had been announced by the then Prime Minister John Major with a characteristic sombreness that was custom made for such an occasion. It was old news then. Why should it be of even the remotest interest now?

At that time, the Oprahfication of the media was merely a spark in its creator's greedy eye. We did not know then that within a wink of that eye, every item would be judged by its ubiquity, portability and endurance rather than its intrinsic value. A Princess Diana story was like a plastic bag. It could transport and distribute any amount of emotional tat and would take a thousand years to biodegrade. Little did we realise that this plastic standard would be the one by which every public interest story would be judged into a Disneverever future.

Cut to Australia and Election 2010 - Two Punches and a Judy. Much like the historical royal scrappage à trois, there are three people in this tussle. All are appealing to us to lift them into credibility via seasonal prêt-à-porter notions. We are all Martin Bashir now. But where to begin? The plot is less engaging than one of those desperately hopeless American sit-coms that die halfway through the first series. We have only the characters on which to pin our ... hope is too fantastical a word. All I can think of is undespair. Let me press on with my nightmarish imagining.

Neckeneck, a play in three scraggly acts by Pants

Dramatis Personae
Punch 1 is played by Kev Nrud, a sorehead from Queensland.
Judy is played by Muzga Lard, a redhead from Victoria.
Punch 2 is played by Mezda Rabbit, a bonehead from New South Wales.

It's very much a work in progress but here's where we are in our workshopping.

Act 1 - Location : The merry-go-round.
Punch 1 has a sort of breakdown which is a bit serious because he's meant to be running the country. Judy pushes him off the merry-go-round and takes over. All action is offstage which is a bit confusing for the audience.

Act 2 - Location : The slippery slide.
Judy and Punch 2 stare at each other for the longest time. Punch 1 goes into hospital.

Act 3 - Location : The sandpit.
Punch 1 emerges from hospital having had his gall bladder removed. It is not known whether a plastic bag has been inserted in its place as, clearly, not all possible gall has been exhausted. The principals are joined in the sandpit by any and all living former leaders of every political party and a couple of dead ones to boot. John Belushi yells, 'food fight' and it's on for young and old.

Anyone's guess but a car crash is definitely in the mix.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Mr Mombastic

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of Australiana. To me, it's the cultural equivalent of never having gotten over a crush on Plastic Bertrand. A childish joke that should be vacuum-sealed and placed in a museum of ill-considered novelties.

My birth-mother nation is, I am afraid to say, often on the brink of toppling into inescapable artistic self-parody by excessive reliance on its limited vocabulary of clichés. Outsiders - and I am, having lived most of my adult life abroad, definitely an outsider - don't find it funny or clever.

So, when someone actually turns this mawk magnet on its head and creates genuinely great art from the crass artifacts that comprise Australiana, I find I must scratch the surface. Such a someone is Chris O'Doherty, AKA Reg Mombassa, late of 80s pop funsters Mental as Anything and fresh from a long stint designing shorts for Mambo and blow-up figures for the Sydney Olympics.

The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa by Murray Waldren (HarperCollins, 432pp) came out in Australia last year and, as far as I can tell, is not yet available anywhere else. That I am reviewing it is quite possibly a pointless exercise, as it costs as much as a fortnight's worth of groceries and wine, a budget-battering AUS$75. However, the Larrikin's End Municipal Library has seen fit to purchase it, giving me the chance to peruse at my leisure. I must remember to check the librarian for signs of malnutrition.

All the classic components of crass are assembled - the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, beer cans, thongs, utes, barbecues, kangaroos, pineapples. But somehow, these magically conspire to create something wonderful rather than induce a desire to reach for a large G&T and go in search of my passport. How is it that Mombassa has burrowed his way into the cold heart of Pants while Ken Done remains fit only for one's fourth-best umbrella?

I think it's because he's a transplanted New Zealander. Kiwis have an uncanny ability to observe Australian life with great affection and empathy while maintaining a detachment from our mucky and rather nasty competitiveness. There is a layer of smugness which is almost mandatory in Australian artists taking Australia as their subject. Mombassa displays an objectivity that reads as sincerity. And he tells you something you don't know about something you think you either do or should know everything about. I'm amazed and delighted he's gotten away with that for so long.

Australians are obsessed with contributing to the nation's imaginary world standing. All you have to do to realise how anachronistic a notion Australian nationalism actually is, even if you think you're being ironic, is to leave the country for an extended period. The long stay is important because anyone will humour you if they think they don't have to listen to you for very long. London certainly set me straight. Britons know precisely three things about Australia,

1) Neighbours.
2) Minogues.
3) It's where Aunt Evelyn went in 1965 and was never heard from again.

Australia is Belgium with beaches, a perpetual summer with Plastic Bertrand.

One of the keenest observers of flaws in the Australian psyche is Kiwi Richard Lewer, long-time resident of Melbourne.

When I first saw Lewer's I must learn to like myself, (above), I was seized with great joy and a little jealousy. As school children, we were made endlessly to draw maps of Australia, its individual states and, occasionally, some of its neighbours. I can probably still fashion reasonable facsimiles of Japan and New Zealand. I may not have been as familiar with the reality of chalking up a hundred lines as Bart Simpson is but the concept is not lost on me. I received this punishment only a couple of times. 'I must not talk in class' was one. The thought of a child verbally interacting with her education was enough to send a teacher in search of a shaman in my time.

I must learn to like myself is the kind of artistic moment I dream of stumbling upon and celebrate when I do. For me the perfect artwork is like a magic mirror. You see a smarter version of yourself staring back at you. It is the statement I always wanted to make about my birth-mother country and never thought of - hence the hint of jealousy. It distils our seemingly intractable struggle with both internal and external identity into the penance of a disturbed and untidy but also incorrigibly aspirational child.

Kiwis get us in a way we don't get ourselves. Reg Mombassa can arrange a pick'n'mix of idiot icons whose singular talents would be lucky to score themselves a place in a snow dome into an ensemble cast of characters capable of performing Brecht.

Rosalie Gascoigne was one of the greatest artists Australia ever produced. She too came from New Zealand with an open mind and preparedness to embrace this country and the greatness it was ready and willing to reveal. When she arrived with her astronomer husband in the nation's capital soon after WW2 ended, she was alarmed to find that her contemporaries among the 'wives' were only concerned with the minutiae of decorum. Gascoigne was a university graduate too and not about to be defeated by what others made of her housekeeping shortcomings.

Neither was she inclined to make Hokusai-sized waves and discovered her milieu in Sogetsu Ikebana. Here she found a discipline worthy of her intelligence. She credits it with 'training her eye'. Gascoigne went on to create monumental but poignantly personal interpretations of rural Australia when many home-grown artists of European origin were still struggling to work out whether or not they were allowed to go there in art.

Reg Mombassa navigates his expansive territory with equal confidence. Taming the wild beasts of Australian trashonography into sweet and fine jokes is no mean achievement. But that's only a smidge of the Mombassa range. I was delighted to find that much of his work is in coloured pencil, a habit he got into on the road. And he draws and paints from photographs. If you have been to art school, you will know that it is a total no-no to admit to this practice unless you are stratospherically famous.

If you are wealthy enough to buy this book, or fortunate enough to have a library with undermanaged underspend, you will delight in the preternatural re-interpretations of family snapshots of people and places from the real life of Chris O'Doherty. He is generous enough to allow reproductions of the actual photos so you can see for yourself how he substracts the superfluous and adds the little sprinkle of self that takes you to where he lives.

The most exciting thing for me, apart from all the scuzzy background Mentals gossip which I missed over the last quarter century, is to absorb, in one great gasp, the extraordinary breadth of the Chris/Reg vision and goggle at the beauty of his mature landscapes.

Buy it or borrow it as soon as you can.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Books and the Booker

Books and the Booker by Pants

I hate calling it the 'Man' Booker Prize. It's an unwelcome reminder that at least two thirds of all literary prizes are won by men. The Booker, to use my preferred nomenclature, does mix it up a bit, with the occasional woman, non-white man and even non-white woman breaking through. I haven't read all the winning books since the prize's inception in 1969 but I've worked my way through nearly all in the last twenty years and most of the shortlist as well.

There are a few missing from my experience. At the moment I'm reading The Line of Beauty. I first started to read it in 2005. I was a few pages in when the London bombings occurred. I was on the tube, going to work at Wembley Town Hall at the time. All I'd remembered was that Nick's first ever blind date is with a black guy who works for The London Borough of Brent. His ghost would have been located somewhere in my building. I found that mildly amusing, but not enough to keep on with the book. I'm having better luck this time.

These days I don't buy books new as they cost the same as a week's worth of wine and groceries. Luckily for me, there is a charity shop in our nearest big town where someone with both a high disposable income and Booker-related tastes deposits her pre-devoured books with unseemly haste. She must have a spurn-after-reading policy. I assume she's female because women comprise the vast majority of readers of literary fiction. Last week I picked up a copy of Wolf Hall for a precious few of our local dollars. Thank you frivolous benefactor.

My other source is throwing out great hints around birthdays and Christmas. By this method I have acquired several Booker winners and one or two shortlisters. I've assembled all the chosen that could be culled from my bookshelves and photographed while the microwave was reheating last night's leftover gnocchi and char-grilled vegetables. It should be noted that when Barney char grills it usually isn't intentional but I don't like to waste food. I am less precious about sparing Barney's feelings.

I'm fairly sure I've got a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin somewhere. Despite my spending the better part of a day sorting my fiction collection into alphabetical order, it was not there among the 'A's. I secured a copy of The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai on one of my regular assaults on the Ilford Oxfam just before I left England for good in 2008. I was on my way to India and thought it would be a good topical read. I was there for over a month and, fortunately, fell in with a group of readers. We kept swapping books and I ended up with a lovely hardcover first edition of On Chesil Beach.

Sadly, that was a week or so after I'd met Ian McEwan in Jaipur so I wasn't able to get him to sign it. On that occasion, the sainted one said some rather spiteful things about Anne Enright's book The Gathering, which had beaten him out for the Booker a few months earlier. I wouldn't have liked to have had to choose between them. I didn't get to read The Gathering until I arrived in Australia and secured a library card. Then I could see why McEwan was so pissed off. They'd essentially written the same book. Both were stunningly crafted examinations of human frailty. When I feel, as I so often do, that I'm completely ill-equipped for life, a book like The Gathering or On Chesil Beach reminds me that I'm failing at least as well as most people.

By chance, I recently came across an article or blog post which I have now no hope of referencing because it was days ago and there has been much wine under the bridge since then. The substance was that the writer had attended a writing workshop given by Anne Enright in which Ms Enright advised on the writing of dialogue. What she said was that one should hold a page of dialogue at a distance and if the lines looked roughly the same length, then you're doing it right. Arise St. Anne.

I've recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road for the first (and very likely not the last) time. It absolutely obeys the Enright manifesto and is a work of complete perfection. It would, of course, never have been eligible for The Booker Prize which is only open to writers from countries who did not wage war on the British Empire and win. This is going to sound strange but reading that book brimmed me over with hope. McCarthy allows himself a pauper's palette of possibilities yet creates an absolute jewel from almost nothing. Something about that just makes me want to live.

Mostly, I agree with Booker selections. The God of Small Things, A Fraction of the Whole, Vernon God Little, and Booker of Bookers winner Midnight's Children will always have an honoured place among my favourite books. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole lost out in 2008 to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It seemed a bit unfair. Although I enjoyed The White Tiger I had a lot of trouble getting into step with its rhythm. This week I listened to a recording of it with first-person narrator Balram represented precisely in the clichéd sing-songy voice my instincts were working very hard to reject on ethical grounds. I immediately reviewed the text and found the writer's intent was to infer exactly that voice. Multiculturalism is complicated.

Which brings me to the latest Booker longlist. I've only read one of the books on it, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I've also only read one of the shock omissions, Solar by Ian McEwan. As difficult as it is to leave aside my McEwan bias, all I can say is I wouldn't have minded being a fly on the wall in the McEwan house when the list was announced, especially if he'd read The Slap.

It is the sort of book that induces only despair for the future of literature. It struggles to overcome an extreme hands-off editing strategy which often leaves you wondering if you're reading several drafts of the same sentence. The laboured explanations of cultural and symbolic references are simply baffling. 'Show don't tell' is superseded by 'show and tell to the point of torture'. If, as has been suggested by the local media, The Slap represents life in modern multicultural Australia, then I'm an inter-generational panel beater on the international gelati exchange. Seriously, the only pertinent slap present is to the face of the intelligent reader.

Solar - I know I've been saying I'd write a review for weeks. I just loved it and can't imagine that I could add much to what's already been said about it. It's a familiar journey in excellence. Ma Pants, (who is 80), and I read it at the same time and we had several highly animated discussions on the finer points. Perhaps this isn't much of an advert. Possibly more a kiss of death. I hope it's not the case that Booker judges are presuming to pander to what they imagine is more accessible to young people - i.e. representing the muck and mess of life with mucky and messy writing.

McEwan's infuriatingly successful non-entity Michael Beard and his complexity of work/life intrigues is far more fascinating to me than Tsiolkas's cardboardery of creeps whose inability to resolve their tediously contrived minor personal 'issue' unfolds over an interminable 483pp. After overhearing St. Ian diss St. Anne I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the body of one C. Tsiolkas has been found inexplicably inert in the vicinity of a damaged glass table.

* * * *

Those of you who are parents or owners of expensive hyp0-allergenic designer pets will, I am sure, sympathise with my current position. Barney, as you may know, is a billionaire in his own right but I am still responsible for his conduct. You cannot imagine my horror at being accused of owning a pet who knowingly contributed to the intoxication of a man who has been eligible to get legless for the past three years. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that Daniel Radcliffe's 21st birthday party did, in fact, take place at one of Barney's extensive chain of Goblet of Fire Vodka Bars. You cannot imagine what we had to promise the Daily Mail to suppress Barney's involvement. Suffice to say that his cameo in The Deathly Hallows is probably being excised as I write. I did warn him...