Monday, May 31, 2010

Oil's well that doesn't end

Oil's well by Pants

You want to know how seriously we here at Seat of Pants take the recent deep-sea oil spills? Well, very, as we have no fewer than eighteen of these life-sustaining deathtraps in our backyard. For newer Pantsotees - our backyard is Bass Strait in the South Pacific Ocean.

We wondered how we might participate in the public debate on the future safety and viability of oil and gas exploration in our own region so we tuned into ABC Radio National's Australia Talks. We think this programme should be renamed The Host Talks but never mind.

The company of 'we' comprises the question Why and your own Pants - not actually your own pants obviously but, frankly, if you have any old trews lying around with a view to express we'd be more than interested. Australia Talks would have benefitted from an argument with legs too.

Barney disqualified himself from impartial discussion and gallantly made a declaration of 'oil interests'. He's gone off to grill us some fresh Tasmanian salmon which he plans to serve on a bed of organic wild rice, (which he has assured us he shot himself today from sustainable stocks - the rice I mean. I'm pretty sure he got the salmon through his voligarch connections which probably means they were tortured. We don't like to ask), and seasonal vegetables.

I know he shot the vegetables himself. I was there. Fortunately, I was weeding in the unseasonal patch at the time. We thought better of explaining to Barney that drizzling olive oil over char-grilled slippery jacks does not constitute an 'oil interest' for the purpose of this discussion.

So, chardonnay in hand, the question Why and I were all ears - or both ears if you prefer. And this is what we have learned:-

1) The oil spill has happened because people insist on driving 4WD cars.

We are culpa. By that I mean it's all Barney's fault. Before I had Barney I always drove a BMW.

2) Once an oil spill has happened it's a dreadfully difficult thing to sort out.

We wholeheartedly agree. Here at Seat of Pants we find even spilt milk hard to deal with since Barney self-diagnosed as lactose intolerant.

3) Oil companies would really much prefer that oil spills didn't happen because they fuck with profits like you would not believe.

Yes! We too hate it when people do not get that we want what we want because we want it.

Ommm. Ommm. Ommm.

Sorry, we have to chant that little ritual to get our vodkamisu - it's a special dessert Barney makes that renders us pathologically confessional which is why I'm going to tell you about our own oil slick experiment here at Seat of Pants.

We have spilled oil for the benefit of humanity. We have mixed it with balsamic vinegar in the name of science and made a miraculous discovery.

Look at the picture above. You see a smiley face - yes? (If not, please consult a psychotherapist immediately). Now, I'm going to let you in on a miraculous secret. Convert that picture to a thumbnail and you will see the eye of ... Well, yes, it could be Jamie Oliver.

We're terribly sorry that we can't present here a more scholarly view of the whole oil platform threat. When the host of a supposedly serious discussion programme on the nation's most prestigious radio network tells you he's about to 'get a comment off' a government minister and that government minister replies that he 'don't want to make no comment', the question Why and I are left wondering whether Martin Scorsese is writing the script...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Is it that complicated?

Sneaking out by Pants

Another week, another gay politician 'outed'. Sorry, what century are we in again? This time it's the British Lib-Dem Chief Secretary of the Treasury (for eighteen whole days), David Laws. To be fair, this story does have an interesting twist. It's not that he's gay or that he fiddled £40,000 which makes it so, but that he apparently diddled his expenses, because he's gay and didn't want anyone to know about it.

Sounds quaint and even a bit Hardyesque. On the face of it, this appears to be one of those old-fashioned dilemmas of gentility and manners where a seemingly irrelevant decision results in personal downfall and ruin. But actually, I think it represents a very modern dilemma. It has little to do with outward appearances and everything to do with self-determination.

The story goes that Laws, a wealthy man in his own right, had been claiming up to £950 a month in rent allowances for a room in a London property which was owned by his lover, James Lundie, who also happened to live there. No matter how flexible a relationship is, this is called cohabitation and it becomes quite important where public money is concerned.

Laws hit a fork in the road back in 2006 when the expenses rules were changed to prohibit MPs from claiming 'rent' on property leased from a 'partner'. He had already been living with Lundie for a number of years and claiming for, and presumably passing on to him, rent. When the rules changed, Laws was faced with a quandary. He was not 'out' to his family, friends or colleagues and neither did he want to be. That's his right. It was at this point that he made the fatal wrong decision.

You hear a lot these days about how entrenched the TINA Principle is in politics. Its popularity is credited to Margaret Thatcher. Like most things Thatcher, it seems to make a weird kind of pragmatic sense. It also means you finally get to go home and put your feet up after a long, hard day of decision-making. But later it leaps up and bites because of its tendency to set you adrift on a river of no return.

There is no alternative - this is what Laws must have thought. If he stopped claiming expenses, his colleagues would immediately draw the conclusion that he was living with 'a partner'. There was nothing else for it but to find a definition for the term 'partner' that excluded him. Fortunately, he was assisted in this venture by the populist, chitty-chatty language of the parliamentary rules which define 'partner' as,

one of a couple ... who although not married to each other or civil partners are living together and treat each other as spouses.

One should never overlook the tendency of all politicians to see rules simply as obstacles to be defeated but it does seem as if this vague definition was an aid to Laws's delusion. In a statement issued on Friday, he said,

"Although we were living together, we did not treat each other as spouses. For example, we do not share bank accounts and, indeed, have separate social lives. However, I now accept this was open to interpretation."

Perhaps a new definition of the term 'partner' is needed for the guidelines. It could say for example,

If you are living together and having sex you are 'partners' for the purpose of this regulation. We do not much care who buys the spinach mousse.

Perhaps Laws used the TINA Principle to arrive at his redefinition of the word 'partner' and perhaps he didn't but, having done so, he was able to rule out the other alternative - moving house. If he was not allowed to pay his partner rent but still needed a place to stay in London, why did he simply not think to pay rent to one of the seven or so million Londoners with whom he is not in a relationship? If he really wanted to safeguard his privacy, this would have been easily done. Newspapers aren't really interested in catching people out for doing the right thing, although that certainly would be news.

Here's where his flimsy definition does fall apart. They may not have had shared bank accounts, but clearly there were shared domestic finances. Laws has revealed that he remortgaged his constituency house in order to help Lundie buy a house. Rich people don't get that way by passing up free money. I can imagine it would be quite difficult to give up the expenses cash if you are used to it coming in. You can almost intuit the logic. They'd have to pay my rent anyway, why shouldn't it go to Jamie? Where else could you get a decent place in London for a thousand quid a month? I'm actually saving the Government money by living here! You can get a fair bit of spinach mousse for £40,000, even in central London.

Relativist justifications have been launched - and thankfully crashed and burned too. It isn't a swings and roundabouts thing. Maybe the rules weren't made to ensnare people like Laws. They were probably meant to stop MPs buying flats for their children in their spouse's name and using parliamentary expenses to pay off the mortgage. We know this and we've been through all the arguments before. You really can't have a rule with more exceptions than actual compliance. That's just silly.

Unfortunately, life does throw up moral dilemmas from time to time. Sadly for the former Secretary, he will be known for having one of the shortest careers ever in high office in British politics for failing to meet a challenge which, to be honest, was inevitable. Hubris hardly covers it. All of his ducks were lined up just waiting to be shot. Not only was he the second most important person at Treasury after the Chancellor, he was responsible for designing budget cuts which will deprive a great many people in the public sector of their livelihoods. Worse, he's been forced out in the ghastliest possible way, with everyone mad at him. Gay activists are understandably up in arms. Not only has he set public perceptions back about fifty years, but he seems to be using the fact that he's gay as an excuse for cheating.

As is often the case when financial irregularities force politicians to resign, tributes for Laws point to the abundance of his integrity and single him out as one of the brightest of the new batch. Either the bar is still set very low or all these incredibly scrupulous and clever people have an uneasy relationship with their self-destruct button. Strange phenomenon, that.

I said at the beginning this is a very modern dilemma. It's astonishing that this man's lack of an ability to recognise who and what he is has had such a devastating impact on his life. No one gives a toss about him being gay - why on earth would he think they would? Somehow he's conflated expectations that simply don't exist with a structure of probity that bears no relation to reality and is then stuck with keeping the illusion going.

Maybe the introduction of the new rule even assisted him in maintaining his denial. By choosing the path he did, he closed the option of ever coming out while he was still in politics. He made being openly gay incompatible with his career trajectory. And that is very much the TINA Principle at work. What we can be sure of is it was always all in his head and that speaks very powerfully of the sort of blinkered, self-serving ambition that people now deem a necessary factor in success.

What is so difficult about the real world that makes fantasy more attractive for the privileged? Actually, I don't think I want to know.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rainy Day Woman

Larrikin's End trying to be miserable by Pants

Rainy days are an invitation to stay in bed and think. Not that I need an excuse mind. I thought I might spend a moment or two with The Times this weekend as Rupert Bore is planning on charging for access to it from next week. So far I've confirmed that I won't be missing much. The question Why and I console ourselves with the certainty that we'll always have The Daily Mail if we really want to keep up with the latest posturings by and about handbags.

Speaking of which, we enjoyed this piece by Matthew Parris in which he laments the absence of an ethical upgrade in Her Majesty's Parliament with the incoming Tory-dominated coalition. It is amusing to us that anyone could think the same group of people would profoundly alter their behaviour simply because they are sitting in a different spot in the same room. We particularly liked this,

“No,” I moaned. “Just when I thought it was over. Just when I’d started to believe. Please, not another five years. Not media-manipulation — crass, cack-handed media manipulation — starting all over again.

“Just when we thought we’d got a real government at last, and not another flipping ‘project’. Just when we thought we’d finally found someone to run an administration, and not another sodding five-year election campaign. Just when we’d started to hope that the image-management creeps had been put back in their box . . .”

And a little part of my belief in David Cameron’s new politics died.

The question Why and I are really quite baffled by this. Does Matthew Parris believe that his Tory ex-colleagues were concealing a political mastery that they have miraculously kept hidden these last thirteen years and planned only to reveal upon partially achieving government? Did it not occur to him that, if they had had the trumps, they might have waved them about a bit well in advance of the election and saved themselves the bother of having to manage a potentially suicidal ideological mismatch?

The question Why and I are old cynics. We don't believe there are any leaders left in the free world who are game or even know how to run things in anything but an audit-directed way. We began to notice the term 'real people' enter political discourse around the turn of the millennium. We think this may be related to the flavourless stew we now think of as politics.

Politicians became obsessed with locating these real people and herding them into focus groups so they could be listened to with unprecedented earnestness. These real people acquired amplified realness if they were put into rooms with other real people who were just as real but in significantly different ways. This disparate realness was called 'diversity'. When all of these diverse people were corralled into focus groups, they came up with a great many unrelated ideas and views which sounded rich and comprehensive when they were being taken down but didn't make much sense if you were trying to work out how to manage the economy or avoid getting caught up in foreign wars.

So dependent have both sides become on keeping the buck spinning over the last decade or so, it's unlikely that there is anyone left in British politics who has any idea how to catch it when it falls, much less repair it and get it moving again. The only thing they know how to do, or even have time to do is keep on doing what they're doing the way they're doing it. There is no new politics in the same way that there is no old politics. There is just politics.

The question Why has just gone off to see how Barney is getting on with preparing our cocktails. My goodness we've earned them today...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Seeing things

Impaired vision by Pants

Today I became a volunteer. I have finally accepted that I'm not ever likely to 'work' again in the traditional sense. I have also ruled out the idea of attempting to 'monetise' any of my many and varied prattlings and doodlings. Amazingly this has been suggested to me by several people. And, although it is nice to think that joy has resulted from something I have done, I am not a salesperson and don't necessarily think that any and everything one produces is a commodity. In fact when the 'monetise' option first appeared on blogger, I wondered if I was simply being invited to render That's So Pants in a more impressionistic form. I do not rule out unexpected and unsolicited twists of fate intervening. I'm prepared rather than expectant.

If anything I have become even more anti-commercial in the last year. I am still spitting out the bad taste in my mouth that has been there since that awful experience at art school with teachers who cajoled and flattered indiscriminately. I think they really believe dispensing encouragement is their only pedagogic obligation. If they knew something about aesthetics, they certainly weren't going to share it with us. There was very much a sense that worth is calculated in the cost of raw materials and not the quality of ideas.

Sorry, digression. I am not ambitious in any sense and I certainly don't measure myself by imagined aspirations. If I did that, this post would be coming to you from the afterlife. I am fortunate in that I have no debt to service and I have reached an age grand enough for the government to not expect much from me. In other words, if I do some voluntary work, it will ensure I don't starve. Seems like a fair exchange to me.

I have to say that finding appropriate voluntary work is not as easy as it should be and it took all of my powers of research to track down suitable opportunities. Working in a charity shop might be fun if you're in a place where people buy things that are worth recycling but ours are full of deceased-estate Tupperware and mouldy sheets.

The emergency services are another option in my neck of the woods as they are all run by volunteers but, in my experience, emergencies tend to happen at inconvenient hours and I don't fancy pulling on my wellies in the middle of the night to attend to a sewage mishap or battle a major forest fire while the paid staff are having dinner at the pub.

Finally I've found something I will not only be happy to do but feel I can do well. My contribution to society will be to record newspaper articles onto audio for visually impaired people. The induction process has so far not been patronising which is an incredibly good sign. There were two parts to my audition. The first was to read a list of fifty words that cannot be deciphered phonetically - you just have to know them.

I am the person who overrules the radio so this was a doddle for me. The funny thing is that I was warned in advance not to be daunted as these words are 'extremely hard'. I guess if you were born after 1980 and received no education relevant to the functional world, they probably are. I was judged incorrect on only one word of the fifty. I checked with OED afterwards and my pronunciation was accurate. I took it on the chin. In Australia, data is pronounced DAR-TAH whereas everywhere else in the English-speaking world it is DAY-TAH. That wasn't the word by the way, just an example of the complexity of maintaining decency in linguistics.

The second half of the test was to read a three-hundred-word newspaper piece. It had two grammatical errors in it, neither of them serious except in the sense that all grammatical errors are an offence against humanity. I rose above it and read what was written. I stumbled only twice which surprised even me. I do have some radio experience from many years ago. I practised the piece three times which is what I always used to do before I read on air.

As a new English/Journalism graduate, I was very lucky to have worked at a radical radio station in the late 1970s. I remember the first time I read a news bulletin on air. It happened without warning. The regular newsreader had not shown up and there was no one else left in the newsroom to do it. The presenter, who later became a very well-known DJ, was enormously supportive. I got through it without making a single mistake. Not surprising really since I'd written the bulletin myself. The next day I found a note the presenter had left on my desk. It read,

'Dear P. Five people (three men, two women) phoned in last night to say they enjoyed your reading of the news.'

Dears, I wish I could tell you that a brilliant career was born. Sadly, I never bettered that moment in radio but I think I read just as well now, if not better.

I've been shocked by the difficulty of finding a fit with a voluntary organisation for my experience and skills. Basically, I've had to do it all myself since the organisation that is being paid to make those connections for me couldn't connect alka to seltzer. I could go into detail about how dumb the whole labour-exchange industry is now and how ludicrous that is given that the internet pretty much does their job for them except that they are too stupid to realise it, but I might save that for dedicated post. Vast amounts of money are being poured into equipping third-sector organisations with buildings and scarily-pinstriped uniformed staff. There are three such organisations in my small town and they have ghostly 'training rooms' where I suspect not one soul has ever been trained to do anything useful, and 'consultants' whose last job was hairdresser.

Despite the obstacles, I think I may have found a match. Feel free to think of it as the blind leading the blind...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nothing comes from nothing

Marilyn by Pants

Is a day ever wasted if a new line is drawn or an original sentence formed?

The morning dissolved in a flurry of emails. Answers mostly to questions posed. These are good because they help me to work out what it is I think, more or less. I said to one correspondent, 'I move forward, albeit with the haste of an inchworm'. There is probably nothing wrong with that. It only feels wrong if one listens to politicians who insist one must contribute to productivity. When they work out what that is exactly, perhaps they'll let me know.

Meanwhile, I advance with what I like to call Project Pants. Productivity is not a major component of Project Pants. Products do occasionally result. The afternoon was passed in devising illustrations for Niece Pants's 'book'. This is a class project for which she had to write a story. The 'book' element I suspect is the part I'm supposed to provide. I don't know what exactly they are teaching kids about storytelling in schools but I suspect it's everything but how to actually do it.

Niece Pants submitted to me a beautifully realised set-up and a superb ending but the middle was more of a sketch in which nothing actually happened. It was like a sales pitch for a Jim Jarmusch film. The notes I wrote her in reply were twice as long as the story itself, which to be fair to me, wasn't much longer than a very long text message.

Now, below is the gist of what I wrote back to her. I've removed most references to the actual story.

I don't know how much you have learned about storytelling in class so far but here is my version. An easy way to think of it is that there are '5 Ws' and these are WHO, WHEN, WHERE, WHAT and WHY.

The first three happen in 'the set-up'.

This is where you tell your reader who the main characters are and when and where the story takes place. You did all of this brilliantly. Well done. In a few sentences you establish that Bridget and her mother have a lovely, happy relationship and that their home is safe and comfortable.

The WHAT part of the story is the most important. If you have any spare time between now and when you have to hand the story in, I would suggest you put in some more work on this section. The WHAT part of the story is when you look very closely at the WHO, WHERE and WHEN and you think 'what can I do with this?' And you follow and explore WHAT might happen to these people.

I want to introduce you now to the idea of 'conventions' in storytelling. You will know this already, even if you aren't familiar with that word. You will have seen so many films and heard so many stories before where conventions are used. So I'm going to say this to you - if someone tells me that a story takes place on Halloween, I will immediately think 'this is a story where something scary is going to happen'. That is a convention.

So, you have created the perfect set-up. You have a happy little girl with everything to look forward to having a birthday on Halloween and her best friend shows up in a costume with ? on it. This is a brilliant set-up.

Now, I'm going to suggest a very simple way of improving this story. You take the WHAT to a scary place. In storytelling this is called 'a crisis'. All you need is two or three paragraphs where something bad happens. You've given yourself plenty of options. Perhaps one of the 41 presents Bridget gets could do a horrible thing? Maybe the costume that Juliana is wearing is a clue.

The last part of any good story is the WHY. It means WHY is the story being told and what can we learn from it? This is called 'the conclusion'. You have a wonderful ending to this story. Bridget and her mother share a beautiful moment. I like it that you referenced Toy Story by the way - well done!

I have a tip for you for making those middle paragraphs better - Use the WHY to take you back to the WHAT. Sometimes when you write stories, the beginning and the end are very clear but the middle takes longer to work itself out. The middle is the most important bit. I hope you'll work on it a bit more. It will be worth it.

Niece Pants is thirteen but has written the story from the POV of an eight-year-old and she has replicated the voice very well. Even from the small amount she has written to meet the assignment requirements, I can see that she has done some insightful things. The eight-year-old voice she's invented for this story is partly her own and partly drawn from observation of one of her half-sisters, who happens to be eight.

My favourite line in the story is,

Bridget looked up at the clock even though she could not read the time very well.

The eight-year-old Niece Pants had a mental block about telling time. She knows how to do it now but it has made little difference to her time management skills. To her doting Auntie Pants, what is most endearing is that the writer in Niece Pants is able to project something of her real self into the character that she's created.

It occurred to me that the really quite glaring absence of 'a pivotal event' in Niece Pants's story speaks of a reluctance in modern education to connect cause with effect, on any terms.

I finished the four illustrations I promised to do for the story and I'll post them off tomorrow. I hope Niece Pants fills in the part of her story that comprises the actual story and, most importantly, understands why she's doing it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stoney End

Flintstone house photographed by Pants
I've been working on some drawings to illustrate a children's book set in a rock pool. My wonderful collaborator Phil is summering in France and we have been exchanging the kind of 'process of elimination' emails one normally swaps when working with someone for the first time to establish a joint understanding of how the work might look. This means we have been talking a lot about the qualities and properties of various kinds of animation.

I was astonished to find that Phil was not a fan of The Flintstones. I didn't think that was even legal in the free world. His only possible excuse is that he was engaged in much more serious political activity at the time I was rushing home from school to keep my appointment with Wilma, Fred, Barney and Betty. And yes, I did name my globe-trotting voligarch of an owly-cat after the unassuming Mr Rubble. Fat lot of good etc.

I am now in the unusual position of having to put my thoughts together to explain what it is that makes The Flintstones so special. This has never been necessary in my experience. When the subject of The Flintstones has arisen socially before it has only ever occasioned a shared nod to unlock an entire vault of cultural references. Phil thinks it doesn't make sense that a man should be riding a dinosaur. Clearly I have my work cut out.

The genius of The Flintstones (1960-1966) lies in the perfect match of the two worlds that it combines and exploits. It capitalises on a fascination in the 1960s with dinosaurs, the ancient world and the re-invention of America. These eras may have had millions of years separating them but by overlaying one upon the other, The Flintstones assumes the artistic right to gobble up the treasures of all ages, classes and international cultures in-between. So Fred Flintstone works in a quarry, drives a dinosaur crane and mines the kind of stone that the Egyptians might have turned into bowling alleys if they'd only had the vision.

The Flintstones created a template for animated continuous storytelling far beyond any cartoon series that had preceded it, no matter how smart and sophisticated. Bugs Bunny may have been the ultimate anthropomorphic wise-guy, but his sphere didn't extend beyond the warren and his ambition was very much carrot-focussed. He could never aspire to be, say the grand Poobah at the local Water Buffalo Lodge.

There was a huge surge in public interest in dinosaurs in the 1960s and a vast mythology developed around them. It is well-known that The Flintstones' ensemble cast of the two couples is based on the television sit-com, The Honeymooners. Fred Flintstone was drawn from the disgruntled New York bus driver Ralph Kramden, (played by Jackie Gleason), who loved bowling, hated his boss and considered himself above his circumstances.

A 'modern Stone-Age family', The Flintstones live in suburbia and are always broke because they are on the consumerist treadmill and must have all the latest gadgets. The main conceit of the story is that humans have domesticated dinosaurs and by extension every conceivable minor reptile and bird. So, the bathroom is serviced by a moaning mammoth acting as the shower and reluctant pre-pelicans are employed as sinks and garbage disposal units and every kind of imagined ancient beaked creature is being used to trim hedges or chop vegetables or clip hair.

And all of them are complaining all of the time about their work and conditions. And they deliver really witty one-liner asides about whatever gross task they happen to be performing. They are functionaries to the human characters but not to us, the viewers. We appreciate the downtrodden gadgets' plights and that puts us into conflict with our instinct to empathise with the blue-collar families' aspirations. Fred and Wilma never take the time to notice that their salad servers are exhausted, and that really bothers us.

This is the unmatchable achievement of The Flintstones. Decades before anyone else could get away with an academic critique of the way Americans were living, some cartoonists had the gall to invent a greedy, fat bastard who could order a take-out of brontosaurus ribs heavy enough to collapse his car. Homer Simpson, eat your donut's heart out.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mater unfamilias

Nana's Dilemma by Pants Acrylic on Canvas 100cm x 80cm

This is a portrait of Ma Pants. I haven't ever shown it to her. Despite the fact that everyone who has seen it and knows her thinks it captures her essence succinctly, I think it would probably make her feel uncomfortable. It's true her head isn't that big and her wardrobe certainly isn't that small, but otherwise it's accurate.

I expect she would be embarrassed by the picture and I have tried to work out why I would necessarily assume that. Mother and daughter relationships are complex but ours operates as if it was composed of one thin layer of scripted etiquette, like a simple over-the-counter bank transaction. I could try and do it differently, and sometimes I feel like having a go, but I mostly don't want to get into any bother.

Ma Pants is primarily interested in clothing and always has been. She is very much a woman of her time and place. Most of her friends are the same. They dress up, cover their faces in slap and go to lunch. It doesn't do anyone any harm. She is not profligate. She spends very little on clothes these days as she already has so many and she certainly doesn't spend much on lunch. Ma Pants's walk-in closet is bigger than her bathroom.

When she is preparing to go to a luncheon or meeting of one of her many social groups, she will lay several choices of separates out on the bed and manoeuvre them about until she has the optimum combination. I like to think that when I was interpreting her, I did so without judgement, although I can't pretend that there's no conflict when it comes to what I think is important in life. Ma Pants does have other dimensions. She is politically literate, left-leaning, well-read and enjoys the movies. So it's not that there's a huge ethical gulf. But, if I am staying with her, she will always come and ask me, 'do I look all right?' before she leaves the house. No matter how gruffly I rebuff, she always does it. I find it peculiarly undermining to think that a woman in her eighties can be insecure about her appearance.

In choosing the context for this portrait, I drew on a trope that is associated with both my childhood and Ma Pants's. I remember with great fondness my Dress-up Susan. She was later superseded with a Sindy doll for which I happily made garments out of scraps. I also borrowed from the famously sartorial Gilbert & George who had created a similar dress-up concept with a few different suits you could drape around them.

For me it would be nice to think I could one day scrape away a few outer layers and come to a deeper understanding of my mother but I fear there would be a quid pro quo involved and I'm not all that sure I feel like paying that price, even assuming I could attain the self-awareness that would make it possible.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Taking a walk on the wild side

Life in the fast lane by Pants

The question Why and I have just poured ourselves a stiff G&T and sat down to contemplate a mysterious truism. To wit - the targets that journalists are most likely to rub their hands with glee at the thought of catching out are the most prone to do something seriously seedy. There must be a PhD thesis in that. Inevitably it will be called the Tiger syndrome, after the man who not only set the bar but prepared the ground.

When we logged onto our favourite weekend read News of the World on Saturday morning, our only surprise at the Fergie sting was that it hadn't happened sooner. One look at the byline and we knew we were in for a right royal treat.

Mazher Mahmood, the fake sheikh no less, has claimed a few royal scalps in his time but here he's hit the jackpot, and all seemingly with so little effort. A posh lunch, a limo ride and a little peek-a-boo is all it apparently takes in Britain these days to threaten the nation's international business reputation.

Most people feel only pity for Fergie. Clearly there was little in her head but wine when she aggressively opened with that £500k bid. How it is possible to imagine that anyone would pay an-half-a marigold to meet Prince Andrew eludes us. Here is a man who would not only go to the opening of an envelope, but would very likely offer said envelope a private audience and quite possibly send it a pair of commemorative cufflinks afterwards as a thank-you-for-listening gesture.

We are thinking that Fergie might have tossed that figure out in her three-sheets-to-the-wind state presuming she'd get bargained down to the cash in the suitcase, (with which she appeared to be delighted in a curiously Euromillion winner's way), her weight in profiteroles and free use of the limo for the next twelve hours. Having her dark and mysterious business adversary acquiesce to her demands with such breathtaking immediacy must have been enormously flattering.

'What could she have been thinking?' the question Why muses. Let's hazard a guess.

Pwwwarrrhhh, I am so sodding bwilliant. I never thought I'd get away with this but it seems to be working. Hey, but that's because I'm a weally twuly awistocwat! They all said I had no fuckin' point but I fuckin' do. Look at me, I'm fooling this dusky chap with my fweckly superiowity and don't-mind-if-I-say-so-myself self-made-woman acumen. Hey, go me!

She must have thought she was Becky Sharp+1 with a VIP pass. She may have imagined, as other naïfs have done, the aroma of Gulf oil was wafting through the 'negotiations' and all the perfumes of Arabia were begging to be dabbed behind her ex-royal ears. Perhaps she assumed that rich Middle-Eastern types love to waste money on commercial enterprises despite several centuries' worth of evidence that, if anything, they are the toughest bargainers on the planet. Mazher Mahmood knows his targets and capitalises on their ignorance and prejudices. It probably wasn't that difficult getting the measure of Fergie.

The question Why and I were also waylaid last weekend by the local story of New South Wales State Government Minister for Transport, David Campbell. Mr Campbell is a man in late middle-age, married with grown-up sons and a none-the-wiser wife who is going through cancer treatment. He was papped exiting a gay mens' club in Sydney by a TV magazine programme and outed. Apparently his bi-sexuality was an open secret in Sydney media circles, which is just one of the reasons he might have thought about sharing his life-style choices with his family.

Australian 'progressives' have been very keen to excuse Mr Campbell's questionable recreational choices under a banner of sexual freedom. The question Why and I are wondering if a female government minister and mother were to be discovered exiting a club where one paid about $20 to enter a world of free sex with anyone who happened to be handy, her choices would be equally championed.

What we are mostly interested in though is why privileged people aren't satisfied to be who and where they are. Why is it that they would rather position themselves in front of the inevitable camera that will divest them of all they have acquired than sit at home with their partner of thirty years, have a nice glass of wine and be thankful for their sheer dumb luck?

Answers on an e-card please.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Short thrift

1943 UK Government Booklet - Pants copy

I always seem to be looking for something which either means I have too much stuff or not enough storage space, or both. I'm plumping for both. I went looking for my copy of the British Government wartime Make Do And Mend booklet. Not because I don't know how to make do and/or mend, but because I thought some of the tips might make for an amusing post as I'm sure none of them say 'if it breaks, rush out and buy another as nothing is designed to last more than a year these days'.

I couldn't find it but did come across a huge box of postcards which I spent an amusing day reminiscing over in between corrections to my book, reading other people's drafts and fiddling with some illustrations I'm meant to be getting on with. It would help if I had bookshelves but every time I save up enough money to buy some, I get a bill for water or council rates or some such unavoidable annoyance. And don't anyone be emailing me that I can make bookshelves out of breeze blocks and recycled timber. I'm desperately trying to outgrow my adolescent decorating habits. I have a dishwasher now you know!

Happily, the internet, while unable to magic up elusive bookshelves for me, was able to provide the missing parsimony content from the book, whose cover I long ago scanned thinking I would one day write this very post. What-ho! John Lewis of wedding list fame has produced an updated version. It contains such useful poverty-busting strategies as,

“Don’t try to rub away lily pollen that has brushed onto clothing as it will leave a stain. Instead, dab very gently with sticky tape to lift the powder away, then position in direct sunlight for a few hours. More often than not, the pollen will completely disappear."

Lily pollen? Just so we're clear. You spend a tenner on a bunch of lilies that have been flown in from Kenya where, incidentally their cultivation diverts scarce resources away from food production, causing immense hardship, just so you can brush up against some pollen? You will then have to go out and buy some Scotch tape. You already have some but you can never find Scotch tape when you need it. And then you have to find a few hours of direct sunlight? What, in Britain? You'll just have to get straight on a plane to Tenerife. Doesn't sound very economical to me.

Then there's the one about making sure that the cooling elements at the back of your fridge are free of dust. It doesn't say anything about how you gain access to these as fridges are mostly fitted into kitchen units with their backs to the wall, so to speak. Once you've succeeded in levering your fridge out, you may be none too pleased to find that although you've established that the elements have not accumulated any dust, the entire contents of the fridge have fallen over and you have a mulligatawny, chicken parmigiana and gooseberry fool all blended together in a delicious one-course trifle for tea.

You may also be interested to know that you can shine your shoes with banana skins or potato. As you may know, bananas are not grown in England so need to be shipped from the Caribbean. You may also know that they have other purposes besides shoe cleaning. Just as well as it would be an awfully expensive way to maintain your shoe leather. Here in Australia, bananas are cheap at the moment but have been as high as $9 a kilo. Potatoes don't come cheap either. I suppose if you grow your own, you might just scrape in at less than a tin of Nugget once you minus the cost of watering.

Well, I wasn't getting much joy here, so I followed a few links and landed on this thread from the BBC's Today Programme. I hope you won't find the picture too disturbing. Quite what savings can accrue from getting a needle to threaten a baby's bottom with a twig escaped me. However, there are some great readers' tips here.

I rather like this from Craig Hughes in Wigan,

"Take the batteries out of your alarm clock when you go to work, and also turn off your windscreen wipers when you go under a bridge."

Now that's what I call microeconomics.

Syed Saquib Saeed from Karachi, Pakistan contributed this timeless gem,

"Red fountain pen ink can be removed from clothes by rubbing in yoghurt and the rinsing it with water."

How useful is that? Unfortunately he doesn't say what flavour yoghurt he uses. Possibly not blackberry.

Mr Saeed also contributes this,

"Looking at the moon for a few minutes every night gets rid of bags and dark patches below the eyes."

I'm definitely trying that. I'm afraid my days of smearing on Clarins eye gel are well and truly behind me.

And then - paydirt. There's a whole website devoted to mending and making do except they don't call it that because, as Clare Flynn from Chiswick, London explains, the name implies 'sacrifice'. Perish the thought. Anyway their website is called It's full of very useful advice like how to make cushions and crème brûlée - stuff you'd never get anywhere else and so commendably spartan.

Well, I think I've had enough improving activity for one day. I might go off and watch Dr Who and stare at the moon for a bit. And I still haven't found what I was looking for...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pants on the ground

Lavender's blue dilly dilly by Pants

"There's a few things I've learned in life: always throw salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for good luck, and fall in love whenever you can."

So sayeth Master Shakespeare in A Winter's Tale. Here at Seat of Pants we are writing our own winter's tale. Barney has jetted off once again in his pet-a-porter to join all the other voligarchs circling the disintegrating Euro. They each have an eye on a folio of Greek islands. As Barney says, 'there are 6,000 Greek islands and only 227 of them are inhabited. They'd be crazy not to consolidate.' I don't know where he gets it from. The question Why is currently hovering over the atrocity that is U2.

That just leaves me to ensure that our primary residence is fit for habitation. I'm really not comfortable with all of this. Before Seat of Pants I lived in a flat. What happened outside was always someone else's problem. I have learned to mow and deal with the regular breakdowns of mowing devices. I have come to terms with the concepts of rooves, walls and fences and an external building that is not part of my living space but somehow my responsibility. It is quite useful for housing things I consider should be kept dry but are too dirty to be in the house, like the lawnmower. But whenever I go into this cavernous thing that is known locally as 'a shed' but in the real world would be called 'an aircraft hangar', I feel like an extra in Monsters vs Aliens.

I do throw spilt salt over my left shoulder. I like a lot of salt. I'm prone to cramp. Naturally some gets spilled. I'm only too glad for the occasion to draw down some good luck. I have a rosemary bush. Rosemary is a brilliant herb. A couple of times I've persuaded an inflammation in my mouth that tried to insist it was an abscess to downgrade itself to a mere irritation by chewing on fresh rosemary. If I actually had a garden gate, said bush would be near enough to it to satisfy the terms of an authentic winter's tale.

Lavender. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Seat of Pants lavender bush divested itself of nine 'pups'. Are they called 'pups' in the lavender world or is that just bromeliads? Do I read like someone who gives a fuck? Pups it is. These nine pups I planted along my front fence. If one is going to plight one's troth, a front fence is as good a place as any to bury Caesar rather than praise him. Free potpourri to anyone who emails me and lives within in 4o metre radius.

I got an email from my dear old friend Ms A in London today. She and I were struggling up the greasy pole together a decade ago and abandoned it at about the same time. Ms A lives in a flat and has a large garden plot in South London for which she pays a nominal rent to the local council. Ms A knows she is very lucky. If one is to believe this report in The Daily Express, there is a long waiting list for council 'allotments' as they are called. Between ten and forty years, apparently.

It does seem that many of us delight in growing things to eat and are quite perplexed when the bio-bastards rabbit on about how difficult it is to do. Here at Seat of Pants, we are blessed with almost a market garden-sized plot. Of course the three of us don't muster a pea's worth of expertise between us but we still manage to conjure enough greens to keep us alive. We only know about water and compost. No wonder the bio-bastards want permission to sell only sterile seed. If everyone knew they could mix their food scraps with a bit of dirt and end up with potatoes and onions, their business would be burnt toast.

Right. Salt, rosemary, lavender and love. Who can spot the odd one out? Answers on an email please. No prizes unless you live within a 40 metre radius.

Friday, May 21, 2010

We come in pieces

Wenlock and Mandeville - Olympic mascots. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

I can date the death of the so-called Cool Britannia back to the hideous and spectacularly pointless Millennium Dome. It was audacious only in the sense that no one could quite believe it was possible to spend 800 million quid on a grubby old tent. I, along with everyone else I know, only went because I got a free ticket. The organisers had to give the tickets away to keep the thing going and appease the concession holders. Grumbling customers were, after all, better than no customers at all.

As a general rule of thumb, if you have to call yourself cool, you undoubtedly aren't. There are plenty of pockets of cool in London but you won't get to them by wading through a thick sludge of charcoal-grey serge. Neither should you follow a man called Sebastian anywhere if you hope to keep a hold of your dignity.

It is terrible to see dear old London ravaged by such ferocious storms of naffness. No sooner had the horror of the Millennium Dome and its insane aftermath, (it was said to be costing £1 million a month to maintain it after the closure), subsided than the Olympic menace roared in like the bendy-bus from hell.

I have written plenty about that in the past. Like I've said before, it's not that I'm a visionary, it's just that it was so damned obvious from the start it was going to be a total disaster. The only glee to be derived from it is that it will be a Tory disaster. It will be remembered for the heavily egged faces of Boris 'not Gudunov' Johnson, The Decameron and Foghorn Glegghorn.

So, now to the envoys from the Planet ZOK who yesterday assumed the all-important mascot role. Unsurprisingly, their arrival was greeted with more-or-less universal derision.

According to one's adored Guardian newspaper,

"Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic mascots, elicited mostly baffled reactions as to just what they were at their unveiling today.

With a metallic finish, a single large eye made out of a camera lens, a London taxi light on their heads and the Olympic rings represented as friendship bracelets on their wrists, they resemble characters dreamed up for a Pixar animation."

It's all pretty much like that, a parlour game to identify which toddlers' toy or faddish folly they most resembled. The Times of London called them two parts Pokemon and one part lava lamp and claimed they were 'forty focus groups' in the making. They look like it. In fact they epitomise that old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. Wenlock and Mandeville remind me of trodden-on gogo crazybones thingies or Teletubbies after botched cosmetic surgery.

If they were aiming it at the under fives, why didn't they just bring the Teletubbies back? They could have added an extra one. No one over three knew how many there really were. And they could have made them over in the Olympic colours. Or the Wombles? Nothing says London quite like,

'Underground, overground, wombling free, the Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we.'

Imagine how pleasant it would be to hear that playing as you shuffle through the curiously invisible 'transformation' of East London squeezed into a train with visitors from all over the world, half of whom are parked in your lap.

'Wombles are organised, work as a team. Wombles are tidy and Wombles are clean.'

How's that for an Olympic ethic? You could even have them cruising the site afterwards collecting up plastic bottles and bits of hamburger box to fashion into stunning pieces of public art.

When the result is this bad, I always search for an explanation. Not of why. That would require a top criminal psychologist. And I don't really care about the money since I'm no longer a Hackney council tax payer. It's just bound to turn up the funniest utterance I'm likely to hear all day.

So, over to Paul Deighton, The chief executive of something called LOCOG.

"The games have got a few stupendous assets – the mascot, tickets, the volunteers, the torch relay – and you have got to really use those to bring home your key messages. If you link them together you begin to have a really powerful story that people will respond to."

Oh yes, can't you picture all those happy punters reminiscing into the future? Never has there been a finer array of mascots, tickets, volunteers nor a grander torch relay than at the London Olympics of 2012! They probably don't have any money left to do any actual sports.

I'm at a bit of a loss as to what these 'key messages' might be and, as Wenlock and Mandeville appear to lack mouths, it isn't clear to me how these will be imparted. And this 'really powerful story'? Apparently the origin of Wenlock and Mandeville is a story by children's laureate Michael Mopurgo. They're made from some drops of steel from one of the girders from the Olympic Stadium. Fascinating.

When Milord SebCo did his little unveiling dance in front of that curious poster that appeared only to say 'ZOK' three years ago, I knew we were in for a treat. This is going to make the Millennium Dome pale to the significance of an impulse-buy holiday snow dome.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kiri-osity killed the career

Image from Reuters/NZPA

Oh Dame Kiri, what have you done? Dissing SuBo? What were you thinking? 'Whizz-bang? You didn't think it through now did you? Do I need to remind you of what happened to Elaine Paige for simply calling the sainted people's diva 'viral'. A lot of folk wouldn't even think that was a bad thing to say. I doubt very much you'll get away with ten hail Susans and a humiliating globally televised duet with this lot.

How bad is it? Let's review shall we. You told The Radio Times,

"You insult me by even wanting to bring it into this conversation. I'm not interested. [My competition] has nothing to do with The X Factor, which I can't bear. It's whipped up for one night and it's over.

"I feel so sorry and sad for those poor contestants. My show is everything to do with finding a true singer. It's a mission because I'm capable of bringing talent forward, which is not being done enough."

Fatal, I'd say. Just as well you were thinking of retiring.

So, you're doing your own talent show. I see. What's that you say Dame Kiri? You're not going to be picking through half-naked fat father and son juggling acts and toothless grannies playing the spoons in search of the next Madama Butterfly or Don Giovanni? You're going to be developing singers who have the pipes and the stamina to perform proper opera? How's that going to work exactly? Where's the edge, the risk, the element of surprise in that? Your funeral.

Speaking of which. Here's how it will play. You will make an exceptionally grovelling public apology in which you will tell the world how much you admire SuBo's courage in the face of the crippling adversity she faced until that miraculous day when she forged her enduring creative partnership with Simon Cowell, whom you incidentally think is the most stupendous impresario who ever lived. And also you will admit that SuBo is the greatest singer who ever lived. Greater than Callas. Greater than Melba. Greater even than Madonna.

You will then receive a messengered note headed 'from the desk of Piers Morgan...' inviting you to participate in a television spectacular entitled 'Yet Another Tedious Evening with Susan Boyle', hosted by the Piers Morgan of notepaper fame. You will then sit backstage in a cold green room nursing a plastic cup of warm Irn-Bru while Morgan, wearing his come-on-Susan-we-rehearsed-this face, tries to coax scripted answers from her to tough questions like 'How great is it for you to be living your dream?'

Then one of a thousand or so 'assistants to Miss Boyle' who has never heard of you will stick her head through the door and say, 'you're on Miss Tea Canister'. You will not flinch. You will march out onto that stage and acknowledge the confused, lukewarm applause. You will then look adoringly at Miss Boyle as you sing together Duettino Sull'aria from The Marriage of Figaro. She will not be looking at you but rather at the teleprompter, where the words will all be typed out phonetically. At the end you will gush and there will be no sparing of the words 'honour' and 'privilege'. Is that clearly understood? Good.

Sometime in the future, you will be sitting at home watching the telecast of Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton and Baroness SuBo will be singing Wild Horses to a rapt congregation of crowned heads, reality TV personalities and frock designers. And you shall be redeemed at last.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We shall fight them in our breeches

Robin Hood (2010) Universal Pictures

Not much riding through the glen. Not a lot of being feared by the badde or loved by the goode. But band of men? Tick - in spades. More like band of brothers really. I'm talking about Robin Hood. You know - we few, we happy few, we band of brothers? Another glass of mead mon frère? Don't mind if I do.

In fact, what we have here is not so much a film but a Shakespearean company of players amidst a cast of thousands. It seems to pull every theatrical and film and television convention together in one great thundering extravaganza of, er, brown. And there's a fair bit of drinking of mead too.

It's not that I didn't enjoy Robin Hood. There is very little not to like, particularly if you are well-disposed towards brown, and white horses who can gallop from Nottingham to Dover in a couple of hours without getting dirty. It's all there. And sibilant sex-god Russell Crowe too, reprising his Gladiator haircut.

I wasn't expecting any hint of historical accuracy. Just as well because it wasn't there. It's pretty much a masterclass in how to make a Ridley Scott film. From the curiously bloodless arty battle scenes right down to the stock characters - like the mysterious cloaked enabler with the full facial scar and the weak-willed, curly-headed, black-bearded nemesis. Is Oscar Isaac the new Joaquin Phoenix? He's got that whole South American religious thing going on and he's a musician. There's going to be a Jeff Buckley bio-pic in the offing any day now. It's all so Ridley.

And oh so predictably Russell - devouring the bait laid by clever Mark Lawson from one's adored BBC who teased him over his not-quite-right accent. Russ, do you never learn?

Because it's been the only thing anyone's been talking about since the film's release, (well done Mark, ditto Russ), I listened extra hard. If he was aiming for Michael Parkinson circa 1986, it wasn't half bad, apart from a few Antipodean lapses in the vowel department. I didn't hear any Irish in it, perhaps a little Diaspora Irish and a bit of Scottish as well. It's all moot anyway as they probably would have been speaking Old English, or French. But French was the language of the baddies. It would only have caused confusion if the goodies had been speaking Old English because then the baddies would have to have been speaking Medieval French and the whole thing would have needed to be subtitled. Now that would have just been silly.

For Gladiator, Crowe chose to read Maximus as, by his own definition, 'Royal Shakespeare Company after three pints at lunch' and that worked reasonably well. His delivery here is no worse. The whole idea of there being an 'authentic' way to do it is nonsense. Besides, there is so little dialogue that it's difficult to see how it could possibly be important. And why would you need dialogue when you have Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, dual masters of the full-gamut-of-emotions close-up? These seem to take up half the film.

One reviewer said he found the story confusing. It relies unusually heavily on prior knowledge of the Robin Hood sagas that went before, and a whole lot of other tales and tellings as well. You need to have seen the old Richard Greene television series and The Lion in Winter, and read Ivanhoe and it would certainly help if you'd seen Ridley Scott's other films and Saving Private Ryan. And some history does come in handy if you fancy spending the long minutes occasioned by the expressive aforementioned close-ups colouring in the narrative blanks. There is almost more shorthand in this film than first-hand extrapolation.

An understanding of why the Plantagenets were so vicious and scheming could only be enhanced by having read Antonia Fraser's The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England and John Gillingham's Richard The Lionheart and The Angevin Empire. And perhaps a little bit of bog-standard classroom history circa the 1960s might have been helpful as well.

Whereas Robin Hood wasn't a real person, William Marshall, the 1st Earl of Pembroke certainly was. And he is played admirably by an unrecognisable, (in a good way), William Hurt. His accent is faultless, in that it doesn't sound like he is trying to do an accent. The real William Marshall's influence on the House of Angevin and on King John in particular, was crucial in the King finally agreeing to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. That he reneged shortly afterwards is proof only of the resilience of Plantagenet treachery. It's a wonder Britain survived really.

Maybe one of the reasons it has prospered culturally is the strength of its stories, and that is something Ridley Scott clearly relies on here. He might have spent a little less time on the battle scenes at the beginning of the film. The truth would have served his story better. To wit, Richard the Lionheart pointlessly laid siege to the erratically defended Château de Chalus-Chabrol and died (not there and then mind) through his own recklessness and carelessness thanks to a stray arrow from a sniper.

If I have a criticism it's that we have one baddie too many here. Scott relies too much on an assumed internalising of the character of the Sheriff of Nottingham from an earlier era, which may well be confused by Keith Allen's more recent interpretation. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, Richard Greene as Robin invariably outwits and outclasses Alan Wheatley's Sheriff for both riches and the love of the Lady Marian. It's hard to see what Matthew Macfadyen's role is meant to accomplish here, unless it's purely a set-up for the next episode.

The other thing - and it's maybe not a criticism because I actually feel quite flattered to see a film for once that assumes I may be more than a little literate - that climactic scene on the beach, which absolutely didn't happen in real life, is just a little bit too D-Day a la Saving Private Ryan. That said, I thoroughly approve of Cate Blanchett turning up with all those orphans. I imagine she's got a standard contract clause these days specifying no battle climax without her appearing in full sword-wielding mode and kissing the hero mid-skirmish.

The judgement of Pants : It's a film that passes pleasantly and quickly, especially if you like brown. And/or Russell Crowe. The sniff of sequel - although if this is prequel.. hey, but that's movies - is unmistakable.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rocket Science

Homegrown by Pants

Today I'm starting a new blog category - cheapskate. My friends will tell you I excel in this. They know who they are and, equally, know not to expect a Christmas card from me this year. Be careful what you wish for people.

My life is what commentators in Australia call 'a two-speed economy'. It has in the past been characterised by isolated peaks of windfall earnings which sustained the far longer bare subsistence eras. I have a feeling the windfall opportunities have now consigned themselves to the vaults of history.

I have always delighted in a bargain. It's a genetic fault I can't do anything about. Above you will see an example of my delectable home-cultivated rocket. I don't understand why the herbs and vegetables that are most expensive to buy in a shop are the easiest to grow and the cheap ones the hardest. My zucchini crop was completely devoured by... ladybirds. What can you do? I couldn't murder a ladybird. Anyway, I can normally buy 500gms of clearance zucchinis for a dollar.

I have eaten rocket almost every day for eighteen months. Initially I bought a packet of seeds from a local nursery. They were on special for 99c. The seeds took about four days to sprout. I have excellent soil. I've never needed to buy another packet since. I let the first crop go to seed. I stripped the seed pods and replanted. Same deal. I can't believe I used to spend £2.49 on a bag of organic rocket.

And have you seen the price of spinach? I don't care where you live, spinach is expensive. I have to beat it off with a stick and, while I'm lying exhausted on my insanely cheap sun lounger after doing so, my lovely Italian neighbours come over with a huge bag of their excess spinach. Fortunately it steams away to almost nothing in seconds. Otherwise I'd be haunted by Popeye nightmares.

Basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, mint, sage, coriander, spring onion. All expensive to buy in a shop and only available in annoyingly excessive quantities. Herbs have their own designated quantifying noun for a reason. You require only 'a sprig' of most herbs to do exceptionally delicious things. Rocket, of course, is different. There is no such thing as 'a sprig' of rocket and neither should there be.

Rocket will feature strongly in the Seat of Pants supper menu this evening. One haunts the Larrikin's End supermarket for the gourmet trifecta that is clearance double cream, good Parmesan cheese and Huon smoked salmon. Bingo! Tonight we are having a lovely pasta dish with all of the above and all for under $10. If it weren't for Barney being such a glutton, especially where smoked salmon and cream are concerned, it would last for four meals. Thankfully Barney isn't partial to rocket.

I mostly don't eat meat. I never buy it. Recently some ham was bought for young visitors and not eaten. I blended that into a pasta. I eat seafood about once a week. Even in a fishing town it can be expensive. The Larrikin's End fishing fleet is a co operative and has its own shop but tourists keep the prices high.

The person in front of me invariably buys $150 worth of seafood. I never fail to gasp but it's easily done and no one else blinks. Three dozen oysters, three kilos of prawns and a dozen 'bugs' will tidy away $150 in the holiday season. Some people call that a family lunch. A 'bug' is a very tasty common crustacean found around much of coastal Australia. Its exorbitant price is directly proportionate to its popularity as a holiday food.

I have been known to spend as little as 70c on a piece of fish at the co op. The fish mongers see me coming and, in all fairness, do try not to appear disapproving. Unfortunately, they are not particularly adept actors. I do wonder sometimes what would happen to their tiny bits of elephant fish if people like me didn't buy them.

When Mr T came to visit last September, I made a paella. It is in fact my signature dish. It was out of holiday season so I had the upper hand. I managed to buy all the requisite seafood for an exquisite paella, including two bugs, from the co op for $12. The trick is to deal in individuals and not kilos. Six prawns, eight scallops... you get the picture.

I got a big shock when I moved to Larrikin's End to discover the co op does not provide the kind of fishmongery services with which I was familiar. I ordered a squid and asked if it could be 'cleaned'. I was told 'no'. It isn't that I don't know how to do it, it's just that the bits aren't any use and difficult to dispose of. If you order fish from a London fishmonger, they will do whatever you want done with it at no extra charge. And they will throw in a generous 'sprig' of parsley if you ask for it.

Free things. I love them. Coriander seeds. Seen the price of them? I have harvested jars and jars. And lavender. It reminds me of France and my grandmother - for different reasons you understand. Seat of Pants had one lavender bush when I moved in and then it had nine babies! I carefully dug them up and fertilised them with my own painstakingly assembled compost and have planted them along the front fence. I may rename the place Petit France.

Mmm. Now I'm hungry.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The sweet smell of sockses

Socks by Pants

Socks or, if you prefer, sox. I love them. The only thing I love near as much as socks is gloves. Fingerless gloves I adore. I have four pairs. My joints are not partial to extremes in temperature so I need to wear gloves all the time in winter and lie down a lot in summer. Both are very pleasurable pursuits. However it's quite difficult to eat toast with gloves on. Socks don't seem to make much of a difference. I've eaten toast with and without socks on. Both work equally well. Toast and fingerless gloves are a perfect match.

Ms O'Dyne has just sent me these delectable socks (pictured) from Geelong. I don't know if they're specifically Geelong socks. The maroon pair are a wool blend. Lovely and thick. Quite often I have this type of sock on in the house instead of shoes. I don't much like shoes. Not even slippers. It's the 'slip' aspect of them I don't like. They never feel like they're properly attached and they make a clunky sound when you're walking along the floorboards. I prefer no sound when I'm walking along the floorboards. I don't want to be made aware that I'm walking along the floorboards. It wouldn't enhance the experience of going from the bedroom to the kitchen one iota for my headtalk to be prattling 'oh, I see we're walking along the floorboards again'.

Sometimes, early in the morning for example, I have to put shoes on as well as socks as the floorboards are too cold, even to walk to the kitchen. I like suede moccasins. They don't clunk on the floor and they stay on unless they are old. The floorboards aren't usually cold for very long as Seat of Pants is quite the solarium in winter. As long as the sun is shining, it heats up nicely. When it gets dark, and therefore cold, I light a fire. I am also grateful to Ms O'Dyne for my exceptional fire skills. Ms O'Dyne taught me how to live in Victoria and, very specifically how to live in a Victorian house. That is not to say a house from the Victorian era but a house located in country Victoria.

Previously, the only thing I knew about heating a house was that you controlled the temperature via a dial in the kitchen and 'bled' the radiators once I year. Building a fire in a wood-burning stove is not so difficult. Neither is calling the firewood man and asking him to bring a load of wood. The really useful thing Ms O'Dyne taught me is to collect kindling in the autumn when the gum trees shed their highly combustible branches and there are a lot of dead leaves and pine cones lying around. If you have to buy kindling in a shop it costs about $5 for a couple of kilos.

Ms O'Dyne also taught me a great pre-winter log-fire trick. After you have collected up all your combustibles, you take all your saved old newspapers down to the shed while it is still tolerably warm and spend a few pleasant afternoons listening to the radio and wrapping up parcels of leaves and twigs and putting them in cardboard boxes. Then in winter you pop a box in the laundry and then take the pre-prepared fire parcels out as you need them.

I'm very lucky that the Seat of Pants fire heats the whole house. I say lucky but actually I knew it would before I bought the house. Again, I have Ms O'Dyne to thank for that. When I arrived in Victoria getting on for two years ago, she installed me in a country house which had a log fire. The house was a long, thin bungalow and the fire was set in one corner of it. Most of the heat went out of the full length windows on either side of it, which weren't adequately draped. You were warm provided you sat in front of the fire and activated its fan.

The Seat of Pants fire is in the middle of the ground floor. There is a flue which goes up to the second storey and distributes its heat throughout. I don't need to use the fire's built-in electric fan. I've never been able to stand dwellings with multiple temperature zones so I chose carefully with the benefit of prior knowledge acquired by the auspices of the venerated Ms O'Dyne.

The other pair of socks I received is a spring/autumn pair with an island holiday theme. I will wear them with the only type of shoes I feel comfortable in - my jogging Reeboks. I don't like Reeboks especially. It's more a case of them being the kind of shoe I least dislike. I am used to them and they are cheap. Arty Australian women of a certain age like Consort All Stars. I wore them when I was fifteen and they cost $5 at Woolworths. These days they're too expensive and too hard to take off. Even if you double-knot Reeboks, you can still lever them off with the other foot.

Ms O'Dyne has previously and very successfully sent me gloves, including fingerless gloves. She knows exactly which buttons to push. Thank you Ms O'Dyne for your generosity and thoughtfulness.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ella-mental my dear Watson

Photo by Dallas Kilponen from Sydney Morning Herald

You have to feel for Jessica Watson, the unwitting cipher in a bizarre national game of mixed messages. In a country where most sixteen year-olds are not allowed to go around the corner unaccompanied, the thought of letting one sail off around the world in mountainous seas was almost more than the collective psyche could bear. It didn't help that she got skittled by a cargo ship while apparently asleep in a shipping lane just outside of Brisbane on the first evening of her practice run.

But then she went and we didn't hear much about her as she pootled around the globe's various treacherous horns and capes. Now she's back and has gone from being the subject of a crass public conversation about child protection to having the mantle of 'hero' thrust upon her by a fawning Prime Minister, no less. Must be mighty confusing. Not at all easy to unpick your adolescent rights from your responsibilities in that lot, I imagine.

It's hard enough for most of us to form a sentence after a therapeutic weekend dodging the madding crowd. After seven months of solitude and battling to dismiss her sea legs, the poor poppet was marched up a pink carpet and called a hero the minute she landed. She obviously is a hero, not least of all for summoning the presence of mind to deflect the implied burden with this,

'I don't consider myself a hero. I'm an ordinary girl who believed in her dream.'

Ah-hum. That was kind of a timely reminder that she didn't have too many backers for that dream before she set off. I don't remember the PM or anyone else for that matter screaming 'you go girl' as she sailed out through the Heads. Yes, it's all fine and good until someone loses an eye was more the general gist.

It hasn't been easy finding a nuanced appraisal of Jessica's achievement. She's either Joan d'Arc incarnate or the epitome of Gen-Y narcissism. The PM's already nailed his embarassingly crimson colours to her, er, mast. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum we have her sometime sponsor Marty Stills who called her 'selfish' and the commercialisation of her voyage 'disgusting'. With friends like this eh? It would be interesting get his perspective on what he understands the term 'sponsorship' to mean in the twenty-first century.

The best reportage I've found comes from It covers the event and its implications calmly and sensibly. It was also from this source that I learned exactly why Jessica's trip isn't eligible to be considered for an official record. Apparently the category of 'youngest person to circumnavigate the globe' was abolished a year or two ago out of a well-founded fear that candidates were only going to get younger. As I write there's a fifteen year-old from California well into her solo around-the-world voyage and a thirteen year-old whose parents have had their parental rights suspended for indicating they would give her permission to go.

As Jessica Watson was nearing Sydney Heads in her yacht Ella's Pink Lady in the early hours of Saturday morning, NSW police were making a gruesome discovery. In the southern suburbs of Sydney, the body of an eighteen year-old woman was found in a creek bed. She had left her home on Friday evening to meet a couple of young men she'd befriended on Facebook. It was a disquieting contrast in fates.

In many ways this is a case of all's well that ends well. Watson herself has missed no opportunity in politely suggesting that the cloying and very much unwanted over-protectionism directed at her was gender-based. Welcome to the real world babycakes.

The arguments have gone back and forth about her level of skill as a sailor, as if that would have made a blind bit of difference had she hit a storm with ninety-foot waves. You have to admit though it's a bit of an anomaly that a kid who isn't allowed to drive her Mum's Honda to the supermarket can legally take a small boat through the seven seas for seven months.

She arrived back safely and, in these outcome-obsessed times, that means we get to 'celebrate her success' with thoroughly distasteful nationalism. Had the doors slid differently, we might have been steeped in a mire of compulsive reflection and looking at a serious revision of nautical regulations, as suggested somewhat disingenuously by Bosun Stills. And we would have had a girl to blame it on. I have no doubt whatever that while one of the PM's assistants was drafting his 'Australia's newest hero' speech, another, or perhaps even the same assistant, was penning a self-recriminating harangue about reckless endangerment, just in case.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bankers behaving badly

Up the spout by Pants

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the cashpoint machine...

From Australia comes a banking scandal of tantalising chutzpah. Have executives gone back to paying themselves multi-million dollar bonuses while the rest of us pick through the wreckage looking for our lost pensions I hear you gasp. Is the pope a racist? No, no. That's boring BAU stuff. I'm not talking stuffy old corporate malfeasance here.

In the week when Gordon Gekko gets out of jail and relaunches himself onto the world stage with the self-penned Is Greed Good? (Now there's a rhetorical question if ever there was one), a band of lowly clerks in a Melbourne bank has been caught running a successful drug ring using the company's email system. Fourteen staff members at the ANZ's collections department have been implicated in the importing and selling of the party drug meow meow.

'ANZ spokesman Stephen Ries said a number of staff linked to the investigation had left the bank "some time ago", but he would not elaborate on why they had left, or if they had been sacked.'

'Some time ago' turns out to be about the time the Australian Federal Police started sniffing around. The employees were either sacked or resigned for 'breaches of the company's email policy' which presumably states it is not appropriate to use it for ordering drug shipments.

"We have been completely shocked by this matter and everyone at ANZ is incredibly disappointed at the matters the police are looking into," he said.

Disappointed? Yes I imagine any banking executive would be considering the lofty standards of probity they have come to represent. It's unthinkable that their underlings would want to exploit their position to enhance their personal wealth using means that a lot of people would think of as not exactly legal.

'We have zero tolerance on these matters and none of the staff linked to this investigation are with ANZ any longer.'

Zero tolerance! My that does sound reassuringly diligent doesn't it? Wouldn't you love to see the section in the staff manual that prohibits illicit pharmaceutical transactions? I know I would.

On a bright note. To all the downtrodden corporate grunts out there - when your company tells you their internal email system is 'strictly monitored', they are probably telling porkies. I'd go for it if I were you.

Friday, May 14, 2010

For crying out loud

The Scream by Pants

I consider myself very lucky to be born Generation Jones. Not so lucky to have been born in the cautious-bordering-on-paranoically-insane country perhaps. But very lucky that I grew up and left before the microscopic obsession with what the young people are getting up to kicked in.

I have written about this subject many times before. Not, I hope, because I am repeating myself. Rather because there is always some new hysteria breaking out, the solution to which is increasing surveillance on the youth of the nation to keep them from harm's way. I'm just so glad to have pre-dated this creeping Polonius of a state to the point where I can honestly say I enjoyed being young, and most especially, its dangers.

Yesterday a Senate committee here in Australia made the remarkable discovery that loud music contributes to hearing loss. Well, I never! The sheer AC/DC of it!

'The committee found one in six Australians suffer from some degree of hearing loss and that number could be as high as one in four by 2050.'

Yep. That would be me, and let me tell you I don't regret a single decibel.

'The most common causes are ageing and extended exposure to loud

Can't do much about getting older, I'm afraid, as much as I would love to contribute to the betterment of the nation.

'It has recommended that warning signs be put in pubs and clubs where the music could be loud enough to cause hearing loss.'

Capital idea! Clearly there would be no other way of telling.

'In addition, it wants ear plugs to be handed out and a national hearing campaign targetted at young people.'

Oh yes, absolutely. Let's have blindfolds in the cinemas too. Actually, while we're on the subject of cinemas, I may be harder of hearing than all the posts in the rabbit-proof fence combined but I usually come out of the cinema with bleeding ears. I wouldn't say no to earplugs there. And by all means, do spend our dwindling health dollars on yet another pointless campaign that will rightly fall on, er, deaf ears. I'll be happy to forgo my hip replacement and be harangued about something I can't change instead. When you say 'target' I presume you mean those vile billboards you put up everywhere and ads on the 'non-commercial' ABC television station.

'The committee estimates hearing loss costs Australia more than $11 billion each year in health costs and lost wages.'

Eh? Lost wages? Do people really phone up and say, 'sorry, I'm not coming into work today, I'm not hearing very well?'

Ah yes, we Gen Jonesers got to enjoy our youth. When these poor sods bounce their grandkiddies on their knees, presuming OH&S regulations still allow such a precarious pursuit, what will they be telling them about Nan and Pop's adventures? We stayed indoors and watched internet porn with the sound down. Bypassing the Government's filtering systems was hardly challenging but it was a close as we got to real adventure...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shut up and kiss me

Graeme Robertson, The Guardian

Hello young lovers, whether your tie be blue or yellow. The marriage made in Harrods' Menswear Department nearly got off to a rocky start during the wedding breakfast press conference. An impish journalist reminded the Decameron that pre-courtship, when asked what his favourite joke was, he replied 'Nick Clegg'.

'Did you really say that?' asked the incredulous bride.

'I'm afraid I did, old chap,' came the sheepish reply.

But he was just pulling his beloved's Clegg, obviously.

Here at Seat of Pants, we have been trying to get our heads around Australian politics, which appears to us to be largely an Afghan rug of managerial metaphors. We have ascertained that quite a lot of tidying gets done as things are constantly being 'put in place'. We have also established that there are two kinds of activity in government. There is doing nothing which is called 'business as usual', and there is doing a different kind of nothing which is called 'a game-changer'.

Barney has ceased his oil explorations due to the threat of a 'great big new' supertax on resources. It is nice to have the kitchen to myself again. We can tell the tax is a good idea because all the rich people are complaining. The cost of smoking has also gone up. That again is good news. Anything that dampens the question Why's enthusiasm for spontaneous combustion can only be beneficial.

One thing we're not all that happy about is that dental treatment has been left out again. There is some free dental care in Australia but you have to live in a city where there is a dental hospital and you have to wait years for an appointment. The Pants choppers are in reasonably good nick, thanks largely to excellent British NHS free treatment. But teeth do tend to deteriorate as one gets older no matter how well you look after them. If you have an abscess on any other part of your body, it's a medical matter and eligible for free hospital treatment but if it happens to occur in your mouth, it's a dentist, provided you can get in to see one, and several thousand dollars in fees.

In Australia you can get a free lapband operation. In fact they are very popular for treating teenage obesity. Australian authorities are very worried about teenage obesity. It doesn't square with the national sporting image at all. Whereas we at Seat of Pants feel sorry for young people whose interests are confined to junk food and sitting down, we would point out that obesity is a choice and it is possible to reverse it by making a different choice. We don't wish to make light of the difficulty involved. The Pants girth is not without a tendency to drift into squeezy territory - we do love our pasta. One can resolve this situation with a little self-restraint. No equivalent personal effort will have the same impact on a bad tooth.

Although the ménage à trois here at Seat of Pants is not without its fiery moments, we very much doubt we will need to resort to family counselling. Just as well as free family therapy has just been cut. This is unfortunate indeed as Larrikin's End, being at the dodgier fringe of the socio-economic demographic, has an over-abundance of feuding families. Never one to overlook a business opportunity, Barney has vowed to plug the gaps by offering a free advice session with every jug of margaritas at his Goblet of Fire vodka bars. Cheers Barney, that should help a lot. He gets his capacity for community enterprise from me. I couldn't be more proud.

If the Decameron and Foghorn Clegghorn should visit Australia together, and there's no reason to think they wouldn't as they appear to be joined at the bespoke trouser seam, we hope they bring their own relationship advisors as we don't think marriage guidance is covered on travel insurance. We wish them all the happiness the Carlton Club can provide, obviously but Barney would just like to say that if things should go the way of the pear, he'll be standing by with a jug of margaritas and a sympathetic ear.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cool run-ins

Cartman Hitler from

And I said to him,

'Barney, what the fuck did you think you were playing at? What was the last thing I said before I shot you full of Moggydon and shoved you in your Pet-a-Porter? No Barney. The Tories. I said keep the Tories out of Downy Street. Yes, I'm sure the nets you had put up will come in handy. Perhaps for catching all those asteroids!'

People of Britain. We apologise. Best of a bad lot and all that. It's only the second worst thing that could have happened. How they're going to tell each other apart physically is a mystery. I guess they'll do it with a series of coded mood ties. Time to move on.

To wit. We are thinking that since neither the Decameron nor the Clegghorn have been in leadership roles before, they might benefit from research done by some forward-thinking BYTs at cash-starved West Midlands Strategic Health Authority who decided to cheer up their overworked and under-resourced staff with a fun survey. The London Times reports,

It was a question that left NHS staff gasping in disbelief: the survey wanted to know how “cool” they would rate Adolf Hitler, on a scale of one to five.
'Way cool. Wah hey! Well, gotta know the en...' Barney, will you shut the fuck up! Haven't you done enough damage? Have you not heard of political correctness? Conceded, but shut the fuck up anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Workers were also asked to rate the “coolness” of other leaders including Richard Branson, Gordon Brown, Winston Churchill and the England football team manager, Fabio Capello. The survey, entitled Making Leadership Cool, is part of
a £10,000 project that will help the NHS West Midlands Strategic Health Authority to devise a new leadership strategy.

Hey? Aren't these all mad, greedy old white guys? And aren't they all dead? And if they're not, shouldn't they be?

The questionnaire was circulated to all 3,300 workers at West Midlands Ambulance Service last month after two paramedics applied for a bursary to carry out the survey. The authority will use the results to develop a “leadership development programme”.

Ahh. Well that certainly clarifies matters. Well done those paramedics. Just as a matter of interest, where did you get the survey commissioned? Kiev?

Staff were asked to rate Ian Cumming, chief executive of the NHS West Midlands Strategic Health Authority, on a scale of one to five. They were also asked if being gay, funny or black made a leader cool.

Oh, I see. So it's all about the low water mark. I'm giving him a five, assuming Mr Cummings is gay, funny and black. If not, take off one mark for each missing attribute. Some employees didn't see the funny side, including former ambulance worker Steve Jetley, who told The Times,

An ambulance is operating in Shropshire with more than 300,000 miles on the clock.

Point taken Steve. I certainly wouldn't want that ambulance doing my hip replacement. A spokesperson for the West Midlands Ambulance Service told The Times,

The project sought to discuss different styles of leadership and the characteristics of leadership to help staff at all levels develop their careers. Staff were asked to look at different leadership styles, and one of those was a dictatorial style.

Adolf Hitler’s style galvanised a country into terrible things but it did galvanise a country. Perhaps, in hindsight, a better example could have been used.

Well, isn't that the classic half-empty/half-full dilemma?

Barney? Who are you calling?