Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mouth of the Murray

Semi-final winning roar from Andy Murray. Mark Baker (AP)

It's a far, er, cry from the days of Tim Henman, a man whose 'air pump' looked like it was borrowed from a penny farthing bicycle. Andy Murray at least bellows like a top ten player. I'm writing this now in case the crane from Dunblane is yesterday's news tomorrow.

I've watched The Australian Open under some sufference. The whole thing is far too blue. Tennis courts should be green or terra cotta. A blue court looks like it should be filled with water, and not in a pleasant way. There are also ads - gasp! 

There have been some entertaining moments, not least of all when Henri Leconte was in the commentary box. Think soccer dad on steroids. The magnificent battle between Justine Henin and Serena Williams was worth the price of having the remote constantly to hand. The Bill was on the other side for some of it and that certainly helped. 

Wimbledon fortnight used to be one of the highlights of my year. About once every three years, I'd get tickets in the public ballot or my friend Carole would. If we didn't get lucky we'd queue and be dispensed words of encouragement by kindly old gentlemen in Panama hats and ties bearing the suffragette colours of purple and green. It was delightful and almost never rained. 

When Henman was dithering his way to inevitable quarter-final defeat, the slope outside Centre Court was named Henman Hill.  Here you could watch him on a giant screen painfully rerunnning his Sisyphian destiny, year in, year out.  In the post-Henman era it has been redubbed Murray Mound. 

If Murray wins the Australian Open today, he will be the first British man to win a Grand Slam title since Fred Perry won both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1936. An eight-time slam winner, Perry was also the first man to win all four Grand Slam titles. The little slope should really have been called Perry Peak.  The Perry legacy is a lot to live up to but there could be a lucrative sportswear future in it.

Britain could do with the psychological boost of being good at something for a change and it would be great if Dunblane could be famous for something other than the horrific massacre of sixteen children and a teacher at the school where Murray was a pupil in 1996. 

If Murray's game is as big as his gob, he's in with a chance. I hope so. I've seen far too many boring finals featuring the robotic Federer who plays like he was manufactured by Tissot.  A Murray win would be grounds for renaming Southfields tube station, (where one exits for Wimbledon), Murrayfield South, surely. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blair-faced gall

Tony Blair explains his 'church/steeple strategy for
world peace to the Iraq Inquiry (photo from BBC)

I've spent most of the day looking at footage and reading the commentary on Blah-Blah's highly anticipated appearance at the Iraq Inquiry. The conclusion is unequivocal - he started out sheepish but, once he realised he wasn't going to get anything remotely challenging thrown at him, he grabbed the whip hand and ordered his inquisitors back to their kennels. It was a bit like a scratch team of footman had been hastily assembled to quiz Henry VIII about his table manners by all accounts.

Simon Jenkins in The Guardian describes how an early fumble by Sir Roderic Lyne causes weeks' worth of carefully constructed evidence to crumble as a resurgent Blah-Blah demonstrates just how quick his hands really are. The Guardian's other Simon (Hoggart) calls it a 'bravura performance by the maestro of self-justification, the supremo of sincerity'. I'd had the idea that the inquiry was being mounted to examine the legality of the invasion. Wrong. The panel has apparently been convened to find out how many different ways could be found to ask the same question - whether or not Blah-Blah believed he had done what he believed to be right.

Over at The Times, Matthew Parris thinks that Blah-Blah is only in the hot seat because the war turned out badly. I suppose that would explain the incoherent grilling. Is it possible this whole thing is a charade? The Independent didn't think so, arguing in this leading article that, Blah-Blah's insistence on distilling the whole thing down to a question of judgement exposes him to a graver charge. 'If joining the US invasion was simply a matter of judgement, it was a judgement that was catastrophically wrong,' it claims.

Simon Heffer (my goodness there certainly were a lot of Simons at this inquiry) of The Telegraph agrees with Blah-Blah's assessment that the destruction of the World Trade Centre was 'an attack on us all' and getting rid of Saddam was probably a good thing but he still should have taken responsibility for the consequences of the botched action. We all know that is never going to happen. Assuming liability has consequences of its own. Blah-Blah is a lawyer. He knows that. Besides, it's not as if there is any pressure on him to do anything of the kind. There's no real dilemma here. It's a case of no conviction without confession.

The Guardian also commissioned a range of views from other interested observers. Haifa Zangana, a novelist who had been imprisoned under the Saddam regime writes,

'He was in a warm, well-lit hall, conversing with gentle folk in an academic conversation that could have lasted forever. Undergraduates would have asked more probing questions.'

I guess the cheques are in the post then.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher is a Keeper

J D Salinger 1919-2010 (AP)

The antidote to the cult of celebrity is dead. J D Salinger, famous for shunning fame, has left quietly at the age of 91. He was the last bastion of restraint in the face of the global domination of glitter culture. So many live vicariously through the often spurious achievements of a few surgically-modified performance bots instead of getting out there and living their own story now. Ours is a world where a diminishing number of entertainment behemoths ferociously gobble up every project suggestion within range regardless of genre. A world where Posh Spice is hired to design a building and Sylvester Stallone opens restaurants and holds exhibitions of his ghastly paintings. The thought of a writer retiring from public life after one novel and a couple of collections of stories is a joyously refreshing one.

This affectionate and empathetic piece in the New York Times, reminds us of just how prescient his shunning of sycophants and the monsters they sustain proved to be. To paraphrase Kerouac - after Salinger, the deluge. He will have had no idea how much he will be missed.

It did not take me long to find my copy of The Catcher in the Rye today. Not because of any organisational prowess - my books are all still mostly in boxes due to a lack of adequate shelving - but because I found it the other day when I was looking for Middlemarch. I sat down to read a few pages and got hooked all over again. 

Catcher was probably the first modern novel I ever read. I'd read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind earlier that year. I guess I must have been thirteen. I can't remember how I heard about it. The Pants family bookshelves contained mostly condensed books and the odd classic. The Pants parents were not big readers then. Pa Pants had some copies of Playboy under the Pants matrimonio and occasionally bought National Geographic for the coffee table. Ma Pants subscribed to Reader's Digest and contributed The Australian Women's Weekly to the coffee table. 

The copy I read probably came from the local library. I remember being tickled by the word 'sonuvabitch'. It took me a while to work out what it actually meant. I went to a single-sex school. I showed the word to some of the other girls and we all giggled into our hands over it. Bitch was not a term that was in common usage, except of course where Miss Wilson was concerned.

The world of Holden Caulfield was not of a kind I'd ever encountered before, fictional or otherwise. It was a place of secrets, perhaps like the box under Pa Pants's side of the bed. It was a world in which a kid operated autonomously and was angry. He was out and about, doing as he pleased and just being. I must have found it attractive because I tried it myself a few years later. I went AWOL just before my exams and holed up in the shared house of some older friends. They smoked dope and had one of those Che Guevara posters on the wall. My episode ended similarly. I conformed and went to university but there has always been something in me that felt 'in this world but not of it' too. And there are still plenty of times when I don't want 'any goddam stupid conversation with anybody'.

I'm entirely in sympathy with Salinger's hermitage and his fierce defence of it. You do not forfeit your right to privacy by having written a popular novel. He must have felt entirely vindicated by Holden's assessment that the world largely comprised 'phonies'. How fortunate that he was able to realise the ambition voiced by his juvenile narrator to obtain 'a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life'. It is wonderful for him that he was able to do it, that the fortune gave him the power to make good on his desire for permanent severance from stupidity. 

There's no rule that says if you strike a chord with the public you have to go on playing until they tell you it's time to stop. It seemed such a sane use of opportunity to continue writing with absolute freedom and no obligation.  How many, having tasted adulation on that level, can take the spoon out of the jar? Perversely, this peculiarity contributed to the status of Salinger's one published novel. The more the public demanded, the less the author complied and the perennial sales of Catcher strengthened the keep to impenetrability. Salinger's death throws into sharp relief how rare a quality self-determination of that calibre is.

People have been talking about their favourite lines from Catcher today. Here's mine,

'Don't ever tell anybody anything.'

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pup Quiz

Pants family pooches by Sis Pants

When is someone going to scientifically prove the correlation between internet use and the hardening of grey matter? From Britain comes a story of such stupendous bonkerdom, you wonder if intelligence tests should be mandatory for web-surfing.  A British woman sent £350 to an address in Africa and was genuinely surprised when a Siberian husky puppy she'd found online didn't jet in by return of post. Africa? You know that continent where Nigeria is located? Number one import - conned cash, number one export - nah, nah, nah-nah, nahs? 

Police are now 'issuing warnings' to people to be 'cautious' when gleefully sending off wads of cash to people they don't know who live in places where the main industry is scamming. Perhaps they should also be telling people not to toss their pay packet into the Thames or dive into a vat of boiling oil. I know what you're going to say, I bought Barney over the internet. What I've never revealed is that I insisted there be a webcam fitted to his cryo-pod. I also refused to pay a penny until I had fully assembled him and convinced myself he was in tip-top working order. 

Sis Pants acquired her spoodle puppies in the traditional way - deserted carpark, dead of night, used notes. They haven't emulated Barney's level of entrepreneurship, but they make very good dusters.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Gay Old Time Part 2

You'll recall I was getting a little hot under my winged collar yesterday about the mean-spiritedness of male theatrical drag. Probably someone's already written a book about this. I hope so. It makes me really cross that men, having corralled women into limited modes of experience and expression, then assume permission to lampoon at will the stereotype of their own creation. 

Men, theatrically disguised as women, play out every neurosis their imagination will allow. This reinforces a vision of women as hysterics because the audience does not think of these performers as 'men'. They are laughing at 'women' and they feel free to do so because they think they are witnessing extremes of 'female' behaviour - narcissism, sluttishness, victimhood and selfishness. 

It seems some men desperately want to express emotional abandon and neediness but cannot get away with it as men amongst men, even gay men. And we women cannot redirect this back to men because there is no way of saying, 'please stop trying to be us in order to work out what you are'.

I've seen plenty of drag acts over the years. I actually saw Danny La Rue albeit relatively late in his long career. I found his act a bit pathetic but not nasty. Danny La Rue was the last of the old skool drag queens. Something meaner and leaner was just around the corner. It seems to me that drag in a post-feminist world is a place where gay and straight men have forged a new alliance over a common enemy - an imagined resurgent matriarchy. Little Britain is the realisation of this fantasy. But where did this all come from? 

The theatrical tradition of men playing female roles goes back to the Greek origins of theatre. Women were not allowed to appear on stage and their characters were interpreted by men. It was the beginning of a very long traditional in which women were voiced by men in their, and our, joint story. 

Shakespeare creatively exploited the Elizabethan rule outlawing women players and, by necessity, popularised the concept of 'drag' in English theatre as we know it. His comedies often deployed the trope of cross-dressing to enable a love-lorn character to gain access to, or the confidence of a desired one. The sophistication with which he manoeuvred around this legal obstacle is simply breathtaking, and its resonance quite possibly incalculable. We all love the beauty and power of Shakespeare's dramatisation, but most of us now think that a notional society in which real women are expected to assume an invisibility is absurd. 

In modern English pantomime, the part of 'the dame' is usually played by a portly old man and the 'principal boy' is usually played by a slender young woman. This convention is a direct descendant of the Shakespearean construct of revealed disguise. You get the odd disingenuous dame, but rarely is it an evil portrayal. Pantomime is a family thing and audiences don't want some fat old ex-soap hack taking the piss out of their Nana. And the young woman who plays 'principal boy' is the 'hero' in every respect. 

On yesterday's post I put up a picture of Vesta Tilley, one of English music hall's biggest stars. In common with many great stage stories, the signature idea on which her fame floated is a hearts-winning whim. As a child performer she was directed to present a song parody of a famous male opera singer of the day. She did it in a tiny tux to huge acclaim and later said, 'I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.' And Vesta Tilley might well have believed it the age of 6 when her impresario father first put her in that tiny tux. Tilley went on to have a huge career as a male impersonator. 

The song I'd always associated with Vesta Tilley is Burlington Bertie (written by Harry B Norris in 1900 - see yesterday's picture). When I searched for the original lyrics I came up with a 1915 version written by the American William Hargreaves for his wife, Ella Shields. And video of her performance appears above for your entertainment. 

I realised that this version is the one I'd learned a few years ago. It's a song that predates even the birth of QEII but it contains the amusing lines,

I stand in the yard while they're changing the guard,
And the Queen shouts across, 'Toodle oo!'
And the Prince of Wales' brother along some other,
Slaps me on the back and says, 'Come and see Mother,'
I'm Bert, Bert, and royalty's hurt,
When they ask me to dine I say no.
I've just had a banana with Lady Diana*
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow.

*the 1915 version refers to Lady Diana Cooper. The prescience of this verse was underlined in a 1981 Royal Variety Performance performed by Anita Harris. 

The history of women impersonating men on stage is, in the short time it's been allowed, overwhelmingly gentle. Obviously there's not much in the male costume that can be exaggerated. But women who've parodied men on stage have gone for the toffs - as Vesta Tilley did. The men who caricature women tend to go for the throat rather than the collar. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Gay Old Time, Part 1

Vesta Tilley as Burlington Bertie
(Image from

I've just talked to Ma Pants. She's been to a local theatre revue. Ma Pants has herself a cosy theatre foursome and they go to almost every show staged by the two little theatre companies in their area. There's Ma Pants and Ellen, both in their 80s and a gay couple called Ray and Norm, who are in their 70s. They are known to each other respectively as 'the girls' and 'the boys'. They all have a preference for musicals. 

Pa Pants passed, as did Ellen's husband, some time ago but these merry widows like to throw on the pearls and kick up the heels occasionally. It's a kind of golden circle and has been doing the rounds of local grease-paint shanties for a number of years. "The boys' do the driving which is great as neither Ma Pants nor Ellen are all that keen on driving at night and one of the theatres is in a town half an hour away down a very dark road. 

I have never met 'the boys' because I have never visited in 'the season' but I do know that when Ma Pants wanted a recipe for an Easter Simnel Cake, she called them and they had one. It's a lovely arrangement and I'm so glad Ma Pants has it. She is not lacking in a social life but, like many widows, all her other activities involve only other single women. It's such a beneficial arrangement that I'm surprised no one has thought of setting up a networking service for gay men and widows who like the theatre but never come late, or perhaps they have.

The revue had a drag act which Ma Pants said was very good. I have an ideological problem with men in drag, especially since advancements in surgery have enabled some to distort the female form to extremes of caricature without attracting the barest semblance of criticism. This acting out of neurotic narcissism is successfully characterised as female when it is, in fact, male. 

It is the coloniser who is corrupt and not the colonised but drag has been skillful in cloaking itself in the respectability of mainstream gay culture. The first time I saw Little Britain, I thought of what Germaine Greer said in The Female Eunuch - women don't realise how much men hate them. I thought, if they didn't then, they should now. But how did we get to this point? 

I'm going to stop here because I thought I might try to overcome my disdain of the hideous blue court and watch the Australian Open for a bit. We will meet again tomorrow. By then, I might have worked out where I'm going with this...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stray Day

Stranded  by Pants

Tomorrow is Stray Day. It's what Barney and I would once have called a Bank Holiday except Barney has no holidays from banks these days because he is the bank. As he is fond of saying, 'if life hands you lemons, call Hiner Saleem'

Barney has done exceptionally well with his six, (as finally negotiated with the World Health Organisation), lives. Several of them have busied themselves mixing him Margheritas, while a couple of the others have keenly shrewded themselves on matters real estate. Thankfully, he has directed one of them to my occasional pedicare. Barney is, unfortunately, the only one capable of interpreting the instructions of the 'similar-to-as-seen-on-TV' foot grooming machine I received for Christmas from Ma Pants. 

Barney received a G-V and a year's membership at chi-nail bar and organic spa, Beverly Hills from Ma and Pa Gates. He offered to bankroll a luxury pumice-stoning for me but I thought, nah, I like the idea of at least a fifth of him retaining some respect for the pet/owner dynamic.

What will we be doing tomorrow to celebrate our 'strayness'? Barney, of course will be in his element. He always planned to open all 419 of his Goblet of Fire Vodka Bars simultaneously. I suggested this could be a problem as 419 doesn't divide by six, and what if I wasn't was satisfied enough with my pedi-situation to release one of his indentured selves? 

Barney immediately consulted his facebook pal euclid who worked out that all he needed to do was open an extra bar, schmooze me with some vintage champagne and a Dane Bowers on Celebrity Big Brother Highlights DVD and the problem would be solved. How well they know me.

The result has reverberated nationwide. Clearly not even Barney with his underworld contacts could get planning permission to open a conventional bar in twenty-four hours. Once again he turned to facebook. Aristoprah, it has to be said, is a marketing genius for coming up with this idea. Barney simply declared the entire of coastal Australia his 420th bar and gave it the special name of Vodka Rocks

The Australian Commonwealth has announced it will be issuing him with a bill for AU$250m for lost productivity. Barney intends to plea-bargain that down to $4.13 on the basis that the workers who skived off were by the accuser's own definition 'un-Australian bums who have no concept of mateship' and, by extension, not citizens of this country. He therefore contends that he should bear no responsibility for foreigners behaving badly in his establishments that were erected for that very purpose. 

Barney is prepared to reimburse Kodine Asprin (18) her full hourly wage. He freely admits he detained her causing her to be 35 seconds late for her job at Wings of Desire (formerly Chick Bits. They now guarantee their frying process involves no trans-fats but the food is still pretty much just chicken wings). Ms Asprin, it appears, did not understand that when Barney offers to 'poke' you, he is just showing off his ability to be in several places at the beginning of each month. 

Barney apologised with nauseating profuseness for his error of judgment. He also threw in the annual membership to chi-nail bar and organic spa as a reconciliation gesture. Ms Asprin turned him down flat but did negotiate a 5-year unconditional anytime deal with Ally Shi of Newtown, Sydney. You go, girl.

I think it will be a quiet day for me tomorrow. I'll be viewing Barney's triumph from a safe distance with my crate of Bollinger, Grande Annee 1997, (absolutely my year). There will be plenty of guys like Trevor (above), waking up on Thursday morning and they will see me heading off in the G-V. So I changed my mind about the Beverly Hills offer...

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Image from

News of the World brings us the devastating dispatch that the rainbow romance has come to the end of its lollipop. I hope they kept the receipts for all those kids.

Just another day at the office for these two. They managed to squeeze in a separation agreement between movies, humanitarian missions and big shops. Brad won joint custody of their countless children and the right to reinstate the 'd' at the end of his name. 

NOTW source explained,

It seemed clear they want the world to know they'll both play a part in the upbringing of the children.

Consider us so informed.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wick's End

Last day in Hackney Wick by Pants

I started a detailed email to High Riser who had innocently enquired as to how I could possibly have swapped London, England, Europe, the World for Larrikin's End, Victoria, Australia, the Wilderness, when I realised that there was a blog post in it. 

High Riser has better things to do on a Saturday night than read my emails so the effort will be better directed here. This thinking is, in a way, the crux of it. I have spent most of my life trying to find a better way of doing things, most often without trying the orthodox way to begin with. What can I say, I'm a product of my generation. We were born to rebel.

Be that as it may, I had an awareness that I had been gifted a valuable cachet of experiences that needed the space and time to mould themselves into a body of work. I seemed incapable of fabricating on the run. I was good at making notes and completing small projects but I needed a place with no distractions to realise my life's work. Unfortunately, the big to-do items on my list hadn't yet been to-done.

I have mentioned before but eagerly reiterate here because it is the only known example of fiscal acuity on my part, I knew that the then-coming and now-cometh financial crisis would clobber Britain. I also sensed that I could sieze a bolthole opportunity. I may have had issues with my home country, but it was a place where I could afford to buy my thinking-and-being space outright. Australia weathered the GFC very well. I neither predicted nor contributed to that but am grateful for it. My issues are extant and will be the subject of further chapters.

My little flat was right on the border of the 2012 London Olympics site and my timing was impeccable. The flat sold in the time it took me to watch a movie* because that is what I was doing as three aspiring homeowners decided that they were prepared to pay more than the asking price. They then had three days to make a higher offer. A buyer who wins such a race doesn't come hassling you over whether or not you're leaving the net curtains. In fact, mine didn't even ask for a second viewing. There's a psychology to that but we'll go there another time. 

The picture above is the front-door aspect of House of Pants on the day I left it for the last time. This was a winterscape with which I was very familiar and I knew it would disappear, along with its abundant wildlife, as the Olympic machinery rolled in. I had only a rucksack by this stage. The rest of my belongings had been shipped away two days earlier. I kept back a kettle, a small camper's kit and my twenty-year-old mattress. I slept on that in my sleeping bag on the floor. The central heating was still connected so I was warm but it was a reminder of how I'd started out in London - in a sleeping bag, on a mattress, in a squat.

Until a few hours before I left that flat, the only other possession remaining was my darling baby grand piano. I tried to play it but I had no charts and I'm not much good without them now. I couldn't remember anything, not even songs I'd written myself. The piano-mover turned up and then my neighbour helped me haul the old mattress down onto the street. A mattressless street is as unthinkable as a muzzled Pit Bull in Hackney. I'd spent two days honing that flat to a cleanliness of immaculate conception. I felt some obligation to the timid buyer but I also wanted to remember it the way it was when I first saw it, brand new.

This was the last time I saw the sweet vista I'd overlooked for eleven years. I had lived beside that canal for more than twenty years in total, my previous flat being only a block away but not directly on the water. My London was a bus-ride away from one of the greatest subsets of contemporary experience available anywhere in the world but it was also a delicate vignette of an England where swans still lived on lakes. It was magical, but doomed. The Olympic decision made that real for me.

I'm now mortgage-free in the vantage-rich but somewhat street-ugly villa you will know as Seat of Pants. The Pantibago is holding up admirably and the Pantifortune will be adequate provided I either die youngish or write a latish bestseller. I wanted this isolation and now I have it. As I predicted, I've moaned a great deal. I imagine I'll get over it, and myself, eventually. I knew that I couldn't stay in Britain. That's all I knew at the time. I don't regret leaving. I expected my mental state would get much worse before it got better. I am certainly correct about the former. Such a pity my psychic powers can't be put to better use. 

There is laughably little culture here in Larrikin's End but there is very great beauty. And there is ocean, and there are birds, incredible birds. I will make friends with my land. We have a lot to get through. Now I have the time and space for that. I wanted to be in a place without distractions because I've got so much experience already. What I wanted was a place to be still and distil.

* This is how I knew that I wasn't ever going to make it as a keynote speaker - the film I saw while my flat was being sold was Atonement. Yet, when I met Ian McEwan and Christopher Hampton in Jaipur at a special screening of the film a couple of months later, I failed to ice-break with this obviously delicious anecdote. But that is so Pants.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Guns N' Rosaries

Desert Calm by Pants

The Australian Defence Force is today engaged in an embarrassing tactical retreat over the, er, revelation that the serial numbers on some US manufactured gunsights contain embedded biblical codes. Here's an example,


The theologians amongst you will immediately recognise this as a reference to Psalms 27, verse 1 which, I am sure I need not remind you goes like this,

The lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

Well done, because it has taken the Australian military twenty years to crack this enigma. US hardware supplier Trijicon has apparently been supplementing its serial numbers with these little pulpit-pleasers for that long and more. But suddenly there's a pressing need to eliminate these product identifiers in case they should cause affront to the religious sensibilities of people whose countries ours has chosen to invade on certainly dubious and quite possibly illegal grounds. I'm guessing that should a piece of offensively marked equipment happen into the hands of an 'enemy combatant', decoding the serial number is not going to be number one on his task list. 

By chance I happened to hear a radio programme this week in which American journalist Jeff Sharlet, editor of, was talking about an American tank he saw in Afghanistan with the slogan, Jesus killed Mohammed stencilled on it. You can listen to it here. Sharlet talks about US military briefings he attended as a journalist where high-ranking chaplains openly invoke the crusader ethic. I'm thinking there may be slightly more pressing matters of religious diplomacy to deal with in these occupied zones than filing off cryptic number sequences. 

The Pentagon is also making suitably outraged pronouncements about staging reviews and violations of its codes of practice. It doesn't much matter if fundamentalist Christians are making your weapons but it does matter if they're running your armed forces.  


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oh Bummer!

Image from flickr*

Some anniversary present. Barack Obama must wonder sometimes where the 'we' in his famous motto got to and why they left him carrying the 'can'.

Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat, hadn't read the script or, it appears, a campaign manual of any kind. In a country feeling its way along the precipice of financial and social collapse, there is no such thing as a safe seat. Losing the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is not the end of the world. It probably only means US Senators will get far less sleep and heartily sick of talking about health. Yet, the reaction to this single Democrat defeat in America has exposed an ugly weakness in belief. People are suddenly terrified at the thought of Obama failing. Not surprising I suppose given the ludicrous and I'm guessing unwanted lashings of faith ladled upon his election victory. The last thing a decent, competent person with a tough job to do needs is a messiah mantle. 

The rabble that has assembled around Obama in the last year must make him wonder if he's the only sane person left in politics. It really does seem that Americans thought that they could down tools after electing themselves a black guy. It's a rather insidious form of racism. On a superficial level it suggests that the appearance of equality will somehow conjure the reality of it without any actual work having to be done. The other, even more abhorrent inference, is that having given minority man a chance, he's expected to do it all himself. That's a win/win for alpha man, who you will notice, chose to sit out the race when the presidency looked a little too much like hard work. 

Maybe it's a good thing the Democrats have had this big psychological defeat. Maybe it's an opportunity for Obama to stamp his personality on the presidency with a clean, if painful break from the Kennedy era. A new image is long overdue for the Democrats and if they want to get their reforms through the Senate, their Senators will have to do some serious work - all of them. Convince some folks that 47 million Americans without any form of healthcare is neither compassionate nor equal and certainly not tolerable in the twenty-first century. We're not in 1960 anymore Dorothy. Hopefully, next time Obama looks up from his growing to-do list, he'll find he's not the only one with his sleeves rolled up. 

* 2008 US Presidential Election poster by Shepard Fairey from original photograph by Mannie Garcia for Associated Press.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Goodbye, Mr No Chips

Image from Hello Magazine

Good food geezer Jamie Oliver has learned the hard way that his chubby-cheeked charm is resistible, given the right circumstances. This well overdue fallen soufflé moment unravelled like a poorly constructed strudel during the making of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution in the US. In retrospect, revolution may have been a little ambitious. Possibly more poor liaison than Paul Revere culminating in culinary Waterloo rather than watercress.

It was a bit like expecting turkey twizzlers to vote for Christmas but Sir Jamie the carb slayer believed he could convince the inhabitants of Huntington, West Virginia, the fattest city in America, to trade in their bucket-o-blubba for a nice piece of steamed broccoli. Half the inhabitants of this fiscally stressed coal town are clinically obese. Comfort eating is clearly more than just a way of life here, it's a civic duty.

Huntington mayor David Felinton (5'9" and a hefty 233 pounds), warns the artichoke avenger that local people have other things on their minds besides learning that food comes in colours other than brown. Somehow this does not compute. But then the knight of nutritious nibbles has faced down these demons before. Who could forget the scenes of parents squeezing bags of freshly minted chicken nuggets through the fences of the primary schools where the saint of stir-fry was attempting to fast-track asparagus awareness?

A Huntington radio host tried his best to convey the stat du jour re cuisine, "We don't want to sit around eating lettuce all day," he warned. A lesser chef might have sensed an Escoffiern gulf in understanding but St. Jamie clearly felt he was only a Lollo Rosso leaf away from salad salvation.

Cut to a classroom where children fail to identify tomatoes on vines, thinking they are, in fact, potatoes. Add a crucifying pinch of heart-threatening open wound salt when their teacher affirms that they can count chips as one of their five fruit and vege per diem requirement for healthy living. Presumably they can supplement with ketchup, onion rings, apple pie and banana split, all of which are conveniently available at any local chow barn.

It ends in tears as the ambassador of ambient eating comes to terms with the cultural chasm. "They don't understand me. They don't know why I'm here," he sobs. A common cry from under-appreciated prophets with results-dependent television careers. As a cautionary measure, St. Jamie, you might want to avoid barbecues in Huntington. 

* * *

Now, I'm a stickler for correct spelling as you know. I admit I don't always get it right but I do my best. Usually I rely on the Oxford English Dictionary's online facility for the definitive version of the vernacular. Today, I came upon the atrocity below when searching for a word. Gratuitous and unseasonal advertising is one thing but misspelling? For shame OUP, for shame.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book weak

Books in transit by Pants

Norm Geras over at the always edifying Normblog has posed a book challenge. It isn't one of those god-awful meme things. There's not much to thank Twitter for but hiving off the parlour game element of blogging certainly deserves some kind of humanitarian award. Anyway, Norm has put this poser out there for anyone who chooses to take it on. You can go over to Norm's place and take the challenge yourself by emailing him with your solution. Here is the question, 

I would really like to hear from you on how you would react to being offered the following choice. You are going to some distant and lonely and low-tech place where you will have to spend the rest of your days, and you can:

- (a) either take 100 books you have already read and which you may then re-read without limit, those being the only books you will ever get to see;

- (b) or not take any of the books you have already read, however much you may love some of them, but instead have a free and regular choice from all the books in the world you haven't yet read, to be supplied to you by the Mobile Library for Isolated Readers in Distant Places.

Would you go for (a) or (b)?

My initial response was to plump for (a). I'm not generally a big fan of multiple variables, especially if there's a chance of their impact being a compound and (b) has more unknowns than a politician's conscience. I would want to nail down the exact meaning of 'free and regular'. Once a fortnight is 'regular' but if I'd picked a duff bunch, fourteen days without a desirable book might not seem such an attractive timescale.

I'm not seeing 'unlimited' anywhere either. It's not one of those mean-spirited lending services that only lets you have three fiction and a non-fiction at a time is it? And mobile library? My sister works at a library and their mobile bus is always breaking down. Would there be a replacement bus? I'd want to know that. A hundred books in hand is definitely going to be worth more than an infinite number of hypothetical undeliverables.

And would I get an updated list of every available book in the world I haven't read? I see a potential problem here in that I don't always remember the books I've read, or even bought. That's how I ended up with three copies of Elizabeth Jolley's Foxybaby. Does someone responsible know this stuff and will they promise not to sell my personal information to marketing companies? And, would I get definitive information on new books - The TLS or NYRB for e.g, preferably both and preferably by airmail?

Okay, so let's assume I can have any number of unread books I want and that the flow will be reasonable and reliable. I'm in a low-tech, isolated place. Is there CNN? In a news-free environment, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, new books might be a good way to keep up with what's happening out there. It might be useful to know how the whole climate-change scenario pans out. I'd be leaving with the Himalaya thing unresolved and I'd truly like to find out how 'Himalaya' is actually pronounced. Does J.K. Rowling get a new idea? Does Dan Brown get an original idea? Does Katie Price get an actual idea?

Assuming this isolated place meets basic livelihood needs including an adequate wine cellar and decent bookshelves and I pick my own hot hundred, I could have a great future. I might not want to know what happens in the rest of the world. So often in recent years, I've threatened to lock myself up with the knowledge, (or at least keys to it), I've been able to scrape together so far and try to get to grips with the 42 conundrum. 

Of course it would require a lot a strategising. The ratio of fiction to non-fiction would be the first consideration. As a rough guide, I might want to take half fiction, a quarter science/history and the last quarter good art books with lots of pictures. And there would inevitably be heartache over size. What novella is going to win a desert island showdown against A la recherche du temps perdu?

Put like that, over a whole lifetime - and there is exemplary longevity in the Pants family, the canon might struggle. I am a loner and there's no doubt that even, and perhaps especially in a low-tech world, I'd welcome the opportunity to step aside and absorb myself in what we are and have been up until now. But there's always the chance that I would look at a book and think, 'why did I pick you and not x'. Can you imagine what that would do for a book's self-esteem?

I choose (b), even without the surety of quality or quantity. The possibility that one day the greatest book ever written might land on my hand-crafted sea grass doormat, would be enough to get me up in the morning. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Westwood ho, ho, ho

Image from timesonline

Demented dame deluded by domelessness, er, I mean homelessness? Holy haberdashery Batman, why didn't anyone else think of this? 

"Well, your astute pantsliness, Ben Stiller did in Zoolander,"chips in The Times of London, in lieu of Batman who is clearly not in a position to comment on fashion.

But Stiller was kidding, wasn't he? The rag routine in Zoolander supposedly inspired by street people in New York City was a front for a far-fetched scenario in which thick-as-a-plank-factory modelslashactor, (or is it actorslashmodel), Derek Zoolander gets sucked into assassinating the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Come to think of it, not a million miles away from Westwood World where irony is more than just something you do to clothes before you toss them on anorexics.

Off her trolley or what? Let's take a closer look. What better time to exploit the discomfort of the desperate for nation-rallying capital gain than the depths of the coldest winter her royal ruffleship's native Britain has seen in thirty years? As financial despair hits more and more people in the City of London where her regal realestateliness keeps a substantial bricksandmortardom, it must be a thrill for those fighting over usable cardboard from which to construct a meagre shelter to think that they are being parodied on the catwalks of Milan for such a culturally enriching pursuit as haute couture

The charming edginess of this bastion of the seamstressing avant-garde predictably enchanted the globe's assembled fashion editors. "It is a little close to the bone. The clothes were fantastic though," quipped one wit with Brunoesque insight. In these straitened times, it's important not to over-sentimentalise and to focus on what's quintessentially important for all of humanity. Although obviously a tragedy, hypothermia is a fact of life and a magnificent marketing opportunity.

After the show, her esteemed bustleship paid tribute to the rugged rough sleepers who graciously donated their humility to the spiritual fulfilment of the Westwood wallet with an empathy that recalled the late Princess Diana,

"The nearest I have come to [homelessness] is going home and finding I don't have my door key. I mean, what a disaster that is, dying to get into your house and you can't."

A little tough love never goes amiss. Show some compassion by all means but let's remind people that, when it comes to facing life's Everest of daily challenges, we're all in the same boat.

Then she unleashes the full power of her awesome meta physicality concluding,

"And what if it wasn't there anymore?"

There but for the grace of Madonna's vanity...You can't help but feel you've been visited by genius.

There was an embarrassment of wisdom abroad in Greater Lomardy as her supreme daftshoeship, in an act of admirable self-sacrifice, offered up an unorthodox personal approach to fiscal restraint,

"I'm saying to people as well, buy less (sic) clothes. Only buy things when you really need them and really like them. Wear them and wear them."

Talk about an enigma wrapped up in a vintage God Save the Queen T-shirt accessorised by Tiffany. Like all sagely pronouncements, it appears on first reading to be a paradox. Enlightenment arrives with the revelation that it's a one-size-fits-all philosophy for the betterment of the planet. 

Her holiness the apparel angel transcends the merely mercantile and textile. She is telling the people at the Milan show it's okay to buy what they like because they will really like it. Why would they not? They would not even be at the show for reasons other than need - a given of impeccable credentials. Furthermore, they need not bother attending any other shows after this one, having been fully satiated and empowered with a zen-like ambivalence towards additional possessions, not to mention a deep respect for the dispossessed whose intellectual property they have appropriated. 

The message to those adorable, inspirational homeless people, (who, let us be very clear on this, have no claim on these designs as once we have seen them, they are ours - that's how it works, ask any captain of industry), is that it's cool to wear what you wore yesterday, although clearly that's a choice you would only make if you found yourself in the unthinkable situation of having your door key lost along with the rest of your luggage on your return flight from Milan and having to crash at the home of a friend who is not your size. 

Homelessness, it's just a lost door key away... (note to self and by extension whole world - idea for badge).

Malcolm, get me Hamnett, now! 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pants on the ground

General Larry Platt as captured by Christian Science Monitor

Not, as you might have imaged, your intrepid undergarment diving undercover a la RDJ in Tropic Thunder, ( respect! for that btw man), but a SuBo-slaying knight of admirably advanced years and arguably competitive facial features.

Give it up for The General

Friday, January 15, 2010

King of yet another world

Image from

I'm having a bit of trouble finding something to say about Avatar because I enjoyed it. That in itself is not a problem. Having paid $11 to see a movie, it's preferable that I don't hate it. Although hating something certainly makes for a better blog post. Avatar I liked so much it's stupefied me. Clearly it's easier to critique from an adversarial point of view. If you find an offering wanting you can both list the shortfalls and express outrage at their audacity. A satisfying entertainment, like a hearty lunch, directs you to the sofa for a nice, long lie-down.

Avatar telegraphs its every intent in the first twenty minutes - normally a risky strategy where I'm concerned. I had better not find any unturned stones under those final credits or there will be trouble. Yet never have I been so sure a film would deliver all the items listed in exposition. You know from the get-go that the hero will morph. He's a paraplegic with no future earthside and an overdue appointment with redemption, why wouldn't he crave the ultimate tree-change? But suspense is somehow achieved. You know the Na'vi are going to beat off the sky-people. There are no complex layers of relativism to navigate. The scud-packing mineral pirates are just plain bad and the pterodactyl-riding, arbour-worshipping indigenes are just plain good, even though they don't have to be because there's no sub-prime mortgage on this moral high ground baby. But tension is maintained as the body count escalates and major characters get toasted.

The narrative certainly isn't challenging but satisfaction comes from having your every expectation met at exactly the right moment. Without any plot resolution anxiety, you're free to enjoy the art deco-influenced flora, Roger Dean-influenced landscape, Elvinesque dialogue and hammerhead rhinos. It plays your vanity like a virtuoso violinist. It says, I know you are a sophisticated film buff, so I am going to give you lots of shorthand and you are going to get it because you are that clever. It exploits your recent experience of CGI films that have no substance whatever and it gives you just enough cinematic protein. And wasn't that just a pork pie in need of an oven? You know you're being dicked with but you don't mind because somehow three hours just evaporates into a vortex of contentment. And I didn't even see it in 3-D. Perhaps films will all be like this in future. They will bond with you over mutually understood givens, like the Na'vi tame their mounts by entwining their hair strands. 

It may be more Pan's People than Pan's Labyrinth but there's nothing wrong with a little celluloid ethical clarity where pliable young minds are concerned. Imperialism, deforestation, racism and war are all bad things that happen too much and families might find engaging in conversations about them over burger and chips not a bad way to end a day. 

There's a joke doing the rounds of the British press which goes a little something like this - Avatar is the Tories' favourite movie because it's about blue people who save the world under the direction of a man called Cameron. Yep and he was also the skipper of a little vehicle called Titanic...

Out on a limb

Limbs may fall by Pants

I foolishly imagined that I was finally taming my wilderness-inclined thinkscape. But now someone is giving my arms and legs permission to act independently, even suicidally. It's all one can do these days to keep a train of thought to timetable. To be concerned about waking in the night to find a limb gone to glory seems a life pressure too far.  Is this risk-management gone mad?

Speaking of pressure, who'd be George Monbiot? One bad British winter and his whole, meticulously constructed climate-change theory freezes in its pipes.  '(Weather) is not the same as climate and single events are not the same as trends. Is this so hard to understand', he pleads. Poor man must think he's been rehoused in Groundhog Circus. Not that bit George, it's the rest of it we're wrestling with. You know the bit where some experts claim the world is going to get hotter, some say it's going to get colder and some think temperatures are going to stay the same? Can you really blame people for being confused? Science we may have but it's the science of forecast, projection and hypothesis rather than the science of empirical proof, the one people prefer to have to hand when making decisions which may affect the future of humankind. It really is a case of my climate-change scientist dad is bigger than your climate-change scientist dad, at least in terms of public information. I've always been a worst-case scenario planner so I'm a believer. 

My friend Mr K is a climate-change sceptic, although this hasn't triggered a profligate squandering of resources on his part, I hasten to add. It is possible to believe in conservation and pass on the Henny Penny thing, especially if you're a bit of a sucker for conspiracy theories involving government. I personally find it difficult to believe that they could ever be so organised. I have worked in the public sector and I can tell you most government departments have difficulty planning end-of-year piss-ups. I think they would struggle with crafting the end of the world.  If it does happen, it will be by accident, I'm fairly sure of that. In lieu of a definitive set of instructions for how not to contribute to the apocalypse, I will adopt a business as usual approach as I never have been wasteful with water or electricity.

Having sorted that, I can go back to concerning myself with why my capacity for reason is stuck in sidings. I've checked my limbs too. They're on tight. I'm good to go...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scenes of Spherical Life

Statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton by Pants

One chilly morning I found myself in the grimy Warwickshire town of Nuneaton with several hours to wait for a London train. The caffs were all full of jam donut-scoffing chavettes with screaming toddlers strapped into vehicles the size of milk floats. There isn't much else in Nuneaton whose main thoroughfare contains a network of down-at-heel high street franchises and grubby off-licences. 

Nuneaton has one and only one claim to fame - it is the birthplace of George Eliot. She was born Marian Evans on a grand estate just outside of the town. As luck would ordain, I happened to be passing through in 2007, the 150th anniversary year of the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot's first book. It's set in a fictional place called Milby, modelled on Nuneaton. I found a convenient 150th anniversary Wordsworth Classics edition in the sparse Waterstone's which I intended to read on the train but didn't. I spent the time composing a seething blog post about the reprobate owner-operator of the service, Sir Rich Bastard Brandname. I found new meaning for the term 'quick and dirty' and an almost Wellsian conceptualisation of 'time' in the adherence to schedules in the travel experience.

But back to Eliot. With four hours to kill, I needed somewhere warm and quiet. The library smelled like damp dalmatians flatulating on pub carpet but it had free internet. Unfortunately. use was time-limited to fifteen minutes, giving me just enough space to reply to a long email. I pressed 'send' and looked up. There was a sign. It read 'George Eliot Collection'. I followed it and came upon a treasury of things Eliot. There were many editions of her books, none first editions but I don't suppose they'd have them sitting on shelves. What they did have and what I might have missed my train over had it not been running late, was bound photocopies of Eliot's early notebooks. 

They are fascinating reading. The first thing that strikes you is their multi-linguality. If Eliot wants to write about France, Italy, Germany or Ancient Greece she writes it in French, Italian, German or Classical Greek. As a girl, she didn't receive a formal education but she did have the run of the great library of Arbury Hall, home of the Newdigates, the local aristocrats. Eliot's father, Robert Evans was the farm manager on the estate. Copies of his notebooks are also in the library. They mostly contain information about farm transactions. She didn't get her way with words from old Bob and that's for sure. Eliot's early sketches show a mind confidently finding it's way in the world. And she managed this in almost complete isolation with only the aid of books. 

More recently I read The Journals of George Eliot edited by Australian academics Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. What an amazing transformation overtook Eliot when she ditched the deity, took up with her fancy man and headed off to live in London and travel to Weimar, amongst many other places, where she had breakfast with Liszt and a couple of Wittgenstein princesses in the morning, translated David Strauss in the afternoon, had an hour's pleasant discussion on Byron with the Marquis de Ferriére before tea and went to hear Tannhaüsen in the evening. 

Last night, when I was unpacking books for no good reason, (if I had already put up shelves I might have had what may be reasonably defined as 'good reason'), I found my as yet unread copy of Scenes of Clerical Life. I'll commence to reading when I finish the book I'm presently on, My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey. Curiously, I chose two back-to-back books by prize-winning Australian authors who are now resident in the USA. Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book is an interesting read, particularly if you want to know more about book binding techniques. I got a bit impatient with the constantly shifting points of view. It was like trying to make your way across a crowded room to the one fascinating person, only to be waylaid by a battalion of bores with abandonment issues. So many books are like that these days. Is it really necessary to cover every character's perspective? I found myself scanning these cut-to sequences for the necessary clues like a contestant on Treasure Hunt. 

Earlier in the evening, before the book unpacking frenzy which was prompted by the search for another book which I didn't find and can't even remember what it was now, I listened to Pennies from Kevin, a marvellous radio play by the Sydney Theatre Company. You too can have this pleasure simply by taking yourself here. You know if I find something funny, it really is funny. And you don't have to be Australian to enjoy it. It's a simple premise - the Australian Government transplanted to Hogwarts School with an economic crisis to conjure away. A cast of four or five people, a guitar and a piano and it was hilarious. I realised listening to it how rare it is to experience an entertainment built entirely on wit and ingenuity. You know you can give kids any number of expensive, battery eating, multi-tasking advanced robotic toys but they'll still only want to play with a ball. We're simple beings who like simple pleasures. 

I may go and see Avatar this week, and I'll probably enjoy it too but I'd be just as happy lying on the sofa and trying to work out why odd numbers are funnier than even numbers and prime numbers are the funniest of all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No cause for a llama

No animals were harmed in the making of this image by Pants

The New South Wales State Government is considering a recommendation to scrap the existing defence of 'artistic merit' in criminal law where images have been deemed 'pornographic' by the censor. If passed, the legislation will bring the law into line with Federal and other state law. I know, I know, there are more rules than people in this country. Never mind statutes of limitation, they might try a limitation on statutes.

As some of you may know, this is another flea on the very long tail that started wagging when celebrated Melbourne photographer Bill Henson had some photographs of naked teenagers confiscated from a Sydney gallery by NSW police back in 2008. The pictures were soon after passed by the state censor and returned to the exhibition. They may not have been legally pornographic but many people found both the pictures themselves and the fact that they existed at all uncomfortable. Parents couldn't help thinking that they'd have their own kids taken into care if they took pictures of them that looked like these. And they probably would have been right. And this is where our story really begins.

Now, depending on who you read on this subject, the proposed change is either a triumph of civil society over rampant paedophilia or the end of a golden age of Australian artistic world domination. This saga brings with it more baggage than Liz Taylor. When the original controversy broke, the elites and the prols immediately began splattering each other with righteous indignations.  The luvvies lined up to discredit the reactions of the plebs who prefer footy to Fellini as emissaries from the Inquisition. Politicians and journalists shuffled themselves into two teams comprising those who'd been in a rock band and those who hadn't and started trading rhymes like rival MCs

This largely irrelevant endgame has been cheered by child protection campaigners and jeered by the self-selected enlightened but the real issue is no closer to being sorted. The elevation two years ago of a routine Bill Henson exhibition into the national consciousness, raised an anomaly that will not be resolved by this proposed change in legislation. To an audience not conditioned by familiarity with Henson's work, and this includes your Pants, the images were disturbing. An artist may assume that his/her obligation is to challenge public perceptions but I personally feel under no reciprocal obligation to comply. But to demur in any way at all was to find oneself dismissed as a book-burner in this imbroglio.

It came as a bit of a shock to find an almost total lack of a measured view. And it raised no small amount of suspicion in the Pants camp. Some people thought then, and still think that the case exposed a situation where an artist was exploiting a toleration gap, and reaping substantial gain into the bargain. This did not make Bill Henson a pervert. But it did make him someone who was privileging himself by virtue of his position. That a substantial cohort put their hands up to indicate a line had been crossed should have surprised no one, least of all Bill Henson. Artists are supposed to be sensitive to the zeitgeist, aren't they?

David Marr in The Henson Case inadvertently deepened the divisions by revealing that the photographer had been given permission by a primary school principal to scout for potential models in her school. The author was geniunely shocked and horrified when the public found this not altogether an entirely toward arrangement, signalling a further disconnect. Marr also reveals in the book that some of Henson's friends were concerned that he was on dangerous ground with his chosen subject. They may not have thought he was doing anything wrong but they certainly recognised he was at least in high-risk territory. 

The subsequent hysterics, from both sides, were impossible to fathom for those of us who were trying to reason it out from the middle-ground. The general public felt itself bullied by artists who it seemed were trying to dictate the boundaries of personal taste. Just because one didn't much like the idea of a middle-aged man taking nude photos of a 13-year-old girl didn't mean one was a Cromwellian throw-back. Their agenda seemed wholly self-serving and worse, some artists seemed to be saying that exemption for them from the rules of behaviour that govern the rest of us was the price of a genuinely free society. 

But back to the proposition. According to this editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, the defence of 'artistic merit' is only applied after an image has been deemed pornographic anyway. The editorial also points out that there has never been a successful case using this defence in NSW. You don't need to be Rumpole to deduce it's a pointless device. How does one prove 'artistic merit' in the post-modern era? If the court were to take into account reputation, it would privilege the famous and wealthy in ways we thought went out with top hats. 

The concept of 'intent' has came up a lot in discussions about the Henson case. It seems to me that proving 'intent to do harm' is difficult enough, (although not impossible as convictions for planning crimes that are not actually carried out do happen), but proving 'intent to do something other than harm' seems a nonsense. What would the evidence for it be? Intent is defined by thought. If laws were framed by the capacity to think evil thoughts, Quentin Tarantino would be on death row along with P.D. James and Ruth Rendall. Until judges learn to read minds, we're never going to know whether an artist means to do something other than make a picture for a gallery. The boundary of acceptability is not defined by what the artist thinks but rather what the artist does. The central issue  in the Henson case was not the artwork itself, which was found not to be pornographic, but the behaviour of the artist. Child protection laws are predicated on the assumption that children may be at risk in certain situations involving adults who may have predatory motives and that some situations are more dangerous for children than others. There is no certainty about it, which is precisely why no exceptions can be made.

It seems absurd in the context of a society that operates largely free of censorship that a law even existed which purports to offer a defence to an arbitrary group of people simply because of their profession. I don't know how old the statute is but it must have been penned for a time when artists met fellow seditionists in coffee houses and planned revolutions as opposed to the present day when they meet their agent in Starbucks and plan what they're going to wear to the Venice Biennale. 

On the subject of disturbing images, please don't fret about the scary-looking alpaca above.  Her stylist may not have been trained by Vidal Sassoon but she would have been grateful for that buzz-cut with yesterday's temperatures souring up to 43.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fear itself

Help by Pants

Yesterday I bought a new camera. Much as I love the little Kodak, it was becoming clear that my pictures were anything but and I didn't think it was altogether fair to blame the situation entirely on my inabilities as a photographer. I've upgraded, but only very slightly - I was hindered by financial constraints and a thankfully still active self-awareness of my artistic shortcomings. Mr T was here last year and he has a serious camera. I couldn't help but notice that his pictures of our fabulous Larrikin's End sunsets were better than the actual sunsets. Mine looked like bad clown makeup on a panda. But I don't need sunsets to look better than they really do. I'm not Baz Luhrmann. Accurate is adequate for my purposes.

On opening the new camera's manual I was met with a barrage of disclaimers and warnings. The operating instructions are appended at the end as a kind of afterthought following the manufacturer's discharge of responsibilities for every possible liability - and some not even J.K. Rowling's imagination could have dreamed up, like this for example,

Do not sit in a chair with the camera in your pocket.


On a day like today, I probably shouldn't even own such a camera. The manual cautions,

Avoid using, placing or storing the camera in the following places,

Places subject to strong sunlight - that eliminates Larrikin's End
Places subject to temperatures above 40 degrees C - that cuts out Victoria
Humid or dusty places - All of Australia then.

I guess I'll have to send the camera to Britain - to someone who doesn't sit in a chair or own garments with pockets.

Would you ever have thought a camera maker would feel the urge to share this caution,

Before you discard batteries, cover the terminals with tape or other insulators. Contacting other metal materials in waste containers may lead to fire or explosions.
Someone call Mythbusters.

I took my life in my hands this morning and downloaded some pictures I'd managed to take yesterday. Some, and I tremble as I write this, were attempted in strong sunlight. As I was downloading I was listening to a radio programme about America's culture of litigation. You can listen here if you wish. In Life without lawyers : liberating Americans from too much law, published early last year, Phillip K. Howard argues that civil lawsuits in the USA, far from fulfilling the function of achieving justice, often operate as either windfall opportunities or substitutes for medical compensation. His textbook example of the first scenario is the insane case of a man who sued his dry cleaners for US$54m after they lost his trousers. That must have been some pair of pants! Howard's argument is that the judge, who should have batted this straight back with a stern caution against wasting the court's time, let it go through two years of litigation simply because he didn't feel he had the 'authority' to make a judgment call on its validity. The case apparently hinged on a legal definition of 'satisfaction guaranteed'. I don't suppose you'll see too many of those signs up in American shops now. You can follow an interesting exchange on this with the author and reviewer Anthony Lewis in the pages of the always, and ever so refreshingly excellent New York Review of Books here and here.

Here in Australia, and in Europe, and many other places in the world where there are protective government services like public health, it's tempting to dismiss this American foolishness as their silly problem. We can see that it's all a misguided overreaction to their distrust of authority and unerring faith in the private sector and we're also sure that nice and clever President Obama will sort it out soon because all the situation needs is some common sense thrown at it. But standards that are set in the U.S. have a nasty habit of exporting themselves to other places. 

Apart from nutcase lawsuits like the $54m trouser affair, Howard also raises concerns about the plethora of tests that are carried out prior to simple, routine surgery because medical professionals fear the repercussions of undiagnosed complications. Howard says all this unnecessary testing bumps up insurance premiums completely out of the range of poor people and is a contributor to the situation where 40m Americans cannot afford any form of health coverage. I certainly noticed this in Britain and I am seeing it in Australia too, that American attitudes to health provision are influencing thinking on its efficacy. 

In Australia, people are starting to believe that if you get sick, it's your fault. Fault leads to blame which leads to the kind of mentality for which litigation appears to be the only answer. As a first-year college student last year I received an orientation booklet. It contained six pages on bullying but not one single word on what I might expect from my education. It seemed to concern itself entirely with environmental factors to the complete exclusion of the intellectual. That attitude then filters through into the behaviour of the tutors who act more as an obstacle than enabler to accessing knowledge. The great example I love to quote (and forgive me regulars, I have before) is when Mistress of the Brush told us in the context of a OH&S lecture that the dust masks Mistress of the Chisel would give us for sculpture were rubbish. When I asked Mistress of the Chisel whether or not the masks met compliance standards for use with limestone, (a simple and easily verified enquiry), her instinctive response was to flannel her way out of it. I would have accepted, hang on a mo, I'll just read the label, as an appropriate answer in lieu of actual certainty. Instead I got a cranky rebuff and a lecture on how my health and safety was really my own responsibility. I've never, ever trusted that teacher since. That's where all this shirking leads - to lack of co operation and disintegration of trust.

It's hot today. Too hot to risk being blown up by my new camera, especially as the manufacturer has abrogated all legal responsibility for my risk-taking behaviour. Guess I'll just hang out at the beach. If I get into trouble there, I know the lifesavers have to do something about it. They're not called lifenotmyproblemers now are they? Viva La Baywatch!