Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The case of the missing smarts

Smart cars by Pants

Here in Larrikin's End and greater environs, vehicles are expected to be able to read. This is because many of the humans can't. But when it comes to getting a fine, the humans who own the cars have to pay it. Many try to avoid speeding fines by telling the judge their car is a Toyota.

The Pantybago supposedly has a speed limiter called 'cruise control' but it resists all efforts to impose it. This has resulted in 'us' receiving a fine for travelling 6kms an hour over the speed limit. I shouldn't complain because I used to zoom along the M1 motorway in Britain at 125mph (200kms) on a regular basis in my BMW and never once got a fine. I sold that car the year speed cameras started to appear. I was definitely due a fine for something.

If the behaviour of cars is hard to fathom, the conduct of boats is even stranger. Last weekend, the town was gripped by the saga of a boat called Grecian Lady, supposedly missing with three adults and two children on board. This was cause for great excitement as men love to get out in boats and fly around in helicopters looking for missing people, especially children. But, instead of ending in tears of joy or sorrow, it turned out to be a mystery.

"We have established that it's a hoax because we've failed to locate any debris in the water and any overdue people," Sergeant Adrian Sinclair told ABC News.

Overdue people? Is there a fine for them as there is for library books? Will something be cut off? (Sorry, I saw Alice in Wonderland yesterday).

"There's been no unattended people and there's been no unattended vehicles or trailers left anywhere," he added, perhaps to clarify. Or perhaps to stess the sheer incredulity of the situation. Or indeed to pre-empt any future disciplinary action. Maybe sergeants can get into a lot of trouble for 'failing to locate any overdue or unattended people.' Sergeant Sinclair is unlikely to progress in the police force with that attitude. I can confirm that both the Pantybago and I were left unattended during the period of time in question and the Larrikin's End Police failed to locate either of us. Furthermore, the Panytbago is overdue for a service. I'm post-men so overdue isn't really a factor for me anymore. Those poor people!

The police are no better than the rest of us at reading it seems. Otherwise they might have recognised the clue in the name of the 'missing' boat, Grecian Girl. If they had been aware of Thomas Moore's poem The Grecian Girl's Dream of the Blessed Islands, they might have deduced that the whole thing was just a wet dream taking place in 'the waters above the firmament.' The ancients believed that there was an ocean in the heavens, where the billionnaire gods sailed their luxury motor yachts and sank their offshore oil rigs. If ever there was a need for some genuine sleuthing talent, it's in this age of the search engine.

Perhaps we need car detectives like Kit in Knight Rider. He was much smarter than David Hasselhof but I guess even a roller skate is smarter than The Hoff.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pigs not flying - official

Porkies by Pants

WHO would be an advisor on health issues? Underestimate the risks and you end up with lots of dead people. Over-egg the omelette and you could get lumbered with a huge stockpile of expensive medicine with a rapidly advancing use-by date. Not a popular splurge in an election year, especially if you already have a blow-out budget. But then there is always the WHO, who would be that hypothetical health advisor. Confused? You ought to be.

Consider the predicament of the UK government where a Department of Health estimate in 2009 of 65,000 swine flu deaths over the winter materialised in a paltry 360. Good news for the 64,640 souls who are still with us but not so great for the government that panicked because someone - not mentioning any names, well all right, THE WHO - said all of humanity was in peril.

A draft report commissioned by the Council of Europe accuses the World Health Organisation of wildly overestimating the threat. The report is authored by a British Labour MP who is also vice-chair of the Council's health committee. No conflict of interest there then. It suggests that some of the experts who advised the WHO on mass vaccinations are recipients of funding from the pharmaceutical companies who make those very vaccines. Sleaze usually trumps incompetence in political malfeasance. As last ditch efforts go, it's crude but shrewd.

Europe is a funny animal. It contains some countries whose attitude to human life could best be described as cavalier. They're easy to spot. Just look for the ones with no egg on their faces.

Here in Australia we have a slightly different problem. We are just coming into the flu season and there is enough vaccine for every single person in the country and we are also in an election year. Health authorities have already instigated a 'while stocks last' campaign to empty the medicine chest before polling day. The approach is more stitch-in-time than Chicken Licken. Swine flu is still around and as many deaths as last year are expected - i.e. not very many at all. But you don't want to be one of them so get yourself to the clinic now, is the message being transmitted. Guilt-tripping plays well in Australia too. A good citizen should not want to be responsible for spreading the disease, so let's all do our bit for herd immunity, appears to be the gist.

The political objective is clear and utterly plausible - to get everyone vaccinated before the winter sets in. That way the government can take credit for the small number of deaths while extending its heartfelt grief to the tiny proportion who succumbed through no fault of their own or the government's. It worked with the economy. And if take up is low one can always blame the WHO for getting it wrong in the first place.

Conclusion : politics is easier than medicine.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cereal communication

Image from British Labour Party

Government ministers in Britain should get out more. If they did, they would discover that the only place that looks like this is a Monsanto GM grain factory. Maybe that's the point. This is British Labour's idea of an appeal to voters. There will probably be an election in May, if anyone can be arsed to organise it. It would be a bit like being told you can have a twenty-first birthday party but you can only invite stinky uncle Pete who will shove you in a corner all night and lecture you on fiscal prudence and boring Neville from next door whose only interest is seventeenth century oast houses.

This poster is an invitation to such a party. Notice its little white logo - is that a railway arch? Mark Porter in one's beloved Guardian today says it looks like Sputnik or one of those World War 2 spiky bombs. I'm trying to imagine someone sitting at a computer and 'designing' this. Nope, sorry. It's beyond me. Clearly, it was dashed off between job applications. And the slogan - A future fair for all. What's that then? You get your own personal miniature Tomorrow's World diorama?

The curious thing about this poster is it doesn't have any people in it. It conjures up a tantalising brave new world of GM rape seed crops. I imagine they'd be easier to govern. Perhaps all the people have gone off to raise a barn or a loan from the IMF.

The other writing is a selection of 'pledges'. This is a quaint old Labour pre-election parlour game where some people sit around with one of those magnetic word sets and rearrange words on the Cabinet tearoom fridge until they're absolutely sure that they have something which makes no sense whatever in any language. It's the political equivalent of a concrete poem.

This is an election that no one seems to want to win. Labour are already de-mob happy, making opposition bench promises like getting rich people to pay taxes and halving the budget deficit. And David 'Webcam' Cameron has developed a bad case of understudyitis. Everyone's playing a misere hand with their last stack of matchsticks whilst trying to juggle pitches for consultancy posts in the private sector. It's The Producers but without the songs. There are Nazis though. The British National Party looks set to fill some of the void created by Labour's terminal decline and Tory stage fright. All it needs now is a soundtrack by The Sex Pistols.

While we're on the subject of you couldn't make it up - 'quality' British newspaper The Independent was sold last week to a former KGB agent for one pound. It's just how Ronald Reagan imagined but with newsprint instead of thermo-nuclear warheads. The once grand fourth estate of Fleet Street is well on its way to being carved up between the Moscow Bear and the Koala Kong. All it needs is a soundtrack by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
You can get almost anything on e-Bay these days. Keep an eye out for the British Parliament. I might pay a quid for that, provided postage is included.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hardly Worth a Minchin

Tim Minchin by Sam Leach (detail) Photo by Anthony Johnson

Say you are the judge of a prize called 'Archibald' and you have a contestant called 'Leach' and no entries that are even vaguely exciting. What would you do? Exactly.

Above is the portrait of London-based Australian singer-slash-comedian-slash-whateverelsepayscashmoney Tim Minchin that has just won Australia's most prestigious art prize for Sam Leach. The Archibald is awarded annually for a portrait of a 'known' Australian, painted from life. The 'known' bit is interpreted pretty loosely as self-portraits are also allowed, even from artists who would be 'known' only to their immediate family and their Schnauzer, Beryl.

Like most art prizes, the Archibald is quite often mired in controversy. Winners in the past have been slated for representing their subjects as caricatures or distorting their appearance to make them look like a vampire Mr Potato Head. In more recent years this approach has become de rigeur. It was not necessary for Sam Leach to stretch his imagination in the direction of gothic, however. Tim Minchin really does look like that.

There's always a clever-clogs who does a Rauschenberg and sends in a cigarette packet with the words, 'this is a portrait of Dannii Minogue if I say it is,' scrawled on it in magic marker. These are people who would benefit more from some free lessons in time managment than an art prize.

This year's award has already sent a buzz through the art world as the winning picture is a bit of a throwback. For a start it did not require a crane to convey it and no gallery extensions needed to be commissioned to accommodate it. The conventional wisdom in recent years has been that only really big paintings are any good because no one wants to pay a lot of money for something that could have been painted on a recycled Corn Flakes packet.

Sam Leach's style is described as having its roots in the Dutch still life tradition. As retro statements go, that's right up there with bring back the horse and cart. Given that post-modernism has already had more near-death experiences than Pete Doherty, I wouldn't be investing in a black hat just yet but I do wonder whether this award reflects the dull, plodding conservatism that is pervading everything.

The 'freshness' that is being attributed to this painting and its maker is entirely superficial, yet there is genuine enthusiasm for it in the critical response. Sam Leach is young and that always seems to be reason enough for salivation in the art world. But the implication of 'new' that goes with 'young' is entirely absent. Even the subject's look is more than a little tired. Didn't we go through this smeared kohl stuff with Robert Smith in the early 80s?

So, what is going on here? Has portraiture reached a nadir? Conflating this mystique of freshness is the banal exchange between artist and subject that has been widely reproduced and delighted in. Minchin said,

"What I like about my portrait is that it's clear young Samuel has really put some effort into it. I particularly like how he made my lounge room floor look so clean - this will please my mother - and I'm seriously considering buying a print.' So thanks Tim, thanks everybody."

Leach said,

"I like his toes mostly. It was very important for me to get the toes in because he performs with bare feet and I was very happy with them."

Well it certainly makes a nice change from the usual belly-flop into the murky pool of human-condition pondering to which artists are suicidally prone. It's poking fun at a stance that is crying out to be lampooned without mercy but is it an advance or a retreat? Are these really the only two directions available?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Burger beef

Image from http://www.empireburger.com/

General Stanley McKilljoy is set to ban junk food from the US airbase in Kandahar.

Well, we wondered how the Americans were going to extract themselves from Afghanistan. Now we know.

'This is a war zone - not an amusement park,' intones the formal announcement.

Clearly, this clarifies the situation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The estate of me

Ashby Sunrise by Pants

Australians have the biggest houses in the world. I'm no exception. Seat of Pants comprises four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two sitting rooms, a balcony and a sundeck that is bigger than Old Trafford. I didn't aspire to that. It was the view I was after. I had no specification for the house itself, just its vista.

Choosing a house from existing stock within a strict budget is like purchasing something from a second-hand shop. You don't get to say, can I see this in a size smaller please. I'm no Ben Bernanke but even I know that real estate is a good place to put your money while the world economy is executing a nosedive, unless of course that property is in Reykjavik.

Someone is always telling us that we need to live in smaller houses and much closer together. Well, obviously we have so little space here. Really, it's daft isn't it? It's just that we have to be seen to be going along with the new global austerity, regardless of its relevance. If they want us to live in smaller houses, they should build them smaller.

Last year, if you'll remember, I moaned bitterly about the idiot 'sustainability' modules they made us do in my art course. We had to fill in a survey containing loads of questions about the size and quantity of our living accoutrements but not a single one about their use. For example, I have a large garbage bin because it is the one the council provided. However, I only put it out about once every two months and then it only ever has one small bag of non-organic, non-recyclable waste in it. Someone, no several people, who are in charge and have control of information, actually think there is a correlation between a container that is given to you without consultation and your behaviour towards the environment. Now that I find scary.

But this is the 'logic' that governs all thinking on how so-called 'sustainability' is measured. By the survey above, I turn out to have a carbon footprint bigger than a brown coal-fired yeti's. Now, if someone had bothered to ask me about my energy usage rather than simply conducting a white goods count, they would have discovered that I am a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to paying for something that is free provided you're in tune with its cycles, i.e. light. My preferred heat source is two duvets and my fridge is one step up from a hotel minibar. I do have and use a dishwasher. It goes on twice a week. I believe the theory that it is more energy-efficient to use a dishwasher as long as you only put it on when it is full. It certainly saves on my energy and, if we're going to operate at this level of macro-silliness, then I'm going to factor that in.

People gasp when I tell them that I burn wood in mid-winter. If I still lived in London, it would be a very bad thing to do and, in fact, illegal. However, I now live in a forestry area out in the countryside where there is no smog. The people who bring the wood are very nice semi-retired men who gather it under permit. It is timber that is environmentally unproductive. It can either rot on the ground or contribute to a forest fire or I can burn it in my highly effective slow-combustion wood heater which heats the whole house. The carbon equation is the same. Folks get a bit panicky when it comes to trees but they're an easily renewable energy source in the right context.

No doubt I'll downsize further down the line of necessity and maybe there'll come a time when I feel like cosying up to humanity again. I might move to the cheek-by-jowl latte belt one day but I won't be under any delusion that I am somehow contributing to the salvation of the planet by reducing my bookshelf space.

On the other hand, if I was the type that swallowed this rubbish I might be tempted to invest in micro real estate. You can buy an inch of Detroit for US$1 from Makeloveland. Doesn't seem so great to me. For a dollar I'd expect at least a tenement in the motor city and possibly a Cadillac. If it was Reykjavik, I'd want a square mile and a large G&T, no ice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A blue sky thinking

Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? by Pants

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me buoyant about my future prospects is the near-certainty that euthanasia will be legal by the time I'm ready for the final adieu. In fact, I like to think there will be a system akin to a voluntary redundancy for those of us who are prepared to go quietly ahead of time rather than linger in tax revenue-sapping MaxSec twilight facilities. I like to think that it would involve a sweetener including superior drugs administered in The Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat after a couple of final weeks re-enacting La Grande Bouffe. This is my idea of Club Med.

I've never been able to work out why it costs so much to maintain elderly people in care homes. They can manage to live independently on a few dollars a day but throw in a zimmer frame and a couple of low-paid carers and the cost starts to resemble Victoria Beckham's wardrobe budget. The people who run these homes need to source a new supplier for their custard powder.

My prospects are slightly better than I had previously thought. The way people carry on about the superior superannuation scheme in Australia, I'd imagined all my contemporaries relaxing by the pools of their harbourside mansions for half the year and then wintering in their villas in Tuscany, identical Lamborghinis adorning the respective garages.

It surprises me to discover that many of my age cohort will enter retirement in debt. I was brought up in a lay-by culture. To me, the idea of a mortgaged retirement is Rufus Dawes with a Little Dorrit chaser. I further discover that, despite my never having benefited from any superannuation scheme, my nest-eggedness is on a par with the Australian average for women. Men, of course, have twice as much. For every ten dollars employers contribute towards superannuation for men, women get three. Inequality is a cradle to grave commitment, apparently. No other party has ever contributed a single penny or cent to my dotage.

I have recently learned that I'm not, in fact, a baby boomer as I've always believed, but a member of Generation Jones. It did seem that by the time it got to me, the baby boom was little more than a whimper. I'm glad I have a 'generation' to call my own although, at a mere eleven years in length, I'm a little uncomfortable with the image of five-year-old mothers it conjures. I'm also not altogether sure I concur with its defining characteristics. I don't think of myself as particularly competitive, especially not in relation to the counting of consumables. However, I can now blame the baby boomers for what's wrong with everything without experiencing any inner conflict.

All things considered, my lot is not so bad. Naturally I still live in fear of my house collapsing and all of my teeth falling out. Public dentistry is not an option unless you're prepared to wear a bandage around your jaw for several years and diligently administer oil of clove. Having money in the bank does not make you any more rational. I've had a dental check today and everything is fine. This can only mean my mouth is simply banking trouble for future withdrawal, ideally just after I've spent all my cash fixing up a house that collapsed in circumstances outside of my insurance cover.

I still have my British pension. That ought to keep me in hearing aid batteries provided the exchange rate doesn't get any worse. I had a letter a few weeks ago telling me I've earned two thirds of the full state pension in my chequered employment career. The bad news is that it's not indexed if you live abroad. You get the rate on retirement for the rest of your life. That's not particularly good news if you're planning to live beyond the current economic cycle.

There have been numerous appeals against this, the most recent of which failed last week. I can't imagine how it can be legal. It's a bit like Amazon only sending you half the order you've paid for because you've deviously chosen to live in Ecuador where the cost of living is lower. You'd think the British government would be only too keen to provide incentives for its ageing population to decamp to someone else's healthcare jurisdiction. British retirees living in Australia are threatening to return to Britain and straight into the waiting arms of the NHS now that their payments are less than they'd earn on a paper round.

It's inevitable I think that 'easing out' will become an option for those of us who cannot face an interminability of bingo nights and baked custard. That's the way it was before medical researchers and their pharmaceutical company sponsors ruled that enabling the longevity of the world's wealthy minority was far more important than saving the babies of its poor majority. Market economics will triumph once again. In the future, there will simply be too many of us to prolong at cost. Medical and social science will have to find an alternative answer to running a viable humanity.

Generation Jones has been lucky so far. We dodged post-war austerity and arrived just in time for the dawning of the age of Aquarius. We hit the universities as they became free and graduated before the era of residual debt. We've ridden multiple property booms like rodeo stars. And we've still got a few years left to duck and dive our way through the next recovery. With any luck, we'll be right there for the first government-funded, narcotic-fuelled, living-willed exit strategy.

I feel better now. What a difference a post makes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tats for the memories

Wake up and smell the coffee by Pants

It must be tough being one half of a broken celebrity couple. So much to do, so little quality time to spend with one's new cage-fighting or lapdancing perfect partner. While Katie Price and Alex Reid were off house hunting and gearing up for the wholesome pursuit of 'starting a family', Katie's most recent ex Peter Andre trudged the well-worn path to the de-tattooist to have his devotional body engraving removed. In showbizland, 'forever' is a word that means two kids, a reality TV show and a mortgage in the tens of millions. After you've achieved all that, there is nowhere else to go.

According to this report in Melbourne's Herald Sun, the perky ex-popstar and latent house husband has been spotted in Brighton enjoying a post-operative coffee, his freshly lasered sore finger encased in a plaster. His freshly lasered what? You mean the legendary gymbot didn't get the name of his beloved Katie etched onto one of his bulging biceps or pulsating pecs? No wonder the marriage failed.

He needn't have had the whole thing removed. He could have gone down the Johnny Depp route and had it shortened to Ka. Then he could have hit up Ford for sponsorship. Depp famously had his 'Winona forever' tat abbreviated to 'Wino forever'. Only problem here is if he goes on the wagon. Angelina Jolie didn't get quite so lucky. There was nothing anyone could do then, or indeed now, about 'Billy Bob' other than erase him completely.

You'd think that given the built-in obsolescence of celebrity marriages, someone would have come up with a time limited version of the tattoo. You could have the basic three-year model for the Katies and Petes who are in the two kids cycle or a Nic and Lisa Marie special which washes off after three months. Sounds like a business opportunity to me. I'd better get to work on my curlicues.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Out of the woods

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

When you initiate a search for 'Tiger Woods' these days, the top result is the subset 'jokes'. He currently occupies a place in the international laughing stock canon well north of G W Bush. This is why I have some sympathy for his predicament and a forensic interest in the skillful way he is being piloted through it. GWB can dine out at a profit on his golden buffoonery forever but Woods has to get back to being taken seriously - fast.

The public appearances he's given in the last day or so reek of being styled and scripted to the last syllable and facial tic. But surely this is what a global media audience has been conditioned to expect. If his wranglers had initiated a world-wide focus group on how Tiger should appear and what he should say, the strategy would have ended up being the same. It's all about hitting the right recognition buttons.

Rich and famous people do bad things. There is only one reason for this. Because they are fun and opportunities for transgression are handed to them on a plate. Where you and I might get offered a Rich Tea or Chocolate Digestive if we are lucky, they get a gram of coke and free entry to Spearmint Rhino. You are much more likely to eat a cream cake if it is put in front of you than if you have to walk to a shop to buy it yourself. What everyone is interested in is how you will attempt to justify your indulgence if you are caught eating a bag of cream cakes when you are the spokesperson for a healthy heart campaign. The cream cake itself is irrelevant.

So, what's the plan? Let's start with his demeanour. Tiger is very good at looking like he's on the verge of tears. This is being brilliantly exploited. All he has to do is not smile when he's talking about his failure to meet his own standards. And then there is the costuming (see above). The dark suit jacket is mandatory. That's a no-brainer. But the pillowy shirt closed at the collar was a masterstroke. He looked like he'd just come from night court. Edith Head couldn't have styled him better.

Now, to the content of what he's said. Simon Barnes of The Times posits a theory that the contrite apology to the hurt multitudes mirrors the first rung of the classic 12-step rehabilitation programme. One must formally make amends to anyone who has been harmed by one's behaviour. The two interviews Woods gave to sports channels in the US yesterday bear the marks of therapy undergone. Rehab may be playing a part but the answer is simpler I think. The world's media seemed to be demanding an apology as a precursor to moving on. Only an idiot or someone who was innocent of all accusations would have refused it. We all know Tiger is neither of those.

In yesterday's interview with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, one carefully crafted answer reveals the entire, meticulously plotted course.

First, the confession and mea culpa,

I was living a life of a lie. I really was. And I was doing a lot of things, like I said, that hurt a lot of people.

This begins with a tasty sound morsel complete with catchy alliteration that was, of course, snapped up by the media and ends with an all-encompassing yet unspecified fess-up.

Then there's the switch from first to second person,

And stripping away denial and rationalization you start coming to the truth of who you really are and that can be very ugly.

Rehab jargon that infers an almost objective overview. When Woods uses terms like 'ugly' and 'brutal', he does so twice removed. He is not owning up to this ugliness but rather attributing it to a 'truth' that belongs to this other person from whom he is now able to step away.

The two personae begin to reconnect when a solution is at hand,

But then again, when you face it and you start conquering it and you start living up to it.

Finally, the switch back to first person brings control back inhouse,

The strength that I feel now, I've never felt that type of strength.

Again, this is tactical and designed to meet a particular audience expectation - confirmation that all things happen for a purpose and adversity serves to make us stronger.

American culture is based on optimism and grounded in the myth of heroism tinged with hubris. Americans will not easily relinquish their heroes, especially when they have talents that are hard to replicate.

Has Tiger done enough? You betcha. Kasparov couldn't have played it better.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Return of the Raj

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha - Raj Patel
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

If you have to have a maitreya, you could do worse than Raj Patel. Handsome, intelligent, politically sound? Gee I'd follow him. How often does a man like that come along? But modest Raj isn't having any of it.

It's quite a predicament really. One day you're a serious academic working towards solving the world's food crisis and the next you're a messiah incarnate caught up in a Pythonesque paradox. They can't believe you're not Buddha.

Raj is taking it all remarkably well given the ribbing he's been getting, even from his own family. His parents apparently arrived from London on a visit wearing He's not the messiah, he's just a very naughty boy T-shirts. And what parent out there could hand-on-heart say they have the moral fortitude to resist delivering their over-achieving progeny a public slap-down? Openings for familial revenge on a global scale are Brigadoon to the power of ten.

I can understand why Raj would hesitate to take control of the GPS to human salvation. Look at what happened to Bruce and Evan and Barack. And he's said he finds the idea of deities a bit distasteful. Well, he would now wouldn't he? Although, ideally if you're going to have to be one, Buddha is definitely the pick of the bunch. And you get the perpetually cheerful Dalai Lama as your offsider.

I'm thinking this could be a golden opportunity for getting the food security message out there Raj. Wouldn't Al Gore just kill for this kind of serendipity? Hey, watch your back there bhayya. But seriously, we're only talking fillet'o'fish on a sesame seed bun for seven billion here. How hard can it be?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Delhi sandwich

Delhi autorickshaws Image by Arko Datta/EPA from The Guardian

Delhi's Chief Minister, the unfortunately named Sheila Dikshit, wants a ban on autorickshaws in the capital. Needless to say, this will never happen. It is not the purpose of this post to speculate further on that. I am more interested in exploring the spurious grounds on which this major proposal is based.

Spurious justification No. 1 - they 'pollute the environment'. Later in the report from one's beloved Guardian, it is established that autorickshaws run on natural gas. I did a bit of cross-checking and I find that all Delhi autos and buses have been converted to LPG. This happened as a result of a Supreme Court of India ruling in 1998. Now that I think of it, Delhi doesn't have that same choking air that you get in places with two-stroke autos like Bangkok. I'm an observant traveller but I don't tend to notice what isn't there.

Ms Dikshit is proposing to replace autos with electric cars or cycles, which are less 'pollutant'. Well, having already established there is no emission problem with gas-fuelled vehicles, let's look at the electric alternative. The vehicles themselves may not emit but India's power generation is still more than half coal-fired. I'm no expert but I believe gas trumps coal in the clean energy department. And then there is the problem of there being enough electricity. Power outages are a daily event in India. In fact, you will be told in advance when this will happen so that you can have your shower, charge your phone and light a candle in preparation.

The electric vehicle is good for 'travelling short distances', according to Ms Dikshit. What she fails to take into account is that it's the passenger who travels the short distance. The driver and vehicle are probably doing several hundred kilometres in a twelve or fourteen hour shift. The electric vehicle is good for around 120 kilometres (75 miles) and then needs to charge for six or seven hours.

Autos are not even terribly uncomfortable, unless of course you have five people, a dozen chickens and all your washing with you. You maybe wouldn't want to travel to Kolkata in one, but for two people going from Janpath to Karol Bagh, they're perfect.

Spurious justification No. 2 - that drivers are surly and overcharge. Warning - logic cop is about to make a citizen's arrest. I think we all know that getting a new car will infuse us with the joys of spring but equally the milk of human kindness will sour the minute someone cuts us up in traffic. New car does not equal new personality. If new cars made us more honest, there would be no market for new cars.

I am the wrong person to comment on surly anyway. It's an interesting split in my personality between the 'home me' and the 'traveller me'. Whereas I can leave the house for ten minutes and worry that I haven't locked the front door and assume that the supermarket will overcharge me, the minute I have my passport in my pocket, I trust everyone in all things. This doesn't mean that I suspend judgement. Rarely have I been cheated or endangered. It's just that if I engaged in worry about travelling to a place like India by myself, it would be never-ending.

I have been to Paris loads of times and I have never once come across a grumpy Parisian. In fact I have found them utterly charming and effusively helpful to un homme et une femme. This is because I am very polite and speak appalling French. In Paris you need either bad or fluent French. Middling will simply inflame the natives. The same principle applies in Delhi. Not the French bit obviously, the being very polite bit. Admittedly I was only there for a few days, but I didn't meet one surly individual.

Overcharging? Yes, it's true that few auto drivers have 'operational' meters in Delhi. There are ways around this. You can buy a pre-paid fare, although there aren't many booths. (Now there's an idea Ms Dikshit - my invoice is in the post). The Pants method is easier. You make friends with the people on reception at your hotel. Then, when you're going out, you ask them how much the fare should be. Then you agree the fare with the auto driver before you get in. Remember too that you are talking about tiny amounts of money. You might be interested in this freakonomics perspective on why the behaviour of auto drivers differs between Mumbai and Delhi.

The majority of people taking autos in Delhi are locals anyway. My friend in Delhi tells the driver how much she usually pays for that journey. There's no argy bargy. The arguments for change don't make sense. So, what's really going on here? Ms Dikshit 'has repeatedly said that making Delhi a world-class city is a key aim,' says The Guardian. Here lies the truth. It's a triumph of appearance over functionality. The comparatively tiny upper and middle classes want all Delhi to be New Delhi. The battered autos and their scruffy drivers look a bit too shabby and third world. Yet, they are more than just the heart and soul of the city, they are the veins and arteries too. Anyway, like I said, it will never happen...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Slow Progress

Art by Mike Wade

Some old-timers might remember that I posted the first chapter of my novel The Full English on its own page three years ago. Three years! Where does the time go? After lots of good advice and several more drafts, I have finally finished the rewrite. I'm just working on the corrections now.

The new first chapter is here. Please do visit and let me know what you think.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Me and my shadows

Me and my shadow by Pants

I've made it no secret that I do not like to be surveilled by anyone at any time. I would have felt really creeped out in London if it weren't for the fact that I knew few of the million CCTV spy cameras they had trained on us were monitored or even active. I don't like anyone knowing my business, which is why I lie to you with a regularity that borders on pathology.

This blog is an extension of my fictional self, which makes tracking it a lot of fun. The paradigm displacement adds layers of richness, like a global game of Chinese whispers. Sometimes irony gets ironed out in one link and crushed back in further along the chain. A good example is a post I did on Vivienne Westwood's 'inspired by homelessness' collection. First it showed up on the business pages in Bloomberg and was then picked up by the blog of an actual homeless guy. Now that's what I call a double dollop. Delicious.

I've gotten used to being routinely hooked by wikio and blogged. I always go onto wikio and vote for myself. Yes, I am truly that sad. I have no idea whether on not there is ever a prize. I guess if Giorgio calls - any Giorgio, I'll just scream, hyperventilate and wonder what to do next. Actually, I'll email Cate Blanchett and ask if she's got any hand-me-down maternity-fit designer gowns. I can get a loan for the Birkenstocks.

For a couple of days this disdainful appraisal of the TV advertorial 'documentary' to promote the film of the never-to-be This Is It tour was on the front page of the Michael Jackson International Fan Club site. I got only the second snarky email I've ever had in my life over it. Can you believe it? After all the horrid things I say? According to Deb T, I am 'a sad, bitter person', and 'immersed in my emptiness'. You see what insight and eloquence I attract, even from adversaries?

There have been some embarrassing ongoing relationships like this one with the car auction place where the Pantybago and I teamed up. Unfortunately for me this post is called 'Every Cloud has a Pantyliner'. Is there no one to read through these things before testimonialising them? I don't suppose search software is sophisticated enough to clock the lampoon yet. I might have to start using the sarcmark now that it's free. I was never going to pay US$1.99 for a device whose job it is to give directions to your current position. That would be like paying for a banana to be wrapped in plastic or giving someone a reward for locating your lost dog when it is running around in your own back yard.

Italy Down Under, the website for all things Italo-Antipodean, throws down the anchor every time I mention Italy - oops, there I go again.

But now the virus has gone deadly. My post on the Jesus mini-installation I did on Hackney Marshes has been lassoed by The USA Church World Service. Isn't there a commandment that says something like, 'though shalt not bear false witness?' It's only a matter of time before someone sets up a cult now. I had better get started on a science fiction book and fill out an order for a couple of Barbie pink Bentleys then.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A shaggy dog ate my homeworking

Tools of the trade by Pants

I keep hearing that teleworking, i.e. working from home by receiving, interacting with and returning documents, is the way we will all be earning a white-collar crust in a few years time. Apparently 25% of Californians have ditched the commute for the compute already. I'm thinking 1) I live in a remote area, 2) I need to earn some money, 3) I have a computer. 4) I'm all for saving the planet, especially if it means I don't have to go anywhere. What better solution to my financial woes than to set myself up a little office in lapland, as Mr T cleverly calls it.

Problem. I have looked and looked and looked but I cannot find any real teleworking opportunities anywhere on the internet. Perhaps they're advertised in newspapers or people hear about them down the pub. Perhaps you have to go to the docks at dawn with one of those great big hooks and stand outside a fence. Perhaps a foreman will come over and say, 'sorry, no stevedores needed today but is anyone interested in a spot of teleworking?'

There may not be any actual teleworking positions to be had but there is no shortage of consultants willing to advise employers on the benefits, like Telework Australia. Here's some of their illuminating advice,

Telework is about resilience and getting the most out of available resources. It provides better ways of working and better responses to modern challenges. It provides an alternative to traffic congestion, an alternative to office distractions and an alternative to tying up capital in expensive office space or car parks.

Dawn broke. I realised that the only genuine job vacancies are in call centres in India or China or The Philippines. This is offshore work but it comes up on searches for 'working from home'. This is the way of the internet. I tried Gumtree - nothing. Surely someone must have a little editing work or manual authoring they'd like done. No. The possibilities are confined filling in online surveys. Everyone knows these are a hoax.

There is also no shortage of people lining up to fleece you with the tantalisation that they will reveal to you all the secrets of successfully starting your own online business. These turn out to be pyramid schemes where you learn 'the method' and then find other people to fleece. A bit like those 'Women's Empowerment' ponzis that did the rounds in the 90s, except with stuff to remember. You still lose all your friends though.

In desperation a few months ago I joined an organisation called the Foundation for Australian Agricultural Women. Sounds rather august and traditional. It came up fairly high on my initial search list because of these recommendations it made to Government some five years ago which included setting up an employment agency to link women in rural areas with teleworking opportunities. All very insightful. Being bang on the money, you'd expect great strides have been made in setting up networks of gainfully employed country women. They'd obviously be pushing at an open door. It's a classic case of good preparation meeting timely opportunity.

Well, no. Actually what the FAAW do is bombard rural women with emails urging them to take up an Oprah-style online mentoring course from one Sarah Cornally, Strategic Leadership Advisor. These cost AUS$59 a session or AUS$269 for the course.

Here's a taste,

Imagine getting to the end of your life and being able to say;

'I have created what really mattered to me. I have achieved all the things that were important to me. I can see what was not so important and why I didn't pursue it. I have no regrets: I am well pleased with how I have treasured the gift of life I was given.'

Many people go through their lives unaware of how much what happens throughout their life, they have the power to influence. The story of their life will reflect on who they became and what they achieved due to the choices they made and actions they took.

Oh sure. Rural women in Australia have the power over, say, drought and bushfires, falling produce prices, disease and blight. They'll be really pleased to have that one confirmed Sarah, you can be sure. That's just the entree. Here's the main course,

Becoming Your Own Author - The Power To Create Your Own Life
Having the mental models, mindsets and perspectives that support you writing your own story are essential. We will examine the framework required to be successful in your quest.

Ah! Become a bestselling author of memoir. Why didn't I think of that? Lovely Sarah. Would you like someone to reword that for you so it makes grammatical sense? I'm not sure I could help with the actual philosophy though. Or maybe I could. Sod off.

The God Intrusion

Jesus in Hackney by Pants

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
On pleasant Hackney Marshes seen?

Why yes, Virginia. This is my one and only contribution to public art. It's a bit of a long story. After the moving van had left my London flat with all my Australian-bound chattels onboard, there were some bits left behind at the back of cupboards which I only found when I came to clean them. By this time the van was halfway to Southampton.

Most went into our ever-present street skips. There was a whole glory chest full of vintage fabrics, laces, buttons and patterns. I just don't know how that could have been missed. It was too late to find someone to give it to so I put it out in the street and it disappeared in a couple of hours. I'd have been glad to find that I can tell you.

Less easily re-homed was a marble Jesus I once found on a building site and a small collection of decommissioned foreign coins. It didn't feel right to throw these in a bin. I could offer reasons but none of them would be rational. Let's just say a more soul-satisfying solution was required. There isn't much point in being born into a rationalist culture if you can't occasionally take a holiday from it. This is how you know you are operating rationally most of the time. You are able to discern the difference.

I like to think my solution was elegant in its simplicity. It was both creative and carbon-neutral. I took the coins and the Jesus and placed them in my coat pocket. I then put on the coat, buttoned it up and walked over to Hackney Marshes. I found a suitable site by the river under a tree and I mounted a mini-installation, (pictured), right there amongst the moss and the mushrooms.

The memory of what is possibly the most obscure art happening in history has returned because last week we hosted the Global Atheists' Convention right here in Victoria. Talk about high profile. It's even attracted the laser-like scrutinies of our old friend Melanie Phillips.

Richard Dawkins has been upsetting people by stating the obvious - something that is so rarely done in Australia it invariably comes across as rude. He said one of our more prominent creationist senators has 'less intelligence than an earthworm'. Clearly it's not a crime to be that clueless. It's not even unusual. Dawkins was trying his hardest, without upsetting the apple-cart of international diplomacy too much, to suggest that politicians should leave their storybooks at home when they come to work and are making decisions about things like wars and hospitals and schools. It was simply a question of fitness for purpose.

I got to thinking about how my own small, practical solution to the problem of the Jesus who missed the boat might contribute to the theological debate, perhaps even spawn a new religion. Someone coming across my intervention with nature could easily experience an Epiphany, especially if they happened to be in contemplatory mode as people so often are when they're walking along a river. That person might search his or her mind for a rational explanation as to how this arrangement came to be and find there isn't one. They would be absolutely correct. We have already established that such an explanation does not exist. However, Jesus is there. Ergo, he does exist.

It's easy to see how these rumours get started. Stopping them, however, has proved a tad more problematic.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Token Hokum

Here in Australia, it has become standard practice for politicians to acknowledge the 'traditional owners' of a venue when they are invited to give guest speeches. The gesture is a mark of respect for Aboriginal people whose actual ownership of their living place was usurped by British colonists nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago.

Now the leader of the federal opposition has called this practice tokenism. In one way, he is right. This is a token. But a token is something that will get you on the train with everyone else and take you to where you would like to go.

Clearly, some politicians don't like doing this. They regard it as a hollow gesture that brings with it a lot of unwanted baggage. Many Australians do not like to be reminded that the indigenous people of this country were always, and continue to be with shameful regularity, appallingly treated by authorities.

But Tony Abbott and the people who agree with him are wrong in one fundamental and important way. The acknowledgement of traditional owners is not intended to be some guilt button or hypocritical protocol. That some politicians choose to read it this way is neither here nor there. It is an act of civility, an extension of hospitality.

We Anglo-Europeans live in houses with front doors that are usually closed. This is a sign to other people that there are some rituals involved in gaining an invitation to our living space. My sister has a key to my mother's front door but she wouldn't dream of using it unless she did not get an answer when she rang the bell. She waits for my mother to open the door at which point they hug and give each other a kiss. Does anyone think this is pointless? I'm guessing not.

Aboriginal people's country is the same as our front door. When you go there for a formal occasion, you will receive a ceremonial 'welcome to country'. A gracious acknowledgement of traditional custodianship is the expected and appropriate response. It's a bit like getting invited to someone's house for the first time. You say, 'what a lovely home you have', even if they have vile puce chintz draped over every possible surface. And they say 'thank you', even if they don't give a toss about your opinion. A lot of what we regard as politeness wouldn't stack up under scrutiny for optimal functionality but that doesn't mean it isn't doing a very important job. It is code for, 'my intentions toward you are benign, (but I can't say the same for your cushions).'

It is a token with an important but single purpose. Just as you cannot use a New York subway token* to get on a plane to Detroit, you cannot pretend that an acknowledgement of traditional owners is a going to solve any of the complex social problems that beset Aboriginal communities. You simply don't open a negotiation with a slap, unless of course your name is N. Campbell.

US-based black British journalist Gary Younge writes in one's adored Guardian today that the appearance of change can sometimes retard real change. Since the election of Barack Obama, the life chances of African-Americans have deteriorated. I have thought this for a while and have written about it before. America cannot rest on its laurels because it ticked a box. Australia cannot rest on its laurels because it has finally extended a long overdue courtesy. Striving for justice and equality is a permanent project and one that none of us will live to see achieved. We have to do the easy things and the hard things simultaneously. Remembering to compliment your hosts on their 'lovely house' does not excuse you from helping with the washing up.

* I am aware that tokens are no longer in use on the New York subway system but the Metrocard does not suit my literary purpose.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sisters are doing it to themselves

Lady in red by Pants, collage on paper

We women get one day of the year to celebrate our achievements and then end up paying for it in backlashes for the rest of the month. Imagine if that happened over Labour Day - hark at them pesky workers congratulating themselves for destroying industry and cushing themselves up for a lengthy retirement. Imagine it happening over ANZAC Day - hark at them pesky soldiers dragging up all that unpleasantness again just to make sure they keep getting cheap lunches at their horrid little soldiers' clubs. The war was won wasn't it? The forty-hour week and paid holidays? Done and dusted.

It's unthinkable that anyone would get away with ridiculing men and their self-honouring. But we women are the perpetual open goal - hark at those pesky women drawing attention to themselves. Equal wages? Do they never tire of making these absurd demands? By crikey, they're lucky we give them a bite to eat and a place to park their brats, who would obviously be destitute were it not for our generosity of heart.

You expect it from men. They have a vested interest in maintaining the upper hand. But could we women please just get over ourselves for long enough to turn a page? This is not a question btw. Cruising the weekend papers for Australia and the UK, I've come across a worrying number of self-recriminating articles about 'feminism'. Note to sisters - International Women's Day is not a Black Forest gateau. You do not have to do penance and hate yourself the next day. Liberty is not restricted to an 'ism'. That is kind of the point. Men do not define themselves by an 'ism'.

Victoria Coren in one's beloved Guardian dismisses Kathryn Bigelow's historic double Oscar win as too little, too late. She says it would have been worth celebrating in 1974. She doesn't say why she picked 1974. It probably would have made more sense to pick 1975, International Year of the Woman, but arbitrary is arbitrary. By this logic, I'm wondering if there would have been a 'right' time for Marie Curie to discover radium, Jane Austen to write Pride and Prejudice or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to take up medicine.

Women making it in a man's world, e.g. Coren in international poker, quite often can't see what the problem is. It would be pretty hard to discriminate against a player in poker. You either win or you lose. There's no undermining relativism ganging up against you. No assessment system skewed to exclude you from eligibility or usurp your gains. Victoria might like to consider timeliness in the context of the USA finally honouring its WW2 women pilots.

Fewer than a third of these women are still alive and they're in their late 80s and early 90s. They were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. It's the highest civilian honour in the USA. But it's not a military one. These women were Women Airforce Service Pilots. They were in the same military and subject to the same discipline as men. But they didn't receive the same service pay and benefits as men. They didn't see active combat but then again neither did a lot of the men who got full pay and benefits. Thirty-eight women pilots died in service during WW2. Yet, when it was all over, the surviving pilots had to pay their own bus fare home. They finally gained veteran status in 1977, after a long fight. You see Victoria, there is such a thing as better late than never. That there shouldn't be a need for it in the first place doesn't really apply.

Over at The Times, multi-tasking 'alpha' careerwoman Minette Marrin tells us she's tired of being 'hectored' by 'alpha' feminists. In the curious way that top women columnists have of separating themselves out from the other 'alpha' females who would ruin our gender given half a chance - perhaps this is her version of journalistic objectivity - she surmises that most women do not want to work outside the home for money, even though she herself is happy to do so. I presume she has surveyed 'most women', as an objective journalist would naturally do. On one level, although not one with which the privileged Ms Marrin would be familiar, I suspect most women would prefer not to leave their children in order to do menial, soul-crushing work with no material benefit. This is not to say that women, as individuals, do not have the right to expect the same access to self-determination as men. Ho-hum. For how many more years do we have to have this conversation?

Honestly, I'd be happy to have a little more hectoring feminism in my life. I would love to have something to agree with for once. The Australian papers are no comfort, I'm afraid. Former editor-in-chief of the Australian women's magazines Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Dolly, 'feminist' Mia Freedman, tells us her political spots have changed since she became a mother. Sorry, but when I was a real feminist in the 1970s in Australia, these people were our enemies. By all means rail against 'raunch culture' Mia but it was your magazines that invented it while the rest of us were involved in grown-up battles, like fighting for abortion on demand and freedom of the press and the right to protest in the street. Amazingly, we all managed to find egalitarian sexual gratification without the spurious advice of women's magazines.

Natasha Walter is the turncoat who turned, as easily as a pancake is flipped. As a thirty-one year old in 1998, she was happy to tell all the women who'd broken ground for her, up to and including her own mother, that their views were no longer relevant. These are the women who think it's all about them. Sorry Natasha. You are not one of us. You give reason to the men who would attack us for a vanity that is nothing to do with most women but everything to do with you and Mia and Minette and all of the rest of your privileged set. The men indulge you - do you not get that? They do not love you for yourself but for what you are able to commercially provide. You are no more or less a commodity to them than the rest of us. See Natasha, we were doing perfectly fine without you saying this,

Puritanism alienates women because it does not reflect the real, often wickedly enjoyable relationship they have with their clothes and their bodies.

Wrong. We were the anti-puritans who put the clothes on your stupid, unworthy back because we made it possible for you to have a high-paying job. Actually, we didn't care too much for clothes. You're the one trying to retrospectively enhance the relationship between bodies and clothes from a feminist perspective. As I remember it, clothes were just bits that were peeled off and chucked on the floor before sex and picked up and put back on afterwards. That was my youth and I'm jolly proud of it.

All day I've been trying to remember the name of a great film I first saw in about 1978 or 79. I've gluggled myself senseless in the effort to track it down. I think it was Norwegian. It might have been Danish or Finnish or even Swedish.

The premise of the film is a societal role reversal between men and women. Older women control industry and are serviced by young men. The women bosses wear skirt-based suits and still look like women. The young male secretaries wear tight flares and body shirts and still look like men. The powerful older women manifest corporate indulgence. They eat fattening foods. They quaff claret. They puff cigars. The young men fret about their attractiveness. They nibble crispbread and constantly stress about gaining weight. The young men shop for groceries on their bicycles on their meagre lunch breaks and get knocked off the road by their female bosses' limousines. In the nightclubs, the women sit courtly while the insecure younger men
adjust their chest hair pieces in the toilets and stress about being wanted. It's a completely plausible reversal of the power paradigm.

Just this once, I'm opening comments in the hope that someone might reunite me with this wonderful film...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tough titties

Dolphic Oracle by Pants

Today I received a chain email containing this request,

Please tell ten friends to tell ten today! The Breast Cancer site is having trouble getting enough people to click on their site daily to meet their quota of donating at least one free mammogram a day to an underprivileged woman. It takes less than a minute to go to their site and click on 'donating a mammogram' for free (pink window in the middle).

This doesn't cost you a thing. Their corporate sponsors/advertisers use the number of daily visits to donate mammogram in exchange for advertising.

Here's the web site! Pass it along to people you know.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

For a start, the friend who sent me the email did not conceal her address list. Neither did the friend who sent it to her. This is a serious breach of email etiquette. I have sent a polite email pointing this out and asking to be excused from all further forward campaigns. But it is a minor evil. My email address is made freely available by me on this blog, althought not so conveniently spam-packaged.

The real subject of my displeasure is the content of the email itself. Firstly, the friend who sent it is UK-based. In the UK, mammograms are free to all women and in Australia they're free to women on low incomes. What was she on about? I looked at the site and it's for American women. I absolutely gagged on 'donate mammogram in exchange for advertising'. Who did the unit cost evaluation on that I wonder, Shylock?

If the plea had been for women in poor countries who have no access to services other than those that charities can provide, it would have been different. But then again, they would have asked for money. We're talking about the richest country in the world. I am aware that there are plenty of women in the US who cannot afford to have a mammogram but this is not a good reason to support a private initiative that relies on retailer advertising.

I checked with Hoax-Slayer. It isn't a hoax, but it isn't entirely honest either. It is true that 100% of the money generated by all this clicking does go to providing free mammograms for women in the USA. Although it is partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation in the US, The Breast Cancer Site is not itself a non-profit organisation. The site's major business seems to be an odious Breast Cancer Store dedicated to selling all manner of infantilising Breast Cancer 'product'. Pink Ribbon Artisan Glass Peace Crane anyone? A snip at US$14.95.

More worrying is the assertion by Hoax-Slayer that there is no apparent evidence that the site is 'having trouble getting enough people to click on their site daily' to meet their one-a-day free mammogram quota. If anything, the site itself boasts of over-achievement. I also discover that these emails have been doing the rounds for years. I am fortunate to have been spared before.

I have had some experience with charities whose own continued existence ends up being its primary purpose. This is not a good thing. One could argue that this campaign is doing some good work so why quibble over ethical niceties when lives could (theoretically) be saved? My view is that a moral premise that is based on a lie is not a very sound one. A mammogram is not the same as Oprah delivering a fridge to your house because you have been doing it tough lately.

By all means click away if you believe you can make pain disappear with a wave of your mouse. It can do no harm beyond further fetishising breast cancer. If you want to do something positive however, send an email to President Obama, who is struggling to get his Health Care Bill through the US Congress right now. At the bottom of the email contact form you will find a subject option that contains a sub-option, 'message of support'. Click on that and tell the man who's trying to make fundamental changes to poor women's access to health that you believe he's doing the right thing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

That Charming Man

Jack Charles is a gay Aboriginal actor, cat burglar and heroin addict. His life is the subject of a 2008 film by Amiel Courtin-Wilson. An edited-for-TV version of that film, Bastardy, is now available to watch on ABC iView here. I suggest you do. It's fascinating, and free. I'm assuming it's available for viewing outside of Australia as there's no TV licence fee here. (Dear BBC, you are no longer my first best friend. Mean. I mean mean).

It is this film that Jack Charles, now safely housed and successfully maintained on methadone, hopes to take into schools as a cautionary tale. I doubt he'll be that successful. He makes the outlaw's life look just a tad too attractive. His infectious cheerfulness is apparent in any number of radio interviews he has given since the film came out last year. This one with Phillip Adams is fairly typical.

From the opening scene where he hits up and prepares to bed down in what appears to be a disused laundry, it is apparent that everyone loves him. People know he sleeps there. Nobody minds. 'This is what a fella lives for,' he says as he prepares his fit. 'In like Flynn,' he says as he inserts the needle and it fills with blood. It's pure porn. 'If this is harmful', he says as the rush arrives, 'bring on the hurt.' He makes it all sound so romantic.

The documentary begins some years ago. Acting jobs are rare so he finances his life with light-touch home invasions or, as he prefers to style them, 'collecting the rent.' He reasons he's 'hunter-gathering on prime Aboriginal land.' It's hard to find fault with this argument when you take into account how dreadful his early life had been. Taken from his mother as a baby and placed into a strict religious boys' home, he was regularly beaten and buggered through childhood. Then he was sent out to work at fourteen, apprenticed to a glass beveller and billeted with a white widow whom he had to call 'Mum'.

In an essay, an abridged version of which was published in The Age last November, novelist Christos Tsiolkas comments on the remarkability of his remaining 'proud and humane and generous' despite all the tragedy that has occurred in his life. These things are not atypical of an Aboriginal person of his generation and many before. The routine removal of Aboriginal children from their families went on until 1972 and the cruelty and deprivation they suffered was ruinous for most of them. To 'proud and humane and generous' I would add dignified, forgiving and wise.

Charles tells Phillip Adams that in his late teens he discovered where his real mother lived. He rushed back to tell his foster 'Mum', whom he assumed would be equally delighted. She called the police and he was placed in custody. After four months he was bailed out by his employer, the glass beveller, who was the only person who had ever shown any basic humanity towards him.

And then it all changed. Arch conservative, communist-hating politician W.C. Wentworth, who was then 'Protector of Aborigines', allocated a government grant to Jack Charles to set up the first Aboriginal theatre company. A star was launched and just as quickly self-destructed. This is the legacy of growing up without identity. This is a prodigiously talented man with absolutely no sense of purpose. The 'burgs' as he calls them are initially a means to financing the smack, but he clearly takes pride in his ability, for a while at least. Then it becomes a gruesome treadmill.

'I was glad when I did get busted', he says, 'then it would all stop and I wouldn't have to do it anymore, the burgs.' Being in jail imposed a structure on him. He doesn't speak ill of it. Quite the contrary, he says, 'I might be locked up but I'm free still, free inside.'

Less thrilled with the actor's two long incarcerations I imagine is Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose film takes seven years to make. Still, he has no resentment, even when it is clear that the 'burg' that gets Charles put away for the last time is a raid on a mutual friend's house. 'I did do her place,' he admits when confronted, 'it's a bad trait within me.' Talk about a gentleman thief. He's like a black Genet and pocket William Burroughs rolled into one.

Courtin-Wilson is caught in the middle. The victim 'Mandy' doesn't want to press charges but she would like a favourite ring back. The retrieval is filmed. It appears that Charles snatches it back, right off the finger of the man he's sold it to. There are already eighteen warrants out for him. He gets two years. 'That's somewhat deflated me,' he remarks.

There was once a man who loved him, really loved him. But there was no penetrative sex. Charles associates that with abuse. He talks of his former lover with whimsy but not regret. 'I seem to be comfortable with being lonely,' he says.

The faithful Courtin-Wilson is waiting when Charles is released from jail. The cheeky chappy has also robbed from him before. He makes no judgement. This time Charles is determined to stay out of jail. 'I've been juggling theatre and burglary for over 30 years,' he muses, as if the two things are professionally compatible, 'but I'm too old for it now.' After spending his twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth and fiftieth birthdays in the nick, he is determined to kick that habit. And so he does. His sixtieth birthday is spent as a free man.

I can just imagine Jack Charles going into schools with this film and spreading glee rather than caution and sobriety. His is a remarkable life and one that any spirited and passionate person would have been proud to live. I'm thinking that's quite a good thing but then again, I think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison are positive role models.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Barney in the floating world

Barney is the first owly-cat, indeed the first hypoallergenic hybrid GM pet ever to make it onto the Forbes rich list. As far as social entrepreneurship goes, Barney wrote the book, literally. His game-changing tome will be published next month under the title, Who would have guessed a chain of lookalike bars serving only vodka-based cocktails would be popular in Australia? It will undoubtedly be required reading for all MBAs and Economics PhDs in the future.

A heady alchemy of sheer dumb luck coupled with an eye for exploiting universal character flaws and a fist tighter than Madonna's lips makes Barney the go-to guy for any aspiring business person with no morals and a 25-sigma attitude to credit these days. I have to say that as a motivational speaker, he's definitely up there with Deepak Chopra and Zig Ziglar. If I had to describe his style, I'd say he's Roman Abramovich in the body of Yoda. Actually, it would be easier to say he's Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Unsurprisingly, Barney's inbox has lately burgeoned with invitations to view some of the world's choicest real estate offerings. Chumps as rich as Barney happen along only once in a huckster's lifetime. Dubai World was naturally one of the first to come calling. Barney thinks a flat-earth colony is definitely an idea whose time has come and is preparing to embark on an Emirates First Class flight as I write. I remind him to hang onto his passport and make sure his hip flask is topped up as I tuck him into his luxury Pet-a-porter.

I've suggested he bid for New Zealand. It looks considerably bigger than the real New Zealand and somewhat more tropical. He could well have a future claim on sovereignty. However, as soon as the limo disappeared with Barney snoozing in the boot, I developed niggling reservations and started to do a little research. No matter how successful your pets are, you never lose that maternal instinct to protect them from disastrous business choices.

I find there are islands for sale all over the globe and some of them are very reasonable. I wonder if he wouldn't be better off with something a little cheaper, say Ireland.

There is a surprising number of islands for sale in the USA. The interesting thing is not that they are for sale, what property isn't in the USA right now? No, what astonished me is that there are so many tiny islands parked in the middle of rivers and lakes with charming Cape Cod houses on them. Dolly and Kenny knew of which they spoke. You can get one of these starting at half a million US dollars, or a clean passport and an introduction to Malcolm Gladwell. Fortunately, Barney can supply both.

When he regains consciousness in Dubai in about three days time - I asked for a particularly strong dose of Valium to be administered as I am his designated next of kin - I will email him and suggest he looks at Staten Island. With free transport to Manhattan, (which is no longer for sale - cheers Rupert), this is real estate gold.

If I had Barney's money, I would invest in a floating condo. I adore travel except for the actual travelling part of it. A ship is the Lazy Susan version. The World is a residential cruise ship. It glides from port to port on one fabulously endless itinerary, sort of like The Love Boat, except without all those convoluted pretzel plots. You really couldn't afford one of those unless you had Judge Judy in-situ. Barney has tried to accuse me of hypocrisy - like the apprentice is ever going to better the sorcerer on that one - but I have discovered that The World is owned by the residents. We socialists call that a Co-Op.

I know cruising gets a bit of a bum rap for being environmentally corrosive but it need not be this way. If I were chairperson of The World, which I imagine is a democracy of the highest principles, I would immediately allocate any Germans the prime sun-lounger spots. This would free them up to concentrate on discovering planet-rescuing bio-solutions. I would ban smoking. I have seen Waterworld. I would turn the ship's humidor into a world-class climate change monitoring station. I believe we could probably get around the globe five times on the proceeds of research grants alone.

Anyway, enough about my dreams of building a better world, please offer a prayer tonight to St James of Watson and St Francis of Crick for the safe transit of our intrepid friend Barney. Pray that his booty does not get unduly shieked.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

But is it really germane?

Polly Borland's portrait of Germaine Greer, 1999.
National Portrait Gallery, Australia.

I was hoping to stay out of the hoopla surrounding the incredulous attack by Australian writer Louis Nowra on Germaine Greer. Firstly, because his article in The Monthly is not available online and I can't be bothered to buy the rag and secondly, because as much as I loved 1970, I do not wish to return there. I have seen Time Tunnel and I know that sort of journey ends badly. In any case, the piece has been so picked over I can't imagine there's much discovery left in it.

The question 'why?' is still hanging around from our little Oscars party the other night so I invited to sit down and discuss the topic. Let the record show that the question 'why?' scowls disdainfully.

Vehemently opposed to unfairness as I might be, I have come to accept that the more you struggle against it, the more likely it is to steal the silverware. It is beyond reason to me that anyone can even think of mounting a justification for denying women equality is credible intellectual work. I am simply not resident in that headspace.

I've had a dig or two at Germaine before, usually when she's issued daft pronouncements about racial issues. On the subject of women's liberation, she was and is a sage almost without fault. Clearly men do hate us, and blame us for everything that's wrong with the world. Climate change is happening because of our dependency on whitegoods and hair straighteners. Cost blowouts in health systems are due to our fertility demands and perpetual ladies' bits malfunctions. Divorce is our fault too. We expect too much. Let the record show that the question 'why?' is already asking for a stiff drink.

Germaine Greer is to be admired for her astounding resilience. How would Bob Dylan react if his audience demanded he play only Blowin' in the Wind? Nothing else, just that one song, over and over and then explain what he meant by it for an encore. Her response to Nowra's hysterical Tootsie moment is the epitome of control. She chooses not to engage him directly, and why would she? That would be like asking toothache for its hand in marriage.

Perhaps I am a coward for deciding that getting on with my lot is preferable to engaging in Summit Groundhog for the rest of my days. I'm afraid negotiation hasn't gotten us anywhere.
I have decided a subversive campaign of civil disobedience is the way to go. It really is only of theoretical interest to me that I will always have a lot less to live on than a man of my age and standard of education. I need hardly any money to survive comfortably. I already have a shed and I don't have a fetish for power tools or a burning curiosity to see what it would feel like to wire my life savings to The Philippines and be the last person left waiting at the airport.

Women do have one potent power. The power to withhold. They can't make us shop. Every time you buy a handbag you don't need, and in my view that is all of them after No. 1, you shoot yourself in your Roman sandal-clad foot. You put money in the pocket of the male retailer and provide him with the excuse to accuse you of being vain and shallow at the same time. Not so much an equalities strategy as a suicide mission. In the words of the very much mortal Jack Black, 'stick it to the man'. Let his warehouses of hideous asymmetrical blouses made by enslaved children rot and his profits along with it. Let's see what that does for his boy toy collection.

For seven years I shared a flat with the slobbiest man in London. This is where I learned that most cleaning activity is superfluous. It is in your interests to wash both clothes and dishes as you will need them again. Buying decent, energy-efficient machines for both of these is a good long-term investment. Hoovering under the bed is useful for finding lost jewellery and running around the bath with a dollop of CIF occasionally enhances the bathing experience exponentially. Everything else can wait for spring cleaning for which you should set aside one rainy day and some edifying podcasts.

Mothers, I know what you're thinking - she doesn't have children. She only has herself to look after. Well, I have news. Children do not make a difference to the cleaning imperative once they are over shitting and throwing up on everything. You just need to run the machines more often. Children do not want to clean their rooms because it is pointless and there are far more interesting and beneficial things to do. They are right and you are wrong.

At this rate, the gender wars will rumble on for longer than the conflict between the houses of Valois and Plantagenet. I admit I'm actually not very good at relationships. I used to see that as a failing but now I just accept that I am someone who shouldn't be in one. I actually think there are a lot of people like me about. The good news is that I turn out to be terrific at solitude. There just isn't any incentive for me to go into battle. I would do it for ideology but the conversation needs to graduate from kindergarten. Perhaps someone will be kind enough to let me know if that ever happens. Meantime, I have quiet contemplation to be getting on with.

Let the record show that the question 'why?' has just called a cab.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ornithology pathology

Parrot Fashion by Pants

I feed wild birds. I don't put food out every day because if I did, word would get about. The expression, 'a little bird told me', is not without foundation. I like birds but I don't want to encourage welfare dependency. Also, I'm chronically mean and notoriously forgetful.

I dispense 'wild bird seeds', (another name for sunflower seeds), at fiendishly irregular intervals. Birds come every day and look in a special dish I have strategically placed in the middle of the big deck. If there's no food there, they move on. The guy who wrote Who Moved My Cheese was clearly not an ornithologist. I suppose you could say the same for Charlie Parker, but it didn't stop him writing that great tune. Sorry, I'm off-topic already.

This juvenile King Parrot is one of my regular visitors. They squeal like the emergency brakes on a freight train but I've learned to live with that. Almost every bird visiting the seed dish is a parrot of some kind, with a song that makes Sid Vicious sound like Placido Domingo.

Two pairs of Crimson Rosellas come. Usually one arrives and calls out to the others. They like a little preprandial conversation. Perhaps they're just being polite as the menu never alters. They sound like an episode of QI as interpreted by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Rainbow Lorikeets descend in a pack of up to ten or twelve and attack my largesse with the enthusiasm of cruise liner passengers at an impromptu free midnight buffet. They look like they were designed by Zandra Rhodes after a particularly graphic acid trip.

The King Parrots don't like it when the Rainbow Lorikeets reign over their piroshki and will often flutter over to my balcony and protest by hyperventilating eerily beyond the screen door. Sometimes I shoo the lorikeets away for them. Other times I tell them to stick up for themselves. It's a tough old world out there. Is anyone offering to feed me? I don't think so. (What's that Barney? Oh, I'll have a smoked salmon and haloumi toastie with rocket, char-grilled peppers and cranberry sauce on the side. There's a good chap.)

Occasionally there are Galahs at the dish but mostly they seem to prefer something that lives in the lawn. It's either that or they've all simultaneously misplaced a contact lens. In Australia, 'galah' is a term of endearment for males who are a few canapes short of a corporate fundraiser. Galahs thrive in Larrikin's End.

It is fascinating to me that in a country mostly comprising scrubby, unpretty flora and fauna, the birds are all so extravagantly plumed. They look like they ought to be salsaing around the barrios of Rio rather than paint-balling the gnarly bush of Larrikin's End and environs.

I heard on the radio the other day that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. How is this possible? I suggest that they might just have been better at last-minute travel than their excess-baggaged terrestrial cousins. Perhaps when the giant asteroid that wiped out their Cretaceous cousins 65 million years ago, (or at the miracle of making the big, scary lizardary things disappear performed by Jesus in A.D. 29 or Marc Singer in 1983 or TBC in 2010, depending on your particular religious belief), all the parrots shrieked, grabbed their best dress and got the fuck out of there on the first available thermal.

This might explain why the Psittacidae ended up in all sorts of odd places like Larrikin's End and Monty Python sketches, neither of which are strictly tropical. Troppo? Well maybe that was the best case scenario. I imagine this is also why they have such an impressive command of the language. I hear the English test for migration to Australia is pretty tough, although I can't speak for the Pythons.

There's no mistaking the call of the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo. It sounds like Keith Richards hiccupping backwards at Knebworth. I don't have to put anything out for these as they self-serve. They like to tear the seeds from the trees themselves. Their presence is announced by impressive screaming and the occasional barnstorming swoop. They are an awesome size. Barney thought they might be a hit squad sent by one of his disgruntled voligarch rivals when he first encountered them. That was soon resolved. It turns out that the price of a double agent in birdworld is a generous per diem of Black Russians.

I am usually less pleased to see the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Never satisfied with 'on the house', they prefer to eat the actual house. Seat of Pants is constructed of fine red cedar, a favourite food of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Happily, there aren't too many of them around these parts. Occasionally I see them flying over and they are very big birds. I get pangs of sadness when I think that my grand-parents kept one in a cage smaller than a metre square for years. Given that cockatoos can live to be a hundred, that's an awfully long time to be in solitary confinement. Still, 'Cocky' seemed to derive endless pleasure from calling 'Bingo' and then laughing himself sick when the hapless pooch showed up. If Cocky can be found, I'd like him to write my eulogy. I want my funeral to be a joyous affair, and if any awkwardness could be dissipated with a spontaneous, 'here, Bingo!', I'd be halfway to heaven.

I think I truly love parrots. I love that they drop by to see me regularly but with no expectation that I will ever reciprocate. I love the way they pick up the seeds with their little claws and delicately nibble on them, like they're Holly Golightly at a cocktail party or something. I love it that they do so much walking even though they fly with consummate elegance but walk like Charlie Chaplin in a chicken suit. And I just love it that they look like Tex Avery invented them. (Apologies to Animal Liberationists, I know that sounds really, really patronising).