Friday, April 30, 2010

Feeling a little crabby

Crabby by Pants

Thinking is exhausting. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. While 'jogging' around Lake Larrikin today, I came across a large mud crab stomping about in the shallows. I noticed it did look quite cross - an etymological epiphany that probably won't win me any prizes.

I've emphasised 'jogging' because my chosen form of exercise does not seem to have meaning in Australian nomenclature. There is 'walking' and there is 'running'. What I do is not running, that is fairly obvious, but neither is it walking. If you bounce rather than stride, it's called jogging. Let us not lose the last vestiges of verb usage if it's at all possible.

Larrikin's Enders are prone to superfluous external observance, which is another problem. They will compulsorily annotate what you are doing in case your internal narrative is faulty,

Them (and by that I mean all of them) - I see you're out for a walk.

Me - (tacit) Please feel free to die prematurely.

A continuous community commentary is not exactly the substitute I dreamed of when I left the increasingly creepy surveillance society of inner London. At that point, there were no security cameras dotted around the 'jogging' tracks on Hackney Marshes commenting on your mode of exercise, although in the frenzy of Olympic fever, that situation may have altered.

There was often talk in Hackney of computer-generated admonishments to cease and desist from contemplating anti-social behaviour being introduced, a la Beadle's About. Fortunately, they had not been installed during my tenure and no person or machine ever dared accuse my jog of being some kind of walk.

I've thought about that Lake Larrikin mud crab a lot. There is a crab in the series of stories I'm trying to illustrate. She isn't grumpy. But I'm grumpy. I've been reading about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm not particularly impressed that technology is always the cleverest child in class until there's a problem, at which point it retreats to a corner and throws a planet-threatening tantie. And then its parent, Big Bizniz, steps in and demands that Grampa Gummit 'do sumpin'.

There are eighteen oil and gas rigs along our coast and arm dang sher we done ab no gummit no no bedder dan dem yanks do.

Thinking really is exhausting and I'm going to have to stop now ...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Brown paper packages tied up with string

Saatchi & Saatchi Silk Cut Ads circa 1984

I awoke this morning to an email from Ms O'Dyne alerting me to the hilarious (if the fate of a nation wasn't involved that is) unfoldings of 'bigotgate' in the UK. By the time the question Why and I had settled onto the settee for our elevensees chardonnay, all the funniest things had already been said, so we reluctantly turned to Australian politics and found our own little gem.

The Australian Government announced today that from midnight tonight, the price of cigarettes will rise by about $2 a packet (to approx $15 for a packet of 25). You might well yawn at this or cough and curse if you are a smoker living in Australia. The question Why and I are not smokers. I was once a regular smoker back in the 80s where I probably peaked at 15 a day. These days I will have one if someone offers, which is unlikely to happen except on New Year's Eve. I now smoke, on average, two cigarettes a year. If you really want to witness me melt down, come back when the glut of cheap chardonnay dries up at around the same time as I'm trying to claim my useless British pension.

The more interesting aspect of the Australian Government's attack on tabac is the decision to order the 'brown packaging' of all tobacco products by 2012. After all those years of pariahising smoking, they're now going to re-mystify ciggies by ordering them to dress as contraband? The question Why and I are intrigued. As we both lived in Britain in the 80s, we recall with more than a little tittering pleasure that it was Margaret Thatcher's own Saatchi & Saatchi who snookered her attempts to ban cigarette advertising with their campaign for Silk Cut.

Neither the question Why nor I liked Silk Cut cigarettes as they tasted horrible and their 'low tar' status was achieved by punching a couple of holes in each cigarette so that the 'tar' could evaporate into the atmosphere along with the ability to keep them alight which is why most people who smoked them wrapped a Rizla paper around the holes. The question Why and I are at a loss as to why anyone bought them. We bought B&H. Even though their copycat advert of Silk Cut's was rubbish, the smokes were better. Saatchi & Saatchi's brilliance probably kept the brand alive.

Dear Kevin, the question Why and I, even though we are pissed before sundown, are still astute enough to know that packaging anything in brown paper will make it instantly attractive. Put us down for a couple of packets, yeah?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Somewhere out there

Aquamarine by Pants

Karen Blixen said 'the cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears or the salt sea'. Although I don't do much sweating or crying these days, I can no longer imagine living without water to look out on. In London, I had but a small strip of canal but it gave me inestimable pleasure. I could see enormous fish from my window. A large, noisy family of coots nested under that same window every year. Mute swans would glide by, sometimes in the moonlight, looking like a Disneyland ride. In summer the little thoroughfare would clog up with narrowboats captained by pipe-smoking, real ale drinking escapees from 1973. In the winter it would sometimes freeze over.

In a big city, you want to be somewhere where you can occasionally forget that there are eight million other busy little drone bees doing a lot of buzzing for a little pot of honey. You also never want to lose the feeling of smallness, the possibility of infinitesimalness. In a place dominated by the historic, the monumental and the ordered, the proximity to tiny wild things provides a symmetry essential for maintaining sanity. Goldfish are meant to be calming but every time I see a fish tank, I think of Nemo. It doesn't compare with a pond full of unconfined bream.

One of my favourite places in London is Kenwood Ladies' Pond. It's a natural pond on Hampstead Heath where women can swim and sunbathe topless. I spent a good part of every summer for twenty-five years swimming in the cold, fresh water with the ducks and coots and kingfishers. Blue dragonflies buzz around your head and you never lose the fear that an eel or pike will nibble at your toes. There was once a pontoon in the middle of it but I think it rotted away. A few years ago Kenwood Ladies' Pond, and the two other swimming ponds on the Heath (one for men and the other mixed), were nearly closed down. Given that it costs millions to build and maintain a 'cement pond', to borrow an expression from the Beverly Hillbillies, it seemed crazy to close a facility that cost almost nothing to run and didn't turn patrons' hair green or give them nasty viruses. Common sense prevailed. Londoners know that all deserts need oases to survive.

Australia is, in a way, the opposite. Not a small, cluttered island but a big, empty one. It is mostly open space so what you want ideally are connecting hubs of activity rather than serenity. My home vista now is a large expanse of the South Pacific Ocean. I can no longer see fish from my window but the occasional sighting of a Minke whale makes up for that. Now the wilderness represents the overwhelming and unknowable and the town, the comprehensible and manageable. I'm no longer looking downwards and peering but outwards and gazing, albeit with an equal sense of longing and curiosity for something that ought to be understood but isn't.

Not such a bad situation to be in, all things considered.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Time might not be of the essence

Space and Time by Pants

The Hubble Telescope is twenty and the nice people at NASA, who have nothing better to do, have made it a lovely birthday card. I have made it one as well. The image above comes from Hubble Pants, located right here in Larrikin's End. We have a wonderful view of deep space here as no one made it beyond the third grade. All you have to do is gaze into the face of a native Larrikin's Ender to truly understand the vastness of our intellectual void.

Twenty in telescope years is about 4.5 billion in human years and Hubble Senior's very much deserved Constantin Vacheron custom Sun and Moon is at the engraver's as I write. In a few years time Hubble will be replaced by a new deep stargazer to be located in Mexico. Hubble Nuevo will be an astonishing 45 metres wide. The Mexican Government has agreed to it on the condition that high-grade hydroponic marijuana can be grown under all the foily bits. There are no plans to replace Hubble Pants unless I get a lot of K-Mart vouchers for Christmas.

Stephen Hawking says that we probably don't want to meet the inhabitants of other planets as they are almost certain to be nasty. We needed a certified genius to tell us this? Let me guess Professor Hawking, they will look like us but actually be lizards? Have you not met Rupert Murdoch? Or perhaps they will look like they're made out of old car bits with arms that resemble sink plungers and sound like really stressed people yelling under water. Have you not met Gordon Brown? Possibly they'll look like gorillas who got drunk and passed out on the hotplate as they were trying to fry green eggs and ham. Have you not met Andrew Lloyd Webber? And, whatever vile goo they're composed of, they'll unquestionably explode and cover you with a ghastly slime that will completely ruin your suede loafers. Oh, so you have met Pete Doherty then. You're right - aliens are best avoided.

From the macro to the micro. While we're on the subject of particle physics, I would like to present my own version of string theory. To wit - the knot is really important. In fact, the heavier the painting, the more important the knot. The knot, I would submit, is the X-factor in string theory. If that's not crying out for a PhD thesis, my name isn't Pants.

I've been working on drawings for a series of children's stories set in a rock pool. To be honest, it would probably have been easier to befriend aliens but I have stuck with it because I love the characters that live in this rock pool. My toil involves quite a lot of poking about in actual rock pools and looking at images, and you won't find me complaining about that. In addition to all the gorgeous books of sea life I've gathered - Larrikin's End Library is blessed with picture books for reasons outlined above - I've looked at more oblique sources. Some of the visual modelling for superstring theory for example is, as you would expect, extremely elegant.

Imagining the rock pool characters in a linear sense is not too difficult. The rhythm and poetry of the rock pool world is the thing that most intrigues me. The hum of that little universe, how does it sound? That's the tick and tock of the challenge. I think of the grand old Hubble out there gazing at an expanse of forest on behalf of people in search of trees. I think of the grand old Hawking superfluously extrapolating the one dread that theoretically unites earthlings. And I think, how can I do this differently? But that's just me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Don't leave it to Bieber

Jim Morrison - picture by Pablo Flores
Licensed for use - Wikimedia, Creative Commons

In middle age, you expect to be shocked by young people. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But I'm afraid Justin Bieber has gone too far. You simply cannot advise fans to obey police instructions. That's just irresponsible. It's downright disloyal and undermines the very fabric of civilisation. Where would we be now if Spartacus had carried out his chores without a grumble or Robin Hood had filed his tax return in good time?

The trouble began with a promised marathon performance in Sydney of three songs by the pop poppet who makes Donny Osmond look like Snoop Dogg. It was organised by a commercial TV breakfast programme and was due to take place at muesli time. A pop star who can function during daylight hours is cause for suspicion but one who is up before breakfast without having spent the night in a bordello? It's surreal. And then he arrives early? That can't even be legal, surely. Anyway, this bizarre set of circumstances seems to have sparked some quite vigorous bouncing up and down by several thousand pre-teens. And then the unthinkable happened - an entire division of pink Consort-cladded girls clutching little pink hearts shunted forward and public order disintegrated. The police cancelled the next fifteen minutes and Bieber himself told the girls to do what the police said and go home. I'm shuddering even now.

Did the misguided exuberance of a few girls really have the potential to spark a citywide outbreak of civil chaos circa Paris 1968? I don't think the students had brought their parents with them to that! Do these kids not know anything? Adults panic. Never let them near anything you are doing. We managed to have three-day music festivals involving bad behaviour that historians are still struggling to fully document without drawing attention to ourselves on this level. But then we weren't daft enough to alert the moral crusaders of the dawn airwaves to our plans, much less allow them to take charge of actually organising our entertainment. Are these kids insane? No wonder pandemonium ensued. With the whole city of Sydney still in turmoil it's difficult to get confirmation but I hear that when the postman showed up on his moped, the police tear-gassed him, believing him to be a Hell's Angels hitman.

It's all changed a lot since my day, when we had genuinely heroic adolescent role models, who largely kept their promise to die before they got old. You want adventurous stars you can respect for their audacity and whose graves you can visit. Not ones who are likely to show up as your local pastor a few years down the line. They're supposed to take lots of drugs, display their bits and set fire to things, not behave like internal auditors. Think of Jim Morrison - the icon's icon - getting his dick out at the drop of a zip and expiring in Paris, yes Paris. Puccini couldn't have written him better. Think of Jimi Hendrix. What that man could do with a Stratocaster and some lighter fluid warms my heart still. Think of Janis Joplin - her signature Southern Comfort bottle and psychedelic Porsche. I drank Southern Comfort for years, even though I didn't really like it out of deference to Janis. Think of Keith Moon trashing drum kits and dynamiting hotel toilets. They just don't make them like that anymore.

I can't bear to speculate on what will happen to the youth of today with all these frightful examples being set them and only Britney doing anything even vaguely shadowy. I can imagine being shopped to the authorities in my old age for having an overdue library book or parking my mobility scooter in the wrong zone or putting the wrong kind of plastic in a recycle bin. I fear for the future. But all might not be lost. A dinky-di hell-raiser has arrived on the scene. What a stroke of luck. There are so few of them left. Guns N' Roses bad fairy Slash has offered to lead the Bieber boy astray. Hallelujah. My dotage may yet be saved from the terror of mass compliance. Oh, and Slash, see if you can't get him to drive an electric car into a swimming pool. There's a good chap...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The going down of the sun...

The sun also sets by Pants

This is not going to be a post about Anzac Day. Did that a few weeks ago. Also I remembered to buy milk and bread yesterday so I'm feeling pretty smug curled up all cosy in bed with Spongebob Squarepants - strictly for research purposes you understand. I am grateful for the small miracle of toast and that the neighbours with the flagpole corrupting my view have had the decency to leave it naked for once. What are neighbours for anyway?

Today I will be dealing with death. Not my own I'm happy to report. Death as the primary focus for our grief, as an inconvenient truth, as the subject of a magazine. Eh? What's that you say Pants? Yes, there is a new magazine about to be launched in Britain in June dealing exclusively with death. Eulogy Magazine will cover terminal illness, will writing, assisted dying and many more uplifting topics.

You have to hand it to the British. When the nation is at its lowest emotional ebb for a generation, someone is optimistic enough to believe that people are going to hand over £3.50 for a magazine that bones you up on the latest in cremation techniques and assesses the merits of various versions of Vaughan Williams's A Lark Ascending on the off-chance that you might find a use for such knowledge sooner than you wish. That's the spirit. Nobody does maudlin better than the British.

I'm wondering about what seem to me to be obvious buyer resistance factors like people's natural superstition when it comes to all things reaper. Surely if you're interested enough in death to spend £3.50 on it, then death is likely to think 'game on' and return your interest with, er, interest. Then there's the problem of being seen buying such a magazine. What are the chances that Darren from IT will be standing behind you in the supermarket queue when you have Eulogy Magazine in your shopping basket next to the boxed set of Six Feet Under which just happened to be irresistibly marked down and will tell everyone at work that you're a necromaniac? Quite high I should think, given Darren's predilection for cut-price bulk packs of lager and family bags of Doritos. Let's hope the marketing people have taken these things into account.

Although death may be a big subject, it isn't exactly diverse. There may be many ways to accomplish it, but there are not all that many ways to manage the aftermath. It's not like planning a wedding where you get a month or even years to choose the clothes, the music, the flowers, the food and draft the speeches. Imagine a magazine where the fashion page is the most sombre. An Emo-only music section and poetry page confined to the work of WH Auden and Joyce Grenfell? You'd start hallucinating that Proust is a Daily Mail columnist. Pity the poor people in those religions where they have to get the body in the ground within twenty-four hours. With the clock ticking away, I doubt the chief mourner is going to appreciate your helpfully offering to slip down to the newsagent for a copy of the latest Eulogy Magazine.

I found out about this magazine through an article by Emma Freud in one's beloved Guardian. Her account of the death of her father Clement Freud is the cover story of the inaugural issue. She talks about how awkward the whole business of funerals is. The mechanical responses, the empty offers of assistance, the palpable desire to be elsewhere, the ghostly silence of the non-ringing phone. Well, yes. This is because to confront death would require you to believe in it. No one seriously wants to go there. There is always the possibility that it might be contagious. This is why we wear clothes we would not normally wear and say things we would not normally say. We do not want death to recognise us. If we are especially blessed in joie de vivre or have a sink full of unwashed dishes, we will also wear dark glasses, and a very big hat and travel to a funeral via a circuitous route using several different forms of public transport.

It seems to me that a magazine about funerals will be less welcome than one about headlice. There is no right or wrong way to do a funeral. People expect you to stumble through it as best as you can. If you appeared to know what you were doing, someone might suspect foul play. Unless you are a funeral director or your name is Harold or Maude, you are unlikely to develop a ponderous fascination for the last rite when you could have Hello! instead and read about people you thought were dead but aren't. And if you were to be caught with a copy of this magazine, how long would it be before some member of your family insisted you be put on suicide watch?

I hope you've received your cheque Emma. I might start composing my eulogy for Eulogy Magazine now.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A bad business

Detail from Anon2 by Pants

The art of our necessities is strange
and can make vile things precious.

King Lear - William Shakespeare

This morning my pre-paid internet credit ran out, or so I thought. It was an unusual situation as I can usually manage to hit the end of the sixty-day cycle dead on the limit but it's only been a month. I was redirected to the recharge page when I tried to access the internet so I assumed this meant I had used up all the credit. It was always possible I had been overdoing the iView.

As I was unable to establish contact with my account details, I phoned the nice people at DingleDongle*. I found I still had half of my credit left, which is exactly the position I would expect to be in after a month. A nice young man called Frank 'refreshed' my account and I was up and running again. It was all very pleasant. I have no complaints about the service and I was very glad not to have to hand over any more money as my finances aren't too clever right now. I was grateful to Frank for being honest.

But why did I get a message asking me to pay money when I didn't owe any? Could it be that there is a default widget at DingleDongle that trips a recharge request when anything goes wrong? And maybe if you're a normal trusting person, you'll give them money that they're not entitled to. I hope Frank doesn't get into trouble for declaring to me straight away and without a prompt that I was in credit. I had my card out ready to pay!

I shop at the local supermarket about once a week and I buy an average of ten things, quite a lot of them 'reduced'. I regularly get charged more than the advertised amount. I always check now. Supermarkets never under-charge. If the 'mistakes' were genuine you'd expect that sometimes they'd turn in your favour. This never happens. Last week a $20 garden hose ambled onto my grocery bill. Corporate employees must be colluding in large numbers. Why would they do this? Because they would lose their job if they didn't? Is every business model built on the belief that the customer probably won't bother to check? On the plus side, all the portable auditing has done wonders for my mental arithmetic, if not my mental health.

The papers today are full of stories about businesses acting either illegally or egregiously. There's the football team owned by the evil media mogul that has been stripped of the trophies and prizes it won by cheating. The club enticed top players by paying them more than is allowed in a competition that has a salary cap. These payments were buried in a second set of books and accounted for as bogus expenses. The EMM says he didn't know anything about it. He needs maybe to review his firm's accounting practices and the expectations he puts on employees to deliver him results in that case. This tawdry event has thrown up the classic sporting excuse beloved of drug cheats - 'everyone does it'. Not cheating, simply staying competitive in 'the real world'.

The appalling behaviour of some airlines following last week's airport closures amounts to corporate blackmail. British Airways is selling seats at outlandish prices rather than allocate them automatically to the passengers stranded in foreign airports. And its excuse for this bizarre abuse of its obligation to get people home on the first available flight? The extortion policy has apparently been implemented to dissuade new bookings. Extraordinary sales strategy.

The reliably reprehensible RyanAir has been forced to back down over its refusal to compensate its stranded passengers for subsistence expenses. Although it has succumbed to pressure from the UK government to comply with European regulations guaranteeing passengers recompense for 'reasonable receipted expenses', claimants are bound to find a barrage of obstacles awaiting them when they submit their chits.

The top prize for bad behaviour, in a week of exceptional candidates, really does go to Goldman Sachs, however. Matt Taibbi suggests in one's beloved Guardian that dastardliness on this level is a threat to "civilisation – which, after all, is really just a collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even when we can."

The allegory he draws presents a stark picture of how far down the scale of cuntliness we're talking,

"Even if he stands to make a buck at it, even your average used-car salesman won't sell some working father a car with wobbly brakes, then buy life insurance policies on that customer and his kids. But this is done almost as a matter of routine in the financial services industry, where the attitude after the inevitable pileup would be that that family was dumb for getting into the car in the first place. Caveat emptor, dude!"

It's a good piece, apart from the ludicrous claim that men behaving badly is all the fault of a woman. Not Thatcher this time, but Ayn Rand. Where we are now cannot be blamed on fiction writers or fictional characters like Gordon Gecko. These are real people doing really bad things that affect global stability with apparent impunity. It's just that every now and then, a token reprobate gets caught with his hand in our shared cookie jar. It all seems dismal. And then I think about Frank and all the people like him, sitting in call centres and responding to customers with instinctive honesty, and the world doesn't seem like such a dreadful place. Thanks Frank and you have a great weekend too!

* DingleDongle is a pseudonym.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A dog's breakfast

Breakfast of champions by Pants

Actually, it's my breakfast, or rather was. It is, in fact, Marmite and is featured because a delicious spat has erupted between Unilever, the UK's Marmite manufacturer and the British National Party. After spending most of the morning wading through the ghastly footage of last night's second parliamentary leaders' debate, it was a gift to find some election-based material that at least regenerated my interest in brekkie and, by extension, the will to carry on breathing.

It all started when cheeky Unilever updated its famous 'love it or hate it' marketing strategy casting 'love' and 'hate' as political parties, and, tee hee hee, styling 'hate' on the BNP. The BNP hit back by running a series of election ads featuring a prominently placed jar of Marmite. Does Nick Griffin not realise Marmite is black?

Everyone, including my toast, immediately called their lawyers claiming to have been smeared. The case against me won't be proceeding. Reader, I ate the evidence...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Unemployable, that's what you are...

Four horsemen of the apocalypse by Pants

When you look at the picture above, do you see death? I knew there was something wrong with me. All this time I've been blaming the world. Curse Kerouac. Curse Kant. Curse, oooo, I don't know, k.d. lang, no, I mean R.D. Laing. You see, you see?

All right, just calm down. k.d. lang we love, not in a knicker-throwing kind of way but because she is coming to save our Logie Awards from the devastating global humiliation caused by the Subo no show. It could have been worse. We could have been snubbed by Kerry Katona or K-Fed. At least we'll be getting a recording artiste who can actually sing. I can understand why Subo cancelled. She has an autobiog to write. With an entire eleven-month span to cover, it's got to be head down, tail up, surely.

I was reading Tracey Emin's latest Independent column this morning. Trace is always good if you're in a bit of a humpty-dumpty state. It's nice to know that you can get quite far down the dirt track to crazy and still do something meaningful with your life. I need reminding of that sometimes.

Yesterday I went for an interview for a nice little local government job that I ought to be able to do in my sleep. In fact, I was so confident that I was going to specify as a condition of employment that I be allowed to do it when I'm asleep. I don't really have time to work. The interview lasted ten minutes because I couldn't think of anything to say. I'm serious. Needless to report, I am not walking around with my mobile in my pocket.

I've always been pretty crap at interviews but this time, even though the people were nice and I think there were only three of them, I couldn't remember anything that happened before breakfast. This made it a bit tough to relate my skills and experience to their needs. Perhaps they'll have an opening for a goldfish instead.

Apparently, one in four people in Australia has mental health issues, or is it one in two? It seems to get worse every time a report comes out. I don't particularly want to go there but if that's the case, a lot of these people must be receiving medication that mitigates the outward signs of their condition. It occurs to me that anti-depressants ought to be considered performance-enhancing drugs and banned from competitive recruitment. I'm sure the fact that everyone else's madness is being masked just makes me look battier, and I really don't need help with that.

Tracey Emin says her relationship with art (or Art) is going through a rough patch,

Art is as good to me as I am to it. And at the moment we seem to be arguing quite a lot. I want to hang on the side of creativity and Art wants to hang on the side of practice. I want to be a free spirit and paint mad love poems across the gallery walls, and Art wants me to slave and labour using every bit of knowledge I know, but I want to abandon everything I know. I need to be free. I need to be fresh. I don't want to be held by the restraints of my own language. Anyway, Art had enough this week and just walked out on me.

I wonder if a similar thing has been happening to me but in reverse. I feel I ought to work. I would rather stay at home and paint or draw or write but I know that I probably won't bother to try to make a career out of any of those. Nonetheless, I seem unable to ignore ideas. You know how some people have to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to them on the bus or the one behind them in the supermarket queue? I'm like that with ideas. Any vague notion that happens to waft past is suddenly my new best friend. And no one sells their friends unless their name is Murdoch or Packer.

One of the disunited states of Pants must have been acting in the ideas' interests because this latest sortie into society contained more than one act of sabotage. Oh yes, before the memory malfunction, there was the mad hair moment. I decided a couple of days before the interview that my hair could probably do with a little de-greying and, instead of going to the salon and paying a large but by no means unreasonable amount of money for a professional rejuvenation, I decided to give myself a little home highlighting job.

In my own defence, I must say that this has usually worked before but I picked the wrong tint and compounded that by messing up the instructions. The result was Madonna crossed with a hyena. Fortunately the salon was able to rescue the situation at not much more than the usual cost. I should have known at that point that I was speeding towards disaster. One lives and learns, or not.

I'm now going to prime some canvasses. Perhaps if I don't think too much and just tag along with one of my idea friends for a bit, we might end up where we're supposed to be...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Matador matters

Ferdinand the Bull by Pants (oil and acrylic on canvas, 80cms x 100cms)

When you live in Spain, bullfighting is difficult to ignore. When you live next door to a couple of mad matadors, as I did, it's impossible. It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience because these guys made Tony Soprano look like Aled Jones. But like all experiences, once you've swallowed the meat, cast aside the gristle and are left with the bones, you find they're useful for something.

The above picture is one I painted at art school in response to a typical pointless imperative to weave an idea out of nothing in five minutes and churn it through various tickbox processes that mean a great deal to art teachers but nothing to real people. Under the circumstances, it turned out rather well and sits in No. 1 guest bedroom as a memo to visitors that bad things can happen to good people, or indeed, bulls.

The narrative concerns a children's story called Ferdinand the Bull. Ferdinand is an atypical toro de lidia who shuns the ambitions of his cohort to fight in the great Plaza de Toros in Madrid in favour of sniffing flowers. One day as he bends over to savour a floral fragrance, a bee bites him on the arse and he ups and uncharacteristically charges through the fields. As luck would have it, some toro talent scouts are in from Madrid and spot him, declaring him the meanest bull they've ever seen. Ferdinand is sent into the ring with orders to fight to the death but when he smells all the flowers in the hair of the ladies in the audience, he sits down and flatly refuses to charge. His handlers capitulate and he is returned to the fields he loves.

I never did go to a bullfight, despite regular invitations. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I faint at the sight of a bruise. Bullfighting is, however, a central theme in my novel, The Full English. Ben, the narrator, is made of much sterner stuff than I. One scene takes place at a corrida. My references were Hemingway, Canal + and lots of conversations I could have done without. There's also a scene in a bullfighters' bar after the corrida, where the patrons eat rabo de toro, the tail of the killed bull. I did do that. Ben gets involved in a conversation with a bullfighter about the morality of bullfighting versus fox hunting. He believes both are wrong but concedes that the Spanish national sport is slightly less reprehensible than the English because at least the slain flesh isn't wasted.

Cut to the present day and the arguments about torturing animals as a national sport continue. Fox hunting has been banned in Britain for the last five years. This doesn't seem to stop people from doing it and, in any case, if the Tories are elected, they say they'll lift the ban. In Spain opinion about bullfighting is polarised. The Catalan parliament is debating imposing a ban while Madrid's regional government has called on UNESCO to declare bullfighting worthy of world cultural heritage status. Views don't get much more split than that, or indeed, emotional. Reuters reports that Spanish philosopher Jesus Mosterin, speaking in the Catalan parliament, compared it to 'the primitive and abominable custom' of female circumcision.

The Spanish are not sentimental when it comes to animals, save a late middle-aged weakness for small, fluffy dogs. Bullfighting is a popular arena spectacle and bullfighters tend not to come from the wealthy classes, although there have been exceptions. The English, on the other hand, are positively schismatic when it comes to animals. In the land that pioneered animal protection laws, fox hunting continues, despite a legal ban as a private pursuit of the gentry who haven't ever relinquished their chattel mentality, claiming nominal dominion over all the eye can perceive. Fox hunting takes place on private land where spectators are most definitely not welcome. Both are as barbaric as whale hunting as they involve terrorising and brutally killing an animal that is no threat and for no good reason.

Despite their differences, bullfighting and fox hunting have certain things in common. They have both constructed over the centuries powerful, protective superstructures of breeding and local employment with foundations firmly planted in tradition and ritual. These are very old and well-established cultural identifiers whereas compassion for animal welfare is the new kid on the philosophical block. Animals invariably lose out in this conflict because humans are able to suspend their compassion in favour of a pursuit they believe to be of greater importance. If the Catalans succeed in achieving this ban, it will be a great victory but it will have as much to do with the Catalonian desire to secede morally from the rest of Spain, in lieu of being able to physically secede. I wish them luck with it. I'll be putting on my thinking montera and making a list of uses for redundant bullrings. I turn out to be pretty good at recycling where bullfighting is concerned...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quake Quack

Bad girl by Pants

When women have sex the earth moves. Who knew? In fact, we're much more powerful than that, according to Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi,

"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes."

All we have to do is pull on our skinny jeans and seismic ruptures result. It's like Poltergeist, but without the house. A terrageist, if you will. Sedighi was speaking at Friday night prayers following the recent devastating earthquake in China. Tehran is a particularly earthquake-prone area and this does seem to be a particularly earthquake-prone time.

"What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes," he intoned.

Or possibly take refuge in towns and cities not built over multiple fault lines and review current building codes? Just a suggestion.

"A divine authority told me to tell the people to make a general repentance. Why? Because calamities threaten us," Sedighi continued.

Calamities? Well, I suppose it's either repentance or extra insurance cover. Repentance is undoubtedly the cheaper option. Those insurance companies just suck you dry at the barest sniff of risk.

"The political earthquake that occurred was a reaction to some of the actions," Sedighi warned.

Hey? We're in metaphor now? Is he talking about the abortive, corrupt elections that resulted from all this rigorous practice of high morals?

"And now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God's power, only God's power ... So let's not disappoint God," he concluded.

Okay, we're back on physical shaky ground, although I'm a bit confused about the order of events. Are we talking 'a closing the stable door after the horse has bolted' scenario here or are we still risk managing a la Trinny & Susannah?

Iranian welfare minister, Sadeq Mahsooli, also thinks prayers and pleas for forgiveness are the best "formulae to repel earthquakes".

Formulae? Sounds very scientific. How does it work?

"We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice," he said.

Mmm, sounds complicated. I'd just move to a more stable area, politically and geophysically. Let me offer a scientific 'formula' of my own. I have been in several earthquakes but, curiously, not at times when I was having great sex, or even sex at all. This is either a counter theory or the exception that proves the rule, I'm not sure which. I was never that good at maths. Anyway, as far as I know, Larrikin's End has no history of earthquakes and I feel sure I can guarantee that situation will continue into the foreseeable future. Larrikin's End is not blessed with eligible men. On the other hand, it boasts a frightening quantity of outlets selling tarty clothes. Make of that what you will.

I think we have the mootings of a strategy here. Now all I have to do is convince the Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, to ease up on his immigration hard-line stance. I'm sure once he knows we're on the cusp of a great scientific breakthrough, he'll repent, er, I mean relent. I love it when a plan comes together...

PS : Ms O'Dyne emails to inform me that an earthquake has hit the Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie this morning. As Kalgoorlie is a remote town full of lonely, cashed-up miners around which a requisite service industry has bloomed, Ms O'Dyne suggests to me that the mullah may have a point. Spooky.

All quotes from Associated Press

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wynne or lose, it's how you play the game

Australian landscape by Pants

I have had several aspiring 'careers'. None of them ever got past the 'aspiring' stage. I would never be eligible for any competition calling for 'developing' or even 'emerging' talent. This is unlikely ever to change, and I'm not sure I would like it to. The road seems far too long and wearying to take now, especially as there is nothing to stop me from tinkering with art and writing and music in any messy combination that takes my fancy into the foreseeable future. Have laptop and all that. There is no imperative to make work that appeals to anyone else except for reasons of prestige and I am long since over thinking that's important.

It was not always this way. One of my aspiring careers was as a writer of musicals. Although by no means musically gifted, I can play and write music well enough to at least communicate a tune and, most importantly, I understand how musicals are made. I took myself off to musical theatre school. I also have a pattern of undergoing rudimentary training at lots of things, you may have noticed that. It was a smashing course. I learned a lot and met some exceptionally gifted people. Everyone in my class was a far better singer than I which was exhilarating as I'm not competitive and very useful as I only wanted to write the music, not to sing or dance it.

I wrote a musical about Richard the Lionheart which I genuinely would have liked to see staged. Some of my fellow students sang on a demo tape I made with Mr T's help. Everyone performed beautifully and I thought it sounded pretty good. My aim was to enter the show into an annual competition for new British musicals. The eligibility criteria for that year were duly published. There was a new rule. The competition was only open to people under thirty. I was thirty-seven. It was absurd because no one under thirty writes musicals, but dem was da rools. The competition was won by a musical illiterate who had hummed his songs onto a cassette. He was aged thirty-four. No correspondence was entered into by order of the judges.

The moral, if there is such a thing in competitions, is enter whatever you've got because criteria can be 'more like guidelines' if the judges see fit to view them that way. In other words, don't think they need to be interpreted literally. 'Aged under thirty' could actually just be a state of mind to some people. Madonna springs to mind. The Rolling Stones are all still blissfully only twenty-nine and who is going to argue with them? My point is that no one really seems to follow rules to the letter. In any case, artists are expected to defy any and all attempts at imposing order. That is what art is supposed to be about.

In the last week a furore has broken out over the award of Australia's top art prize for landscape to a painting that is a partial copy of Boatmen on the shore of an Italian lake, painted in 1660 by Dutch painter Adam Pynacker. The prize was announced some weeks ago and the delayed reaction is due to the fact that no one, including the judges, was aware that there was a source painting and that it depicted an Italian scene.

I've waited to write about this because I am always more fascinated by the retrospective fabrications and justifications that evolve around these controversies than in the events themselves. Although rules aren't really rules in the strict sense anymore, everyone clings to them when there is trouble. In the absence of exactitude, we get relativism. This is nearly always a bad thing. In this context it is the equivalent of trying to uncurdle the cream for a fallen sponge. Best just toss it all out and start again.

So, let's look at the 'rules' that supposedly govern the Wynne Prize. There are only two really important ones. The first is that you have to have lived in Australia for more than a year to enter. The winner, Sam Leach, seems to have fulfilled that easily enough. The second is the focus of the current post-mortem. The prize is awarded for,

'the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists.'

Let us consider, 'of Australian scenery'. There would appear to be a clear breach here, yes? Umm, no, because the judges have accepted the notion of an 'imagined' landscape. There is no rule that says the scene should be identified or even identifiable. The Wynne Prize's big brother, the Archibald Prize for portraiture (which Sam Leach also won), stipulates that the subject must be drawn from life but the Wynne has no such constraint. Why shouldn't one imagine a seventeenth century Dutch Italianate scene springing up in the bush if that is one's desire?

There is another layer to the public outcry and it concerns ethics. I pause so that you can have a little giggle... tum te tum... There are two strands to this. Firstly, people think that Leach should have indicated in the title that his work contained an appropriation from another artist. So the title, which is Proposal for landscaped cosmos, should have after Pynacker appended to it. The only reason for this seems to be that none of the judges clocked the connection to the source work so looked quite foolish.

Although not a well-known painting, it is on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the premier collection of Dutch painting. It's not a hoax. Leach clearly had no intention to deceive, so it's a question of him simply failing to intuit an undefined etiquette of some sort. Do you really have to try and guess how learned the judges might be when choosing a title for a competition painting?

The second strand of the ethics question concerns the actual morality of uncredited appropriation. Academics have come forward to say that if Leach were to turn in this work without crediting his source in an exam situation, he would be accused of plagiarism. Well, he didn't turn it in for assessment and neither did he, as far as I know, enter it into a competition for macaroons where doubtless it would have been disqualified. Unlike art, the parameters for macaroons are easily agreed.

Is it plagiarism? If so, there isn't much you can do in art that isn't. It certainly isn't illegal to copy in part, or even wholly, a work of this age. Copyright ownership for an artwork covers the life of the originator plus seventy years. If copyright didn't expire, Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn't have a career. Enter relativism and its attendants dressed as cans'o'worms. If we start down the road of how much it's acceptable to reference or quote or copy or appropriate or whatever you want to call it in an artwork, then we're going to have to get Archimedes in to do the sums.

The jibberings of the various judges, lovingly lampooned here by the excellent Culture Mulcher, suggest that they responded to this painting because it stood out from the packing room pack. It's natural to equate that intuition with originality. What they were clearly perceiving was a tonal shift. They knew something of Leach's work and appreciated what their ignorance of the source painting read as an echo of the Dutch school. Not an echo, but a primary strike. What's the difference? Do you think I'm someone who gives a fuck?

So, you're still here? I had better conclude then. Memo to Art Gallery of New South Wales:- Have rules or don't have rules. It's all the same to me. Only don't be a macaroon competition that accepts fallen sponges with curdled cream because you're afraid that if you don't you'll be neglecting your obligations to inclusivity or failing to embrace new technologies or just worried that the general public will think you don't get the point of post-modernism. Believe me, we have more pressing concerns. Why put yourself in the ludicrous position of having to justify choosing the best painting submitted, which doesn't actually fit the criteria but was entered because there was always a chance of winning? Either piss or get off the pottery.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the origin of specious

Sir Joseph Furphy Larrikin

Many people email me about the important issues I raise on this blog, and not all of them are certifiable, (although Tomas from Sterkstroom you might want to seek professional advice about that matter you brought to my attention - I'm not actually a trained criminal psychologist). Many of you are fascinated by the tales from my new home town of Larrikin's End and I think it's time I addressed the pleadings from you to expand a little on its history and unique social customs. I accept there might be genuine reasons beyond bone-idleness that prevent you from doing your own internet research. Also, I can't think of anything else to write about.

Larrikin's End was founded in 1867 by Sir Joseph Furphy Larrikin, a journeyman poet and former convict from Limerick, Ireland and inventor of the Larrikin's Last Laugh Machine. Sir Joseph was born to a poor family of tinkers in 1835. In 1841, at the age of six, young Joseph was caught carving a smiley face onto the last potato in the county. He had planned to cheer everyone up by stamping smiley faces all over the town. Although there was a dire shortage of food, there was an abundance of printers' ink left over from all the failed rebellions. No one had the energy to get up pamphlets anymore. The potato famine had taken a terrible toll on morale and clearly had done nothing for anyone's sense of humour. In a place like Limerick, renowned for its witty verse, this was a tragedy of enormous proportions. Sadly young Joseph was unable to put this right.

Catching him with the potato, his mother declared in exasperation that she could have kept the whole family of twenty alive for a year on that one spud and promptly keeled over. The rest of the family died during the night. An inconsolable Joseph was discovered near death himself from starvation by the local constable the next day. The constable's wife, who had a broader culinary repertoire than Mrs Larrikin, nursed him back to health with her delicious turnip and shamrock stew. Once we was well again, he was sentenced to hang for murdering his family but a kindly judge commuted the sentence to transportation for life to Victoria, Australia. Young Joseph, in his innocence, responded, 'please sir, I'd rather the gallows.'

Once in Melbourne, Joseph quickly set about making his fortune. He was at least in a place where his smiley faces were appreciated. Potatoes grow well in Victoria and Joseph was soon plastering the walls of government buildings with cheerful smiley face prints and naughty verses, which he dubbed 'limericks' after his home in Ireland. He is credited with founding the perennially popular street-art movement that thrives all over Melbourne today. But the innovation that truly made him a national treasure and brought him both riches and position is the Larrikin's Last Laugh Machine.

Joseph was a regular patron of Melbourne's theatres. In those days, they employed a man to execute that peculiar dying guffaw that always comes at the end of the audiences' spontaneous expression of joy at a well-told joke. The 'last laugh', as it was known, was originally inserted as a cue to comedians that it was time to move on to the next sketch. The trouble was that the last laugher was usually an unreliable ruffian who was more often in the bar at punchline time, leaving the show littered with uncomfortable silences. The last laugh is as important in comic theatre as the first clap is in orchestral music. The first clapper is usually a retired violinist who knows by heart the difference between the end of a movement and a page-turning pause and receives a small stipend for performing this important function. No one likes to pay a lot of money for the privilege of looking foolish.

Larrikin's rather elegant solution to the problem of last laughers was to replace them with a mechanical device. He built a sound cylinder out of an old corned beef tin on which he recorded the sound of a laughing kookaburra. In order to avert any future claims of retrospective plagiarism, he rigged the device so that the recording could be played backwards, which gives it its distinctive character. This device could be operated by the stage manager, usually an altogether more sober type, at the appropriate place in the programme. Some of these machines are still in use today. If you listen closely, you will be able to hear one on Two and a Half Men. You will need to be patient as the jokes are few and far between.

After being knighted in 1865, Larrikin declared himself, 'tired of gaiety'. He longed to recreate the misery of his Irish childhood and went searching for a bleak and distant place in which to live out his days. I can only imagine his joy at landing in this scrubby, windswept place by comparing it with my own. I wonder if he thought, as I did, 'well, at least it's cheap.'

Modern day Larrikin's End is true to its founder's vision that it be 'peopled with folk of dubious character'. Sir Joseph, having risen to the very highest ranks of society, knew that true authenticity is to be found at the runty end of the gene pool. If you visit his grave at the Larrikin's End Inter-denominational Cemetery and Mini-golf Course, you will see that his epitaph echoes his deep love of philosophy,

Once a tinker, always a tinker.

One of the ways in which we ensure that no one will be allowed to rise above the exacting low standards set out by Sir Joseph is to serve the most diabolical takeaway food in the history of tourism. As you probably know, Larrikin's End is a fishing town of some repute, yet we have the worst fried fish on the planet. This is surely an achievement of which we can all be proud but credit must go to Sir Joseph for laying down the guiding principles all those generations ago. His unhappy relationship with the potato has echoed down the decades and, even today, potatoes are banned in Larrikin's End. Instead of fish'n'chips, we have shark'n'neeps.

The 'neep' is a particularly soggy type of local turnip that has a natural resistance to crispness and shark is the only fish we catch that no one else will buy so we have to eat it ourselves. The reason we catch so many sharks is that they are usually chasing the same fish as we are. Because the sharks are faster and smarter, they usually get there first. Our fishermen land the sharks, cut them open and extract the export fish. With any luck, they are still in one piece as sharks are gulpers rather than nibblers. The fishermen then cut the shark up into barbecue-sized chunks for us. We celebrate this tradition at our weekly Shark Tale Poetry Festival. The price of admission is one dodgy limerick and for that, you get all the shark'n'neeps you can eat. Sir Joseph's lasting legacy is that Larrikin's End will never know famine, quite the opposite in fact.

I should mention that The Larrikin's End Regressive Society gives tutorials to communities threatened with gentrification. You may be interested if your town is showing signs of going Gaggia, although I should mention that a by-pass is the kiss of death. Once the heavy transport lorries stop rolling through your town and tables go out on the footpath it's goodbye Boganville, hello Spatown. You'll never be able to get a decent cup of Nescafe again.

So, there you have it - a potted history of Larrikin's End. I'm sure there's a book in it. I am indebted to Convict Creations for its comprehensive and scholarly history and also for the fine portrait of Sir Joseph.

I leave you with a final word of wisdom from our pot-making convict philospher,

'Tink only good torts.'

(From The Prison Diaries of Joseph Furphy Larrikin, 1845-1850)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The plane truth

Elements by Pants

The ash from the Icelandic volcano that has grounded flights across Europe in the last few days has proved just how resilient the rich and famous are. John Cleese booked a cab and three drivers to convey him from Oslo to Brussels even though he says he's in no rush to get home. Whitney Houston braved the perils of a flat Irish Sea on a three-hour superferry trip to Dublin to sustain the vain revival of her career. Hurrah to you both.

What celestial people will do to meet their phantom obligations when money is no object stretches the boundaries of mortal credibility. A gold star with chocolate bar must go to Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who fired up his iPad in the VIP lounge of a New York airport in order to prevent his country from descending into the potential chaos occasioned by his short unscheduled absence. PM Stoltenberg - Le Pants d'Or au Chocolat will be winging its way to you just as soon as air corridors are reopened.

As I've suggested before on this blog, the notion that one can work remotely is an obvious fiction fabricated by software providers. Ground a few planes and it becomes immediately apparent that no one of any consequence can function unless they are constantly travelling to somewhere where they need to be in order to work. This would seem to suggest that even the most powerful people cannot choose to work wherever they happen to be. What hope is there then for the rest of us?

News from Britain suggests food shortages are feared if plane traffic doesn't resume soon. This cargo-cult fantasy appears to be based on the possible unavailability of some exotic salad items for tonight's dinner parties. You would have to really worry if all your food was being brought to you by plane. Relax Britons, you have home-grown spring crops of purple sprouting broccoli, Savoy cabbage, radishes, sorrel, watercress and Jersey royals on your doorstep. If you're lucky, there might also be asparagus. Phone Jamie if you need help. I think even Nigella uses Deb for her potato cakes. That could be a useful survival tip.

It is awful that people's holidays are being ruined. Don't think I'm unsympathetic. Grandpa Pants worked for a domestic airline so Sis Pants and I spent half of our childhood on planes. We were early experiments in remote parenting. I've been on more than a hundred flights and spent several hundred hours in involuntary transit. On only a couple of occasions have I experienced civil war breaking out as I landed. I can recall only two landing-gear botherations that required lots of fire engines to attend. One of these was when Sis Pants and I were very young and I seem to remember there were lots of guilt-gifts involved.

I'm not a diva or a comedian or a prime minister whose prescence is supposedly indispensible, but I do know that being suspended in a strange place is not necessarily a bad thing provided you have a decent book and adequate local currency.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Image problem

A woman's place by Pants

When I was thirteen, my single-sex school treated us girls to a showing of the German 'sex education' film Helga. This milestone in my life is unquestionably the reason I never had children. It was the halogen moment in which it dawned on me that society had not a single clue what it was doing. I have never since been able to reconcile the pervasive baby culture of broderie anglaise cot covers and angora booties with the bloodbath up there on the screen.

Girlhood was pretty confusing all round for me. The world always seemed a hemisphere and seven eights short of a full globe in visceral sensibility. By thirteen, I'd already had to deal with the specious nature of menstrual blood. It was very strange to learn that there was a type of bleeding that was viewed entirely differently from the type I was used to. If you fell and grazed your knees, there would be dabbing and disinfecting involving a cast of thousands and a thick Mercurochrome coating that announced to the universe via a bright tangerine badge of courage that you had bled. By contrast, getting a period seemed to occupy the same moral latitude as your average heinous witches' coven. It was the bodily fluid that dare not speak its name.

The intellectual netherland surrounding the female nether-regions has always been a toughie for male society to manage. From chastity belts to foot binding, from whalebone corsetry to nubile brasserie, it seems clear that the male ruling class as a body politic has just never been able to work out how to interact with women. Like any entity that has no idea what it's doing, it has been masking its ineptitude with a flurry of bumptious activity for millennia. Cut to the present day and the media would have you believe that it is still under the impression that there is no more pressing a business in the conducting of humanity than to direct women in getting themselves tarted up. No wonder space exploration has stalled.

Stay with me, I'm labouring towards a point. But first a little context. In Britain, yet another spat has broken out about what young girls should be wearing. Mumsnet has started a campaign called Let Girls Be Girls, triggered by the apparent marketing of padded bras and bikini tops to pre-sprouts of primary school age. In a perfectly reasonable and concerned parental way, Mumsnet is showing a yellow card to clothing manufacturers. I think we all know the free market is not without a need for boundaries. This is what Mumsnet is suggesting,

This Mumsnet campaign offers retailers and manufacturers a positive course of action - to take the lead in ending the premature sexualisation of children through their products and marketing.

Mumsnet's action has triggered the usual array of simplistic arguments about what is and is not 'empowering' for girls to be splattered all over the British and international press. (Pause for reflection on what it takes to make international news these days - cheers Rupert). Just to clarify, there is nothing you can buy in a shop that will give you power save perhaps a petrol generator.

I landed on Laurie Penny's piece in one's beloved Guardian today because it was a more nuanced view than the index-card statements that had been tossed out everywhere else. She starts out by saying Primark's padded bra - one of products targeted by Mumsnet - is a far better solution for girls attempting to survive the gauntlet of boy teasing than stuffing your top with toilet paper. This may well be true. That I went to a girls' school appears to have been a blessing in retrospect as I did not ever have to resort to stuffing my shirt with toilet paper to maintain my self-respect. I do remember coveting a 30AA 'trainer' bra in Woolworths aged twelve but I don't believe my mother's conclusion that I 'didn't need it' did lasting damage to my psyche or my ability to turn out for hockey.

Unfortunately, Penny conflates what I think are two separate and unrelated concepts in her piece. Being teased by boys is obviously vile and real but individual and fleeting and also quite possibly able to be handled without resort or reference to international commerce. (I wouldn't want to be accused of corrupting minors but if you happen to be reading this and you are a flat-chested nine-year old, you might try a retort of 'you have a tiny, shrivelled dick'. If it works. promise me you'll harass your parent or carer for books instead.)

The presumed 'sexualisation' of pre-teens for corporate profit - which is what Mumsnet is concerned about - is a different thing. I say 'presumed' because I'm not entirely sure that the 'sexualisation' of girls is what's being sold. Here's what Penny has to say,

The notion of "sexualisation" deserves serious critical unpacking. The term envisions girl children as blank erotic slates upon which sexuality can only ever be violently imposed. This narrow vision of sexuality leaves no room for young girls to explore authentic desire at their own pace, insisting instead that girls need to be protected from erotic influence, while boys, presumably, are free to fiddle with themselves to their hearts' content.

Sadly, this much is true. Boys have always been able to fiddle to their hearts' content, except for a brief period in Victorian times when mothers were implored to 'mark' them with iodine should they be caught in flagrante somnio. Hitler was probably one of those caught in the act. But don't boys usually receive preferential treatment from parents and community to begin with? Even more sadly true is that girls are perceived by marketeers as blank slates and not just in the erotic sense. But isn't this because girls are still generally not encouraged or supported by their parents or community in taking up academic pursuits or even outdoor activities? Where is the female equivalent of the skate park or football pitch? Where else is there for girls to go but the shopping mall? I was interested also in Penny's conclusion,

The online mumocracy's call for retailers to "show parents that their company believes that children should be allowed to be children" is irrelevant to the real experiences of girls growing up in a world where our sexual impulses are stolen and sold back to us.

Padded bras for preteens are not the problem. The problem is a culture of prosthetic, commodified female sexual performance, a culture which morally posturing politicians appear to deem perfectly acceptable as long as it is not 'premature'. By assuming that sexuality can only ever be imposed upon girl children, campaigns to 'let girls be girls' ignore the fact that late capitalism refuses to let women be women – at any age.

I felt the early rumblings of an epiphany so I went for a jog. I thought, of course she is right about capitalism, and women have been saying this for forty years. But there is something else here. I should warn you at this point that I jog very slowly.

Warning - I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent here. I'm a feminist and I grew up in a lucky age, I admit that. I would probably describe myself as middle class although I have no real grounds for it other than most of my family are property owning. None of us are professionals in the classic sense, although we are reasonably well-educated. In reality, I have lived most of my life in the poorer neighbourhoods of metropolitan Australian and British cities. I mention this because I want to make it clear that I am not privileged except in the sense that all people who live legally in wealthy countries are privileged. Yet, I can honestly say that I have never been mistreated by any man either at work or in my private life. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, only that if the subjugation of women was so wholesale, surely I would have fallen victim at some point.

I find I'm having to challenge some of my own long-held beliefs here. I'm sure there must be lots of evil, bossy men in the world but I've never actually come across any of them. I'm thinking that men fall to a default position of controlling because they have no idea how to deal with us differently. I was around in the 70s. I remember that men were quite interested in alternative lifestyles - until they discovered that housework is not as much fun as being in the pub.

I think what I'm trying to say here is that men have traditionally organised women because women agree to being organised and that this collusion is facilitated by whatever the prevailing societal guiding principle happens to be. In times past it was religion. Women's sexuality was originally fetishised by religion. That fetish has simply been turned into a product by the free market because that's what it does - it turns potential into money. Groups of men are not meeting at corporate board level and determining that they will 'sexualise' nine-year-olds for their delectation and material benefit. Have you never witnessed the pitiful sight of a husband waiting outside a boutique? Only the ones who own clothing factories really take an interest in what we are wearing.

Men worked out long ago that they needed simple solutions to their apparel needs if they were going to have time for other pursuits. Dealing with free willie started with the codpiece and ended with the Y-front without the involvement of an expensive agent provocateur. Consequently the newspapers are not full of articles about how male genitalia should be decorated. Maybe they do look dull in their horrid black suits, white shirts and striped ties but at least they get to have conversations that are not about nail varnish. Capitalism may be powerful but I can assure you that no one has frog-marched me into K-Mart lately. Now, can we please talk about something else...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thy will be dung

Creation theory by Pants

A long time ago when I was a little girl in Sydney our primary school week contained an hour of torture we called scrip-cha. The ingredients of this tasteless dish were a weedy man who looked a bit like John Majors' Spitting Image puppet, a bible and a box of felt figures. It was an anachronism that dated back to the founding of secular schools. Previously education had been a responsibility of the church and, in relinquishing that responsibility to the state, church leaders negotiated that all schools would be legally obliged to provide one hour of instruction in the Christian religion per week to all children. Imagine my shock to find that this is still going on.

Australian states all have separate education systems so I don't know if this is the case in all the others. It's come to my attention because there is a trial commencing next week in some New South Wales schools to offer an alternative lesson in secular ethics to children whose parents doubt the cultural enrichment of stories about naked people messing with apples and snakes.

Although schools have always had a legal requirement to provide scrip-cha, pressure from parents eventually allowed for children to be excused but church leaders insisted that no educational alternative was to be provided for the heathens who dared opt their children out. If they were lucky, they got colouring-in to do instead of playing with felt figures.

In a Sydney Morning Herald piece, ethicist Leslie Cannold relates the story of a little girl who was made to sit on a chair outside the scrip-cha class by herself. She was the only girl in her class who had been opted out of religious instruction. She begged her conflicted mother to let her rejoin her peers. Is this Scarlet Letter version of Christian values really a good foundation for our multicultural society? It's a wonder they didn't burn her at the stake. Call me old fashioned but isn't there also a pedagogical dilemma here? Aren't teachers supposed to dissuade thumb twiddling during school hours?

I tend to forget how powerful and arrogant the church really is sometimes. At the moment the Catholic church is facing down a deluge of disgrace with the audacity of an extended Gotti family. The seven deadly sins have become a code of honour at the Vatican it seems. I guess virtues are for pussies, not prelates. In Britain, bishops still form part of the unelected component of central government. Religious education is a mandatory requirement in state schools there too, although these days they prefer to call it an 'entitlement'.

So threatened are the clergy in Australia by the ethics lesson trial that the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney has been lobbying vigorously against its permanent introduction - before the trial has even begun. In some circles this level of paranoia might be considered a symptom of a serious mental illness.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports on statements made by Archbishop Peter Jensen,

''Be warned: if the government allows this course to continue after the trial, it will jeopardise religious education in public schools,'' Dr Jensen wrote in the Anglican newspaper Southern Cross.

Ah-ha! Even the Archbishop thinks scrip-cha is boring. They don't have any idea how good it's going to be, they just know that anything would be better than scrip-cha. The church has known this all along, otherwise why would it be so determined that there be nothing even vaguely interesting to compete with it? Unfortunately colouring-in wasn't on offer when I was a kid. If it had been, I would have jumped at it, and I would have gone outside the lines.

Spoiler Alert - Logic Cop has just arrived. Dr Jensen then goes on to say,

''Without such a religious component, public schools will cease to be inclusive of all children.''

The really scary thing is they actually think this stuff. It's like Galileo never lived. This is the kind of unintelligible hysteria you'd expect from Foxtel, not a 'spiritual' leader.

And still it goes on. Jim Wallace, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby argues in the Sydney Morning Herald that Christianity is the basis of all the societal values we hold dear and can't be dispensed with. Well, I guess if you believe God made Plato...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quollity Care

Quoll drawing by Thomas Watling from the Museum of Natural History, London

Australian marsupial mammals are under threat and only the free market can save them. Eh? It seems that our homegrown critters can't survive in the wild because of the encroachment of immigrant critters. Mmm... where have we heard this before?

A report soon to be released by DAFT (Department of Australian Furry Things) will propose that some species like the quoll (native cat), hopping mouse and sugar glider should be marketed to the public as 'environmentally sustainable' pets and even that citizens should be able to breed these little chaps themselves for fun and profit.

This represents a dramatic volte-face from the current position. So paranoid have Australian authorities been about human interaction with native species in the past that even saying 'shoo' to one was likely to get you into a lot of trouble. Sis Pants has possums in her roof and thinks that their presence is causing an allergic reaction but she isn't allowed to have them moved on. You can evict them apparently but you're not allowed to move them more than fifty metres from their 'habitat' so by the time you've walked back from the end of the street, they've already moved back into your house and changed the locks.

Why this unlikely revolution in perspective? Sounds like a case of 'too hard for us, you do it' to me. Whenever policy-makers are stumped for an answer, they always conclude 'the community is best placed to solve these problems'. By 'community' they mean everyone except the people who are actually being paid to do it.

Naturally, when one concocts these radical solutions, it's necessary to invent a guiding philosophy to legitimise them. Enter 'the market' which lately seems to be benefitting from the belief that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. ABC Radio National aired a programme this week unpacking the principle. The full transcript is here. I relate some of the highlights for your amusement.

The theory in a gumnut shell is that commodification bestows value and therefore a secure future.

According to Rosie Cooney, a researcher, lecturer and consultant on biodiversity conservation, the idea of what's called 'sustainable use' is still a very controversial notion when applied to wildlife. But she believes people are beginning to understand that valuing something economically almost always prevents it from disappearing. (ABC Radio National, Background Briefing transcript).

Rosie Cooney? C'mon.

It gets better. Apparently there is a big market for Australian sugar gliders in the USA with around 20,000 a year being sold. How did they get there if our native animal protection laws are so tough? Flew, I guess. Here's a little more on that,

University of New South Wales research student, Adrian Di Qual, decided to find out for himself. He started by securing an interview with America's top glider mogul, a tough-sounding former gumshoe called Virgil Klunders.

Virgil's operation, Perfect Pocket Pets, is based in Florida but send their gliders to new homes all over America, and most of the customer care happens over the internet, even down to well-timed advice via email.
(ABC Radio National, Background Briefing transcript).

Adrian Di Qual? C'mon. An ex-gumshoe named Virgil Klunders? C'mon.

Noted Paleontologist Mike Archer, who once raised a quoll in his sock drawer, is an advocate of keeping sugar gliders as pets and waxes lyrical about his, er, relationship with one,

It would sleep in the bed underneath my arm and I'd look at that lovely little pink nose and closed eyes, so beautiful. But the first night that she came into the bed, I was asleep and suddenly I felt this very strange feeling on my head and a sound, it was going Slurp, Slurp, Slurp, and I thought, "What is that?" But you learn never to react till you work out what's happening. And, as I slowly came to terms with it, this beautiful glider had a hold of my ear with its two little hands and it was putting its tongue right down my ear! I have no idea why. (ABC Radio National, Background Briefing transcript).

He's a real person. I know this because I once worked with him years ago. It's a bit worrying when one of the country's leading mammalogists doesn't have any idea why a mammal would want to stick its tongue in your ear. Wax Mike?

Perfect Pocket Pets also does exist and there are several internet sites dedicated to warning people about its dodgy dealings. So why, in the face of very obvious concerns, do all our furry friends' fuzzy mates want us to start installing quoll flaps and turning our sock drawers into creches? Do they really think creating a fad for keeping a particular animal is sound conservation practice? Let me ask you this - when was the last time you saw an Afghan Hound?

Do I smell a kangaroo-rat? I need to further investigate. I've put in a call to Basil Brush PI. I'll get back to you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On gathering moss

Moss by Pants

Every day I scan the international newspapers online for something substantial to read. They're always full of end-of-news-cycle domestic politics pieces and opinions on how women can and should alter their appearance, constantly and obsessively. The current fascination with body hair never fails to put me off my breakfast. Have I just invented a new diet? Huzzah! I'll have to get a Lose weight. Ask me NOW! badge and parade up and down the streets of Larrikin's End, although judging by the general state of people, I don't imagine it'll lead to many conversations.

I've never been particularly hirsute and I'm even less so now that I've reached the afternoon tea phase of life. Hair just seems to stop growing if you show little interest in it. These days I'm into dilapidation rather than depilation. Whether this is primarily a state of mind or a question of need or a combination of both, I can't say. I either don't grow hair as a bridge over my nose anymore or my eyesight is too poor to detect it. In any case the eyesight of everyone else I know is similarly compromised. Tertium quid.

I've just finished reading A Passionate Life, the autobiography of anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott so I should be telling you that my lack of interest in preening is due to there being more important things to worry about but actually, I just find articles about heels and potions dull. Ditto micro-politics. I do admire Dr Caldicott very much. She was wrong about a lot of things but she was less wrong than most people and wrong in a really helpful way, like Darwin for example or Marx.

Sadly, even the big global 'issues' are only engaging in principle now unless you've had the foresight to secure yourself a job at the Brookings Institution. By the time the basic elements have filtered down to the newspapers you just get the same self-interested statements endlessly recycled. You might as well be reading ads. Well, actually, you probably are.

I did find a really good long piece the other day in the New York Times Magazine about the economics of climate change by Paul Krugman. I found myself following an actual progressive argument. It made a pleasant change. I felt like I'd just had a free taxi ride out of Square One. Krugman makes the interesting point that if 'the market' is so smart, how come no one thinks it's smart enough to come up with a way to profit from turning around climate change?

Even in the best magazines, articles of this length and articulacy are rare. I don't like it that I have to spend more time looking for content of this quality than actually reading it. I keep hearing that the rates of mental illnesses including the various types of dementia are rising fast. Frankly I'm not surprised. The brain needs food too. I have a very low tolerance for idiocy. It took me a good six months to shake all the bollocks out of my head after a year at 'college' and I'm still smarting about that. It's not that difficult to think if you put your, er, mind to it. Keep telling yourself over and over and it eventually works.

As usual, I've Panted myself into a corner. I started this post not knowing where I was going. The good news is I've arrived. It's like that great joke where the English tourists are lost on a country road in Dyfed and they stop to ask a Welsh farmer for directions to Aberystwyth and the farmer scratches his head and says,

'If I was you I wouldn't start from here.'

Monday, April 12, 2010

Topper Eden

Veteran British film critic Barry Norman says in The Independent today that Hollywood's latest purse-prising strategy of remaking box office flops is basically a good one,

"It is a cautious and cowardly way of making film if you just do remakes but I'm wholly in favour of remaking films that didn't work the first time round but could work if they were made again," he said. "It makes much more sense if you have an intrinsically good idea that wasn't pulled off but could be done better. There is no sense in taking a film like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and remaking it, because it can't be improved upon."

The prompt for this examination is a proposed remake of the 1987 Goldie Hawn atrocity Overboard starring Jennifer Lopez. Mmm... ditzy vs deadpan - it might work. There was something altogether too playful about Hawn's reading of the manipulated amnaesiac. It could do with a dimmer view. It would certainly get that from Lopez. Some of the other films up for remake include the Alec Baldwin disaster The Shadow and David Lynch's Dune. I don't know that either of these fall into Barry Norman's category of 'an intrinsically good idea'. There is a very good reason why Sting didn't have a film career but he wasn't the only thing wrong with Dune, not by a long stretch.

As I've mentioned before, I like to listen to the director's commentary on good films. It's like seeing a Savile Row suit being made with all that tailors' chalk and underpinning and tacking being revealed. There is something immensely satisfying about a well-constructed conceptualisation. Deleted scenes are also illuminating. Invariably, they turn out to be superfluous in great film. Equally instructive is to listen to the director's commentary on a really bad film. It's extremely difficult to describe ill-conception. Generally speaking, the better the film, the clearer the director's explanation.

I got to thinking about other bad films that could be remade for the better with a slightly altered perspective or a different cast.

Waterworld. This film is thought ludicrous by most people. There's actually only one thing wrong with it and that's The Smokers. I'm not objecting on moral grounds, just that it is simply not credible that in a world with no dry land, there could possibly be tobacco. If it were to be remade now, the smoking would obviously go. No one smokes in films anymore unless they're set in Scotland where fags and fish'n'chips are mandatory. Dennis Hopper was good but not likely to be available. Mickey Rourke seems a worthy successor. Anyone but Kevin Costner.

Dick Tracy. You can instantly right any flop with Madonna in it simply by leaving her out. Ditto Warren Beatty. I can see Jon Hamm as Tracy and I think Gwen Stefani might make a good Breathless Mahoney.

Ishtar. See above. The problem with this film is that neither Beatty nor his co-star Dustin Hoffman were prepared to be Bob Hope to the other's Bing Crosby. I'd like to see it with Ant and Dec and a toss of the coin for who gets to be Bing.

It was widely reported that the new Uma Thurman film, Motherhood, grossed just nine English pounds on its opening weekend in Britain last month. One person went to see it in the one cinema chosen to show it. Creating a buzz with an undersupply strategy only really works with igadgets. With movies you sort of have to saturate. It would be nice also if the creators of cultural content realised that parenthood as a subject is more exhausted than the parents of a baby with colic. I suppose it's refreshing to realise that even people who are paid a lot of money largely haven't a clue what they're doing. One can at least see oneself as economical in this context.

A film I don't want to see remade is Topper but apparently Steve Martin has designs on it. I don't like Steve Martin being himself in films. It was okay for Father of the Bride but once is already more than enough. I think a blanket ban on remaking any Cary Grant film is probably in order just to be on the safe side.

The fifties TV spin-off of the 1937 film, also called Topper, was superb too. It had Leo G Carroll in it and a St Bernard dog called Neil. It was shown here in Australia in the late sixties. I adored it. Hoorah for gluggle as for years I tried to tell people about this show with a married couple and a dog who were ghosts in the house of a stuffy old man. Admittedly, I hadn't remembered the title and I'd thought the dog was a beagle. This might have been a source of confusion. Now I can buy the movie and the series and watch them in bed. Winter is a-coming.

Hoorah for DVDs and gluggle too. Life is good.