Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The god of small minds

View from our window by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Four men and a mobile

Kodakotype by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Real Julia - not a Spanish football team, but close

Real Julia by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Char baby, let's call it a day

Hearth break by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Sub-Prime Ministerial Crisis

Neckeneck by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

Neckeneck, a play in three scraggly acts by Pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Mr Mombastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it or borrow it as soon as you can.