Monday, September 27, 2010

Sealing fan

The seals of Larrikin's End by Pants

Herman Boerhaaven, famed botanist, humanist, founder of clinical teaching and subject of a biography by Dr Samuel Johnson said,

The great seal of truth is simplicity.

For your pleasure, the great seals of truth. What are they doing? Why lolling about of course. I am here to tell you that seals have the secret of life cracked. I always knew that there would be aimless drifting involved.

If you want to know how pointlessly complicated life can be, drop me a line and I will send you my friend Sheila. She has made it her goal in life to render me insane. I don't know why. I have nothing worth stealing and, as far as I can recall, I didn't ever murder any of her children. But Spring arrived with Equinoxical punctuality, heralding the beginning of the visitor season. And Sheila is never far behind that fateful moon.

Fortunately, Sheila is married to the most amiable man who ever lived. Paddy brings me wine in large quantities, quality hand-me-down furniture and near-new gadgetry. All of which I gratefully receive. He drinks. Why wouldn't he? He scours my house for repairs to carry out. He finds plenty, believe me. This gives him an excuse to make multiple trips to the hardware shop where he can hold a long, logical conversation with a soft-voiced man of a certain age who knows about fasteners and shares his passion for joinery and tranquility.

One needs a high level of strategic skill to deal with the frenzy of Sheila stage-managing activity that will occur quite naturally of its own will and volition. Breakfast, in my experience, is much more pleasant if it is not accompanied by the 43rd repetition of her speech on the correct way to prepare compost. I moved here because it is quiet. I forgot to account for the fact that cacophony is almost always mobile.

If you take her out on the water, she shuts up for a few hours. It's bliss. You show her great holy seals and a kind of hush falls all over the world. You can almost feel it putting itself to rights. In addition to making very little movement, seals are almost entirely soundless. I was rather hoping some of this ambiance would last longer than the boat trip. Not a bit of it. When we get home, I run off some of my photos onto a disk for her. Her response? She rounds on her hapless husband with the retort,

'Paddy! Why doesn't our camera take pictures like this?'

Nothing to do with the person holding the thing, of course.

One's adored Guardian today publishes a story on the mysterious reappearance of species thought to be extinct. One of these is the Guadalupe Fur Seal, which was believed to have been hunted to extinction over a hundred years ago. But the seals did what any sensible species would do if faced with a ferocious predator threatening its very tenability. They moved.

As I have also discovered, this doesn't always work. Laying low and minding your own only works up to a point. The great seal of truth may be simplicity, but that seal is easily broken by synthetic complexity. You can be lying about, perfectly contentedly, doing no one any harm, least of all yourself, when someone can randomly come along and chop you up to make things that no one really needs. If that makes sense. Cut me a break. It could be a week before I start making sense again...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Swan Theory

A family affair by Pants

Most people, when they buy a house, have a list of essential and desirable criteria to aid them in the decision-making process. They will want a certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms, recreation rooms and car parking spaces. Adequate shoe accommodation and a home theatre will be on some people's lists. Others will want to know how many walking and/or driving minutes are involved in trips to the shops, medical centre and schools. Almost everyone will want a house with street appeal.

Although I do get a bit thingy about natural light and have been known to thoroughly test hot water systems and water pressure because I use my morning shower as a CPR substitute, there are really only two essential requirements for me in a living space. I must be able to see the water and there must be swans.

That's right. I said there must be swans. Swans are on my essential list. It has not always been this way. When I bought the flat in London where I lived for eleven years, I did so because it was beside a tranquil canal full of great big fish that I could see from my top-floor windows and the flat's east/west aspect maximised light capture. The water pressure wasn't bad either. I knew there were swans on the canal because for the previous twelve years, I'd lived in a council flat nearby. What I didn't realise is that when you see swans all the time, it becomes impossible to survive in the modern world without them.

The swans on my canal in London were Mute Swans. They are the most beautiful. Their ability to luminesce by moonlight gives them the edge. I get where Tchaikovsky was coming from. And Julius Reisinger, choreographer of the first Swan Lake. And Matthew Bourne. I have seen many performances of this scrumptious ballet including one at the Kirov in St Petersburg - although it was called Leningrad when I went there. The last one I saw was Matthew Bourne's, which I adored. Swans are strong and muscular and not a little ill-tempered. The all-male swanery clobbered the characterisation in the most delightful way.

The Mute Swan, despite its almost unfeasibly compact elegance on the water, is a huge and ungainly creature out of it. Like all its less glamorous anatid relatives, it waddles. When you see one lope awkwardly across the water on takeoff or skid drunkenly on landing, you realise with glee that there is a delinquent side to this bird. The sight of one dive-bombing the annoying rowers who'd shatter the Sunday morning peace would have me chuckling for days. I used to wish they'd attack the trainers who followed on their bicycles and tormented their charges, and anyone else within a ten-mile radius, through deafening megaphones in preposterous, home-counties lisps.

In London, the Mute Swans nearest me annually built an enormous nest on the water, anchoring it to some long-redundant towing apparatus. My flat was along an old towpath. My building replaced the derelict Matchbox Toys factory. There was a time when factories lined the whole waterway and horses hauled their produce down the canal to warehouses, or out to The Thames. Now it's a haven for waterbirds and people who like to watch their dogs chase them.

You would never see the Mute Swan cygnets until they were near enough fully grown. They still had their 'ugly duckling' brown feathers. It would always seem to me that the first outing would be by full moonlight on a beautiful summer evening. I would look out the window and there they'd be, a parent leading, the cygnets following in a disciplined line and the other parent bringing up the rear. They were like a maritime Von Trapp family.

The year I first moved into that flat, there were six pairs of Mute Swans hanging around and they'd often glide by my windows as if they were auditioning for Busby Berkeley. I never saw that many again. A single Black Swan sometimes appeared with them. It was only about three-quarters of the size of a Mute Swan. The first time I saw it, I phoned the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I very excitedly told them that I had discovered Australia and disproved Juvenal.

They weren't the least impressed. Exotic birds are not at all uncommon in London. They escape from zoos and private aviaries all the time. Being able to fly is a big advantage if escape is your agenda and the temperate climate provides a fair chance of survival. This Black Swan was tolerated, if not exactly overwhelmed with affection by the group, even though it had no hope of finding a partner. It was a remarkable thing to witness, literally a Black Swan event. The symbolism is a thesis in itself. I have some photos somewhere. One day I'll scan them.

Here in Larrikin's End, the swans build their nests on the shores of Lake Larrikin, trusting souls that they are. The council comes along and erects great fences of orange plastic around them. They know the local youth better than the swans do and they also like to make Lake Larrikin look as unattractive as possible. The Black Swans' faith in humanity extends to promenading their gorgeous cygnets when they're very young.

Will you just look at those gorgeous little fluffies! Pants categorically disproves Hans Christian Andersen. Presumably my doctorate is in the post.

I may have chosen my house on the most flaky criteria that ever existed but a day doesn't go by when I'm not thrilled to be here in this big yellow box which is the ugliest of ducklings in real estate terms. It's beautiful on the inside and, luckily, that's the bit where I actually live.

I may not have swans passing by below now but they pass by above often enough, and there are pelicans as well. If you start me on pelicans, I won't ever stop, so don't even think about it. Every day I take an elderly jog along Lake Larrikin. This morning, while I dodged delusional swooping birds for whom I personify either an egg snatcher or David Attenborough, I took a moment to reflect on swans and how we might think of them as a metaphor for multiculturalism. And then I remembered the South American Black-necked Swan. It's got a black neck and a white body. At that point it all got just a bit too complicated. Perhaps that doctorate should go back in the freezer, for now...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Beggar's Belief Opera

Source : AP

I was just sitting here thinking - I don't feel nearly miserable enough about the dire state of our gross national psyche. What would be top of my wish list for a paradigm-shifting event designed to plunge Australia's dignity into irrecoverable depths of debasement? I know, we could offer the world's tackiest billionaire, plus three hundred favourite white goods-obsessed, triple-choc muffin-scoffing, guru-worshipping parasites, a free holiday.

Unfortunately, 'Sir' Richbastard Brandname wasn't available. Besides, he can have a free holiday in Australia whenever he likes. Apparently, we can't get enough of his loathsome airline and creepy communications systems. But Hosanna! Oprah roars into view to meet our seemingly insatiable appetite for world-class ghastliness. Yes. Australian governments, of whatever hue, have an enviable lineage in dribbling sycophancy when it comes to the legends of louche.

Visions of Dr 'Sir' Lesley Colin Patterson dance about before my eyes as I read the news that Oprah Winfrey, Queen of Crass, Empress of Excess, Duchess of Daggy, has been invited to personally introduce her highly destructive brand of extreme self-actualisation to our culture in the cause of ... well ... no one seems entirely sure what exactly.

But we do know that the hard-nosed professionals at Tourism Australia, who are seasoned in the tough art of negotiating celebrity freebies, drove a titanic bargain with Oprah. It must have been a tense twelve months in which the concept of 'complimentary' was debated to within an inch of its stretch limousineness. Obviously out-manoeuvred, Oprah capitulated with a conciliatory,

You had me at the words 'Sydney Oprah House'.

Possibly a misunderstanding.

But it's all so, gosh, thrilling. And John Travolta, bona fide QANTAS pilot and darkly weird cult follower, is going to fly them all here on his own personal 747. I have to admit, when I close my eyes, I fantasize about dodgy pop rivets, cheapskate flotation devices and corner-cutting developing-world servicing.

In many ways, Australia and Oprah are like very needy sisters, sharing an abused childhood, complicated family history and pathological ambition to be universally admired. Oprah is the better known, so I guess she's the big sister. So it's only fair that the younger sister foots the bill.

The estimated AUS$3.5m we are donating via tax revenue that might have otherwise been spent on services for, say, the desperately disadvantaged Aboriginal communities the billionaire Oprah and hangers-on are keen to gawp at, is insignificant, according to former Tourism Minister, John Brown,

'We spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years without much effect, I must say that honestly.'

And that's an argument for chucking a couple of million dollars at one of the few people in the world who would regard such an amount as conceptually meaningless? Oprah's probably spent more than that on chocolates and Christian Louboutin shoes. The phrase 'good money after bad' springs to mind. Ex-minister Brown continues,

'The publicity that Oprah will bring to Australia around the world is something you couldn't buy.'

Except that we have, apparently.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Real Julias 2, Rabbitohs 1

And don't you ever try that again. Kodakotype by Pants

The Punch & Judy Show that is Australian politics has thrown up a result at last. That happened on Tuesday. The country managed perfectly well without an elected government for a couple of weeks. I don't think the sheep knew the nation was in crisis. Asylum seekers got a brief reprieve while our constitutional viability hung by a thread and no one started any wars or introduced any taxes.

I have been in no real rush to pronounce on the denouement. It is something of an anti-climax after the nail-biting seventeen days, three hours and forty-nine minutes-but-who's-counting in which three unknown country independents played a very long hand of Texas Hold'em with our GDP.

Real Julia (aka Muzgalard, aka Judy) won. Her opponent Rabbitoh (aka Mezdarabbit aka Punch) also won - in his imagination. It seems the Rabbitohs do not think the result is 'fair'. The Australian people clearly wanted 'a change of government', they say. The Rabbitohs got more seats, more actual votes and a higher percentage of the preferential vote, they say.

Well, no, no and no, actually. The Australian Electoral Commission hasn't quite finished counting but the Real Julias (aka Australian Labor Party), are ahead of the Rabbitohs (aka Liberal/National Coalition) on all three measures. Admittedly, there's not a lot in it but it's difficult to see how less can be made to appear more in this instance.

The Rabbitohs would have us believe that, by this flimsy token which also happens to be a giant porkie, the Real Julias have not achieved 'legitimacy' as a government. I could be wrong, but I don't think it quite works that way.

It's a bit like saying the bigger the jar of Marmite, the more authentically Marmite it is. This is plainly erroneous. Even a hospitality sachet of Marmite is still Marmite. Unless of course it's mislabled and is, in fact, marmalade. Although not terribly pleasant if, like me, you love Marmite but are pathologically ambivalent towards marmalade, such an occurrence is extremely rare in politics.

You may not be able to fit a policy Rizla between the fiercely opposed teams vying for control of this great land, but it's still fairly easy to pick the players who've had Marmite for breakfast.

Then there is the question of the collective intent of 'the Australian people'. Now, to take up the Marmite metaphor again. Say I am a single molecule in a jar of Marmite - you wouldn't be the first, believe me. We may all be able to recognise that collectively we comprise Marmite but I very much doubt that we would be able to collectively will ourselves to turn into marmalade, no matter how desperately the politician holding the toast might desire it.

I also suspect that we would find it equally difficult to convince someone spreading their toast with Marmite, that they would prefer to be eating marmalade. It would be an uphill battle with me, I can assure you.

So, I hope that clarifies the situation for my international friends. These things are enormously difficult to understand, aren't they?

I must say, it does seem a very good time to be a 'regional Australian'. Larrikin's End, while possibly not the sort of place most people would consider to be a good investment prospect, is set to prosper from this particular roll of the electoral dice. It's what Vernon God Little would call a new 'power-dime'. If anyone can jiggy a fucken lurk from a shifting power-dime, it's the layabouts of Larrikin's End.

How has this miracle of fortune come about? National government in Australia has basically been a two-hander for all of my longish life and beyond. There have occasionally been other parties. In the time I lived abroad, the peculiar Australian Democrats came and went. For a period they ruled our upper house, the Senate. From July next year, the Greens will wield in the Senate, hopefully with gentle intent.

For reasons I cannot explain, we elect a batch of Senators a year in advance. Perhaps they need to go on preparatory viaduct-building seminars and attend workshops to perfect their theatrical hissing and snarling skills.

Sorry, you wanted to know about the Larrikin's End windfall. Australia's political arsenal always has a couple of time bombs in it. You will usually find them described as 'colourful', meaning you can safely assume they are mad but no one else was willing to stand so they are it.

When the numbers had done with their crunching and the dust finally settled on the world's driest continent, three dudes were left holding the balance of power. Incredibly, only one of them was mad.

The nation's media, whose cultural reference palette runs an impressive gamut from HBO to Hollywood and back on a good day, dubbed them 'the three amigos'. They are three country independents whose natural affiliation would have been with the Rabbitohs except they'd been chucked out or something else generally unpretty had happened.

Real Julia needed only two of the three. Real Julia had the high hand. The payout to 'regional Australia' is one billion of our fine Aussie dollars. Not a lot in today's money. What does a billion get you? An Olympic swimming pool? It's rumoured that Rabbitoh promised a lot more. The game was up when 'due process' revealed that Rabbitoh's offer was made up of betting slips and pawn tickets.

Ever the optimists, we Larrikin's Enders look forward to a chip off that billion coming our way. We probably won't get enough for a new gas cylinder for the community shark'n'neeps fryer but we might get a new awning over McDunny's. That would be handy as the one he's got up now doubles as the respect quilt for road fatalities and I'm not sure that's entirely hygienic.