Saturday, December 31, 2011

Do you believe in magic?

Susan Langford MBE, photo by Stephen Davies

All year I've been planning to post about my friend Susan Langford but one's beloved Guardian beat me to it! The bleedin' front of them. Adds new meaning to the term chutzpah. But, since it is the season of goodwill to all - even newspaper people - and the reason for this cheeky usurping of my right to unparalleled tardiness is both honourable and valid, I will retire in gracious magnanimity. It's a very good piece and I urge you to read it.

The Guardian has named Magic Me, the charity Susan founded in London over twenty years ago, as one of eight charities benefiting from the annual Guardian and Observer charity appeal. This is far more than even the recently employed Pants could have brought to the table and, although it pains to admit, the Guardian's readership is marginally more than can be boasted here at That's So Pants.

I met Susan about ten years ago when I was working in Tower Hamlets. Magic Me was very effectively conjuring community harmony by bringing together (mostly) white elderly people and (mostly) Asian young people to discuss and document their shared history. Inter-generational mixing goes remarkably well if you don't angst too much about it and if you can bring the type of skill and wisdom Susan has in abundance to it. She got a well-deserved MBE last year for her Ginger-Rogerslike ability to waltz backwards in dancing pumps across the seemingly fatally rent fabric of civil society and make it all look too easy.

One of my favourite things that Magic Me does is to host cocktail parties in care homes. Susan discovered that elderly residents were being sent to bed straight after tea for no better reason than to relieve the staff of the responsibility of attending to them. So, she got together a group of adult volunteers who now go into care homes in the evening armed with a variety of drinks to suit diverse tastes, medical and cultural restrictions and with a remit to engage in lively conversation. If I knew that my charitable dollars were being directed towards providing Sex on the Beach to old people, I'd give more. Note to self - start similar charity here in Larrikin's End or move back to London before senility sets in.

Susan talks about the diminishing opportunities for the young and old to mix as people increasingly retreat to within narrowing cultural boundaries. That feels very true, especially in Anglophone cultures. You're much more likely to see large, extended families dining together in restaurants in Continental Europe than you are in Britain or here in Australia. But, I wonder if the great gulf of understanding that supposedly exists between the youngest and oldest of us might be a construct created by the in-betweens who haven't the patience to deal with either. The so-called 'generation gap' seems to me to be a very middle-aged, middle-class concept and it actually doesn't make much sense when you take into account the eagerness of the young to soak up knowledge and the capacity of the old to dispense it. This would seem a transaction opportunity made in heaven, except perhaps to those with a will to contain information exchanges within their own spheres of influence.

Ma Pants (82) and I recently went to a party next door to hers. The lady is Jewish but her husband is not. It was the first day of Hanukkah and we were fed blinis with smoked salmon and capers and also sausage rolls filled with pork mince. Their grandson, aged eleven, served us drinks and then sat down and engaged Ma Pants in a long and intense conversation about the walkie-talkie set he hoped to get for Christmas and the relative merits of the final four contestants in So You Think You Can Dance, an American TV programme to which Ma Pants has been inexplicably drawn. I could only watch it up to the point where the judges started shrieking, a spectacle which I am neither young nor old enough to tolerate.

One programme I did manage to watch for at least a bit is the BBC's When Teenage Meets Old Age, recently played here on our ABC. It's a classic social experiment scenario pitting opposing prejudicial views against each other, presumably with a view to creating a train-wreck no-score draw. Something a little less alarming but a whole lot more interesting happened. Society's economic-outcast bookends bonded in unexpected ways. There was mercifully little hysteria involved and a few ah-ha moments where it became apparent that both ends sensed that they'd been played off against each other by the mysterious middle. Who knew that a little peace, love and understanding could be so easy? That certainly isn't the mainstream view.

Is what Susan does magic or just well-executed common sense? My guess is exactly the right quantities of both. It is magical to have the ability to create the kind of project idea that will appeal to a diverse range of ages and ethnicities and also prove genuinely engaging and uplifting. The Moving Lives Project brought young and old women together to examine the life of Emily Wilding Davies, the suffragette who died in 1913 when she fell under the King's horse at the Derby. History? Politics? Feminism? Dissent? Aren't these all aspects of British society that the mysterious middle would have us believe are of no interest whatever to the young? Nice one Susan.

My last post was about Pecan Summer, the opera written by Aboriginal soprano Deborah Cheetham, who then went on to recruit and train a cast of Aboriginal people to perform in it. I've frittered away many an hour trying to imagine the conversations amongst various funding mullahs when the grant applications for that one arrived. I can't work out which is more remarkable, that the opera materialised or that its very being seems so audacious. When we all now supposedly have the freedom to pursue any avenue that piques our interest, how is it that we're so easily herded into age/gender/ethnic stereotypes when it comes to choosing which path to take?

I, for one, have been freshly inspired. 2012 will be the year of living defiantly. Thanks Susan.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Summery Justice

Photo by Pants

Of all the things that baffle me about the birth-mother country, the culture wars top the long list. Having been away for the entire protracted business, I find myself left raking over the fragments of what appears to be a truce arrived at through a combination of exhaustion and intractability. No one ever wants to talk about it either, except via an occasional, oblique passing reference. You can't even find anything sensible to read about this pivotal moment in Australian history as its all been buried under the most impenetrable slurry of code and jargon imaginable.

I know it was bad because Aboriginal culture and rest-of-us culture are now very inharmoniously divorced. What seemed like a perfectly sensible idea to start with - that white Australia cease exploiting, suppressing and disrespecting black Australia - somehow morphed into a small room with two very large elephants in it refusing to look at each other. I am being flippant here. I do know that the laws governing access to Aboriginal arts and ceremonies are complex and that it was probably easier to just not go there. But twenty years down the line, we are all paying for that stand-off with, effectively, two entirely separate artistic Australias.

Chinese Australian artist/designer Jenny Kee claims in her autobiography, A Big Life, that Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins told her in the 90s she couldn't paint snakes because snakes are a sacred totem. Presuming that really happened, it's an interesting indicator of how crazily polarised the situation became. That kind of response was, in many ways, entirely appropriate for a people whose culture and identity had been so completely trashed. But the perfectly reasonable act of reasserting ownership over the misappropriated signifiers of culture and identity seems to have effectively assigned Aboriginality to a no-go sealed vault.

In 2008, our then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, publicly apologised to Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations. In doing so, he opened the door to meaningful dialogue on the contested points of our shared history and the opportunity for a little reconciliation and healing. Except, no one went through it. Four years later, Aboriginal people are still amongst the poorest, most marginalised people on earth and the two cultural elephants are still studiously ignoring each other in their claustrophobic little room. Non-Aboriginal Australia remains self-consciously reserved about making any reference at all to Aboriginal Australia artistically save for the occasional supercilious and self-serving admission of guilt. And Aboriginal arts have generally been corralled into a few ghettos of approved authenticity. When someone does crack the mould, like visual artist Tracey Moffatt or film-maker Warwick Thornton, they are ignored at home even when they are feted abroad.

Which is why Deborah Cheetham's Aboriginal opera Pecan Summer is so remarkable. That's right, an opera. Written by an Aboriginal soprano and starring a cast of Aboriginal men, women and children whom Cheetham scouted and trained herself. Talk about leaping the cultural chasm in a single bound. Reggae is blackfella music. Country is blackfella music. Hip hop is blackfella music. But opera is as whitefella as it gets. And not only that. It's manifestly uncool. Opera is the territory of black-tie wearing, embassy-ball attending, Krug-guzzling toffs. Or is it?

I find myself sitting in a packed Melbourne Playhouse on the final night of Pecan Summer's sell-out three-night season, in the presence of our toff-supreme, the Governor of the State of Victoria, like that was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. For this alone, Cheetham deserves every honour going and a great big grant so that this opera can tour the country for ever and become as firmly etched onto the national psyche as Waltzing Matilda. Bear with me. I'll get over myself in a second. Barney, bring me a chardonnay - I'm poised to review.

Pecan Summer tells the true story of the Cummeragunja walk-off. In 1939, 200 Aboriginal residents left this mission because of intolerable treatment, crossed the Dhungala (Murray River) and journeyed over the border into Victoria, where some set up home along the riverbank. Others walked on to Melbourne in search of work and to meet up with other Yorta Yorta countrymen and women, notably the Aboriginal rights activist William Cooper. Cheetham also interweaves into the main event the dominant national narrative of our times, the story of the Stolen Generations. On the one hand, an extremely tall order. On the other, perfect subject matter for opera.

It begins with a short dance prelude depicting the creation of Dhungala at the beginning of time. This is very simply achieved with dancer Surmsah Bin Saad rolling across the stage in a long piece of cloth which unravels to reveal the river. It serves to remind us that this is the oldest continuous culture in the world and that what we are seeing represents around 70,000 years of storytelling.

We are then transported to the banks of the Yarra River behind Melbourne's Federation Square in July, 2006. Aboriginal community worker Alice (Shauntaii Batske) is mistaken for a derelict by a group of drunken white youths. One taunts her with the question, 'what have you ever done with your life?' She replies that she gave birth to a daughter without much help from anyone. Her colleague Michael (Carlos Enrique Barcenas Ramirez) overhears this exchange. He didn't know Alice had a daughter. It transpires that her daughter had been taken shortly after her birth in 1964, as Alice herself had been ripped from the arms of her own mother at age eleven. Both are children of the Stolen Generations.

Flashback to 1939 and the Cummeragunja Mission in rural New South Wales, where young Alice (Jessica Hitchcock), brother Jimmy (Eddie Bryant), father James (Don Bemrose) and mother Ella (Deborah Cheetham) live. They are a happy, healthy and functional family, despite the tyrannical cruelty of mission manager McGuiggan (Stephen Grant) and the ever-present danger of police swoops to pick off any children who have strayed too far from safety. Everyone in the community knows that once gone, these children will never be seen again.

Act I establishes the rhythms of both family and community life succinctly and poetically through the gentle, harmonious music of composer Cheetham. Although the recitative is classically operatic, the songs are closer in reference to American musical theatre. Cheetham cites Puccini and Saint-Saëns as influences but I think I also detect a little Gershwin in there. The act culminates in a gathering of the Cummergunja residents at Ella and James's house for a crisis meeting. At this point we meet Uncle Bill (Tiriki Onus) who devours his moment with the scary story of Hairy Beka. The point at which they decide to leave the mission is marked by a glorious ensemble number. The souvenir programme, rather annoyingly, doesn't list the 'songs'. I'm still humming the tune though and the words I do remember - 'we'll leave together, we'll go together'.

During the long interval I take notes rather than go to the bar - a first, let me assure you. I think about the very simple sets, costumes, lighting and wonder why everyone thinks they need to spend millions on mounting any kind of play with music in it these days. I also note that apart from the two young Aboriginal women seated next to me and a few others a few rows down on the left, the audience is made up entirely of old, white folks in claret-coloured cardies.

Some months after the exodus from Cummergunja, Alice and her family are living on the riverbank near the Victorian town of Shepparton. The great depression has hit. The people are hungry. They rediscover 'the old ways' of food gathering, like trapping fish. This keeps them from starvation. There is lovely vocal interaction between these four characters, notably the glorious lullaby sung by Ella to the sleeping Alice. I learn from the programme notes that this is a passed-down song, given to Cheetham by a cousin and also known to other Aboriginal peoples. It is the stand-out tune of the show and I can hum it note for note. Suddenly those protocols don't seem so impenetrable.

Inevitably - this is opera, after all - tragedy strikes. Young Alice is tempted into 'town' aka 'peril' by the lure of the movie house. At this point, the fortunes of our close-knit family diverge. Word reaches the riverbank settlement that the hated McGuiggan has gone. The men prepare to leave for Cummeragunja. Ella discovers that Alice has been taken by the authorities. Alice has, in fact, been 'rescued' by decent, white Christian people and scrubbed and white-gloved to within an inch of her young life. Ella risks the short but dangerous route along the river into town. She meets a bad man and a bad thing happens. He tries to rape her. There's a scuffle and he disappears down a riverbank.

Alice appears in the front pew of a small, country church, seated next to the minister's wife. This is the setting for one of the loveliest choral moments in the opera as the members of the congregation sing their hymn. The most significant reason for this loveliness is the knock-out voice of Rosamund Illing, playing the minister's wife. The scene is sweet and genuine. It is not played for laughs. This is one of Cheetham's great strengths. She has a heart big enough for forgiveness and generosity. In opera, it's essential that there be no pantomime baddies. It's equally essential that there be no flawless goodies.

A dishevelled Ella arrives as the congregation is dispersing and attempts to reclaim her daughter. It's a superb climax with the sopranos going head to head. This is the moment I realise Cheetham is bringing something refreshing to our national story and doing it in the time-honoured operatic tradition. Although Ella's absolute moral right in this situation is completely clear to us, she appears to have just killed a man. Although the minister's wife's claim on the girl is utterly spurious as observed through our hindsight lens, we learn she has rescued Alice from the authorities and intends to give her a decent Christian upbringing where she'll have every advantage. Life is complex, as are people and we would all do well to remember that when we're tying ourselves up in knots trying to work out how this broken thing we call our national psyche can ever be fixed.

I had resisted tears up until this point. The postlude brings us back to Federation Square in 2008. A crowd is listening to the Apology to the Stolen Generations being delivered by Kevin Rudd. In the words of that particular Kevin, I admit I 'blubbed' just hearing it again - in part for the squandered hope that it represents. As the crowd disperses, two female reporters appear. At opposite ends of the stage, they each interview a woman. One of the interviewees we recognise as old Alice from Scene 1. The other seems to be telling the same story, except from a stolen child's point of view. It was 1964... The baby was three weeks old... The two women never meet.

This is as near to perfect as a theatre experience gets for me. It's so humbly staged and yet so beautiful, artful and edifying it makes you wonder how idiotic enterprises like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are even contemplated, much less realised. Not that I've seen it mind but my instinct is to go with the 100% stinker rating from the people who have.

Would I be That's So Pants if I didn't produce one little quibble? I think not. Barney! Top up needed here please. There's one thing I think Pecan Summer is lacking and that's a confrontation between the male voices. Don't get me wrong - I love that this show is all about the women. But I want to hear a complete complement of male and female voices. I think I've spotted the perfect opportunity. Although the show certainly pulls no punches in terms of its statements of grievance, it is missing one very obvious trick. It needs a distinctive voice to carry the political counterpoint.

The aforementioned William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aboriginal League, famously led a delegation of the League to protest at the German Embassy in Melbourne following Kristallnacht in 1938. He delivered a petition condemning the 'cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany'. Cooper continued to protest against the Nazis until his death. He was a Yorta Yorta man who had lived at Cummeragunja. His name is mentioned by the men at the meeting just before the walk-off.

I can't help thinking about the potential of Cooper becoming a character in this opera. I imagine him arriving at the mission to inspire the men instead of just being spoken about in passing. I can almost hear him articulating the arguments for freedoms and rights. Pecan Summer wants for a little more eloquence in that department. I can even conjure the image of him vocally duelling with the nasty mission manager, McGuiggan. Perhaps there's a reason this couldn't happen. Maybe in this sensitive arena the truth just can't be stretched that far, not even by a miracle maker like Deborah Cheetham. But I can dream.

Wherever you are in the world tonight, I hope you get to see this show one day. It's a story that very much wants and needs to be told.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Rising Water - Review

Baby Swims by Pants

There are only about five reasons to stay in this country that taste overlooked and at least three of them have something to do with Tim Winton. Cloudstreet is a monument. Dirt Music is an anthem. And Breath? I call that a reason to keep sucking up copious quantities of oxygen and recklessly expelling Co2 without the slightest consideration for the environmental consequences. So you know I'm already a devotee. Winton is Sondheim without the songs - and you don't even notice that there are no songs.

My recent kulcha long weekend in Melbourne was packed with gourmet mindfood but Rising Water was the Beluga moment. This is Tim Winton's first play. It seems crazy that he hasn't written one before. His gift for dialogue, matched with the largely uncontested space of contemporary Australian playwriting, seems like an open goal. That thought made me quite sad, not least of all for Tim Winton. Now I'm not only gasping for his next book but his next play as well. I'm thinking I'm not the only one and that Helen Garner should take up playwriting.

I saw a London production of Cloudstreet at The Barbican, five or six years ago. It was astonishing. Winton has an exceptional intuition for establishing a commonality of experience in even the most banal and localised of scenarios. Post-war Perth was instantly recognised in post-everything London. We were as easily drawn into the world of the Lambs and Pickles as we might have been to that of the Montagues and Capulets, the Hatfields and McCoys, the Campbells and MacDonalds or the Fowlers and Mitchells. Winton didn't write the script for the dramatisation of his novel but he did make it impossible to misinterpret. Like Dickens, he's a great literary dramatist. Once he puts words into a character's mouth, they're not easily revoked.

There are two happy consolations for the almost total invisibility of the performing arts in this country beyond a dim awareness of staged movement acquired solely through the cipher of So You Think You Can Dance. The most immediate and convenient is that it's never that difficult to acquire good tickets, even within a week or so of the show.

So, with a click of the increasingly abused mouse, Ms O'Dyne and I found ourselves in the front row, slightly right of centre. I like to be close to the stage so that I can see the expressions on the actors' faces. Just on that subject, this is the third time in succession I've found a conveniently spectacular sole pair of premium stalls seats and no others available and had a 'mmm' moment before committing my credit card. And each time I've bought the tickets and ended up with great seats in a full theatre. Either this is a highly sophisticated selective selling system or I'm a very lucky theatregoer indeed.

The second reason has something to do with the first. Film and television actors have to supplement their livelihoods with theatre work in order to keep body and soul from drifting apart. The core cast of Rising Water is a trio of superb Australian actors capable of appreciating Winton's intent. He is a chronicler of an experience which is largely defined by a very narrow vocabulary of cliches. Australians don't like it when they hear them, but, if they disappeared from plays and films and television shows, we would not recognise ourselves. In everything Winton does, he disciplines his ideas into this highly specific vernacular.

I'd like to dwell on this problem for a moment as I wonder whether it may be restricting playwriting in this country and that Winton might be the only writer with the skill and nerve to use this severe constraint to his advantage. Film-makers usually cop out by supplementing the cast with an American or European star and blaming it on investor pressure. But what they're really looking for is an outsider character who'll not only toss in copious question marks (what? you really think that? Blimey/Holy cow/Mon dieu!), but provide some much-needed relief to the relentless register of Strine. Australians are not much given to critical self-reflection either and Winton does use a catalyst in the form of a drunk and disgruntled English backpacker to pop a few challenging social questions, but you know it isn't because he really needs to. There's not much coherence in her skinful bellicosity and norf London ain't much relief from Strine.

Good dramatists trap characters in circumstance and allow their pasts to catch up with them. It is in that moment that a great play takes place. Its business is crisis and how it's dealt with. Will the character overcome his/her predicament or be destroyed by it?

It's Australia Day and Baxter, (John Howard) is asleep on the stern of his tiny, dilapidated yacht moored in Fremantle, Western Australia. He's woken by Col, (Geoff Kelso) returning to his own wreck with a slab of lager and a bottle of rum. It is after all, the day on which Australians 'drink vast amounts of beer and get sunstroke and run screaming through the streets with the flag pouring off their shoulders like a super-hero's rippling cape while they go after wogs and slopes and towel-head reffos.'

Shortly thereafter, the non-drinking Jackie, (Alison Whyte) returns to her boat from what we later learn is a professional trip, changes out of her suit and into sweats and makes herself a cuppa. Already we know that these three Australians at least have an uneasy relationship with their national day. They are three people, parked so close they can step from boat to boat, on the cusp of emptiness, like a bizarre reversal of a boat-people tragedy. Except they can never escape. Whether through lack of time, sea-worthiness, or nerve, these three are tethered to their fates.

Winton says,

We are not sea people by way of being great mariners, but more a coastal people on the edge of things. We live by the sea not simply because it is more pleasant to a lazy nation but because ... the sea is more forthcoming; its miracles and wonders are occasionally more palatable, however inexplicable they may be. There is more bounty, more possibility for us in a vista that moves, rolls, surges, twists, rears up, changes from minute to minute. The innate feeling from the veranda is that if you look out to sea long enough, something will turn up. (Land's End, quoted in programme).

This really is what Australia is all about - unfulfilled promise, unmet longing and incomplete journeys. And these three have failure in their pasts, none more so than Baxter. As a former head teacher in a secondary school, he set up a project for pregnant students and found himself dangerously embroiled in the personal life of one particular girl. For this he paid dearly. Australians despise success and failure in equal measure. If you want to get on with people, your best bet is to avoid both fame and notoriety.

The staging is clever with the boats set out on a reflective surface and mounted on some kind of mechanism so that they bob about when people move. And we, the audience, are in the sea. We are the sea. We represent the unknown, the mysterious, the longing. I rather liked that. We undulate. We have secrets of our own and we are, of course, dangerous.

The three yachts are called Shirley, Goodness and Mercy. (Winton fully exploits the opportunities for sight gags - there's also a fish in the sky and kite in the sea to remind us of where we are). Those who recall their Sunday school lessons will recognise the reference to Psalm 23, much beloved of classical composers and rappers. 'My cup runneth over' becomes a statement of grand irony. Here in this land of plenty, there is crippling emotional want. Australians are not stifled by a prohibition on free expression but rather by an inability to articulate it. Never is this more obvious than on Australia Day when no one can work out what it is they feel, much less put it into words.

***Spoiler Alert***

Psalm 23 is also commonly used in funeral liturgies and Rising Water is about death. It's there in the title, after all. Winton has a bit of a fascination with drowning and hanging too. He uses the Chekhovian device of introducing an instrument of death in the first act. Baxter tries to tie a noose knot and can't but then produces a 'here's one I made earlier' and strings it around his neck. But, in the end, after poor ailing Shirley is scuttled by the drunk backpacker, he strikes out into the open sea in a row boat.

Reviewers seem to have been confused by the intermittent appearance of a young, unnamed boy in a row boat. This is the youthful Baxter. (People really do need to brush up on their Shakespeare.) By choosing drowning over hanging in the end, Baxter absolves himself of any guilt for what he might have done but clearly didn't and also reconnects with his young, hopeful self.

The reviews for this play haven't been universally warm, despite Winton's official 'national treasure' status. It's quite obvious that a lot of people haven't picked up on the multiple layers of meaning. This is a clever play and Winton manages to open several important lines of enquiry about our fragile national identity and the anxieties that so easily threaten it and the narrow frame of cultural reference in which we inexplicably choose to confine ourselves. It certainly gave me plenty to think about. Can't wait for his Anzac Day play.

Rising Water, The Playhouse, Melbourne until 10th September.

Friday, August 26, 2011

No reason for a llama

The Alpacas' Teaparty, Kate Bergin (2011) Photo by Pants. Thanks to
Mossgreen Gallery, South Yarra for allowing the Kodak moment.

I went to Melbourne to buy some art. Nothing strange in that. I work now and, although nepotism is obviously a huge factor in my unexpected accelerated disposable income, (i.e. from next to zero to multiples of thousands in 0.5 seconds), I do a good job and more than earn my keep at Larrikin Shire Council.

I am determined to spend my salary wisely. By wisely, I mean I only intend to invest in quaffable wine, readable books and whatever usable else takes my fancy. I don't want to buy shares. Speculation doesn't interest me. Accumulation is nasty unless it makes the world more tolerable. If I invest at all, I want to invest in wit and intelligence, not greed and stupidity.

My walls, as I may have mentioned, are reasonably well adorned with my own cack-handed efforts but I am keen to inflate the tone by throwing in the occasional masterpiece to augment my signature Whiteley print.

It was with this aim that Ms Ann O'Dyne and I set out for South Yarra and a gallery trawl on a sunny Melbourne Saturday. Our first mistake, you could say, was not to have done our homework. I was under the misapprehension that artists wanting to sell their work and agents able to make the connection between keen sellers and equally keen buyers would be easy enough to find.

Our start was glaringly inauspicious. We were on a tram labouring along Toorak Road and several minutes from our randomly chosen disembarkation point when Ms O'Dyne began to speculate aloud about whether or not I needed to inform the Department of Transport of my imminent alighting by shoving my day ticket into the same slot that clocked my boarding. I, of course, had no idea. I know only Oyster Card and the Pantibago. She turned her attention to the hermetically sealed female seated beside me. Ms O'Dyne needed only to utter the words, 'excuse me', to be sliced in two by the most cut-glass Sloane Ranglish imaginable.

'Are rare lair couldn't sir', spaketh she of the realm and further informed us that she'd been in Melbourne only a week. This, apparently, absolved her of any obligation to be pleasant, not to mention civil. Ms O'Dyne noted that the young ma'am in question was wearing Vivienne Westwood earrings. I really can't comment further.

We got off the tram without blood being spilled or alarms sounding. Remarkably, Melbourne's Montmartre failed to leap out and embrace us. We approached this new problem more strategically. Once bitch-slapped, twice shy and all that. Ms O'Dyne looked for someone not wearing Vivienne Westwood earrings.

A freshly latte'd middle-aged man with laptop and iPhone on alfresco table and contented dog at heel proved more approachable. He obligingly used said iPhone to GPS us to some galleries within roaming distance. And then he suggested we get one of these phones or make a note of goal destinations before setting out next time. Well, I guess, no suave man in late middle age is perfect, even if he does have a near-perfect dog.

More good luck than able management brought us to the door of Mossgreen Gallery, an attractive viewing space with an open-air cafe attached. By chance, (ours not the gallery's - presumably they'd planned it well in advance), an exhibition of paintings by Kate Bergin entitled Wild Things had opened the night before.

Surrealism. Well, I'm a fan. I did rush to Dalí's funeral after all. And I can see why people would want to keep painting in that style, especially if they're master technicians, as Bergin clearly is. And then there's the added attraction of the vast numbers of people who want to own paintings that are as beautiful as these. It's not something one needs to guess at. Of the eleven paintings on show here, priced from $6,000 to $30,ooo, ten were sold within twenty-four hours. But as supply and demand skip blissfully off into the sunset together, I'm left wondering.

Could I have bought one of these pictures had they not already been sold? Absolutely. Would I have? Categorically, no. Here's why. I'm one of those crazy old-fashioned people who wants to be challenged by art and shown a new way of looking at the world. Or, at the very least, enticed by satire clever enough to make the old ways seem new. But what we have here is cut'n'past cliché, albeit meticulously composed and executed. Gorgeous and distracting but, ultimately, shallow.

The very beautiful catalogue produced by Mossgreen tells you all you need to know. It consists of exquisite reproductions of the paintings, accompanied by what can only be described as a collage of words, organised into paragraph-like shapes that obey no rules of explanation that I can recognise. I could have picked any one of the irksome fourteen on offer but here's a random example,

'We fall in love with the creatures and engage with them. It is certainly no co-incidence (sic) that Bergin has won many peoples (sic) choice awards in recent times, as well as receiving critical acclaim from the more hardened art critics.'

I can't help myself, here's a bit more from the unattributed introduction,

'On speaking with the artist on the relevance of each ingredient, be it a spoon or the strings or the telephone, there are hidden messages, but the artist does not make this a requirement to enjoy her work.'

Gobsmacked? Read my swollen lips. Hidden messages? Don't make me laugh. What we have here is a collection of artefacts associated with the golden age of Surrealism transported into a classical still life format with a dollop of Australiana tossed in for good measure. And yes, yawn, I do get that telephones, spectacles, spoons, wild and domestic animals and even string all carry intense symbolic meaning. The key to rendering all that meaning meaningful is intelligent arrangement.

André Breton, the founder of Surrealism said,

'The imaginary is what tends to become real.'

This is exactly what I'm not seeing in these pictures. They are frivilous and fun and decorative, but nothing more than that. It does make me wonder why people who write catalogue blurbs feel that they have to insinuate a mysterious secret knowing onto an object simply because it's an oil painting - as if there were no audience at all in Australian capital cities for vacuous but visually striking and expensive wall candy.

Exhibition at Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra until 15th September.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A riot of my own

Labour leader Ed Mild'n'bland recites the Serenity Prayer

I've been away from London for over three years now and I can honestly say that not a day goes by that I don't think of her and miss her. You could say, I get a funny feeling inside of me, when walking up and down. Last week I watched my dear old London, my dear old Hackney, burning.

A lot of people are asking the question, why?

As it happens, I have the Question Why right here with me, just like Woody Allen had Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. Together, we will attempt to understand why it is that police shooting someone - tragic as that was - led to several intense days of apparently unrelated mayhem across London and, later, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

When police shoot and kill a young, black man in London and then refuse to show even the most basic of courtesies to his grieving family, outrage and protest is a natural and justifiable response. In a free and functional democracy, you'd expect nothing less. And sometimes protests have turned violent because a single shocking event like that reminds everyone of the chronic racial inequality that seemingly has no cure, despite the bucket loads of earnestness that have been heaped onto it over decades.

It's actually a good thing if people respond aggressively to police shooting citizens. Here in Australia, police shoot people so often that if it makes the news at all, it's usually dismissed as the only possible way of dealing with people who are a bit rowdy and/or suffering from a mental illness.

And it's not as if people haven't rioted in England for the sheer fun of it before and wrecked the shit out of the place. And it's not as if mayhem and opportunism have never gone hand in glove before either. Apparently nearly four hundred cases of looting from bombed-out houses had been reported to the police in the first two months of the London Blitz. So much for standing shoulder to shoulder against that nasty Mr Hitler.

And who could forget Jamie Reid's stickers and their harmonious messages - Save Petrol, Burn Cars and Keep Warm This Winter, Make Trouble and This Week Only: This Store Welcomes Shoplifters that defined the whole netherworld anarchy of the punk-influenced early Thatcher era. Those were fun times. I was there in my guise as a never-to-be-successful musician. We were skint and living in squats but we preferred the term counter-culture to underclass. We never smashed shops. We weren't into trainers and TVs were too big to carry and they weren't worth it anyway if all you got to watch on them was To the Manor Born and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

They tell us it's different this time. People are more downtrodden than ever, but it's not the kind of poverty that makes your belly empty and your shoes in need of a newspaper lining. It's more an absence of knowing what one is missing out on and why. Perhaps you could say it's a poverty of consciousness. (Thanks Question Why, that's very useful. Now could you please tell Barney we need drinks and canapes here. There's a good chap).

They say that while clothing, sports and electrical shops, supermarkets and off-licences were targeted in the smash'n'grab fest, booksellers remained eerily unscathed. And there were stories of looters trying on clothes in H&M and then folding them into branded bags - not exactly Hustler-class in criminal execution, one might conclude. And what was all that about fighting 'the Feds'? Were these rioters so disenfranchised that they'd no idea their adversary is actually called 'the Bill'. No wonder they needed to steal televisions.

Labour leader Ed Mild'n'bland, (pictured above), who interrupted painting his ceiling in a tasteful magnolia low sheen to visit ravaged Tottenham where it all kicked off, concluded philosophically,

'In London, in particular, we know that there are huge areas of wealth that co-exist with huge areas of poverty. Those parallel worlds mean that [poorer] people not only don't have a stake in society but feel that actually what matters in society is something that they can't even reach.'

Do they really? And he would know this how? And what exactly is this 'stake in society', the absence of which causes people to suddenly up and ransack shops for a few days when they'd never done so before and then just as suddenly go back to moping about in an orderly fashion?

I have news for Brother Mild'n'bland - all cities have rich and poor people living 'cheek-by-jowl', as politicians like to say. If they didn't, the rich people wouldn't have flower shop girls to buy their morning button-hole carnation from or grease monkeys to service their Aston Martin. All over London there are elegant Georgian crescents and leafy streets of Victorian terraces next to crumbling council estates and other skimpy social housing and everyone rubs along quite nicely most of the time. And then, suddenly, they don't for a few days. WTF?

The Question Why and I are getting nowhere fast, and not for want of chardonnay, I can tell you. We scour our beloved Guardian for days on end. We cruise what little of BBC TV we ex-ex-pats are allowed. We have to admit we miss The Parliament Channel and that does pull us up short.

And then, we finally come across a flicker of plausibility amongst the conflagration of absurd generalities and panic strikes. We think our old friend Dave Hill is onto something in this piece in The Guardian. Dave says,

'The poorer parts of my profoundly unequal city are marked by long-term and deepening unemployment, ruthless, territorial criminal subcultures and a sense that the London of boom and regeneration has passed them [the disaffected] by.'

It's that 'London of boom and regeneration' that gets us thinking. The riot-hit cities - London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester - are all places that have benefited from major structural regeneration and all the social and economic wealth that flows from it.

The Question Why posits that this doesn't explain why Leeds, Newcastle, Bradford and Sheffield stayed indoors, content to watch the TV they already had - but he would, wouldn't he? So I send him off to get more wine.

I think Dave has hit on a nuance that no one else has adequately explored. There has been no shortage of people suggesting that money spent on reviving desolate town centres, building decent social housing, supporting young families in need via Sure Start and refurbishing recreational facilities that had been rotting away for decades has been pointlessly squandered. As someone who spent fifteen years working on some of those programmes, I admit I have seen a bit of corruption and some, shall we say, headcase schemes masquerading as 'innovative solutions'. But no one could seriously dispute that turning around the physical decline of London and other major British cities was a good thing for the well-being of their citizens, not to mention vital for their survival as places.

What Dave says makes perfect sense to me. There are, inevitably, people who miss out on whatever benefits might accrue from the sort of chaotic revitalisation that tends to be the norm in Britain*. And that void might not be material or even social. It might just be that improving the lives of more people in the most disadvantaged circumstances has the unintended consequence of further marginalising those who become a diminishing and more isolated few. Well, I guess we always knew the wealth 'trickle-down' effect was a scam. But what to do?

Dave Hill proposes,

'London must stop planning simply for growth, for efficiency or for aspiration. It must start planning for serenity too.'

I agree. But how can any big city achieve this now when its very survival depends on its ability to compete? London's forebears knew about the serenity factor, which is how it ended up with all its great parks and duck ponds. It's clear to me, at least, that the only way to retaliate is to meditate.

At last, here's the Question Why back with fresh supplies of wine. As I sip, I begin to slowly croon,

Quiet riot
I want a riot
Quiet riot
A riot of my own...

And as we're all getting nicely mellow I recall,

That's So Pants is five today.

* I know we're supposed to reference all commentary on the riots as England-based because trouble only erupted in English cities but, seriously, does anyone think this could not have happened in Glasgow or Belfast or somewhere in South Wales?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is the way The World ends

Boom by Pants

I don't know about you, but I'm for a bang rather than a whimper. And please let us have a big bang, because we do need a makeover in the world-domination department. I refer, of course, to the deliciously possible implosion of the evil Murdochian empire whose insidious world view has soured our breakfast milk these three decades past and quite possibly curdled our sense of common decency for generations to come.

This is the kind of Armageddon one can happily sit down to brunch with. One's beloved Guardian has distinguished itself with uncommon acts of bravery by standing up to the biggest media bully ever and chipping away at the weakest link in its seemingly unending chain of command - for absolutely years. The News of the World was weak in every other respect than that it was owned by News International. From such oddfellows is hubris made. So let's see how far the mightiest can fall. I have popcorn at the ready.

The Guardianistas were right about everything from the grotesque culture of entitlement and deservability that has filtered from the Murdochs down to their chosen and favoured to the absurd deference paid to them by the people who we elect to, you know, serve us rather than some random, self-appointed fief who happens to decide it is he who is the rightful ruler of all Anglophone democracies.

And now it seems, incredibly, that there is such a thing as an ethical 'line in the sand' beyond which a tyrant on quest for total power over what we read and watch in the best Orwellian sense, oughtn't to be allowed across. How good is that? I marvel at the process. At what point does the moral compass stop spinning uncontrollably enough for a cool assessment to be made? When a missing child's phone messages are callously deleted to make room for more desperate pleadings from her parents to call home? When confidential information about a Chancellor of the Exchequer's sick kid is used as a weapon to brow beat him into fessing up an exclusive? When there are so many coppers on the payroll that there aren't any honest ones left to make an arrest?

The pace is so frenetic, I hardly dare write anything for fear some new and even more outrageous revelation will have happened before I've managed to hit 'publish post'. At the time of typing this particular sentence, Murdochs Snr and Jnr and the flame-slash-corkscrew-haired siren who could be the cause of their downfall, (I'm already playing the movie in my head and wondering if Minnie Driver is willing to be made hard enough), have been invited to a 'please explain' session by the British Parliament. It's even possible that the Murdoch stranglehold on the British media may drop stone dead in a single afternoon. The words dragon and slain bob tantalisingly about together.

That it's come to this is amazing in a way that only seems obvious in absurdly elongated retrospect. The most astonishing realisation is that it's not the despicable way in which the Murdoch papers have openly and proudly operated that has occasioned their present predicament, but the fact that they've picked the wrong victims. As Hugh Grant rightly pointed out, no one cared when it was just rich, spoilt celebs whose privacy had been compromised. This is where News International launched into fatal hubris. And this is why the Murdochs should and will go down - because they didn't and don't know where to stop - and none of us can live with that.

For the past thirty years, we've been existing in a world where politicians on three continents have simply accommodated the 'Murdoch factor' into all of their dealings all of the time. Life has functioned well enough, but we've no way of knowing how much more pleasant it would have been without the unquantifiable nastiness of the Murdochian influence on the political and social landscape.

As I write, the British Parliamentary debate on News International's bid for full ownership of BSkyB is beginning and I'm just about to go to sleep. Hopefully, I will wake up in a world that is down by at least one serious arsehole. It would be lovely and twisted and extremely poetic if it were class snobbery that brought Murdoch down in the end; if the posh Tory PM and his cohorts banished the ghastly colonial on the grounds that he is ill-born and shabby and not fit to be invited in for tea no matter how much grubby merchant cash he has. What a perfectly Dickensian ending that would be. And I will dream on it...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An owlycat doesn't change his stripes

Nathan Coley at ACCA, Melbourne until 24th July. Photo by Pants

Just when I think Barney can shock me no more, he pulls off another feat of staggering chutzpah. You may recall my mentioning a couple of weeks ago that there was to be a by-election here in Larrikin Shire, and that Barney had put himself forward. Well, the little bugger got up, itself a minor miracle as he hasn't managed that since September 2009.

What I mean to say is that Barney has been elected to our local council. It has taken some weeks for the official announcement as there was, unsurprising, a good deal of evidence of vote rigging. I don't mean to disparage Barney's achievement, but I should mention that his only opponents were a four-year-old with a criminal record and a three-legged Jack Russell. The Jack Russell put up a valiant fight and it was collar and collar there for a while, but Barney discovered the electoral commissioner's weakness for peppermint vodka cocktails and it was pretty much all over after that.

True to his word, Barney has employed me as his assistant and, as of three weeks ago, breadline budgeting is a thing of the past. He does insist on being called Boss Hogg in company, but other than that, things are pretty much as they always were with us. And just like any other assistant to a shady underworld figure masquerading as a hypoallergenic GM hybrid household pet who has just been elected to a local authority, my job is to pretend that his long absences are easily explained and that the vast sum of money missing from council coffers is off undergoing rigorous checks and balances and will return shortly. Un petit morceau de gâteau.

So now, with my first pay cheque in more than three years in my hand, I'm cashed up but time impoverished. What to do when a couple of $K could have put me on a plane to half the places I haven't been but I'd still have to be back at my desk on Monday morning?

'I know', I thought, 'I'll travel, via the magic of a musical theatre matinée, to Petersburg at the turn of the twentieth century and I shall be wined, refined and back on the train by 6.25pm'. And so it was. And furthermore, I inveigled Ms O'Dyne to accompany me to Dr Zhivago.

This new American musical, set in Russia and spoken in BBC English, has premiered in Melbourne, Australia. That's globalisation for you. My guess is, given the scope and ambition of this show and the calibre of the people involved, that the Melbourne run is a very off-Broadway try-out.

To find out what I thought of it, you'll have to wait a week or so. It's not often these days that I get to see something ahead of six billion others, so I'd like to consider my review quite carefully.

As it happens, I do have a copy of the Boris Pasternak novel on which it's based. I'm going to read it again since I was probably sixteen when I was first swept away by this great astrakhan'n'anarchy saga.

I will say this though - if you live in Melbourne, you've got a few days and there are tickets available. I'll venture to suggest that, if you're reading this, you may well enjoy Dr Zhivago. I don't have too many readers in Brisbane, but ditto to you as the show is going there in a few week's time, again, for a very short run.

If you go by train to Melbourne from Larrikin's End, you have to sleep at the station as not even larks get up that early. However, once you're in your ancient carriage with the reassuring waft of microwaved-in-plastic pastries wending its way into the deep recesses of your undergarments, you simply relax and prepare to enjoy the fascinating sub-culture that is people who can't afford a car, even in Australia.

The matinée starts at 2pm and I'm deposited in central Melbourne at around 10.20am. My first stop is the National Gallery of Victoria. There's a new exhibition called Vienna Art and Design, featuring the work of Klimt, Schiele, Hoffmann and Loos starting on the very day of my arrival. I adore Klimt and will squander a day on him later in the year. There's not enough time now to breathe in Vienna. I stop by the NGV to buy their book on Rosalie Gascoigne, published two years ago. And now it's out of print. Charming.

Undaunted, I move on to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) to see the Nathan Coley exhibition. ACCA is a strange sort of confection in that it's hard on the outside and also hard in the middle. The phenomenon of external hardness is not particularly unusual in an art gallery. I think of the Tate Modern in London for example. Then again, The Tate Modern was conjured from an old power station that wasn't going to be anything but an old power station and the only way of cuddlifying it was to put lots of mellow, curvy things inside, which the Tate people have done remarkably well.

The ACCA was actually purpose-built to look like a wrecked nuclear submarine, which is quite a self-challenge. And some might even say a pointless one, especially given the absence of even the slightest concession to interior mellow, curvy cuddliness. The overwhelming feeling is one of going into and being inside the world's biggest toilet.

I have seen some very good things at ACCA in the past, most notably the Tacita Dean exhibition in 2009 which featured all of her best-known video works. ACCA needs an artist as substantial as Tacita Dean and works as powerful and engaging as her Palast (2004), Kodak (2006), Michael Hamburger (2007) and Merce Cunningham performs Stillness in three movements (2008) to overcome the sheer emotional iciness of the building.

Robert Nelson writes in The Age, Australia provides the ideal canvas for the Scottish artist Nathan Coley to investigate the annihilation of civic space. Well, it was hardly CSI South Bank. I'm afraid a few neons (I am so over neon) and one little razzle-dazzle church (lovely as it is to look at) and even the razzle-dazzle room (pictured above), which was rather joyous to be in all alone, is not nearly enough to dominate the chasm that is the ACCA in any meaningful way.

Ms O'Dyne and I met for lunch at Shoya Japanese Restaurant, just around the corner from Her Majesty's Theatre. If you are ever in Melbourne and you like Japanese food, go to this restaurant. I warn you though, if your knees are as 'crispy' as the tempura of your dreams, the seating is challenging. The total experience is the sweet spot where food both delicious and inexpensive meets atmosphere that is quietly spectacular and service that reminds you that humans can actually do the ask'n'receive thing without too much fuss'n'bother.

My sublime Saturday faded into distant memory when I arrived at my desk on Monday morning to find that Boss Hogg Barney had booked me for a video conference from his Dubai World base. Well, I'm afraid I have to play if I'm ever going to get that trip to Vietnam I've been craving.

So, he gets on the big screen, and he says,

'Community engagement, is that what Moonies do before they marry en masse?'

Friday, June 03, 2011

Uncle Bob (1922 - 2011)

Stars, Kodakotype by Pants

A poem for Uncle Bob

When I close my eyes I picture you flying
And I remember how you loved every kind of sky.

I imagine a spectacular view
And think you must have been tempted from us
By the sweetest of dreams.

Your long love affair with life ends
And life itself will feel the loss.

You went gentle, as was your way
Not into any old good night, but into the bright day
And I remember how you loved every kind of day.

When I close my eyes, I picture you flying
And in your incredible lightness, soaring
As only the truly pure of heart can
And l remember how you loved every kind of heart.

And I will carry you in mine
Until the stars no longer wonder what keeps them apart.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Can we have our balls back please?

Heavy Weather, Kodakotype by Pants

The reason I mostly don't write about Australian politics is that there are only so many ways one can ask, 'what kind of ghastly, unedifying spectacle is this then?' We have become stupid-rich, like Texan-rich. And we've developed the politics to match.

And we don't care about anyone but ourselves. We have such a wealth of natural resources that it hardly matters if we squander most of the money it generates on crackpot schemes. There will, it seems, always be enough for a fourth giant flat-screen TV and a third SUV. Gosh, even I've got one each of those and I'm poorer than a church mouse's charlady. (In my own defence, I would like to plead that the TV was a present).

There's nothing to play for here, except of course, power itself. But here's an interesting rule of thumb for you, the more mineral wealth a country has, the more morally and culturally backward it is. Case in point - Saudi Arabia.

Why are our politicians so thick that they can't oversee the paperwork for a few thousand desperate refugees or settle on a price for taxing carbon emissions? One is tempted to conclude that it's because they can neither write nor count.

Retiring Labor minister Lindsay Tanner cashes in on this supposed mystery in his recent book Sideshow, the dumbing down of democracy. He says it's all the fault of the media for hounding politicians to the point of exhaustion only to ask daft, rhetorical questions. That does seem true, at least in part. It's not uncommon to hear, even on the ABC, our national broadcaster, a bulletin that leads with a 'so and so says whoseamecallit is a nasty, smelly snot' sort of a statement. Australia is, it seems, a microcosm in which all the foolishness of modern politics can be viewed.

We are in the perfect position to take meaningful action on climate change. We have vast resources of every kind and a tiny population - although they all seem to want to cram into one outer-Sydney suburb like elephants into a telephone box. So what's that all about then? And we have the lowest electricity prices of any OECD country. Yet, all I have heard for the last three years is, 'why should we be the first to do something about it?'

Well, yes, let's do ignore the fact that the European Union has had an Emissions Trading Scheme since 2005. It may be a fairly crappy one, but at least a great big swag of countries got together and made an effort. Let's also conveniently forget that China, the world's biggest polluter, has set a target for a 40-45% reduction on carbon-dioxide output per unit of GDP to be achieved by 2020. Maybe it is bogus because, you know, China is like that, but it's at least a token gesture further than we are prepared to go.

People in Australia don't want nuclear power. Fine. I don't want it either. But there's never been a serious chance of us having it because nuclear power is not cost-effective for tiny populations scattered over huge areas, even when they're supplying their own uranium. The only population concentrations we have that could feasibly support a need for nuclear power are in major coastal cities, which is exactly were you don't want a nuclear power plant to be located.

Why are we even still talking about it? Mmm, let me take a wild stab - because it's intellectual tic-tac-toe. It makes us feel good to appear to be considering something deeply important without having to go to the bother of contributing actual cogency and pertinence.

Australians think that the only other option to the non-option of nuclear is wind power and that wind turbines are ugly and kill the birds. Well, yes and yes. But we don't necessarily need to put them smack-bang in the middle of pristine wilderness areas or bird migration routes. And is it too pie-in-the-sky to imagine that someone, someday might come up with a more aesthetically pleasing design for a wind turbine given the right sort of incentive?

We never talk about cogeneration, the process by which the heat created by the generation of electricity is harnessed for district heating. Cogeneration is widely used in northern Europe and also heats over 100,000 buildings in Manhattan, the biggest 'steam' district in the world. It's perfect for high density areas like cities and big towns. It's especially good for places with long, cold winters, like we have right here in Victoria for example - where we also have rather a lot of dirty brown-coal power stations. But instead of using all that by-product hot air to heat our houses, we give it to our politicians to blow back at is with interminable regularity.

We have actually heard of solar power - in fact we're pretty sure we invented that and that our technology in the area is 'world class'. So, how many solar power stations have we got? Er, none. You go to Greece and there are photovoltaic cells on every single house in some parts. Even brain-dead Greece managed to build more than a dozen solar power plants in 2009 before it went broke. The Greeks may not have anything to eat soon but at least they won't die of hypothermia. Here in Australia, we think it's a wonderful idea and will certainly get solar panels on our house if the government sends a man around to do it for us for free.

We leave one of the biggest carbon footprints per capita in the world and enjoy one of the highest standards of living in said world and yet we really are so selfish that we think we should be the only country to be exempted from doing anything about climate change. So, that's basically why I don't write much about Australian politics. It's just too embarrassing to think about most of the time. Happily, I live close enough to sand to just go down to the beach and stick my head in it.

But all of that might be about to change. Our indomitable Barney is on the very cusp of entering the stupid game himself. If you think, as I do, that the bar is already dangerously low, let me tell you that you have not seen anything until you've experienced Barney doing the limbo.

Today there is to be a by-election in Larrikin Shire and Barney has put himself up as a candidate. The ballot was occasioned by the recent tragic death of Councillor Doolittle Furphy Larrikin, the great-great-grandson of Larrikin's End's founding father, Sir Joseph Furphy Larrikin. Cllr Larrikin was found face-down in a barrel of our local delicacy shark'n'neeps, while gallantly attempting to better his own Guinness World Record for the 81st time. Everyone agreed it was the way he would have wanted to go. It is said that 67% of Australians are either overweight or obese. If that is true, Doolittle would most certainly have been in the top one per cent. Barney says he won't even try to fill Cllr Larrikin's shoes. If he wins the election, he'll have them made into jet-skis.

Barney had set his sights on the Republican nomination for the US presidency. He is eligible because, like Bruce Springsteen, he was born in the USA. And he's certainly rich enough to pay off anyone that needs paying off. Then I reminded him of how unpleasant the presidential process can be in America, especially if one is 'differently equal' in the ethnic diversity department. I think it could be argued that whilst Barney most certainly hails from the USA, his claim to being 'born' could be challenged. It could just as easily be said that he was 'crafted'.

If Barney wins his council seat today, I will be taken on as his full-time assistant. Barney says, 'why be in politics if you can't seriously practise nepotism?' Besides, as I know all his darkest secrets, it's better to have me inside the tent.

Well, I'm off now to vote now...

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The People's Toffs

Royal Wedding 1 by Pants (Acrylic on canvas)

As expected, the royal wedding has rehashed all the usual gaping anomalies and circular arguments about the monarchy; its place and function. The royals are a fissure in modern, multicultural Britain, reminding everyone that the endless talk of 'striving for equality' is utterly pointless as long as they remain enthroned.

Here in Australia, we have a slightly different take on the whole confusing business. The British Queen is still head of state of this country - arguably an even more pointless situation in an independent nation. But, as no one has ever been able to come up with a workable alternative, we confine ourselves to exploring the question of whether or not the royals are 'relevant'. Well, of course they're relevant, in the same way that religion is relevant. Their relevance is sustained by their seemingly unassailable ubiquity. And at least we're not struggling to prove their existence. I have personally pressed flesh with more of them than is strictly hygienic so I can vouch for that much. They are a mighty and entrenched construct that no one has the stomach for dismantling, no matter how just-plain-wrong we might find the present situation.

Since I am not daft enough to spend the day chasing my tail in order to discover that it is still there, I'll get straight to the point. ('That would be a first', says Barney, a staunch royalist). My proposal is that the current monarchy be replaced with Pearly Kings and Queens, at least as a transitional mechanism until we figure out why it is that a free and liberal people requires the illusion of servitude to maintain civil society.

Pearlies embody all the fine qualities that are considered positives in a royal family. They work for charity and perform a ceremonial function, but without requiring silos full of readies to keep them in beer and skittles. They get about in black cabs and generally have just the one suit of clothes that they've designed and sewn themselves. There is still the problem of heredity as Pearly titles are handed down through families in more-or-less the same fashion as occurs within the nobility. And it is a strictly London-based monoculture. But there's no reason they can't expand ethnically and geographically, certainly not one that would require an Act of Parliament, anyway.

There are all sorts of practical problems involved in dispensing with the royal family, not the least of which is what to do with all those fine palaces and cathedrals. My solution is that the Pearlies could turn all the regional estates into holiday camps and take turns at caretaking Buck House and the Windsor Gaff. The Tower of London would make an excellent indoor/outdoor adventure centre. Just think of how much fun could be had bungee jumping from those towers and the internal walls are just crying out to be defaced by climbing spurs.

The royal parks could be divided up into allotments dedicated to the growing of austerity-busting, obesity-melting Swiss chard and curly kale. And the jewels - can you imagine the Koh-i-Noor diamond adorning a fine flat cap? What a picture that would be. I would keep the garden parties but I would add a jumble sale and a tombola. A plate of egg sandwiches can only be enhanced by the addition of a bit of a rummage in other people's cast offs and a wager on a bottle of Babycham. The cathedrals would make excellent music halls. Just think of how glorious Jerusalem would sound played on spoons.

Instead of having just the one king and queen, they could take turns. One week it's Crystal Palace's turn and the next it's New Cross and Old Kent Road, and after that, Isle of Dogs. They could get professional cockney Barbara Windsor to draw the lots, sort of keep it in the family. And instead of flying the Royal Standard, they could just hoist up a nice cheery kerchief. And there could be a rash of new Royal Patents - F. Cooke's eel and pie shop, Truman's Brewery and Fags 'n Fings could get lovely 'by appointment to their multifarious majesties' signs put up. It would be a boon to London's economy and a tourist magnet, especially the stewed eels with pie and mash - yum! They'd certainly put dull old cucumber sarnies in the shade.

Problems may arise with rotating Pearly royalty if they were called upon to visit Australia though. They may be mistaken for asylum seekers and dispatched to a remote island for 'processing', which, in this country, means a very long unscheduled holiday in a place that wouldn't be your first choice. No amount of claiming to be 'on state business' would wash there, I can tell you. Customs officers have lost count of the number of times they've heard that one and that other hoary old porkie about being 'at risk of death or persecution'. It's a lucky thing that the Britannia has been decommissioned. I wouldn't advise anyone to try to come here by boat.

So, who's on board with this fabulous compromise? Let's seal it with a song. Just watch the bouncing ball.

My old man said follow the van, and don't shilly-shally on the way, pom, pom, pom...

Monday, April 18, 2011

So Much For That

Patchwork, Kodakotype by Pants

A few weeks ago, I wrote a withering review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom in which I quoted Lionel Shriver's assessment of its instant, gushing and quite undeserved Great-American-Novel status. She says,

"Great American Novel" = "doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man."

I then promised to read some Lionel Shriver and have just ploughed through So Much For That. I'm not convinced that Shriver is in a position to aim rotten tomatoes. No stranger to the doorstop genre herself, Shriver has delivered a whopping 433-page diatribe on the inequities of the American 'health-care' system that falls short of coherent and is often a rather-too-obvious rehash of all the usual clichés about modern American life. It is part-novel,part-op-ed piece and part-extended-blog; and does none of them well.

Handyman Shep Knacker has a dream to escape to something he calls the 'Afterlife'. Some years earlier, he'd sold his handyman business for a million dollars to a lazy-slob employee, a man he'd come close to firing on a number of occasions. The taxman gobbled up a quarter of it and the rest went into 'can't-lose mutual funds'. He set his family up in a rental home and he and wife Glynis made regular forays to off-the-tourist-map locations in search of their Afterlife retreat. But paradise after paradise has been eliminated for falling short of ultimate perfection in some small detail. So they sit in their Westchester rental and Shep stays on as an employee for the firm he used to own, in a limbo between past and future lives.

At the beginning of So Much For That, Shep has decided the Afterlife's time has come. "A 'month-or-two' had now stretched into over eight years." The 'can't-lose' fund into which he'd sunk his nest-egg capital has finally recouped its original value after years in the fiscal doldrums. Without consulting his family, he has bought three tickets to Pemba, one of the Zanzibar Archipelago islands. The third ticket is for son Zach, whose hunkering down in his room in the manner of a Japanese hikikomori, has lately been the cause of concern. Shep is going, whether or not the rest of the family is in. Very democratic. In fact he's even burned his bridge at work, directing a "so long, 'asshole", to the 'callow, loud-mouthed, ignorant twit' who had been paying his salary.

"... I'm afraid I will need your health insurance", Glynis announces coolly after Shep has dropped his Pemba bombshell. Glynis, it seems, has a trumping bombshell of her own. She has been diagnosed with deadly mesothelioma. Moving swiftly on, we cut to the home of Shep's best friend Jackson and his wife Carol who are dealing with an ongoing health situation of their own. Their eldest daughter Flicka (don't ask), has a rare congenital condition called familial disautonomia. Consequently, both Jackson and Carol are trapped in jobs they consider somewhat beneath them by their need for employer-funded health plans. Jackson works with Shep at 'Handy Randy', in a job whose protected generous salary and benefits were negotiated by Shep when he sold the business.

So, that's the set-up, all established in the first couple of chapters. Would you be surprised if I told you that nothing much happens for the next three hundred pages? I know I was, and not in a pleasant way. Along the road, Shep acquires an added burden or two. His self-righteous documentary-making leech of a sister tries unsuccessfully to tap him for money to buy a Manhattan apartment but he ends up subsidising her utility bills, and his ex-clergyman father takes an uninsured fall and lands in a gold-plated recuperation facility on Shep's dwindling dime. But the substantial 'middle' of So Much For That is, I'm sorry to say, wasted on rant that is long on scattergun rage and short on reason. Then suddenly, at page 303, and with no warning, the story wakes up and makes a frantic dash for the finish.

*Spoiler Alert*

I am going to reveal the endgame here because I'm beginning to wonder if there can ever again be such a thing as a Great American Novel, and I'd like to explore that a bit. This is not a new book, (published 2008). However, if you would like to read it and don't want to know how it concludes, stop reading now.

Shep's $731,778.56 savings disappear on medical treatment not covered by health insurance. He gets fired anyway for taking too much 'personal time' so ends up with no coverage. The net result is that Glynis's life is extended, in pain, for approximately three months. Jackson, inexplicably, decides to have expensive penile enhancement surgery. He opens several new credit card accounts for this. Unsurprisingly, it's not covered by his health insurance. Neither are the two unsuccessful restorative surgeries he requires when it goes horribly wrong. He makes a token effort to pay down the credit cards by stealing his employer's customers. The debts mount. The day Shep gets fired, Jackson calmly goes home, lops off his recalcitrant dick with a meat cleaver and shoots himself. Glynis sues the art supply company she believes is responsible for the mesothelioma and, in what must be the most expedient court case in US history, wins a settlement of $1.2m. She lies during the deposition. She knew the products, which incidentally she had stolen from art school, had been recalled but used them anyway. The money goes straight into a Swiss bank account. Shep takes everyone to Pemba - his dying wife, Jackson's grieving widow, sick kid and other kid, his own hikikomori kid and his ailing dad, whom he springs from the care home. The sick ones die off in short order leaving Shep and the widow Carol to live out their days in tropical bliss.

One of my main criticisms of Freedom is that it has no moral core. It contains not one character with sufficient decency or clarity of purpose to credibly explore the central question of any novel - how is one to live? I'm not against flawed and reticent humans, but there needs to be a belief in something other than oneself and one's inalienable right to get one's own way to hold my interest. So Much For That suffers from the same fault. It is ostensibly a book about the ridiculous health-care conundrum in the world's wealthiest country. One can essentially be 'ruined', in a quaint Dickensian sense, by the simple act of getting sick. Sounds like a great premise for a novel because that is just plain wrong. But, inexplicably, the author does not nail that.

Shriver has been resident in the UK for many years and has first-hand experience of a health-care service that is by no means perfect but is the diametric opposite philosophically of the American 'system'. In Britain, health care is free at the point of service. If you're sick, you get treated without having to pay. If you need drugs, the prescription is subsidised so it costs only a few pounds. It is not 'free', but 'prepaid'. Every working Briton pays into a universal fund that pays for people who get sick and need to be helped. If you want private health insurance, you pay for it in addition to National Insurance contributions. In the US, individuals pay into their own fund that only benefits them and their family. If they never get sick, or only get illnesses not covered by their insurance, private enterprise gets richer. Britons have the comfort of knowing that if they don't get sick, their contributions have directly benefited those who weren't so lucky. For reasons that are a total mystery to me, the American obsession with self-reliance appears to completely cancel out the human instinct to care for others when it comes to illness and disadvantage. Perhaps this partly accounts for the moral murkiness of this book.

The way that Shriver has chosen to handle the absurdity of people being financially ruined by illness is baffling to me. Over 433 pages, she could have conducted a comprehensive discourse on the moral conflict inherent in a market-forces-led approach to life and death. Instead, she chooses a clumsy device that trivialises her subject. The arguments are filtered through the prism of Jackson's angry rants directed at a non-critical audience of one or two, and usually triggered by the title of a book he will never write, like,

SOAKED: How We Wet, Weak-kneed Wusses Are Taken to the Cleaners and Why We Probably Deserve It.


How We Gullible Goodie-Goodies Are Brain-washed into Shit-Eating Compliance (or) You Have No Idea How Much You Could Get Away With if You Only Had Balls.

Jackson divides the world into 'mugs and mooches'. The law-abiding citizens are 'mugs' who carry the load for 'mooches'. Injustice is not seen as the absence of universal fairness, but the bum deal of ending up as a giver rather than a taker. Shep and Jackson both perceive altruism as a mug's game. This would have been a much better book if they'd disagreed on that point. But no. Shep achieves the transformation from mug to mooch in the end by simply abandoning the accumulated complexities of his life, leaving his car at the airport and splitting with his ill-gotten legal settlement. He encourages Carol to dodge Jackson's whopping credit-card debts by doing the same. It's arguable that neither Shep nor Jackson were ever good people. Both behave dishonourably towards their employer and think this is justifiable because, by their assessment, he is their moral and intellectual inferior. They are wrong on both counts. Handy Randy not only comes into money perfectly legally through a trust fund, he has grown the business and made it much more profitable. Shriver has shot herself in the foot with her own irony. I sure hope she's covered for that.

I happened to hear an interview with the late American author and social commentator Joe Bageant the other day. He died a couple of weeks ago - of cancer spookily enough. Bageant said that there were whole streets of houses in his hometown of Winchester, Virginia where families were renting houses that had been built by their fathers and grandfathers. They'd had to sell to slum landlords to pay medical bills. The slum landlord then rents the house back to them for a hefty price. Why don't any of the characters in So Much For That get politically active instead of dreaming about living high on the hog on a tropical island and having their pricks lengthened? Bageant wrote a lot about class in America. It was his view that Americans exist in a kind of collective hallucination where they think that because they can buy a new car on credit and a house on a hundred-and-ten per cent mortgage, they're middle class. They're not dirt poor because at least they have clean clothes, but they don't actually own anything except debt. They work in call centres, which Bageant describes as 'plantations', in mind-numbing jobs that they can't leave because they need the health insurance. Bageant calls this a form a of 'indentured slavery'. So where is Norma Rae when you need her?

I wonder if it's even possible for an American to write a Great American Novel now. Lionel Shriver couldn't find the objectivity or courage necessary to confront a clear breach of the social contract, not to mention the Hippocratic Oath. So much for 'never do harm'. Not only does Shriver fail to adequately tackle the central issue of the corrupt relationship between health-care professionals and health insurers which involves each pathologically exploiting the other and directly causing misery to patients, she opens several other lines of inquiry which she then drops after a few cursory remarks. She brushes over the insidious demand on patients with terminal illness to 'battle' their illness and remain relentlessly positive. She never convincingly challenges the ethics of routinely extending the life of terminal patients by a few months at costs into the millions of dollars. It isn't enough just to toss a few snippy comments into a character's mouth, not on a subject as vexed as the one she's bitten off. It needed a good chew.

It seems to me America needs a Great American Novel more than ever but is there anyone left with the critical chops to write it and will the country be able to take it? Shep's American dream is to escape the country altogether, forever. Perhaps that's all that's left. Maybe Americans have the health-care system they deserve. I suppose it's always possible that this is Shriver's point. If so, it's a bemusingly round-about way of making it.

Speaking of escaping, the late David Foster Wallace's uncompleted novel, The Pale King, has been lovingly assembled from drafts and notes by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch and is just out in Australia. Alerted to this some weeks ago, I tested my local library's borrower-choice service to the limit by suggesting they purchase Infinite Jest. Never in a million years did I imagine I'd get away with that. But today there it was, all fresh and new. All one-thousand-pages-and-change of it. There's a budget surplus to be exploited there, I can tell you. I'll be straight back tomorrow to order The Pale King. Larrikin's End Municipal Library will almost certainly have the oddest fiction collection of any regional Australian town by the time I'm finished. Another pretentious doorstop written by a man? I'm about to find out.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Dumb's the word

Fiddling while Rome burns, Kodakotype by Pants

In the last week or so, three speakers on radio and television have informed me that they were 'in agreeance' with something or other. Two were professional presenters and one was the spokesperson for a big organisation. Let us be completely clear, 'agreeance' is no more a word than 'annoyment' is a word (although it should be - the more words we have to express the state of being pissed-off we have at our disposal the better, in my view). So, what is going on when people who talk for a living are unfamiliar with the most common of expressions?

I know I'm not the only person to observe that the linguistic skills of the general population are deteriorating. I think it's true in all Anglophone countries. You're probably as tired of reading about it as I am of complaining about it. On the face of it you could say, so what? If you can roughly decipher meaning from a jumble of malapropisms, non sequiturs and neologisms, job done innit? Can we move on to cracking the global energy crisis now, please.

I don't think so. When people can't express themselves and be understood by others, they get frustrated. Frustration with being misunderstood can quickly turn to anger. Believe me, I know all about this, because I am very often on the receiving end of other people's failures to comprehend what I'm trying to get across to them. And it certainly does make me angry. And anger doesn't get anyone very far in a discussion. You need focus and good comprehension skills for that. And let me ask you this - if your boss claimed to be 'in agreeance' with your views, would you not think you were deserving of a better job? Perhaps your boss's job?

The first casualty of speech laxity is that no one you ever have to deal with feels obliged to listen carefully to what you are telling them. Neither do they expect perspicuity from the fullness of a sentence. That would be far too simple. Instead, they scan your conversation for 'key words' and put them together in whatever order best suits their own purpose. So, instead of both of you walking away from the encounter with a clear understanding of each other's opinions and wishes, the meeting turns into the opening salvo of a long email war about the substance of the 'agreeance'.

Politicians and others who are in the position of having to make public statements where the consequences may rebound on them in unpleasant and unforeseen ways, have learned that vague equals non-binding. It's much easier to slip out of a poorly formed fragment of a statement than it is to retract an unequivocal commitment. So now they routinely use the tactic with that express purpose, even if they do genuinely hold convictions and actually can speak with clarity. In the days when poor language skills were not tolerated in the public domain, this course would not have been available to them.

I find the disintegration of the language to be both progressive and cumulative. I have long believed that my own precision with the language is being compromised by the constant bombardment of bad grammar and incorrect spelling. I blame twenty-five years of riding around on the top deck of London buses and subliminally absorbing greasy-spoon menuese - lassunya anyone? I now have to check regularly the spelling of words I do know but not with the confidence I once took for granted. I can no longer count on the reinforcement of that knowledge coming automatically to me via reading.

I have recent experience of attending an institute of further education. I would describe its general written language standard as sub-literate. And the worst thing about that? The teachers wallowed in their own ignorance. They thought themselves far too arty and alternative to bother with such trifles as proper English. I'm just old fashioned enough to think that an educational institution has a duty of care to maintain a basic standard of literacy, much like a cake shop is obliged to stock cakes.

There is a particular example that will always fill me with contempt for their arrogance. I know I've mentioned this one before, but it seems to me a particularly pertinent case in point. At the very beginning of my art course, I received a handout entitled 'Complimentary Colours'. I immediately and diplomatically pointed out to the teacher that 'complimentary' was incorrectly spelt. It should be complementary. Her response? 'Oh, Spellchecker should have picked that up.' 'Ah, no,' says I, 'two different words: two different meanings.' She looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. Further handouts contained no correction. 'Complimentary' colours remained with us, presumably to give themselves away for free and tell us now nice we look today.

Perhaps you can determine whether or not incorrectly applied homophones require revision using your own self-styled value system. You could base your decision on how similar to the actual word you want to use the one you have used looks and whether or not you think it's that important to bother in the first place. Perhaps you can write a wrong, or indeed right a song and tell which witch is which with a blindfold on. But isn't that all a bit too hard, not to mention not especially egalitarian? Wouldn't it be easier and fairer to stick with the one simple rule and one indisputable source of verification - the dictionary - that have served us well for centuries?

One of the great misconceptions of our time is that simplification and casualisation of the language is a gesture of inclusivity. Wrong. It has not only made it possible for people with power to manipulate meaning with liberal use of obfuscation, it has robbed the people without power of the tools to effectively challenge false and absurd claims. Any politician or belligerent capitalist can flannel past a question from the current gormless breed of journalist by stringing together a few positive sounding 'key words' and trailing off with a defiant 'yeah.' Most of the time, they can get away with avoiding verbs altogether. Verbs are, after all 'doing' words. Wouldn't want to raise public expectation with any of those now, would we? And, they can freely misconstrue any counterargument put to them without fear of being called out on it.

Recently, I heard on the radio a candidate for an approaching state government election talking about what appeared to be quite a serious problem at railway stations. She said,

'Station staff have been stripped, which impacts on safety.'

I'll bet it does. Do you want idiots like this legislating on your behalf?

Roughly half the people I know learned English as an additional language. Rarely do they make mistakes in either written or spoken English. And if they do, they not only appreciate being corrected, they don't make that mistake again. It seems to me that learning English as a 'subject' rather than as a laborious task undertaken to reach the minimum requirements necessary to enable you to buy stuff, gives people an appreciation of the beauty and versatility inherent in its complexity.

It may seem pedantic to quibble about sloppy use of prepositions. But I am going to go there for two reasons. It is not difficult to learn the correct way and the correct way contains a logic that we must not lose from our language. The particular example I have in mind is one of the most regularly heard mistakes. It is far more common now to hear 'different to' or 'different than' in the vernacular. The correct assignation in this series is,

the same as
similar to
different from

Prepositions used to complement an adjective or adverb are supposed to relate in a logical way. They should 'agree'. 'From' signifies travelling away. 'To' denotes travelling towards. Why would I want to use 'different to'? It's an internal contradiction. And as for 'different than', why can't I use 'different with' or 'different for' or 'different against? As with the homophone example, who decides which variant is meaningful? Some thick art teacher in an Australian country town? Isn't it easier for us all to learn the right way to start with? It seems a nonsense to me to muddle through with having to guess what people are on about when we all have the elements necessary for complete clarity at our disposal. Plasticine comes in a huge range of vibrant colours. If you mix them together indiscriminately, you get a dull grey. It's the same with language.

I refuse to accept that this is a Luddite view. I am not opposed to the language growing and changing organically. I just don't want to wake up one morning to discover my mother tongue has turned into Jabberwocky. The addition of a new word should not result in the redundancy of twenty others. I'm also not theoretically opposed to some rationalisation, provided there is no attendant loss of dexterity. Here's an example of the mess you can end up with if you simply chuck a familiar colloquialism at a sentence without considering its individual meaning. I recently read in a British daily newspaper that the Australian zookeeper Steve Irwin had,

'died at the hands of a stingray.'

Stingrays have hands now? Interesting. What did it do - strangle him? Mow him down with an AK47? Feed him arsenic from a silver chalice? Admittedly, this crudity was in The Daily Mail but let us not forget that this nonsense was written by a person with the job title 'Journalist' and, very likely, a tertiary qualification.

A year or two ago, I wrote with some glee about Tesco customers who harangued the UK supermarket giant to the point where it capitulated to public pressure and rephrased its 'Ten items or less' checkout sign. I frankly don't care if the word 'fewer' disappears from the English language because individuals choose to stop using it. This will almost certainly happen because no one likes it enough to protect it. It's arguable that separate determiners are not really necessary to distinguish quantities that can be expressed as integers from those that can't. I guess I can get used to the thought of having 'less' apples today than I had yesterday. It might not sound so wrong in a few year's time.

Tesco, however, is positively Pulitzer compared to our supermarket here in Larrikin's End where checkout signage informs the customer that,

'Our checkouts are plastic bag free when you purchase three items or less.'

I've long since abandoned the expectation that hyphens should appear to lend sense to a sentence, especially in supermarket signage. And don't get me started on the abuse of the apostrophe which seems to have been relegated to the sole function of separating syllables in celebrity names, (Mo'nique, Des'ree). In any case, these are minor misdemeanours compared to the homicidal act that is the nonsense sentence. I did, in fact, purchase exactly three items from the Larrikin's End Lazymart yesterday and the plastic bags did not miraculously vanish as a consequence.

We want to be a little more careful about wandering too close to the thin end of the wedge when it comes to dispensing with our options for describing quantities. It was once a reporting convention to round up casualty figures if the exact number wasn't known and a bulletin was imminent. So, you'd hear reporters in disaster zones say something like, 'more than a hundred people were killed in ...' You understood that that meant 'on the information we have to hand at this very moment, we think it's about a hundred and maybe a few more.' It was an acceptable compromise to sacrifice absolute accuracy given an intractable deadline and the undoubted public interest in this kind of event. Now, you hear reporters using that locution for what would appear to be exact numbers. It's not uncommon to hear something like, 'more than six people were killed in ...' What is 'more than six'? Seven, eight, 4.3 billion? I recently heard a bulletin on our broadcaster of record, ABC Radio National, begin with the words, 'more than 171 people...' And, this morning I read a report on housing 'issues' informing me that 'forty per cent of households are made up of two people or less.' What does less than two people mean?

You'll know the expression, 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance'. I don't think it's an overreaction to apply it to the preservation of language as it's the only tool most of us will ever have with which to challenge oppressors. It is also the only weapon that cannot be taken from us once we have it. There are some not very nice people out there who can and do benefit from our diminishing collective ability to fight bogus assertions with sound logic and verbal integrity. The pen might once have been considered mightier than the sword but the words it has previously wielded so deftly are now well on the way to acquiring the status of a condiment.

It really doesn't have to be this way. Let's solve the problem now, while there are still enough of us alive who can remember how the language is supposed to work. Schools need to get themselves back in the business of handing down the heritage of knowledge instead of doing whatever it is they do now, which I presume is something akin to what happens in a car factory. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me, 'let's not reinvent the wheel', I'd be able to buy a very big block of Parmesan cheese. Yet, reinvention of a perfectly adequate wheel is exactly what is happening to our language. A lexicon that has been honed to a high level of sophistication over many centuries and is beloved by everyone except its native speakers is being rapidly deconstructed by the most brutish amateurs amongst us. Let's not allow this.

Can I get general agreeance on this proposition? If not, I'll have no recourse but to experience extreme annoyment.

PS. It goes without saying that any post I write about grammar and spelling will contain some errors. Naturally, I will check it a dozen times. But, one or two will slip through to remind me that I am far more human than I care to admit.