Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Lost in time

Olive Oscar (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I'm on holiday which, these days, means that I've swapped the dry sweltering south of Australia for the humid sweltering north of Australia. Although, between my remote home location and the eccentricities of the Australian mass transit network, the ordeal of getting from Larrikin's End to Noosaville is not much less arduous than the journey from the other side of the world.

For a year our thrice daily train service from Eastern Victoria to Melbourne was suspended necessitating a five-hour trek in a 'coach' that would not have been out of place in an episode of Gunsmoke. Apparently, some 'grinding' work needed to be done on the single-purpose track to deal with 'rust'. I was tempted to comment that rust is usually the consequence of under-use but I have learned that even a hint that something in Australia is less than 'world-class' is not likely to be well received.

It seemed like the sort of problem that a maintenance team armed with wire brushes and oil cans should have been able to solve given a fine day and sufficient overtime. Well, that might have been the case in the nineteenth century but not in modern Australia which has its own idiosyncratic time zone. By my reckoning, it's the 1950s except without all the fun things like Bakelite and James Dean. Whenever I enquired on the long, bumpy ride back to Larrikin's End in the wee hours, I was informed in a sagely tone that 'a special piece of equipment has to come from inter-state'. This 'inter-state' place appears to be located somewhere in the Great Andromeda Nebula.

Miraculously, this 'special piece of equipment' did eventually travel the countless megaparsecs to Larrikin's End and our line was restored a month or so ago. This was good news as many Eastern Victorians, including the always suspicious Pants, thought it sounded like a case of terminal decline by studious neglect. All was well in the world except that the newly reinstated service wasn't running on the day I travelled to Melbourne airport. Signal failure, apparently. Yep, that happens to me a lot lately.

Queensland and Victoria are themselves in different time zones, despite sharing a longitudinal span. It's historical and has something to do with cows voting against daylight saving. Despite Noosaville being an hour behind Larrikin's End - it's hard to imagine anything being behind Larrikin's End - my day shifts dramatically forward four hours. I'm up at near daybreak (5.15am) to execute an elderly jog. For years I've persisted with this rather ungainly gait even though it makes me the target of endless derision. 

Australians are highly competitive and imagine that everyone is looking at them all the time. And our lack of diplomatic skill is internationally recognised. I'm not sure what my status is re nationality. I can probably be best described as ex-communicated. When I don my ill-matching and highly unfashionable jog togs, I give no thought to what others might think. The judgement of strangers is as meaningless as a Kardashian to me. On the pathway to fitness, I'm always met with either sourness or mirth. You'd think people would be thrilled that a crusty old bag is taking some initiative rather than presenting as a problem to the health system, which we are constantly being told can't cope with the idea of people living a long time. They probably guffaw at people in wheelchairs. You don't see them all that often. Who knows, maybe they're not allowed out in case they make the place look untidy. 

After suffering the unsolicited disapproval of fellow travellers for several years, I discovered that my jogging 'style' is not dissimilar to that of a famous Australian athlete. Cliff Young won the inaugural Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon at the age of 61 with his comical shuffle thereafter known as the 'Cliffy'. When I jog, I do the 'Cliffy'. It's a legitimate form of pedestrian travel. There is really no justification for the pointing and gawping.

And I don't get up at 5.15am just to avoid the madding crowd of fitness fashion fanatics. It's partly because it's too hot to go later and I also need to get in a few hours of physical activity before Ma Pants stirs. Even at 84 and with chronic asthma, she feels she ought to be able to do what she could thirty years ago. Competitive. So, after an hour of 'Cliffying' and attracting unwanted footpath attention, I take my boogie board down to the beach for a couple of hours of annoying the surfers with my elderly attempts at catching waves. I live to be a thorn in the side of whatever narcissistic rump presents itself.

In between long cups of tea and interminable present-wrapping marathons, I have also been trying to fit in a family history project. Ma Pants can only do things in snatches these days and finding the right moment can be tricky. I've always been pretty good at multitasking so I'm always half-doing something else. I feel a bit bad sometimes as she can find the speed at which I get things done a bit intimidating. (The competitiveness thing definitely has its drawbacks). But honestly, I have my own sanity to think of and I would go mad if I wasn't doing something in those frequent voids. Jogging and surfing are the only things I'm elderly at. Everything else I do at the speed of light, frequently to the detriment of quality.

With all this time-zone confusion, I've forgotten what day it is. Oh, no I haven't. It's Christmas! Now 6.45am. No 'Cliffy' this morning - exercise is banned on Christmas Day and I can live with that. Ma Pants doesn't know that I still woke at 5.15 to write this post. I am on my second cup of English Breakfast tea and herself has just put the kettle on. Niece Pants is still out to it in her room. She had a sleep-over last night. Now 17 she is a gorgeous girl, devoted to her Nana and indulgent with her ancient aunt. In a couple of hours we'll drive her back home as this year we're having Christmas at theirs. Hopefully, Sis Pants's crab pot will have caught lunch. 

Ah, I can hear Niece Pants rattling around in the room next door. Better go. 

Happy holidays. Pants will be back in 2014.

Monday, November 11, 2013

There's silent and then there's dumb

Into the mouth of hell (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

It's the end of Armistice Day and I've just observed 72 hours of silence. 

It's not that I'm especially passionate about honouring the long-ago fallen with a gesture of near meaninglessness - the plain truth is that I'm on my tod. Seat of Pants is empty apart from unpatriotic little ole me. The Question Why and Barney each received personal invitations from M. Hollande of France to attend a commemoration of La Bataille de la Somme. Neither of them have kept up their high-school French as I have and they got it into their heads that they were being challenged to demonstrate their considerable skills at wine selection and pouring - a sort of Battle of the Bands but for sommeliers. I waved them off happily. I can pour my own wine if I have to.

I may be po-faced when it comes to metaphysical sabre-rattling, but I do love it when people don't speak. Could they not extend the minute's silence to 24 hours and make it compulsory? I could maybe locate some patriotism for an idea like that. A wish too far I fear, but at least our war veterans' organisation the RSL is making a valiant effort to ensure that our annual sixty seconds free of some stranger squawking inanities in our unwilling ears remains sacrosanct. Last year, it introduced the 'Minute to Remember' app to prompt us not to forget what we are supposed to remember for reasons that are no longer entirely clear to us. Let's revisit the linked piece from The Australian newspaper.
The Minute to Remember app will send out an SMS reminder just before 11am on Sunday to remind subscribers to observe the traditional minute's silence.
The app has been created for Defencecare, an RSL NSW charity that helps current and ex-service personnel and their families with a range of issues.
Defencecare CEO Robyn Collins says the number of war veterans is diminishing but the importance of Remembrance Day and the minute's silence "continues to be a truly essential cultural element of being Australian".
"This digital solution is an exciting way to stay relevant, respectful and help the Defencecare community," she said.
Defencecare CEO Robyn Collins says the number of war veterans is diminishing but the importance of Remembrance Day and the minute's silence "continues to be a truly essential cultural element of being Australian".
"This digital solution is an exciting way to stay relevant, respectful and help the Defencecare community," she said.
Well, okay, so we learn it's 'traditional' but we're not told why. Playing devil's advocate here, I'm thinking that if we're new to this whole 'minute-to-remember' thing, then we will struggle to explain to our companions why our lips are suddenly frozen between the dim and the sum during our Sunday brunch in Chinatown.

'The app has been created for Defencecare, an RSL NSW charity that helps current and ex-service personnel and their families with a range of issues.'

'Defencecare CEO Robyn Collins says the number of war veterans is diminishing but the importance of Remembrance Day and the minute's silence "continues to be a truly essential cultural element of being Australian".'

Well, how's about that for a comforting clarification? 'A truly essential cultural element of being Australian' - you mean like a mandated love of grilled sawdust wrapped in pigs' gut and a hatred of anyone who looks and sounds a bit foreign? And that helping with 'a range of issues' thing - doesn't that sound deeply worthwhile? I'd definitely consider shutting my gob for at least sixty seconds for that. If only we could get shutting the fuck up to catch on culturally.

"This digital solution is an exciting way to stay relevant, respectful and help the Defencecare community," she [the aforementioned CEO] said.'

This reminds me of how my own late and loved father - a WW2 veteran - grew sideburns and wore paisley and used the words 'groovy' and 'gas' inappropriately in the 1960s. It was proof - if any were needed - that generational differentiation by culture is a very healthy thing. A robust generation stays in its lane. It defers to neither its predecessors nor its progeny.

In my time, Alan Seymour's anti-war play, The One Day of the Year was taught in schools. Now it's rejected by young people as un-Australian. Our fathers fought in the Second World War and our brothers were conscripted, (or refused to be), for the American war in Vietnam. But ours is the sandwich generation. These days Ma Pants is comfortably retired on a War Widow pension and gets quite misty when flags fly at half mast. The children of peers troop off to Gallipoli, barely conscious of the fact that they are in Turkey, quite possibly the most fascinating country on the planet. They weep for the (literally) unknown soldier of a hundred years ago but show little compassion for the victims of wars taking place right now.

I lived abroad for the entire reign of former Prime Minister Paul Keating. I'm beginning to feel like I might have missed an important moment in Australian history. Maybe it was like the Whitlam years when, for an instant, one could sense the possibility of a unifying idea that wasn't about sausages and sport. So long ago, so far away. Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, ex-king Keating, now ancient but unbowed, had this to say in a speech delivered at the Australian War Memorial,

'I am greatly heartened that so many young Australians find a sense of identity and purpose from the Anzac legend and from those Australian men and women who have fought in wars over the last hundred years. But the true commemoration of their lives, service and sacrifice is to understand that the essence of their motivation was their belief in all we had created here and our responsibility in continuing to improve it.

Homage to these people has to be homage to them and about them and not to some idealised or jingoistic reduction of what their lives really meant.'

Ouch. Let's hope he didn't see the DefenceCare app for this year. Expectations have been lowered,

'This Remembrance Day we ask Australians everywhere to turn off their phones and take a minute to remember all those who have died, suffered or risked their lives protecting Australia's freedom.'

Now we can show our respect for the fallen by switching our phones to 'silent' for the designated minute. Yes, we can even outsource the 'truly essential cultural elements of being Australian', in sixty-second increments, to our electronic devices. God I'm proud to be an Aussie!

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall flight-mode them...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Generous to a fault

Sellout (2012) by Pants

I've just been introduced to the North American concept of 'paying it forward'. Thank you very much The New York Times.

You really do have a quaint take on being human, USofA. For example, you still can't bring yourselves to believe in universal public health care even after the house your parents built and had completely paid off by 1959 has been hocked to cover their medical bills and rented back to them by a slum landlord who thinks that extortion is best business practice. And then there's the way you deal with the mass slaughter of little children carried out by crazy people with guns by rushing out and buying more and bigger guns yourselves. You really do think that shooting the crazy person or bundling him, (and it's nearly always a him), into a death-row cell for a generation balances the scales of justice. How brilliantly Babylonian. Wake me up when you arrive at the Middle Ages.

Oh, wait, you have! This crude reimagining of the concept of human kindness bears closer examination. I'm going to need some help unpacking this. Happily, The Question Why has just arrived with a large chardonnay. Now that we're all sitting uncomfortably in our clapped-out, twenty-year-old Chevy Luminas, blissfully inhaling exhaust fumes in the long line at our local McDonald's drive-thru and dreaming about being jumped by the dudes from Pimp My Ride, we shall begin. For this is where the grand communitarian love-in starts, apparently. 'Paying it forward' involves stumping up for the bun-in-a-box of the chump in the car behind you. Seems innocent enough on the face of it.

We're informed by The New York Times that the expression has its origins in a 1999 novel called Pay It Forward penned by Catherine Hyde Ryan, although this Wikipedia entry dates the phrase back to the 1916 novel, In the Garden of Delight, by Lily Hardy Hammond and this quote,

'You don't pay love back; you pay it forward.'

The gift of love certainly comes in an odd package these days. We think we would prefer long-stemmed roses. Just to clarify, The Question Why and I are actually sitting at home in luxurious Larrikin's End rather than enjoying a carbon-monoxide entrée and the quivering expectation of a conversation with an intercom device before being presented with a main course of botulism in a theoretically recyclable cardboard box. We are hoping that if we drink enough chardonnay quickly we will be able to project ourselves into our own Chevy Lumina, and drift away on dreams of Mad Mike yo-duding us into a hook-up with a car-wreck-slash-IMAX cross. We're already anticipating our enhanced contribution to road safety.

Chardonnay makes it difficult to focus on faux logic but we will try. Acts of altruism are common in most cultures because there does seem to be a tangible community benefit to both the giver and the receiver. Kindness is considered a virtue in many religions. Love or hate them, ancient religions got value out of their quid pro quo. 'Paying it forward' involves an interesting departure from the usual conventions. You would normally make a gesture of kindness towards a stranger if you could see that person was in need. It's a response mechanism that we higher-order mammals have evolved. We call it empathy. Granted, it could be argued that anyone who is waiting in line for a factory meal could be described as needy in some sense but what if they're a drug baron or a spouse beater or a bulimic that your generosity will just enable? How do you feel about paying for their food? 

Why 'pay it forward' as opposed to, say, joining Rotary or volunteering at a soup kitchen? Why not make a regular contribution to a cause you know is wanted and appreciated rather than do something token and random that may not be? Perhaps the apparent pointlessness is precisely the point. Maybe it's a function of the triumph of your particularly aggressive strain of capitalism which basically dictates that there should be no social benefit whatever to our actions lest we tumble down the slippery slope into the dreaded socialism and the heresy of 'from each according to his/her means to each according to his/her needs'. Civic capital is poison in the corporate world because you can't make any money from it. 

Somewhere buried deep in this confusion is the faint whiff of an instinct,

This is taking place at a time when the nation’s legislators can’t speak a civil word unless reading from Dr. Seuss. “We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” said Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, which is based in Atlanta. “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.”(from the New York Times article).

The Question Why and I admit to bitter disappointment at discovering that the provocatively monikered Chick-fil-A is not an outlet for wickedly indulgent porn food but a bread-line for chicken sandwiches. This may be a class thing since we do have our own in-house gourmet chef (Barney - a plate of your finest Eggs Vladivostok if you please!). However, we feel confident that even we could stuff a baguette in a culinary emergency. It's an interesting observation from the 'director of hospitality', (main function - meat and greet? Or perhaps meet and bleat). And, while we're at it, are there no academics left to interview on social phenomena?

So, please do remind us of exactly why Mr Smith went to Washington. Was it to order a corned beef on rye with a side of coleslaw? Is it really possible to counter corruption, idiocy and the stranglehold of vested interests with a gratis Happy Meal? If you're that unhappy with the state of your union why are you organising small change instead of, well, you know, organising?  Is this really the only option for any kind of control available to the working class in America? And all the benefit goes to fast-food conglomerates. In fact, the concept can't exist without the sad purveyors of muck masquerading as food as its conduit. Why does this all sound so familiar?

The writer of the NYT piece Kate Murphy informs us,

'The anonymity of the drive-through makes it especially easy to pay it forward because it dispenses with any awkwardness and suspicion about motives. The payer pulls away before the next car pulls up and discovers a gift that is impossible to refuse.'

Let's reflect on the idea of a gift that's 'impossible to refuse'. Sounds a bit Dickensian to us, a throwback to the gratuitous courtliness of starched collars and babies starving so that an appropriate silver rattle may be purchased for His Lordship's Christening. Does it occur to you when you 'pay it forward' that you're imposing an obligation on a complete stranger? Does the expression 'kicking the can down the road' ring any bells?

Say you are that stranger, lumbering along on your minimum wage and counting out coins for an economeal after your exhausting call-centre shift. How do you feel about being conscripted in this way? There have been 'pay-it-forward' chains of over two hundred cars reported. How does this happen unless maybe the intercom operator chances to mention it? And why wouldn't he/she? Monitoring people's reactions to something like that has to be the most fun you can have besides squeezing zits - and you don't necessarily want to be doing that in a public place. 

Say you live in a small town and the voice on the intercom belongs to your child's best friend. Say the customers behind you have a people carrier and their bill is likely to be more than your weekly rent payment. Say you don't want to be known as the person who broke the daisy chain of goodwill. Sounds unpleasantly coercive to us. We think we hear a distant silver rattle tinkling away in the subtext.

Years ago when we lived in London, we used to dread stopping at traffic lights because someone would invariably slop filthy water on the car we'd just had professionally 'valeted' and then refuse to smear it off again unless we chucked some coins into a bucket 'for charity'. It wasn't so bad when volunteers from actual charities were doing it. Usually they gave you a nanosecond to object. The real trouble started when opportunists twigged that they could simply pretend to be from charities; all they needed was a wet bucket for suds and a dry bucket for your cash. If you didn't pay up they might rip off your windscreen wiper. Our point is that if you're in your car and it's unavoidably stationary, you can get to feeling quite vulnerable if someone has worked out a way to exploit that.

And now for the really sad part,

“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.”(from the same NYT article)

Now even we're getting confused. Far be it from us to blame the chardonnay but we think it may be a factor at this stage. People do not want to be 'recognised' for their kindness? What, is kindness suddenly shameful? Is showing ordinary humanity so gauche that people don't want to be seen doing it? Land of the free, hope of the brave and cradle of modern democracy, what is going on here? What are you thinking, skulking in your cars struggling to work out how to conduct yourselves in civil society? Have you so lost it to capitalism that you can no longer discern on which sides of the karmic ledger good and bad deeds belong?

Memo for your consideration - you can question the motive of the bank that offers you the 110% mortgage but you probably don't need to worry too much about the little old lady who brings a casserole over when your mother dies, (although it's always possible she fancies your dad, I guess). And you should definitely be questioning the motives of your National Security Agency as someone in there has one helluva Stalin complex but you probably don't need to second-guess how your neighbour will perceive you if you suddenly notice that she has broken her leg and you offer to bring her groceries up a couple of flights of stairs. Help out your real neighbour if you want to do good and achieve inner peace and don't be press-ganged into some silly fad that was probably engineered by one of the fast-food chains anyway. You're obviously a wee bit befuddled about who is actually in control in this situation. Please allow us to narrow the options - it isn't you.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Spoken in nightmares

Something Missing (2013) Collage by Pants

Dear international readers,

This post is not for you. Kindly move on - nothing to see here.

I wish to address my fellow Australians directly as I have a special message I would like to impart. The general gist is,

Shut the fuck up.

Please disregard this message if you received a Christmas card from me last year. I don't mean you.

Everyone else, read on. I will begin with some specifically targeted messages.

Dear Labor Party Losers,

Shut the fuck up.

Do not tell us that you realise we are sick of hearing you talking about yourselves and then keep doing it. Don't speak about anything for at least a year. No matter what the topic might be, you will end up making it about you. Don't even take the risk. If you had anything worth saying, I'm sure we would have heard it by now. Take a leaf out of your successor's book. His peers are so petrified that he'll say something stupid enough to start a war that they've banned him from speaking out loud. Take note.

Dear Tony Abbott,

Shut the fuck up.

This is a pre-emptive strike. I realise that you have already achieved Zen-grade expertise in shutting the fuck up. What your party likes to call 'measured', 'considered' and 'disciplined', we understand to mean, 'obedience to the unequivocal command to keep a sock in it at all times on pain of having your lycra set alight while you are still in it.' Whatevs. You know it works. You need never utter a word again. Just keep on nodding. The mute button on my television has expired. You broke it, you fix it.

Dear Julia Gillard,

Shut the fuck up.

I like you, Julia. I voted for you, despite your spinelessness on asylum seeker policy. I even sent you a message of support when you were being ruthlessly bullied. Not very sisterly of you to ignore my heartfelt outreach but never mind. I'm sure you had other offal on your plate. But really - take your pension and go write some books, preferably about something other than yourself. Stay busy for at least two years. And, above all - do not write any more tedious, self-serving drivel for one's beloved Guardian. Send your banal scribblings to The Monthly. That's what it's there for.

Dear Kevin Rudd,

Shut the fuck up.

Have your lips sewn together for good measure. Someone take the man's iPhone and laptop away. We really shouldn't have to hear from you again - ever. And get some therapy - seriously.

Dear Bridie Jabour,

Shut the fuck up.

Don't to be writing to the world on my behalf and telling it not to patronise our country for acting out the cliché that it so clearly is. The best way to stop people calling you a tosser is to stop being a tosser.

In fact, dear Australian media in toto,

Shut the fuck up.

It may interest you to know that my entire life does not revolve around the red-eyed blatherings of sleep-deprived politicians, the football results and the goriest details of yesterday's motoring accidents. Do get an actual life or, failing that, a job down a mine where your talent for stumbling around aimlessly in the dark may serve a purpose.

Dear everyone else not mentioned above who is resident in this country and not on my Christmas list,

Shut the fuck up,

... unless you are prepared to engage in a conversation about what is really wrong with this country. A hint - try to imagine this conversation taking place in an environment free of charred meat and involving complete sentences and the absence of yourself, your family, your electronic devices, your car or your dog as subject matter. I am not anti-dog by any means but conversations about our national malaise should not be tackled from the POV of your wouldn't-hurt-a-fly staffy.

So what is wrong with this country? Nothing if you happen to be pale, stale and male but a pain in the burger bun if the only thing you don't want to recycle is dialogue. They say the first step to solving a problem is admitting you've got one. So, here's the problem. We are not who we think we are. We are not 'better' than the actions that define us. These days not even the politicians can assert that with any level of conviction. Any Australian who thinks we aren't en masse racist, sexist, ageist and homophobic needs to revisit the definition of those words.

I think we all know that there is something horribly wrong here. Everyone seems grouchy and depressed but there is nothing obvious to feel bad about. We think, for example, that the cost of living is 'spiralling out of control' when it's actually improving for most people. We worry that people don't love us, even when we're acting like shits with spikes. We know something is missing but we assume that it has to do with shopping or sport or not being highly regarded because those are the things we've been conditioned to deem important. Except humans aren't made that way - not even Australians. We're supposed to care for each other - really care. Our ability to succeed in that, on an individual and daily basis, is integral to the survival of humanity. Pretending to care just doesn't cut it. We can't fool ourselves with that one. That's the conversation we really need to have.

Okay. I'm done. I shall now shut the fuck up myself.

Barney - a fresh chardonnay with a vodkamisu chaser, if you please.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

That's me hanging up on ya

Still on the line (2013) Kodakotype

My heart is shattered. My second-longest relationship of, like, ever has broken up. Worse still, it happened by text message. Welcome to the nineties, I told my gut-wrenched self. 

What is the name of this monster so that you can go punch his lights into the next millennium, you ask. Crazy John, or rather the phone company he founded. And, strictly speaking, it’s not Crazy John who’s broken up with me but his rather less pleasant parent who goes by the impersonal name of M. Vodaphone.

What does it say about me that the second-longest relationship of my life has been with a mobile phone? I don’t even want to think about that now. I’m far too depressed. I’ve had to spend the last several weeks interrogating options so that I can have access to emergency services and call my elderly mother once a week. I know that makes me sound hopelessly ancient, but I actually didn’t want a phone with ambitions, nor one that plays me tiny little movies or tells me it's time to go to the dentist. A friend recently got a smart phone and it used up all her credit downloading items it thought she might like to access. I also didn’t want a phone that’s creepily obsequious and tells other people that I'm in a sex shop or a public toilet in Koo Wee Rup. Spontaneity is not something I really want to outsource.

I don’t wish to seem insensitive. I never knew John Ilhan, the eponymous Crazy John. He came, saw, conquered and carked while I was abroad. I didn’t know, for example, that he’d amassed a fortune of $300 million by the age of 40 and that he was already one of Australia’s most generous philanthropists when he died a couple of years later. I didn’t even know that Crazy John was Turkish. I’ve always had a soft spot for Turkish men. In fact, when I stumbled dazed and bewildered into the Crazy John shop in Swanston Street, Melbourne in August 2008, I had no idea that I’d come out with the $79 phone that l would still have five years later and a pre-paid service that would never, ever cause me grief. 

About six weeks ago I'd got the text message warning that my service would end on 31st August. I knew that all of the Crazy John’s stores had closed but I hadn’t really been paying much attention. The message I received when I paid my monthly pre-paid recharge fee by Internet inferred that existing customers would be able to continue receiving the service with the same rates and conditions we’d always enjoyed. The message on the website was sufficiently ambiguous as to warrant confirmation. 

I phoned the pre-programmed customer service number. It occurred to me it might be a hoax. Only days earlier I’d got an email supposedly from NBN Co informing me that my 'service' had been suspended and that I would have to give up my credit card details to get it back on again. I’m guessing the 419ers hadn’t heard that Australia's promised National Broadband Network is not due to amble down the info superhighway that terminates in Larrikin’s End until well into the next millennium. That gives me an eternity to muse on the possibility that I might one day be the grateful recipient of this fabulous ‘fibre to the premise’ that politicians keep talking about. What premise might that be? That there’s a computer somewhere in the vicinity? 

Sadly, it was no hoax. The days when telecommunications never appeared on my list of things to be peeved about felt annoyingly close to being over. I was on a pre-paid, no-contract deal. I just paid up once a month and never thought about it ever again. Believe me, the irony isn’t lost. Never heard of the commitment-phobe who just stays because nothing goes wrong?

The customer service agent on the end of my soon-to-be severed service - let’s call him Mike because I don’t want to get him into any trouble - couldn’t have been more helpful. When he learned that I’d been a customer for five years, he was positively jubilant,

‘Oh’, he said, ‘I’ve never spoken to someone who’s been with us for this long before.’ 

From that moment on, it was like Mike was the long-lost child of Crazy John and this equally crazy woman who changed her phone less often than she changed her underwear. We bonded like, well, Bonds separates. Mike noted that I topped up my phone on a monthly basis with $19 boosts and that I was always ‘hundreds of dollars in credit’. This is as rare as a politician who can construct a cogent sentence, apparently. We need to remember that phone-credit dollars bear absolutely no resemblance to real dollars. They’re like Monopoly dollars except that you can’t buy land with them, only air. Air is difficult to quantify and you only notice it when it runs out.

I know we’re all supposed to be enslaved by our contract culture, but I had found a communications solution that worked very well for me. I’m a generational anomaly. I have no landline, only a mobile phone and a dongle for the laptop. I don’t talk much – well not on the phone anyway – and I want to be able to take my life and work anywhere at any time and at a moment’s notice. There is no advantage to running on empty when it comes to mobile phones. The Crazy John’s pre-paid rolled over any residual credit each month provided the recharge fee of $19 was paid on time. I made sure it was.

Meanwhile, my bonded friend Mike in a call centre far, far away, attempted to help me consider my future options. As customer service calls are on the company’s virtual dollar, I felt no need to rush him. I was already making his day by not complaining. Dum-de-dumming on hold, I already knew that my $19-a-month tariff was history. Mike came back with some helpful instructions about transferring my service to the grouchy parent and then he offered a lovely gesture. He would extend my current credit until 1stSeptember. I responded with appropriate gratitude. I like to think that my next-to-near-relative Mike, so close had we become in this era of all-too-fleeting relationships, took home at least a dinner anecdote from our encounter. And I got to use up all of my squirrelled phone credit calling people who haven't heard from me for ages and are probably still quite baffled. 

Nothing lasts forever. Not a $79 phone, nor a $19 tariff. I get that, but no one likes to be dumped. I admit that I may have taken Crazy John for granted and he may not even deserve it, but I will miss him.

Back to reality. I gave up trying to navigate my options on line and braced myself for an 'in-store' encounter. I chose a large electrical chain and cleverly hit on Monday afternoon after lunch. Mike had warned me that there would be a lot of people transferring their services in the final week and that I shouldn't leave it until the last minute. What I wasn't expecting was to be spending ninety nauseous minutes with a very fat man - let's call him Big Mike - with a very short temper. Big Mike spent most of our time together alternately yelling down the phone at my lovely Crazy John's Mikes in call-centre-far-far-away-land and picking his unfeasibly large nose. I had actually pre-chosen my preferred company and tariff, so I didn't expect complications. I still wanted pre-paid so it's not like I would have to live with a bad choice for more than a month. Old habits.

Drama ignited over the things I wanted to keep. What kind of a world do we live in when someone like me is suddenly a high-water mark for the notion of stability? Now that is scary. Maintaining my phone number was the priority. That operation turned out to be only slightly more difficult than solving Rubik's cube whilst fighting a tiger underwater. With a lot of nose picking and yelling, that karmic milestone was achieved. I really don't think I have it in me to memorise another 10-digit number. 

But I also wanted to keep my phone because it still worked perfectly well. That proved more challenging because the phone was locked. In my best 'old lady' voice, I coaxed a number so long that it must have been previously used to launch a satellite into deep space out of a lovely call-centre-in-far-far-away-land Mike. This number, I was led to believe, would release my phone from bondage. Big Mike, now in serious 'bad cop' mode, was unable to secure its freedom by tapping the number into my phone. He then launched rockets at any number of call-centre Mikes who, fearing for their lives, passed him on to other unsuspecting colleagues in rapid succession. I saw rage that I would like to forget seriously soon, ditto nose-picking. 

Calm was restored when I said I'd buy a new phone. It was either that or die there, in the shop, right then. I calculated that it wasn't worth dying for a phone that had already more than exceeded its life expectancy. My new one is a 'smart' phone but it hasn't tried to outwit me yet. It's not downloading behind my back and it has made fast friends with me by offering to play the radio for me when I'm out shuffling along The Esplanade. Now that is smart. It could be a keeper.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Messing about in boats (with real people in them)

Journey (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

I don't want to write this post, but I have to. I must register my horror, (yet again), at the despicable way we Australians are treating asylum seekers

The reason for my reticence is that everything that can be said about our diabolically creative ways of shunning people in distress has already been said and everything I think about it, I've already written. Where there's clamouring, there tends to be little clarity, and I don't want to contribute any more to that. What is required here is a rational, practical analysis as opposed to foot-stamping and wishing the perceived problem out of existence.

There is no such thing as a 'discussion' on the subject of boat people in Australia. We ordinary folk fall into two camps - those of us who remember our evolutionary biology and accept that people will do anything to survive and prosper and that it is our duty to help them,

'Today, to him gazing south with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything. the unknown the only real fact of life.' 

... and those of us who just don't like strangers,

'Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World.'

And then there are the politicians,

'Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticise in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go.'  

It so happens that Ma Pants re-gifted, beautifully wrapped, my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows last Christmas. I read it again and was reminded of how remarkably unevolved we are as a species. It's true that we Australians are a classless society, but only in the sense that we have no class.

We've not advanced our views of how we accommodate desperate people fleeing persecution in the last seventy or so years since the first Jewish refugees from Nazi-infested Europe arrived. The formula has been crude but effective. We beat them with sticks until they wow us with their interesting food and then we pretend we've loved them all along. That's our world-leading multiculturalism, that is. We live in a bubble of delusion that we are the most liberal, compassionate and tolerant people on earth.

The question of how we respond to asylum seekers is not a conscious argument we have in Australia. It's a game of enforced tic-tac-toe played by politicians with we, the people, falling into teams of noughts and crosses at their whim. Our everything-old-is-new-again Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd is a champion at deal-striking, hand-shaking and campaigning. We all know that the deal he's made with our poor neighbour, Papua New Guinea to take all the asylum seekers off our hands is an election tactic. Everyone accepts it as political expediency. We appear to have a prime minister whose ruthlessness is serving our own mean-spiritedness rather conveniently. There's a word for inflicting cruelty on people for political purposes. That word is torture. 

'I'm such a clever Toad.'

Of all the commentary on this latest proposal to send boat people permanently to PNG, one cut through. I heard someone on the radio say that if the government was proposing to send live cattle off to a developing country where there were no proper accommodations nor guarantees of their safe and humane treatment, there would be uproar. There was once another society who treated a group of people as if they were worth less than livestock. We might want to reflect a moment on what happened there. This is not the 'oursourcing of humanity' as some are saying but the complete suspension of it. The worst kind of coward is one who is even afraid to help the weak and suffering. We, as a nation, are that kind of coward.

The human cost of our policy idiocy over the last fifteen or so years since former Prime Minister John Howard took a combative stance on asylum seekers is incalculable but the financial cost of our disasters should be easy enough to tot up. In the last couple of days, asylum seekers detained on Nauru have burned down a facility valued at around $60 million. Desperate people do desperate things. It isn't the first time and it won't be the last. Why would we not expect people to protest over ill-treatment?

Not only are we wasting vast amounts of money in order to appear to be saving a little of both money and face, we are now proposing to inflict social pressure on a country that has plenty of problems of its own. It's not a stretch to imagine that a new ethnic group of people who are unhappy with where they've been sent and are unable to find suitable work will demonstrate that unhappiness and cause resentment in the host population.There will be conflict which we will tut-tut about from a safe distance.

Ruined lives are costly, both financially and socially. How much more simple and compassionate would it be to provide displaced people with homes that they can pay off with the money from wages they are allowed to earn in a country with plenty of space and capacity for economic growth? For some reason, most Australians regard such a notion as an impossibility. Our generosity of spirit it seems extends no further than to sponsor an African child's education for $15 a month. It's simple, it's clean and you get lovely drawings in the post.

Australians just don't get this but we are one of the few countries in the world that can afford to model what the corporate world loves to call 'best practice'. We should take a vanguard position and trial solutions for everything from solving the energy, food and water crises to resettling as many of the dispossessed as need our help. We should be grateful for the opportunity it set the standard and invent the methodology for making the world a safer and fairer place. Having a useful purpose in the world would make us better people and just might take our minds off obsessively guarding what we think we've got. From where I'm sitting today, it doesn't look like much.

'It's a goodly life that you lead, friends; no doubt the best in the world, if only you are strong enough to lead it!'

All quotes from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Whaling in Larrikin's End

Falling short (2013) by Pants

It's been a perfect day here in Larrikin's End. This morning we woke to the news that, despite our collective idiotic incompetence, a 12-metre/35 tonne (40-foot/ same, I think) Southern Right Whale had managed to navigate its way out of our sphere of negligence. I think this does prove conclusively that whales are smarter than we are.

The story began on Friday at about 11am, Australian EST. A very large whale was spotted by the eagle-eyed captain of one of our charter boats. The lethargic leviathan was languishing on a channel sandbar. That something the size of a double-decker bus could get through an ocean entrance not much wider than itself without being noticed shows, I think, an extreme laxity on our part vis-à-vis border protection. Has no one else considered that the belly of a whale might be a useful a place to stash a couple of hundred asylum-seekers?

I took the picture above yesterday afternoon from Larrikin's Bluff. The Larrikin's End fire-fighting boat, (right), was dispatched to ensure that the poor suffering creature, (circled), did not dehydrate by regularly dousing it with water. You will notice that the earnestness of the effort was not entirely matched by the accuracy of the deployment. Oh well, I'm sure the whale intuited the good intent.

Of course, it is always possible that the Southern Right Whales are engaged in a plot to destabilise the nation. Just as our wily wag of a whale was chased out of our channel, a compatriot was upending a surfer on Bondi Beach.

As our whale swam back out through Larrikin's Two Heads just before 8am this morning it waved goodbye, apparently. I didn't see it. That's the kind of lazy reporting at which I excel. I ambled out to the eastern one of the two heads just after nine to find the circus had moved on. Still, it was worth getting out and about. The market was in full swing. The servings of our local speciality shark'n'neeps were generous and the whole town seemed to be smiling. Not that we did anything. It seems that, for once, our habit of helplessly standing by and taking bets on the outcome of a potential disaster was the perfect strategy. Whale blubber'n'neeps just doesn't have the same culinary allure.

Bon voyage Moby.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Disestablishment of Paradise *Review*

As a child, I learned that the longest word in English was


I now believe that I have a use for this word. I have in my possession a book about antidisestablishmentarianism - not in the strict sense, you understand, but it is about the act of opposing a disestablishment. 

 (Gollancz, London. Sci-Fi.
 also and Amazon)

Sadly, I learn today that antidisestablishmentarianism is not the longest word in my dictionary of choice, That honour goes to,


It may be some time before I find a use for that.

This is one of my reviews that isn't really a review. The reason is that this novel's author, Phillip Mann, is not only a friend but my writing buddy. We have been exchanging work for about five years - an arrangement which I'm sure benefits me far more than it does Phil. He has written about the long journey to get this book published on his blog and there are fine reviews here and here. These should provide you with the necessary incentive to buy and read The Disestablishment of Paradise. That and the fact that I really love it and you know how fussy I am.

Buy now and read no further unless you want to follow one of my all-too-typical tangents to a gooey end.

I first met Phil and his beautiful life-partner Nonnita in India. I'm one of those solo travellers who tends to get adopted by couples who are, both individually and collectively, fabulously gifted and fascinating. It's a mystery to me too but, believe me, I ain't complaining. We bonded over dinner at the Grand Hotel in Kochi on the first night of a two-week tour of the southern states. I learned that Phil is a Yorkshireman who had moved to New Zealand. He is a theatre director and a writer with many science fiction books to his credit. He learned that I was an indolent drifter who had decided to return to Australia after nearly three decades of aimless meandering abroad and had written two-and-a-half novels that no one wanted. You get the picture about the tilt in my favour?

Phil and Nonnita came to Larrikin's End for a short stay a few weeks ago. I had it in mind to interview him for the blog and charged up the batteries in the Dictaphone but the time was never right for a semi-formal Q&A. We had great conversations about the book and I asked loads of questions over a couple of bottles of wine and got marvellous answers that I wished I'd had on tape. We agreed to do it by email. 

So, I sent off some questions and Phil sent back thoughtful and patient answers but, and with me there is always a 'but'... I woke up this morning thinking, 'you know, I really want to write about The Disestablishment of Paradise TODAY! And I looked at Phil's blog and he's already got several Q&As on it and I'm thinking, that's how it is in Sci-Fi and every experienced reader is better at doing this than I'm ever going to be, and, damn, all the good questions are already covered! So, instead, I'd like to write about how great it is to have a writing buddy. And perhaps more interestingly, how someone who doesn't generally read Sci-Fi came to play a role in keeping a brilliant writer's spirits up. And that's one of the things a writing buddy does.

Flashback - a farm in rural Victoria, Australia, 2008. Phil and I have swapped email addresses and agreed to exchange our novels-in-progress. I have been set up in a house-sit by my dear friend Ms Ann O'Dyne and am writing poetry, attempting to finish one novel and start another and looking for a house to buy on the internet. The Disestablishment of Paradise was, of course, already completed but its initial rejection by Gollancz had turned its final full-stop into a question mark. Over a couple of months in 2008 I read the finished draft. It gripped me. And then I froze - for purely selfish reasons. I'm thinking, 'if a successful writer gets a book this good rejected then what hope...?' After I got over myself I started to see it as more of a cross-over book. It was Sci-Fi but it was literary fiction too. I'd recently read and loved Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and it seemed to me that The D of P (as I'd come to call it) could be favourably compared with both. It was and is a book about humanity and the trouble we humans have in achieving it.

As I was reading this draft I suspected that I had found the perfect writing buddy. I have, I think, understood my job. The only thing required of me on this project was to champion what I believed, no, knew was good. Phil tells me that I managed this very well. I will admit that I tried to influence the ending - I was already running the film in my head. But then Avatar happened. If you're still reading this post then you know you have to read the book now. I think that my not being a Sci-Fi aficionado helped. A writing buddy must read as a writer rather than a consumer. That way you don't risk dismissing the work when it appears to fail some arbitrary product test - and in this case, that arbitrariness turned out to be instrumental. I never stopped believing in this book and Phil tells me that meant a lot to him.

The novel-in-progress exchange has been the basis of our buddydom and Phil has been enormously supportive with the novel I can't seem to finish. When I say 'can't seem to finish', I don't mean 'can't seem to get beyond opening a document in Word', I mean I have been writing the last couple of chapters over and over again for years. I just can't settle on what happens in the end. Over the last five years, Phil has dispensed patience and great ideas in equal measure. His recent visit has given me both courage and direction. He gets down and dirty with the text in the best way. I know now that I will finish this book, finally, by Christmas.

Buddydom hasn't only been about the novels. We've swapped shorter pieces. Last year Phil sent me a novella-in-progress. It was in a rawish state and I was thrilled to be entrusted with it and, reader, I came away with dirty hands. Phil tells me that it's now thoroughly cooked and will be published in an anthology soon. But buddydom has also been tested. Phil is a natural collaborator. I'm capable of collaboration and usually willing to try it but not at all 'a natural'. In short - he offered me an opportunity, I couldn't match the challenge and I spat the dummy. Phil forgave the tantrum. That's when you know buddydom is real.

How do you find your ideal writing buddy? You would possibly not start by jumping on the first plane to Kerala. Besides, there are websites and aps now so you can concentrate on catacombs and cocktails on your holiday instead of tiresomely asking each of your fellow-travellers if they happen to have an unpublished novel packed in their rucksack along with their bottled water and malaria tablets. 

I would say that the best way to begin would be to aim to be a great writing buddy yourself. You must be prepared to both dispense and hear tough criticism. I am not someone who pulls punches and I am prepared to be ruthless if I think something isn't working. You need to be able to both give and take criticism in equal measure. To be honest, I'm a good deal better at the former than the latter but I'm learning. Be brave and trusting with your early drafts, just make sure you're able to justify your decision to have your character, who has killed someone he quite likes, go on the lam instead of sensibly phoning the police and calmly explaining that it was an accident.

I'm not an experienced and successful novelist, as Phil is, but I have written very nearly three novels so I have a fair idea of how it's done. A long-distant BA with majors in Eng. Lit. and Journalism and a big appetite for fiction in all shapes and sizes probably helps too. Novelists need to buddy with other novelists. To read 100,000+ of your raw words, probably on a screen, is a task that you can only really ask someone else to do if you're prepared to do it yourself. Swap like for like. If you've only written three chapters, find someone else who's only written three chapters. If you write short stories, buddy with another short-story writer. It should be a mutual mentorship and not a teacher/pupil relationship.

Phil isn't my only writing buddy. I've not one but two great poetry buddies as well. The key to being a good writing buddy is to read everything you're sent, as quickly as you can and get back to your buddy with an honest and sincere appraisal shortly thereafter. It's neither a competition nor a therapy session so you don't need to find something to criticise if you love it unconditionally or offer a conciliatory redeeming feature if you think it's absolute rubbish. We've all heard stories about movie flops that got made because no one had the bollocks to call it as they saw it. You've got to be objective so it's probably better not to be writing buddies with your boss, your tax accountant or the mechanic who services your car. In fact, for me, being buddies by internet has worked very well. There's no chance of having too much red wine and forgetting the incredible insights your conversation yielded - at least most of the time.

It remains now for me to congratulate Phil on this journey's end. It has been a great experience for me to be involved with the project over the last five years. So, Phil, now it's all about me. Tighten the thumbscrews. I've made a promise to be finished by Christmas. This Christmas...

Friday, May 31, 2013

Football-in-mouth disease, a national malaise

Naked Truth (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

It's National Reconciliation Week

What better time for an ugly, bone-headed brawl to demonstrate how much we need action on racism? Last weekend's incident during an Australian Rules football game made news all around the world. A 13-year-old girl shouted the word 'ape' at an Aboriginal player. A child's stupidity sells, unlike the ongoing tragedy of exclusion, disadvantage and exploitation blighting the lives of thousands of Indigenous Australians.

Then Eddie McGuire, (mental age 13), scored a spectacular own goal by suggesting on his radio show that the player targeted for racial vilification, Adam Goodes, might be drafted in to promote the musical King Kong, which is soon to open in Melbourne. McGuire is one of our many limelight hogs who has a monopoly on paid employment and apparently does none of it well.

His howler was all the more horrific as another of his 'positions' is president of the Collingwood Football Club - the very club whose 13-year-old supporter, er, kicked the row off in the first place. McGuire later attempted to claim it as a slip of the tongue and/or a failed attempt at irony. He wasn't too sure which exactly because he was so tired - presumably from trying to hold down half-a-dozen jobs simultaneously. A rewind of the exchange with his co-announcer indicates that neither excuse is plausible. As McGuire persists with his ill-starred point, his colleague sounds more and more nervous in his feeble rebuffs. Intentional racism? He says not but, at the very least, it's wilful ignorance.

Adam Goodes has been calm and gracious in his response, calling for a whole-of-society approach,

"We've just got to help educate society better so it doesn't happen again."

Which begs the question - how does anyone get all the way to 13 without understanding that it's wrong to call a black person 'ape'? Not just because it isn't nice to insult someone's physical appearance, but because we share a bloody and recent history of colonial oppression where conquered indigenous peoples were killed or enslaved by white settlers across the so-called New World in the belief that they were godless and therefore no better than animals. 'Ape' is a barb as potent as 'nigger'.

Further, how does a radio personality who is also president of the football club at the centre of the storm not understand that 'King Kong' and 'ape' are synonymous and that he is the very last person on earth from whom such a transgression would be excusable? And, since McGuire is supposedly so vehemently anti-racist himself, how does he not figure that a comparison with King Kong, the cartoon 'ape' who is stolen from his homeland, put in chains, forced into entertainment slavery and then killed when he rebels would be deeply offensive to an Aboriginal man. Now there's your irony.

The answer isn't complex if you've got a clear head and Indigenous leader Professor Mick Dodson puts it as succinctly as anyone,

"Anybody who understands racism simply doesn't say things like this."

And this really is the pointy end of the point. White Australia doesn't understand what racism is. Tossing a few dot paintings on the tails of Qantas planes and inviting some Aboriginal elders to open your school fete does not tick the full-commitment-to-equality box for once and forever. I'm a repatriated Australian and, as many of you have heard an insufferable number of times, not a particularly happy decamper. I returned after 27 years abroad a week or so before Kevin Rudd made his Sorry speech. I cried. We all cried. And then what? Nothing. It isn't enough to make a qualified token of atonement every fifteen or so years, no matter how tear-jerking. We are the champions of the shamefully hollow gesture.

Luke Pearson in this thoughtful piece suggests that the national effort should be directed towards anti-racism rather than non-racism.

'Anti-racism is not a stop sign. It is a learned skill. It benefits those who understand it by broadening their perspective, and it benefits those negatively impacted by reducing how often the encounter it from people who too often claim they “don’t mean to cause any offence."

I agree. The problem is deeply entrenched and requires more than superficial etiquette upgrades. Training white people not to say the wrong thing is not enough - although clearly beyond the ability of some to grasp. Shouted language is not the issue, it is merely one indicator. There are worse, covert indicators. There is a conspiracy of silence, a spurious sign-language created by white people for white people which operates in areas where Aboriginal people try to fit themselves into white suburbia. I live it. I feel it.

When I first started looking for a house to buy here in Larrikin's End, estate agents tried to direct me away from certain streets. It finally dawned on me that this was because some Aboriginal families lived in those streets. I asked one agent why he would infer that I would not want to live in a street where there were Aboriginal families. His answer really shocked me. He wasn't a racist himself, you understand. He lived in a street where there were Aboriginal families and had 'never had any trouble'. Yet he had presumed for me prejudices based on my apparently refined, middle-aged-lady appearance. I certainly wasn't about to wear his bogus overlay and told him so. The grand irony is that I'd come from Hackney in the East End of London and had lived in a predominantly black neighbourhood for most of my adult life. I was used to being the only white person on the bus. 

This is the problem that needs solving. Indigenous people in Australia face prejudice for simply being. An estate agent defied the evidence of his own experience and tried to influence a decision I might make, based on no indication from me at all that I might be a bigot. The only conclusion that I can draw is that bigotry is assumed to be the default position of, what? someone my age? a single woman looking for a house in which to live alone? any white person? That's what's so scary. Much of the fear and prejudice that exists in this country between the different cultures is a phantom creation. It's also what makes Luke Pearson absolutely right. Doing nothing is not an option. Those of us who are pro-equality and anti-racism must say so wherever and whenever necessary. 

PS: A couple of days ago, I signed an online petition to recognise the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution of this country. There were only 140,605 names before mine. At that rate, the planned referendum to update the preamble to our constitution will be a long time coming. It's obviously worth doing but it isn't the answer to the intellectual and emotional log-jam that prevents this country from healing.