Monday, September 29, 2008

Facebooking when you're supposed to be working, with particular reference to the application known as Twirl

Did you know that TAIPAN and PINATA are both anagrams of PATINA but that, of the three, Twirl will accept only PATINA as a valid word?

No, neither did I, until a minute ago. I don't know about you, but I've used both 'taipan' and 'pinata' more often in conversation lately than 'patina'.

Now use these three words in a sentence. And I mean just the one sentence.


Yesterday a dear friend who lost her husband in August held a quiet afternoon-tea-shaped gathering at her home, a 'one month's mind' to remember him in a less fraught and more reflective setting than any funeral or wake can be. I'd heard of the 'one year's mind' from friends in Austria, but the idea of a month was new to me. It's a wonderful idea though. Forty or so people fronted up yesterday with assorted drinks, lovely food and carefully chosen flowers to sit about for a few hours, catch up, reminisce.

Four large albums of family photos had been stacked up for people to look through, and much looking through did indeed take place. I looked at all of them, and there were quite a few there that I actually took myself. Among them, and on reflection I can't think why this gave me such a shock, were several images of my darling ma, who died nearly ten years ago.

There was one particularly sweet shot of her holding baby M -- who's now 21 and was very much present yesterday, dancing around getting people drinks and making skilful conversation -- on her knee, a picture that knocked me sideways for complicated reasons I am still trying to untangle. It's something about the unexpected conjunction of two people who are very dear to you, which is complicated enough even without the added long-time factor. Some weird triangulation takes place. But in this case it was more a sort of pentangulation, a party of five: M and me looking at the photo; my mum in life; M-as-baby; and the me of 20 years ago to whom that sight was sufficiently meaningful and moving to frame it in my camera lens and take a photo of it.

It strikes me that this is what novelists do, or rather what novelists are for: to write of interwoven webs of intimacy over time, with an awareness of the long view. And the long view isn't usually part of people's daily lives until some emblem of it appears, with the turn of a page, and shockingly, before our eyes.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

They don't make 'em like that any more

'It's never a tragedy when an old man dies. Forgive him for his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care.'

-- A Prairie Home Companion

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Don't make any sudden moves

Further to yesterday's whining, here are four things I learned today:

1) Almost every movement that any part of the human body can possibly make is somehow connected with at least one of the muscles in the lower back.

2) This is particularly true of getting into the car, putting on one's seat belt, changing gear, braking, accelerating, looking in the rear-vision mirrors, doing the quick over-the-shoulder check in the blind spot, and, most of all, making violent hand gestures at inconsiderate fellow motorists.

3) Feeling your entire lower back suddenly go into full, agonising spasm that makes you arch like a hoop snake while driving in city traffic is a more interesting experience than you wanted to have.

4) Those light silk shirts that you wring out tightly while still wet after you've washed them and then hang straight up on the line because they are supposed to dry all crinkledy will gain an extra dimension of authentic crinklediness if you then forget about them and the hot north wind blows them off the line into the weeds and leaf litter, whence you retrieve them hours later in the dark with a torch in the now-howling gale. An extra dimension of authenticity is added if you pick them up with the hand from which you haven't quite fully removed the olive oil, and then drop them back into the dirt because you forgot until it was too late that bending over to pick things up = bad.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I can haz Valium?*

* well-known muscle relaxant

Ouchy back. Reeaally reeaally ouchy back.

Doc sez iz not seerouis. Pinchd nerv mussell spazzem take too assprin and call me in the morigngng, he sez.

If you lookin for me I am be out in gardn reeding standing up.

*Chex to see if time for more PANNADEEN FORT YAY*

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Women's work

It's been many years now since I began, albeit in fits and starts, to be interested in genealogy, but over the years I have amassed a collection of ancestors going back, in one case, to the late 17th century, including a full set of 16 great-great-grandparents.

There was a breakthrough a couple of years ago when I discovered that New South Wales had put its births, deaths and marriages records online, thereby opening up research into my mother's side of the family. Using that and several other sources, cross-checking and back-tracking and triple-cross-checking, I traced my maternal grandfather's line back to one Sophia Chipp, born in Sydney in 1803.

Hello, I thought. If she was born in Sydney as early as that, when did her parents arrive? Sure enough, there they were: Marine Private Thomas Chipp and convict Jane Langley, arrived on different ships in the First Fleet, married on Norfolk Island in 1791. There is some doubt about Jane's guilt; the witnesses at her trial seem to be largely on her side.

Thomas Chipp had been a baker, and may have been press-ganged like the Irish marine in Thomas Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes, possibly in the first instance as cannon-fodder for the American War of Independence; records show he was in the Marines by 1775. Jane had been an embroiderer. (My mother was a really exceptional craftswoman, an imaginative perfectionist, particularly in cooking and sewing.)

In the course of this research I'd found the Jane Langley Descendants Association, which I joined, and today I got their latest newsletter in the mail. In it a member of the Association reports that she has been in London researching apprenticeship records hoping to find some indenture papers for Jane Langley but has been unable to do so. 'However,' she says,

a story I was told by a lace maker may be of interest. As candlelight was almost impossible to sew by in the evening, what needleworkers would do was to place a large bowl of water on the table and surround it with candles -- the reflection of the candlelight thrown from the water created a brighter light by which to sew. The lady who told me the story said she had tried it and was very surprised at the amount and quality of the light.

I wish

Celibate men say no

Strong words on hospitals and abortion from the Catholic church today in the Age, threatening to close Catholic hospitals if proposed law reform goes ahead.

Actually, I agree that no doctor should have to perform an abortion against his/her will, and surely it couldn't be too difficult to allow for that in the legislation. Even the referrals business could be negotiated.

But this bullying, bluffing absolutism isn't really about that. It is about power and the exercise of power.

I mean, look at that man's face. Just look at it.

And given the Catholic church's record to date on the care and nurturing of unwanted, rejected and/or parentless children and the damage, sorry, "evil" done by its institutions in that respect over the centuries, you'd think they'd have done some sort of cost-benefit analysis by now.

I've been arguing the toss about abortion for decades and not once, not ever, have I heard any member of the so-called pro-life brigade come up with an argument -- not just a decent argument, but any argument at all -- about the "evil" of allowing embryos to develop into foetuses that become unwanted children born into a world that doesn't or can't make proper provision for their care. And about the "evil" of shunting priests who are known sexual abusers of these and other children from one parish to the next and then covering it up, we hear, likewise and strangely, nothing.

There's no point in asking a pro-lifer to justify the unspoken basis of his/her position, which is that a woman is basically a sort of centrally-heated wheelbarrow, because if you say that they'll just look at you like Well, der, yes; what's the problem?

So one must use their own alleged priorities in argument, and ask about the welfare of the child that has been allowed first to become viable and then to be born. And I have never yet heard anyone even take that argument on. They just go straight back on-message, projecting all refusal of logical engagement onto the hapless Almighty, and replying with the faithful's equivalent of 'Computer says no'.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pesto improbable, says Bond

James Bond (who was, one surmises, brought up on wartime English food) discovers pesto sauce:

Signor Kristatos picked up the menu. [Note Italian honorific with Greek surname. These wog chappies all look the same. -- Ed.] He said 'I do not beat about bushes, Mr Bond. How much?'

'Fifty thousand pounds for one hundred per cent results.'

Kristatos said indifferently: 'Yes. These are important funds. I shall have melon with prosciutto ham and a chocolate ice-cream. I do not eat greatly at night. These people have their own Chianti. I commend it.'

The waiter came and there was a brisk rattle of Italian. Bond ordered Tagliatelli Verdi with a Genoese sauce which Kristatos had said was improbably concocted of basil, garlic and fir cones.

-- Ian Fleming, 'Risico', c.1960

This story appears in Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories, just published as a tie-in with the new Bond movie of the same name. The title story also appears in this collection and while it bears the marks of a heavy debt to W. Somerset Maugham, it has absolutely one hundred per cent nothing to do with the synopsis of the movie. Go figure.

The phrase itself as Fleming uses it, however, is the kind of thing you tend to remember when you're thinking about how reading literature has given you many useful tools for living your life.

'... I think it's the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn't care if the other is alive or dead, then it's just no good. ... I've seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I've seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party ... But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. ... I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.'

Bond said: 'That's a splendid name for it ... Quantum of Solace -- the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that ... [When the] Quantum of Solace stands at zero, you've got to get away to save yourself.'

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Quick history tutorial and show of hands

From today's Sydney Morning Herald (online version):

Not so many years ago the federal public service was a no-woman's-land if you happened to be married. Documents just released by the National Archives of Australia show it was no more inviting to single women.

"A spinster at work, can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years. A man usually mellows," the director of trade commissioner services, K.L. Le Rossignol, was told by a subordinate on March 13, 1963.

"A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife, who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman trade commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work."

The memos came as the public service was resisting the idea of married women working. The National Archives has put the bureaucratic exchange on its website as part of a monthly display of "quirky, amusing or nostalgic little gems" researchers sometimes unearth in its collection.

A glass ceiling did not exist in the public service for married women at the time. They were not even allowed in the room and were required to quit their jobs once they uttered "I do".

In 1963 I was a curious, wide-eyed, big-eared ten-year-old, soaking up whatever I could in the way of information about how the world worked and what it meant to be a girl. Imagine my electrification a mere eight years later when I read The Female Eunuch and heard the tectonic plates of my world view shifting and grinding and crunching.

Hands up anyone who finds Mr Le Rossignol's subordinate's remarks quirky, amusing or nostalgic. Don't be shy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who would have thought

Apparently Philip Roth has published a new novel. It's called Indignation.

Quelle surprise.

Friday, September 19, 2008

In honour of Blog Like a Pirate Day ...

... we present the meta dead parrot. Arrrr.

Re-reviving Australian Literature Diary


Thursday, September 18, 2008

On being a one-woman small business

Should you have ambitions to become a one-person small business, allow me to offer the following advice:

* Do not, ever, underestimate the amount of time it will take you to keep track of the money.

* If as in my case the money is coming in in oft-tiny amounts from a rich diversity of ever-changing sources, multiply that estimate by six.

* You will have to invoice almost everyone. Almost everyone will require you to invoice them in a particular format and all the formats will be different.

* Even if you continue to have an income stream from the same source over a period of time, the source will change its name regularly. Checking every time you have an invoice to send that you have in fact made it out to the correct body under the correct name will save you even more wasted time later.

* Keep all your sent invoices in one place. Make backups/copies and keep them all together in a different place.

* You will find that you need to cross-reference and cross-check your own invoices with your bank statements and match both to your tax records. Don't forget that some employers are into electronic banking, others not so much, so you can't rely on just the one set of records.

* The financial year in which you get even remotely sloppy about income and expenditure will be the financial year in which you get audited. Do not, however, think that keeping good records will necessarily save you from this. My paternal grandfather, a wheat and sheep farmer, was once investigated by the taxation people because his records were too good to be true. Investigation revealed there was no fudging, just perfect record-keeping. My grandfather was a Virgo.

* Being a Virgo helps a lot, as indeed does being a Taurus. The rest of you should get help.

Camel avoidance

'A camel is a horse designed by a committee.' -- Vogue magazine, 1958

Note to self: at 10 am, you are due at a meeting of a committee with which you are unfamiliar, to which you have been merely co-opted for the purposes of this particular meeting, and at which $$ decisions will be made about matters concerning literature, the arts, literacy, yoof and so on.

Do not repeat do not open your mouth until you have ascertained the group dynamics, the internal politics and the unspoken protocols of said committee.

That is all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bring back Hillary: Rundle

Guy Rundle writes for today from Alaska and appears to be in a state of despair not entirely induced by the cold:

Would like to stay and not only because the beauty is so eerie that you could almost believe -- along with Sarah Palin's loopy church -- that Alaska is the promised land ... But also because here it's slightly easier to ignore the stunning, endless, utter ineptitude of the Obama campaign, their determination to lose under any circumstances.

... How has this come about? Simple. From day one the Obama campaign has refused to attack the Republicans for one very central failing -- that they're Republicans. That they represent the rich. That they have impoverished large sections of middle America. That there is such a thing as class. ... Their thought has always been that American politics will not bear class warfare, that you have to talk in the language of false univeralism -- we're all in this together, we've got to find consensus. To quote Kirk Douglas from Billy Wilder's great satire The Big Carnival: "We're not all in the same boat -- I'm in the boat, you're in the water."

... Really, it's a retroactive judgment on Obama. ... There is something vacant, absent about Obama, some sort of lack of understanding about what is required -- in terms of message, in terms of soundbites, in terms of sheer fight.

Hell, what would Hillary be making of this? McCain and the Republicans would be sashimi.

This is a very Rundle-esque analysis and I don't necessarily concur, lover of consensus that I am. But the metaphor about the boat and the water is pretty compelling in this case. And he is almost certainly right about Hillary.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

For all your Idol needs

And in news of a very different order from this morning's portentous announcement (I hope you all remember who Malcolm was in Macbeth the Scottish play, and if you don't, ask yourself what the date 11/11/75 means to you), I'm thrilled to report that the brilliant PetStarr is doing her annual thing with the Australian Idol wrap-ups. Who needs to actually watch the show when you can read this instead? And why aren't politicians this funny?

This week PetStarr puts her finger on two important trends in contemporary Australian life:

... this "slack moll slurring" (as Raoul puts it) is an epidemic in modern music. Lisa Mitchell (aka Shuffles McBalletflats) was famous for it in Idol 2006, and Sarah Blasko's not immune, either. Can't we take all these birds to June Dally Watkins and make them prance around the room with books on their heads and marbles in their mouths, singing "The rain in spain falls mainly on the plain" until they learn?

Madam apparently moved from New Zealand to Australia to "make a better life" for her and her child. This angers Sooty, who screams "She's acting as if New Zealand is a fucking savage outpost!" She has a point. I mean, what did she do when she arrived in Sydney? "What be those horseless, metallic chariots? And what be this light that comes from a globe when all else around be dark? Ooh Australia be a far advanced land, for certain!"

On the one hand this and on the other hand that

Like most Labor supporters, I should think, I'm in two minds about the idea of Malcolm Turnbull as the new Labor leader. I rock queasily from being glad he won it to being worried about the number of voters who would always have gone back to the Libs in a flash if they'd been run by a greener republican with a spine. And now here we are.

I'm glad he won it partly because I've always sort of liked him (yes yes, I know), partly because it will be nice to have two leaders who, whatever their flaws may be, are both intelligent, dignified, grown-up and tough (can't remember the last time that was the case), and partly because I'm glad that unless Turnbull is distracted by constant attempts to knife him in the back, there'll be a serious Opposition that will force the Labor Party's nose not so much to the grindstone, where it seems already to have been since about 15 minutes after they got in, but also in a leftwards direction, simply in order to distinguish themselves more clearly from the other side.

It'll be fascinating to watch how Turnbull handles Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott, because I don't think either of them has given up yet on the idea of Abbott for PM. It'll also be interesting to watch how Minchin reacts to having a leader who is more intelligent than he is.

Monday, September 15, 2008

US election: public event in Adelaide

For interested Adders readers, the Flinders University Library and Australian Book Review are hosting a free, no-bookings-necessary event in the city on Friday afternoon. Here's the media release:

United States Elections under Expert Scrutiny

On Friday 19 September at 5.30pm, in the State Library Lecture Theatre, Professor Don DeBats will present the next in Flinders University Library’s popular ‘Fridays at the Library’ series. His subject is ‘Beyond the Spin: Making Sense of the 2008 US Elections’.

Don DeBats is Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders, and has been specialising in United States history and politics for more than thirty years. His main research interest is United States politics, past and present.

His publications cover a wide range of topics, including university reform, US and Canadian political history, and the Australian–US free trade agreement.

Four years ago Professor DeBats spoke at the University Library and made a remarkably accurate prediction of the results of the 2004 elections. With the poll due to take place on Tuesday 4 November, this will be a timely opportunity to hear an expert assessment of this world-shaping event.

The public is welcome to attend this free event in the State Library Lecture Theatre, corner Kintore Avenue and North Terrace. Light refreshments will be served.

For enquiries please contact Gillian Dooley, Special Collections Librarian, on 8201 5238.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Overheard in the fancy-pants pharmacy

'But I can't afford a new vibrator.'

I couldn't summon the courage to turn round and see who was speaking. The tone of her voice made it clear it wasn't any kind of joke, but rather a genuine whine. And I really hope I'm wrong about this but I've got an awful feeling the person she was talking to was her mother.

Reading and writing: vicarious pleasures

Current (work) reading is Gregg Hurwitz's latest, a boilerplate but workmanlike thriller full of obligatory Blackhawks, persons rappelling down the walls of apartment blocks to break in through the hero's balcony when they could just as easily have knocked, mobile phones packed with sophisticated explosives (I was about to text the Bloke to ask him what C4 was when the terrorist answered the cellphone and his head blew up, thus saving me 17 cents or whatever texting costs these days), stalkers with fancy Kodak film in their expensive long-lens cameras, seventeen-year-old virgin boys sneaking out at the dead of night to have sex with ripe barmaids on baseball mounds -- you know the kind of thing.

Anyway, at one point the hero, who is naturally in dreadful trouble with powerful but unidentified persons (Hurwitz knows his genre pretty good) goes to see his ex-girlfriend, for whom he still (of course) carries a torch and who is (wouldn't you know) gorgeous in an exotic way.

Slotted into the driveway next to Induma's recreational Range Rover was her Jag, a nice old-school one ... Her house, a done-to-a-turn Craftsman backing onto the murky Venice canals [that's Venice, California -- ed.], lit up in greeting as I strolled through the waist-high bamboo lining the walk. Less than a block from the beach, the air had a pleasing sea-dirty tint ... the lights, with their high-tech sensor pads, continued to illuminate my walk in segments until I was on the porch. Induma loved her technology.

Where Induma gets her money from remains a mystery to me thus far, as does the question of whether all this product placement has always been there in fiction or whether we ought to blame Bret Easton Ellis in the wake of American Psycho, though of course here it is done without irony or any other form of implicit critique.

But as I read this paragraph and contemplated my own seven-year-old Hyundai (tastefully decorated with bird poo) in the driveway, my one porch light whose sensors haven't worked since I first changed the bulb, my heart-of-darkness backyard with the waist-deep thistles and nettles, and my little old house packed to the rafters with the assorted detritus of a two-cat household and an extremely booky and papery life in which the housework habitually drifts to the end of the To Do list, I thought of a very different writer of crime and intrigue and was reminded of what a comfort it is to write about comfort, and how one of the great delights of writing fiction is that you can give your characters anything they want. Not to mention anything you want.

So here's Dorothy L. Sayers, in an article called 'How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey' (a title I am confident was foisted upon her by her editor) and in which the above question about product placement is duly answered, on the pleasures of writing about Lord Peter Wimsey:

Lord Peter's large income (the source of which by the way I have never investigated) ... I deliberately gave him ... After all it cost me nothing and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Housewarming in interesting times

Welcome to the new home.

As I write this, the sun's setting on a perfect Adelaide spring day and the jasmine and banksia roses have been coaxed into bloom by the warmth of the sun. As ever, the house needs vacuuming. The inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Award for fiction has just been won by a novelist I'd never heard of till yesterday. There's more new chaos in the NSW government. Galveston is being washed away as we speak by a hurricane as big as Texas, there are elections coming up in the US and New Zealand, the US equivalent of Pauline Hanson has a realistic chance of becoming the most powerful person in the world, and any minute we might all be sucked into a black hole.

Time for a new blog. I'll go and open the champagne.