Thursday, December 31, 2009

To Do list on this Blue Moon New Year's Eve

TO DO (in order of importance)

Pull oneself together

Accept the fact that it's going to be 41 degrees today and suck it up; everybody's hot

Finish and file weekly book reviews column

Make Eton Mess for fourteen (go out in the heat and buy more eggs because one is an idiot and forgot; make meringues; hull, slice and Kirsch-macerate strawberries; whip cream)

Work out appropriate bowls and plastic containers for transportation and serving of said Mess

Run a load of washing including half of tonight's outfit

Check the rest of tonight's outfit, bearing in mind that there's going to be a cool change in the middle of the event which may involve the hand-washing of a pashmina, and do necessary ironing etc

Cover up the lemon tree or all the lemons and leaves will get scorched

Call father for weekly yarn

Wonder, given the full-on car park rage hissy fit at 8.23 am (see 'forgot eggs', above), what sort of state one will be in by the end of tonight's six-hour* dinner
*well, it was last year

Meditate on art, age and womanhood. Here's Joni Mitchell at around 50, no backup (and almost no makeup), singing about a blue moon, which is what it is tonight: the second full moon in a single calendar month. 'Night Ride Home' is a happy love song, which for Joni is a blue moon event. Look at the length of her fingers, and the expression on the face of the little dude watching her right at the end.

And a very happy New Year to all.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve cake post

Some may remember my first-ever foray into fruitcake-making back in November when I got inspired by Deborah Strange Land and her grandmother's Christmas cake. It came out better than I could have dared to hope, perfectly shaped and fragrant, and I wrapped it in layer upon layer of greaseproof paper and tinfoil, and took it down out of the cupboard every week or two to feed it more brandy.

Came the day -- the 42 degree day -- when the decorating of the cake could no longer be put off, viz yesterday. I had been putting it off because the more I read about making and using fondant, the more difficult and fraught with dangers it appeared to be. But the fondant needed to dry for 24 hours before you could put anything else on it. So there was nothing for it but to begin with the icing-sugar mountain.

If I were my mother I would have sifted this three times

I did take a photo of the well in the centre of the icing sugar into which had been poured the dissolved gelatine, glucose and glycerine, but it looks just a bit too much as though a child has been peeing in the snow. I would have taken a photo of the kneaded lump of fondant, but it looked just a bit too much like a giant puffball.

The giant puffball wrapped and put aside for the moment, the next thing was the preparation of the cake for its cloak of fondant. Part of the several hours' reading up on the subject of fruitcake decoration that I'd done was a suggestion that the top edge of the cake should be bevelled with a small serrated knife so that the fondant would not tear on the sharp edge.

Sorry the focus is a bit doolally there, but this bevelled-edge thing is exactly the sort of detail one cannot possibly leave out of a blog post.

Next, a concoction that the sainted Rose Levy Berenbaum, author of The Cake Bible (Her gingerbread cake! Her Piña Colada cake! Her buttercream! Her utter devotion to perfection!) suggests as a 'crumb coating': something to seal the crumby surface of the cake so the crumbs will not come off into the fondant, and to provide a sticky surface for the fondant to, um, stick to. Berenbaum calls it Jewel Glaze, and so it is.

Actually it's just half a cup of apricot conserve and a tablespoon of brandy, warmed and sieved and applied with a pastry brush

Next, you take the big fondant puffball, knead it a bit more to get it smooth and pliable again, and roll it out in a circle whose diameter is the same as the cake's plus double its height plus an extra inch of margin for error. This is where I started to think it really might all work; to my astonishment it looked exactly the way it was supposed to.

As you can see, it's not called 'rolled fondant' for nothing.

And then, as with the pastry for the top crust of a pie, you roll it up loosely around the rolling pin, position it carefully, and unroll it so that it drapes over the cake. This is only about four hundred times as hard as it sounds. And this is the point where, if you're going to blow it, you blow it all. You only get one shot. In this case, I could not have come any closer to the abyss without falling into it.

C'est magnifique, n'est-ce pas? Observe cake plate elevated to near eye level so one can get at it and see what one is doing.
Fondant, fortunately, is forgiving. This one does not stretch, but it is pliable -- we didn't used to call it 'plastic icing' for nothing -- and with a smoothing here and a coaxing there, a nudging and a bumping and a gentling of the fingers, it was made to shift a bit up one side and down the other, drape softly over the bevelled edges, fit snugly down over the sides, and generally do as it was told. Second most brilliant hint in my background reading: trim off the excess fondant with a pizza cutter.

Finish trimming, admire handiwork, marvel at the fact that there seems to have been exactly the right amount of fondant, put cake in box and put box in wardrobe away from marauding cats, for the fondant to dry and set.

24 hours later, make a glue with icing sugar and water and use a matchstick to apply small dobs of it to sparkly things and cement them to cake. Allow to set. Take photo.

And a very happy Christmas to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Anyone who's read Helen Garner's The Spare Room will probably remember this scene. For those who haven't: Nicola is in the advanced stages of cancer, and has come to Melbourne to stay with Helen while she has 'alternative' treatment. Helen's granddaughter Bessie lives next door. Now read on ...

Flamenco shoes tapped on the bricks, thundered on the veranda. The back door burst open.

'Here I am! Are you ready for my show?'

Nicola couldn't turn her head. She had to swing her whole body around. 'Who is this glorious señorita?'

Bessie leaned back from the hips and flung her arms in a high curve round her head. The blood-red nasturtium she had stuck into the elastic of her ponytail trembled there, its juicy stem already drooping. She bent her wrists and began to twine her hands round each other. her fingernails were grimy, her palms padded with thick calluses from the school-yard monkey bars. She lowered her brow in a challenging scowl and paced towards us, flicking aside the bulk of her skirt with every step.

Nicola reared back on her stool. 'Stop. What's that cack on your lip?'

Bessie dropped her arms and ran the back of one hand under her nostrils. It left a glistening trail across her cheek.

'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.

I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank. I heard the neighbour over the back lane slam his car door and drive away. At once his dog began its daily barking and howling. We had adapted our nerves to its tedious racket and no longer thought of complaining, but maybe the wind that morning was blowing from a new direction, for the high-pitched cries floated over the fence and right into our yard, filling the sunny air with lamentation.

One of my oldest friends is due just after Christmas for her third round of chemo. She has become a connoisseur of anti-nausea drugs. The wig is fabulous, though she says it's very irritating when people who haven't seen her for a while come up to her and say 'Wow, what have you done to your hair, it looks fabulous!'

I've known her since we were in our late teens. We shared a student house in our early twenties for two and a half years; we used to sing together a lot, and the other week we were driving to the supermarket when the young James Taylor appeared on the compilation CD singing 'Sweet Baby James' and we swung in behind him with two different harmonies. I was a witness at her wedding and a wet mess at her husband's funeral.

Now on the day before Christmas Eve I'm recovering from a very bad upper respiratory tract infection; though functional, I am still a little rattly, sodden and febrile. Every day, by email, she and I defer and renegotiate a meeting to exchange Christmas greetings and presents, which may have to become Proclamation Day greetings and presents (special SA public holiday) or possibly even New Year greetings and presents. Because she must not catch this. It put me in bed for the best part of three days, and my immune system's pretty good.

What floors me is the power of the drive to disregard it: the ferocious sense of what's good and proper that tells me I can't possibly not see her and her daughter, the fourth-year Aerospace Engineering student who at the age of eleven introduced me to Harry Potter, for Christmas. Everything about staying away seems mean-spirited, ultra-cautious, ungenerous, unloving. Which in the face of the immunological facts is clearly absurd.


The forecast maximum temperature for Adelaide today is 42 degrees. South Australia is divided into fifteen 'districts' and the fire warning for two of them is classified as 'Severe'. For five more, it's 'Extreme'. And for the remaining eight, it's 'Catastrophic'.

This new classification system was activated for the first time in the heatwave of mid-November when my tiny home town came under threat. And it was very worrying to see interviews afterwards with people in other parts of rural South Australia who complained 'Oh but it wasn't classed "catastrophic" here so we thought it would be all right.' Others complained that they had been classified as 'catastrophic' -- and at the last minute, too! "They" had kept changing the classification! -- and yet there had been no fire. They were outraged that their lives had been, however briefly, disrupted.


Human nature being what it is, there are a few things about this that are very worrying. One is the dependence mentality that seems already to be setting in, the expectation that there will be full correlation between what's predicted and warned and what actually happens, and that, somehow, magically, "they" should and will fix it all. Another is the apparent ignorance (and I know for a fact that country people are not ignorant about this, so there is clearly some other psychological gremlin present) about the unpredictability of fire conditions and their aptness to change and turn on a sixpence.

And maybe the most dangerous is that suggestion that if the danger is not officially classified 'catastrophic' (code for 'If there's a fire, get out of your house to safety: you can't save it and we can't save you') then there is no danger at all and it's safe to stay home and do nothing. The lure of the false binary is strong, Grasshopper, but in this instance it could lead to unthinkably tragic consequences. If I were the state government I'd be fast-tracking the use of the education department to disseminate clear thinking about fire, warnings, and the limited power to predict and fight fires of the state authorities -- about which, ironically, country people are usually all too sceptical.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Scraps (it's all I'm good for) regarding Christmas

I spent most of the weekend in bed, snoozing, sneezing, coughing, groaning, spluttering, blowing my nose, monitoring the headache and the earache and the chills and fever, drinking four-hourly Lemsip enhanced with extra lemon juice, honey and hot water, and generally wishing I were dead, a wish the granting of which seemed imminent.

I got out of bed on Friday only to put some clothes on over my aching skin and drive to the supermarket to get supplies. Having done a big shop only the day before, I had relatively few things in my trolley, and while queueing at the checkout did the usual stickybeaking at what other people had in their trolleys and made deductions or guesses about their lives. Big dog. Small baby. Type 2 diabetes.

Anyone looking at my own trolley -- big box of tissues, two packets each of Strepsils and Butter Menthols, decongestant nasal spray, three packets of icing sugar and various containers of gelatine, glycerine and glucose syrup -- would have thought 'Hmm, person with a bastard cold who has plans to make fondant for the Christmas cake.' (Or possibly 'Hmm, type 2 diabetes.')

The time in bed was not wholly wasted, as in between the snoozing and the self-pity I read two and a half novels for work, one of which, by British professor of literature Rebecca Stott, describes a character whose attitude (in 1815) to his own Judaism gave me some insight into my own secular embrace of all things Christmas.
'And Silviera?'
'He goes to synagogue. He reads the Torah. He keeps the Sabbath.'
'He believes?'
'No. Silviera has no God. He says it's a Christian obsession, this insistence on God, on belief, on talking about it all the time. For him it's the rituals, his people, l'histoire that matters. It is his anchor.'

Which is sort of more or less what I was saying in the 2007 eve-of-Christmas-Eve post at t'old blog.

It was fortunate that by 9 am this morning, when I had to meet my sisters in the city for some legal discussions about which there had previously been some, erm, dispute, a meeting the cancellation of which would have been more than my life was worth, I was starting to feel human again. (Deciding last night at 10 pm that I really had to dust and vacuum before I put the tree up was, I think, the product of a fever dream, and naturally I was so deranged by the time I had dusted and vacuumed that I was too knackered to put the tree up and went to bed instead.) I was feeling so human that I went and did a little shopping after I'd had post-lawyer coffee with the sisters and sorted out who was doing what for Christmas day lunch. From my morning in the city, I bring two questions:

1) At what stage of his or her cognitive development does a child come to be able to work out which direction an escalator is going in just by looking at it?

2) At what stage of his or her cognitive development does an adult come to understand that if you want to get into an elevator or a parking space, you need to move your arse out of the way so that the current occupant can get out?

Putting up the tree this afternoon and decorating it with ornaments some of which I brought back from Europe ten and/or fifteen and/or 25 years ago for my mother to put on the family tree, and some of which are still wrapped in yellowed tissue paper with her handwriting on it despite the fact that she died almost eleven years ago, brought a flash of insight about her: that one of the great tensions of her life was that she combined a lifelong passion for self-improvement with a likewise lifelong resistance to self-analysis. She forgave herself nothing, excused herself nothing, indulged herself with nothing and strove to strengthen weaknesses and solve problems whose genesis she wasn't prepared to investigate, never able to separate the concept of 'reasons' from the concept of 'excuses'.

So there was just this relentless drive, physically and morally, to be better: hard-working, skilled, groomed, orderly, and ruthlessly self-disciplined. The self-discipline in particular was, I think, why so many people trusted her with secrets: while she enjoyed discussing personalities, I never once heard her gossip, and while she enjoyed an occasional brandy-and-dry, I never once saw her drunk. She believed that discretion was the essence of loyalty and she consciously practised both.

Tomorrow, in her honour, the kitchen: fondant icing and gingerbread cats. There will be photos.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A better noun, a better verb: more thoughts on copy-editing

When writing first drafts I will usually bung in instructions to myself as I go along, most often [CHECK] where I have relied on memory for an author's or a character's name, or a fact, or a guess at spelling, or whatever, and [FIX THIS] where the sentence clearly doesn't say what I wanted to mean. The combination of square brackets and caps makes the instructions stand out to an eye that has learned over decades of reading plays to associate caps in square brackets with instructions to act. As it were.

Anyway, there I was a minute ago squinting at a sentence from a book review I started a few days ago, in the middle of which I had written 'The story is marked by [FIND A BETTER NOUN AND A BETTER VERB, THINK WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN] the weird Scottish combination of wry understatement and behavioural excess.'

I like that last bit, but 'story is marked' is all wrong. Both the narrative and its narrator feature this, I think, very Scottish combination, so 'story' isn't really what I mean, and that combination is intrinsic to both the story and the storytelling so 'marked' (which implies something on the surface that was put there later) isn't right either. I have to figure out a way of saying it that is both more accurate and less awkward. Which means that the instruction in the square brackets is a bit misleading. As so often, one can get hopelessly bogged down in trying to come up with a different word when what's really needed is a re-structuring of the entire sentence.

Actually I'm ahead of schedule and the reason I'm working at all is that, on the weekend before Christmas when like everybody else I'm supposed to be running around like a mad rabbit planning this and buying that and nailing down the other, I've been struck down with the most disgusting coldy fluey thing I think I've ever had, with the full range of symptoms and every one of them floridly in evidence, so I'm not fit to do anything requiring physical energy or anything requiring going out. If I get further ahead with the work I'll be freed up to do Christmasy things when I get better, which please Goddess will start happening tomorrow if not sooner. But a head full of glue, cement and cotton wool is maybe not the ideal tool for trying to re-write a recalcitrant sentence, either.

My eye keeps going back to those square brackets, though. If I were allowed to say only one thing to a class full of writing students, it would probably be that. THINK WHAT YOU REALLY MEAN.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And meanwhile, back on Planet Janet ...

I missed Janet Albrechtsen's bizarre paean of praise to Tony Abbott's honesty, sexiness and social grace in yesterday's Australian and frankly I wish I'd missed it altogether, but since it has been called to my attention, here is an interpretation.

Her overall argument appears to be that, in general (and in spite of the ghost of the example of Mark Latham that is forever before us, and away from which few of us can tear our gaze), a propensity for physical violence self-expression holds irresistible sexual allure. If I were Abbott, I would be backing away from that one at a run and yes I am sure he is indeed fit enough to run backwards. NOW READ ON ...
[Abbott] has something that is rare in the hermetically sealed, carefully controlled politico-bubble of Canberra. It's called authenticity.
That will be why his pronouncements on climate change (or, rather, on the government's actions on climate change) suggest that he wakes up every morning and tosses a coin to decide whether he'll believe in it today or not, depending on what he thinks is more likely to win votes.
And I'm betting women kind of like that.
Really? How much? Double or nothing?
Sure, some will never admit it openly.
How handy for your argument, then, Janet, should anyone ever challenge you to prove it.
Aghast, they will tell you that his religious convictions about abortion, RU486 and stem-cell research jar with a modern girl's feminist choices.
They are not 'feminist choices', and here you are showing, yet again, just how little you know or understand about feminism. They are human choices, to which, feminists argue, women have at least as much right as, say, the 20-year-old Tony Abbott you refer to below, the one whose frankness about his abandonment of his pregnant girlfriend you find 'graceful'.
But sure enough, many of these same women may find themselves muttering quietly among their closest girlfriends that, secretly, they find Abbott attractive.
I've certainly known more than a few women to mutter that secretly they found Turnbull attractive. Abbott, not so much.
While Abbott is known in today's neutered world of politics
This, of course, is nasty code for the inoffensive-looking and quietly spoken Kevin Rudd. Who, when last one looked, had a wife who looks like she has lots of fun, plus an assortment of happy-looking children.
for his off-the-cuff clangers
'Clangers' are the opposite of 'neutered', got that? Yeah, see, some of us think of Abbott's clangers .. erm .. no, I can't go on.

*Sticks fingers in ears, sings LA LA LA very loudly*
he is also a complicated mass of contradictions
About things like whether or not he believes in AGW from one day to the next, you mean? Or perhaps whether or not people should be allowed to choose whether or not they're ready to be parents?
The antithesis of the political nerd,
More nasty code for K. Rudd.
he is a head-kicker with a brain and a heart.
If either his brain or his heart were working properly, he wouldn't be a head-kicker. QED. Head-kicker. A kicker of heads. Think about it.
Sounds kind of interesting, doesn't it?
Um, no.
There is a candour to Abbott that is disarming.
Perhaps it disarms you, Janet. Personally I find it very, very arming.
He has admitted that as a 20-year-old, he was callow and unprepared for fatherhood. "I was psychologically unready for parenthood: that is the sad truth about me at the time. I just wasn't ready for it," he told The Bulletin in 2005
*Waits for other shoe to drop*

*Crickets chirping*
Try lining up the men in Canberra. Now look for the one who is the quintessential Aussie bloke
Because as we all know, the quintessential Aussie bloke is what we want running the country. No women, no poofters and no bloody foreigners thank you very much. Nobody with glasses, either. Or who speaks Mandarin. Especially not who speaks Mandarin.
try telling me, girls, that this mix is not even a little bit fascinating.
Janet, this mix is not even a little bit fascinating.
Compared with, say, Rudd.
THAT was unexpected!
So carefully controlled is his exterior,
Some of us call that 'grown up'.
few have any idea about the real Rudd.
MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA *Sound of sinister organ music*
He could not be more different from the new Opposition Leader.
Well, quite. And how fortunate we all are that that is the case.

I was going to say something about Albrechtsen's misty-eyed paragraph about Abbott's self-described 'love rug' and her hint (made via Nigella Lawson so it wasn't actually really Janet who said it, was it) that women who don't like Tony Abbott must be lesbians and everyone knows lesbians are, you know, icky. I was going to say something about it. But it is too, you know, icky.

As an old hippie myself I have neutral feelings about hair. I am far more interested in what is inside the hair or the absence thereof. It's this article's disturbing 'Doesn't being a hairy boxer make Tony sexy!' approach and its dreadfully clumsy attempts at effective rhetoric for propaganda purposes that are the real turnoff here. That, and the viciously unpleasant insinuendo about Rudd, and Planet Janet's generalisations about 'women', to whom she refers throughout not as 'we', but as 'they'. So it's not her that's thinking all this crapola about how sexy Abbott is, oh no. It's just 'women'. Because of course any real woman is far more interested in alpha-male body hair, head-kicking and punch-throwing skills than in wanting to keep her own freedom and live her own life in her own body.

This time of year everybody's got one

TO DO: THURSDAY 17/12/09


1) Make a list*

2) Check it twice (and do naughty/nice triage)

3) Shop for cutlery for C, DO NOT forget to print out email w. details of pattern etc. Also, next time, try not to lock keys in car. Or iPhone, RAA card and spare car key. Yes yes, I know this is the second time in a year.

4) Ham. (NAUGHTY. You have lied about this to the ob-com sibling so if the Special Ham Place has run out then you will have to SUCK IT UP) Whew.

5) Ring father

6) Depending on outcome of (5), visit father and stepmother, with 70% fruitless detour to cake-decorating specialist shop: tiny decorations for Christmas cake, tubes of edible red and green icingy stuff for Christmas bows on the gingerbread cats (see #9) NICE

7) Remaining cards -- to D, P, L, J (and an electronic one next week for S as per tradition) but MAKE AND POST SNAIL MAIL CARDS TODAY or it will all get a bit pointless

8) Think through appropriate gifts/visits for D&M, also R&N (see Master List)

9) Make gingerbread cats. (Mind out for breakable tails) NICE

10) Buy some Useful Tins to Put Things In (especially gingerbread cats)

11) Buy a paper (look what happened this week when you didn't have a quick TV guide handy -- DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN)

12) Get tree and decorations out of cupboard in garage -- mind out for redback infestation

13) Ring accountant for appointment IT IS A MATTER OF HONOUR to do this before Christmas, so you had better hope he is not on hols: NAUGHTY

14) Spend 5 hours (as timed last year) getting tax records into shape: NASTY

15) Housework, cat care, day job etc etc

* A Master List, viz a list of the lists you have to make

Usage FAIL #2

It's a witty, funny, fast-paced book with some grit and some edge and it's the sequel to a best-seller, but I'm only up to page 77 and it has just failed a second basic screening. I've already come across 'hone in on' for 'home in on', and now we've got 'disinterested' for 'uninterested'.

I know there's been a GFC but you'd think the New York stronghold of Simon & Schuster would still be able to pay for the services of a good copy-editor. You really would.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A breef resent histry of Teh Cowalish Co-uh Librul Partay

After the shockingly outrageous and unfair events of 2007, when the natural party of leadership somehow inexplicably lost its eleven-year squirrel grip on the Australian psyche and its master narratives, it was deemed appropriate to elevate a Sacrifical Brendan to the leadership.

Sacrificial Brendan had a leadership style all his own.

Chafing in the wings, however, there was an Upstart Malcolm. (Sort of like in Macbeth, also November 11 1975, maintain the rage, etc.) And, being the sort of chap he was, Upstart Malcolm was in too much of a hurry to time his run properly.

Upstart Malcolm also had a leadership style all his own.

But 'Old' Nick Minchin wasn't having a bar of Upstart Malcolm, who was acting far too much like someone from the 21st century for 'Old' Nick's liking. And so, like a chess player, Nick manoeuvred his pieces with care. After giving it a great deal of thought, he decided to play the Sacrifical Joe. But he knew he needed to handle his pieces carefully, and give them the illusion that they were helping.

Sacrifical Joe, not unreasonably, expected to be rewarded for doing what he was told.

But then, in an admirable outburst of integrity, Sacrifical Joe decided at the last minute that he would try to make room for opposing views on the sofa benches. Unfortunately 'Old' Nick and his henchpersonsmen and minions weren't having a bar of it.

This threw the Coalition into the sort of disarray that produces a result nobody was expecting,

and to everyone's surprise including his own, Tony 'Slugger' Abbott found himself in charge.

And so Slugger was obliged to play the hand he had been dealt, otherwise known as the Hopelessly Divided Coalition, and sort himself out a new front bench.

Having hand-picked a team that would ensure rich pickings for columnists, cartoonists and comedians for the foreseeable, and having promised that this motley crew would give the Government 'the fight of its life', Slugger was then obliged to whip his team into shape sharpish.

His plan was to resurrect the long-dispersed and in any case largely mythical fighting force known as 'Howard's Battlers' (though he knew he would need to re-educate them as to the identity of the enemy) and then, having resurrected them, to get them to join forces with his new Front Bench and unleash the result on an unsuspecting public.

And meanwhile, from behind the sparkling Venetian blinds of her spotless kitchen with its empty fruit bowl, a mystery redhead watches closely as the story unfolds.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Twitterature: some highlights

From Macbeth

Banquo seems to have died in the forest. Oh well!

From Hamlet


From Emma

Jane and Frank were together all along? Who saw that one coming? Good thing I was never interested. Not in the least.

From Frankenstein

I'm definitely not responsible for this.

From Anna Karenina

Alright, twenty rubles says that I can toss my bag in the air, run across the tracks, and catch it before the train arriv–

From Mrs Dalloway

On a side note, has anybody noticed that @Septimus's posts have become a little erratic since the war ended?

From In Cold Blood

My Southern background and career as a New York literary homosexual will no doubt win me the trust and favor of these Midwestern farmers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Return of the Three Stooges

Just happened to catch Tony Abbott's press conference live, the one where he announced his reshuffled front bench. Didn't catch all of it, but here are three of the new faces:

Kevin Andrews
Bronwyn Bishop
Barnaby Joyce


Heh heh heh.

Tell you what, too, Mr Abbott, you know that thing you do with your rhetoric, where you say 'contest' or 'fight' or 'battlelines' or 'tough' or 'wimp' about once every 30 seconds? That's really really good. Excellent stuff. Keep doing that.

Also, you know the way you kept ostentatiously picking out and loudly naming female journalists in order to answer their questions? Most of us know you probably wouldn't have done that unless somebody had had a wee word in your shell-like about it beforehand. Wonder who it was.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

How to tell if it's December

Quiet Friday night lull in the local big bright Coles and so when the voice starts up I notice it at once. Long supermarket experience and my peripheral hearing conspire to mis-identify it at first as a small-child problem: there's a wailing, insistent, pre-hysterical note and it is going on and on and on.

No, perhaps it's an older-child problem. The rhythms are those of fully formed sentences. Whoever it is is not any kind of a happy bunny.

No, I now think it's some kind of teenage girl or very young woman fighting with her boyfriend. Whatever else it is, it certainly sounds like a fight. My shopping list says SOAP. I head for the soap aisle. The voice gets louder and is sounding more and more upset. I notice for the first time that although there are occasional pauses in the monologue, I have, from the beginning, heard only the one voice. It's now speaking sufficiently loudly that I can make out what it's saying from two aisles away.

'It's not fair! I said if we go there then we won't get to see the others at all and he said well we can go round there after lunch and I said but we're going to Jen's for tea, what, do you want to spend practically the whole day driving around and he said well it's not my fault, they just put pressure on and said it like it was a done deal and I can't ring them up now and say we're not coming after all!'

At this point I round the end of the soap aisle and there she is, long black cotton dress with spaghetti straps over plump flawlessly-skinned shoulders, black hair up and starting to come down, I'd say mid-twenties, scarlet in the face, staring ferociously at a shelf full of skin care products and yelling into her mobile. As she comes into my line of sight, her voice cracks in the middle of the word 'mum' and she begins to sob without restraint.

'But muuuummmmm! I knowww! I want us to come to your place! But Darren says he wants to see his family too and it's stupid, there's only two of them, there's only Lauren and John, it's stupid, it's not fair! They think they own Christmas!'

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Abbott and the Women: some thoughts

Those who, like me, have been visiting the ABC's website daily since Annabel Crabb began her pointy, sparkly political columns for them will not have missed yesterday's account of Tony-Abbott-as-leader's virgin encounter with Kerry O'Brien on The 7.30 Report. I was struck by Crabb's version of this moment:
O'Brien's aims for the interview were the same as usual; a light tenderising, and promise of brutalities to come.

The new Liberal leader's aims were rather more specialised; to begin the task of discarding the Abbott stereotypes of the past, to lay down some sensible, unexceptionable-sounding policy basics, to avoid getting into strife, and most definitely to not say anything that might annoy or startle female voters.

Oh, she's good. She's good the way Jon Stewart is so often good, nailing her target through ventriloquy, implying that for Abbott and his team it's a matter of 'annoy or startle', as though women were high-strung (oh all right, irritatingly neurotic) brood mares who needed to be tricked and soothed into their proper place and function in the world. O'Brien gave him an opportunity to 'annoy or startle', too:
Kerry tried again.

"One voting demographic where the Liberal Party suffers badly is women, particularly younger women. Coming back to that hardline image of yours, you're not exactly a pin-up boy, are you, as a political leader?"

"That might be the case," grinned the Liberal leader. "Notwithstanding the photos of last weekend."

Cue despair and garment-rending in the Abbott control tower, where all involved thought it had been made perfectly clear that no voluntary mention was to be made of last Sunday's shots of the new Liberal leader wearing a tantalisingly brief swimming costume, a slightly foolish hat and what looked like about ten ferrets' worth of torso hair.

But their man brought matters under control by supplying an important piece of context.

"Speedos are compulsory if you're in the club swim at Queenscliff."

And what a very interesting segue we have right there. First Abbott spins a serious question (and a very serious ballot-box issue) about his unpopularity with women: he fudges on about how he's not going to change his views (the Goddess help us all) before, in response to O'Brien's 'pin-up boy' line, making the stupid crack (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way) about the Speedo photos.

Got that? Women's attitude to Abbott is suddenly somehow all about Tone's Body, to the unseemly exposure of which he has seen fit to draw further attention. And then we move on to the next topic. As commenter Emmie remarks at that ABC site:
I thought Abbott's reference to the budgie smugglers was quite deliberate, as if making a joke of it was the best way to put the story to bed (it would be awful if it gained the same momentum as Alexander Downer's fishnets, after all). But as a woman, I was insulted by the fact that he pushed that line, when O'Brien had asked a fairly serious question about TA's lack of appeal to women voters - which, you might note, was never answered.

Nor has it, that I can find, been seriously addressed anywhere else. Tony Wright, 'The Goanna', went down the smirk road about 'the sterner women in the political firmament'. The notoriously reactionary Miranda Devine was using the growing volume of muttering about Abbott and women to launch yet another badly argued attack on that perennially unidentified rabble, 'the feminists'.

And post-spill discussion threads at the large left-leaning blog Larvatus Prodeo, if they mentioned the 51% of voters who are women and the implications this might have for Abbott and the Coalition at all, mentioned it only in passing. Most of the readers and commenters there are young and/or progressive and/or educated and/or enlightened men who mostly abominate Abbott, but little awareness appears in those discussions of the concrete, material, immediate nature of women's concerns and only a very few commenters made it clear that women's chief objection to Abbott is the unashamed way he has attempted in the past to enforce his own religious views on their -- our -- reproductive freedom, and no doubt will again. (That remark in the O'Brien interview about how he's not going to pull the wool over women's eyes was a warning shot across the bows, in case any of you didn't recognise it.)

It's not that the men discussing Abbott's electability in the MSM and at the blogs are necessarily opposed to women's rights. Some of them actively support them. They are not deliberately attempting to stifle or ignore. It's that they simply do not see women in conversations like this, when it is so much more fun to talk about tax and carbon credits, and likewise do not see the implications for the women's vote.

And while these things should not be sidelined as 'women's issues', the sad truth is that they are, even by the men one might generally regard as on side. And given the rarefied yet brutal world of federal politics, where Tony Abbott had successfully wielded enormous power at the highest national level within hours of being voted in as leader -- of the Opposition, mind you -- women need to stay focused on the realities of what he might do and how soon he might do it.

Most Australian women are too young to remember what life was like when abortion was illegal, divorce was a protracted and vicious nightmare of compulsory demonisation, you couldn't get a prescription for the Pill unless you were married, and keeping your own surname after marriage was rendered bureaucratically impossible by -- to take a random sample from personal experience -- the taxation department, the university and the pre-Medicare health insurance people, none of whom had the sorts of forms that would allow for it.

Those young-to-youngish women, more than anyone else, need to not drop this ball, because unless you're very careful you might find out what life was like back then. You and your daughters are the ones who would suffer most if a head-kicking conservative Catholic were ever to become Prime Minister.

What Australian women need to understand about the ascent of Abbott is that all this other stuff about Speedos and personalities and icky feminists is, compared to the real thing, smoke. The real thing, the thing that must be recognised and fought every inch of the way, is nothing less than an assault by stealth on your own body. It is not about annoyance or startlement. It is not about the ten-ferret pelt and the displays thereof. It is not about behaving like a bully-boy and standover merchant, which is the main thing that women disliked and distrusted about Mark Latham. It is not about a willingness to do anything that will disrupt or demean any woman standing up to him ... or even any woman standing up with him, as Julie Bishop discovered immediately after he became her new leader when he gave her a cuddle and a pat for the cameras and called her a 'loyal girl'. (And many thanks to the lovely Zoe for that last link.)

No, the real, crucial, immediately dangerous area for Australian women is the place where biology meets the budget or the law. No matter what fluff or snark you read in the Op Ed pages, what coy, snide, smarmy or foam-flecked references to the skittishness of easily-startled women or the hatefulness of not-easily-startled women, it's not about the mysteries of the female vote; it's not about Abbott's personality; it's not about anyone's behaviour; it's not, for the moment, about whether something is or is not perceived to be a 'women's issue'; it's not even -- again for the moment -- about the way this brand of conservatism seeks to diminish and control the place of women in society.

Here and now, in the immediate future, it's about that stick you pee on and what colour it turns. It's about the red dot on the calendar and how worried you are about it. It's about the condoms that have passed their use-by date unnoticed, or the contraceptive drugs that are not quite 100% effective. It's about stuff that every girl and woman of childbearing age has to think about, today and tomorrow and next week and the week and month and year after that. At 56 I am thankfully beyond being personally affected in this daily way, but I had my share, and I fear for women younger than I am, the shiny new fabric of whose post-feminist personal freedom may soon be put under unbearable strain.

It's about bodies, medical procedures, drugs, laws and money: Gardasil, RU486, abortion, IVF, stem cell research, no-fault divorce, access to health services without being nagged by fundies, and whether you, as a woman, want to choose between living a life of celibacy and taking the chance (and if you think this is unlikely, look around you) of various worst-case scenarios: living below the poverty line; looking after at least one unintentionally conceived child by yourself until the kid is 18 and probably much longer than that; forgoing any proper career in work that you love, any decent income, any role in public life, any power at all. It's about your own daily life-in-the-body: its dignity and its freedom.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Federal Opposition Follies: how it looks to a feminist

1) This is what happens when the adversarial model dominates a society. The core imagery is of whupping wild beasts, women and each other with clubs, and to hell with hunting, gathering and finding nice warm dry caves.

2) There's a moment at which ego investment in a position becomes so entrenched that the stand being taken becomes indistinguishable from the sense of self, and not even the person in question -- especially not the person in question -- can see or understand where and how that shift happened. But everyone else can see the results. Especially on a 47 degree day in early November.

3) This, young Australian feminists everywhere, is the moment to show what you are made of. You need to understand just exactly how much danger is waiting in the wings for Australian women's status as equal and autonomous human beings. If you don't believe me, have a look at the systematic erosion of women's rights under Howard. And Abbott will make Howard look like Germaine Greer.

4) I'd really love to know what Julia Gillard is thinking, right about now.

It's Abbott

Who beat Turnbull by half a toenail, 42-41, after the surprise elimination of Joe Hockey in the first vote.

Holy sh*t. As it were.

Of course you realise this means they will never beat Kevin for the foreseeable.

*Does little dance*

Not to mention the ongoing Liberal Party nomenclaturial farce if Julie Bishop retains the deputy leadership.

Are they mad? I mean, like, barking?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Crazy brave

Dear Malcolm,

With all your faults you are still far too good for them, and I am really enjoying the spectacle of you toughing it out to the bitter end. Like the musicians who played 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' on the Titanic as it sank, you are a heartening spectacle and an example to us all.

I use the Titanic analogy advisedly, in the knowledge that your water-wings are of the finest, and that icebergs -- for reasons that everyone except Nick Minchin knows -- are not what they used to be.

Lots of love,
Pav xxx

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arithmetic, or is it algebra, in chronological order

1 horrible old neck injury (high-speed highway rollover, 1986: C4 and C5) x too much housework and gardening (yesterday) x general stress (ongoing) = shoulder, neck and scalp muscles in spasm = extreme nausea + plenty of hyoscine hydrobromide + too much codeine + 1 moving, upsetting funeral of a 60-year-old woman you've known since you were born + several hours with your father & sisters + far too many brandies (today) + 2 x really crucial deadlines that matter a lot to a lot of other people (imminent) = X, where X is how you'll feel at 8 am when the alarm goes off.

On the other hand, it's 20 years today (3.30 am, November 26th 1989) since I had my last cigarette: cold turkey from 40-50 a day. CP, if you're reading this, thanks from the heart.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

One thought one was past the age of cringe, but no

As Channel Seven excitedly leads up and counts down to its revelations about Premier Mike Rann and his secret, married ex-girlfriend, an affair (according to her version, shortly to air, and previewed in today's Sunday Mail) that ended five years ago, the Channel 7 reporters were asking other pollies what they thought. Cut to shot of the Prime Minister saying, with mysterious irrelevance (or was it?): "I know of nobody who sticks up for his state more than Mike Rann."


Either he knew what he was saying, in which case there's no doubt left about Rudd's general attitude to SA, or he didn't, which is almost sort of worse.

But I'm fairly sure the technology doesn't exist

Emboldened by the success (so far at least) of the Christmas cake, I set off into unknown waters yesterday and decided to make a Christmas Puddin' as well, something I've never done before in my life. A dear friend had asked me if I knew how to find the justly fabled puddin' recipe of equally justly fabled Adelaide chef Ann Oliver, so after a little sleuthing and help from the lovely Prof Barbara Santich, also justly fabled in foodie circles, I found the recipe and upon reading it was inspired to have a go myself, if only to find out whether something as apparently disgusting as suet really could be somehow successfully incorporated into a justly fabled Christmas Puddin'.

Stage 1 is now bedded down in the red bowl, and since one bowl of dried fruit soaking in alcohol doesn't look all that different from another bowl of dried fruit soaking in alcohol, especially if it's the same bowl, I won't take and post another photo.

But what I would dearly, dearly love to do is blog the smell. The smell, in the order in which the ingredients were added, is of combined raisins, sultanas, dried cranberries, candied peel, glacé ginger, glacé cherries, glacé apricots, soft pitted dates, lemon juice, blood-orange juice, grated rind of oranges and lemons, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, Guinness and cognac.

Fresh, dark, sweet and sharp. Overwhelmingly all of those things at once. Seductive beyond measure.

The bowl is covered in clingwrap while the fruit soaks up all the groggy juicy goodness, and hidden away high up in a dark cupboard, safe(ish) from the depredations of tortoiseshell omnivores, treacherous weather and puddin' thieves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

From the Bureau of Meteorology

Issued at 6:55 am CDT on Thursday, 19 November 2009.

Thursday, 19 November 2009 is forecast to be very hot and dry for all of South Australia. Fresh to strong north to northwest winds over the west of the state, will shift fresh southwesterly with a change reaching Ceduna mid afternoon and a line Tarcoola to Adelaide around midnight.

Catastrophic Fire Danger [100+] is forecast for the West Coast, Eastern Eyre Peninsula and Lower Eyre Peninsula Total Fire Ban districts.

Extreme Fire Danger [75-99] is forecast for the Northwest Pastoral and Flinders Total Fire Ban districts.

Severe Fire Danger [50-74] is forecast for the Mid North Total Fire Ban district.

The Country Fire Service advises that fires burning under these conditions are likely to be fast moving, unpredictable and uncontrollable. You should action your Bushfire Survival Plan now.

The forecast maximum temperature for Adelaide today is 43 degrees. Ceduna and Leigh Creek are expecting 45, Port Augusta 47.

Yesterday was the first day on which the new system of identifying fire danger in South Australia made use of the category Catastrophic. 'Catastrophic', aka 'Code Red', basically means 'Leave now, flee, run for your lives.' One of the regions listed under this red code is Lower Eyre Peninsula, the site of an uncontrollable bushfire in January 2005, a fire in which nine people died and dozens more were rendered homeless, penniless, and/or permanently damaged in some other way. The events of the fire had a long tail of depression, PTSD and suicide.

On the news last night they were interviewing people from the affected rural areas. Obviously the TV station (Seven, I think) edited their footage to suit their own purposes, and who knows what agendas lurk in the hearts of producers of commercial TV news, but everyone whose interview made it to the screen responded with that combination of steely and laconic that I remember so well from having grown up with it, in a slightly (but only slightly) kinder, gentler part of rural South Australia. (UPDATE: here, in fact, where the only SA bushfire of the day so far has broken out two paddocks across from the house I grew up in. Fark.)

Two fortyish, weatherbeaten male farmers said they wouldn't leave unless there was an actual fire. A young woman with kids was cross that the schools had been closed, not because it meant she had the kids at home (most country people regard that as an advantage; they can help with the work) but because she felt her kids were unnecessarily missing out on a precious day of education. One dear old hatted dude in the pub, a man of at least 80 and probably older, scorned the idea of leaving. 'There's no fire. And,' he added, looking the camera in the eye, 'I wouldn't be scared or worried if there was.' It was very obvious that he didn't necessarily mean he thought he was safe. Country people live with death on a daily basis and learn to look it in the eye.

My guess is that in the endless quest for ratings the station was pandering to the prejudices of urban viewers by trying to make country people look too stupid to come in out of the rain. If so, it sort of backfired; they looked at least as brave as they looked silly. I wasn't sure whether to admire them or scream at them. But I guess those two things aren't mutually exclusive.

The Curramulka fire started about a mile back over where my right shoulder would have been when I took this photo, which faces south. The paddock you can see to the right of the tree in the middle of the picture would have been one of the first to burn. My childhood home is a couple of hundred metres down this road on the left. The township is down where you can see the land dipping into a hollow like a saucer or a nest, about 5 km south of here.

The fire passed by very close to the town and headed south-east. It's now been contained, but about an hour ago there was supposed to be a wind change that might push it back towards the town along a projected path that would lead it directly towards the cemetery where my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents are buried. If those gravestones are damaged my father is going to be very seriously dark.

UPDATE UPDATE, 10.30 pm: Yep, here we go; the cemetery and further north what used to be our family farm are smack in the middle of this danger area. I've been watching that dry lightning in the western sky across the gulf ever since it got dark.

In December 1869, great-great-granpappy got forced over the cliff and into the sea with his son John and the horse and cart by a bushfire that unbeknownst to them until hours later had already killed the shepherd, the shepherd's son and over a thousand sheep. G-G-Granpa and his boy trod water while bits of burning debris rained down on them, along this same stretch of coast that's now under threat again, in the same bay where I learned to swim. The fire will probably pass over all four of their graves, and they'll be shaking their heads skulls and saying Oh great, here we go again.

This region is family heartland. Not happy.

UPDATE #3, midnight:

Okay, that was scary.

It's still filthy hot here, oven-hot, so I got in the car and drove the ten minutes to the same beach where the boy from the Bruce Springsteen song held his girl so sadly while the sun set into the sea and the kids rode the water slide and the merry-go-round a couple of nights ago. It's another Springsteen night tonight, the sea roaring and shadowy couples in shorts and sundresses lined up in cars along the edge of the dunes or trailing down to the beach with ice creams and tinnies.

I'd thought I might be able to see some sort of glow from the fire across the gulf. But I wasn't prepared for the actual line of golden, flickering flames where my and my father's and his father's and his father's childhood beaches were on fire in the dark, due west across the water. A few miles south of the fire I could see the faint lights of a town that must have been Port Vincent, now quite a big town, full of apprehensive people all still up with the lights on, thinking about what to do: full of women alone, still up, still dressed, making cups of coffee and cups of tea, checking on the kids, watching the phone while their blokes were out at the fire, waiting for their blokes to come home.

I pulled up on the esplanade and wound down the car window. Under the heavy complicated smell of the incoming tide and the wind in the pines and the cars along the foreshore and the warm spitty rain hitting the hot road in tiny drops and steaming, under all that, there was the faintest note of smoke.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Um, no

Reading my emailed online Age this morning I was a bit shocked to see at the top of the Top Stories the headline 'Praying for twins Trishna, Krishna'. The article itself was a perfectly workpersonlike report on the progress of the surgical team in Melbourne working on the separation of the conjoined Bangladeshi twins. No mention was made of prayer, nor was any subject attached to that verb 'praying'.

But be damned if the Adelaide Advertiser, as I found out later in the day, wasn't doing almost the same thing: on the front page, with a large photograph, there appears the headline: 'Nation prays for Trishna and Krishna'.

Now look. I wish those children nothing but well. They're out of surgery and into intensive care, now, after a 27-hour operation. According to the most recent news updates I can find, they are still okay and that is fabulous. Every time I heard an update about the surgery on the news last night and again today, I wished the surgeons and the littlies well, and marvelled, recalling some of the unforgettable 19th century things -- including a number of skeletons of conjoined twins -- that I saw in specimen jars in Vienna's Museum of Pathological Anatomy, at what is now surgically possible.

But I wasn't "praying" for either the surgeons or the children and I'm damn sure most of the rest of the country wasn't either. This kind of thing provokes the same shudder of irritation that passes through me whenever the Prime Minister uses the word "evil" in a public speech. The discourse of Christianity belongs in the churches and the homes of Christians. When you use it in public life you are effectively saying that its concepts are real for everyone, and you are forcing non-Christians into active resistance, which may not be the effect you were trying to achieve.

Australia is, or is supposed to be, a secular country. As one of its citizens, I believe in mindfulness, in suffering, and in the alleviation of suffering. But I don't believe in prayer and I don't believe in evil, and being spoken for by politicians and newspapers as if I did believe in them makes me want to spit in somebody's eye.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where's Bruce Springsteen when you need him?

As I pulled up round the corner from the late-night supermarket, they were standing across the road in a little car park. Both in their twenties with dark hair, her with a pixie haircut and a dark brown pencil skirt to the knee.

He was leaning in towards her and holding her gently in his arms with his hands on her shoulderblades. She was standing straight, with her hands clasped low behind her back.

The natural thing would have been for her to embrace him back, but she wasn't. She was exactly the right height to rest her chin on his shoulder, but she wasn't.

When I came out of the supermarket ten minutes later they were still standing in the car park in exactly the same positions they had been in before. I turned on the ignition and let out the handbrake and as I looked up to check the traffic I saw him back away from her, take a handkerchief out of his pocket, wipe his eyes and blow his nose. She wasn't saying anything.

Round the corner and down the street, the white wedding-cake Palais building on the foreshore was lit up with electric blue. On the beach and in the park you could have barely moved for grateful bodies, out in the cool change, eating ice-creams and chips. Norfolk Island pines and wheeling chip-scrounging seagulls were silhouetted against the sky. Kids in bathers begged to be allowed another funfair ride and bad little boys tried to climb over the barrier blocking off the storm-wrecked jetty. Shreds of pale pink in the sky showed where the sun had sunk into the sea; they looked like faint reflections of the red tail-lights lined up along the esplanade. It was just light enough to see, but not to read, the signs in the sand dunes that warn the unwary beachgoer of snakes.

Further thoughts on the Random Academic Sentence Generator

As envisaged, I spent most of yesterday afternoon playing with the toy linked to in the post before last, and from that ludic activity (see what I did there?) a number of things emerged, as is so often the case with play.

You need to have a little play with the Generator in order to understand what it's doing. Stephanie in the comments thread assumed that it was about simple dislike of academic language (and perhaps more specifically the academic language of the humanities, especially of social theory), but really it's far more about making fun of people who over- or mis-use that language, usually out of ineptitude. It's not a mockery of general academic style (if such a thing really exists; more about that later) but a far more specific holding up to ridicule of the automatic resort to the buzzword du jour. It's a resort that characterises many a postgrad conference paper -- often, sadly, a paper full of what might have been good ideas, if only said ideas had been allowed to emerge from the cloud of abstract diction employed not so much as to do full justice to the ideas as to signal (albeit semi-consciously) the paper-giver's cred to her or his peeps and peers.

Most of the people who express general irritation, dislike and scorn of the kind of words involved in this game are people who are unfamiliar with those words and therefore feel confronted and belittled when they see them being used by somebody else. It's a version of something a fellow-student once said to me, while in earnest in pursuit of her Honours degree in literature, about how T.S. Eliot really shouldn't have written bits of 'The Waste Land' in German and Sanskrit and what-all else, because he should have known that lots of people -- like her, for example -- wouldn't understand them.

But it's clear that the Sentence Generator game was invented by someone very familiar with the vocabulary of social theory, the sort of familiarity that is of necessity always the case with good parody. The Portsmouth Sinfonia

(there are at least two, possibly even three, quite good sopranos in there, which, as a discriminating observer points out in the comments thread, kinda ruins it)

or Alexander McCall Smith's Really Terrible Orchestra

(again, it's the sops who are a little bit too good to do this performance justice)

are well aware of the humour intrinsic to their bad playing of music they love (as the conductor of the Portsmouth Sinfonia once remarked, 'Somehow the closer we get, the funnier it is'), and anyone who was ever present at the legendary Parody Nights held at the annual conferences of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature will be likewise aware that effectively making fun of something can only be done out of a deep familiarity with your subject. I think the people who invented the Generator were having the same sort of in-joke as whoever wrote that wonderful faux-glossary that did the rounds some years ago, identifying the 'meaning' of the names of numerous philosophers and theorists. To this day I occasionally find myself thinking 'Ooh yuk, this omelette has gone all Merleau-Ponty.'

What the Random Academic Sentence Generator does (see examples in rainbow colours, in that last post but one) is produce sentences in the form of simple thesis statements or arguable propositions. The syntax of every sentence it produces is the same: 'The A of B Cs the D of E', where everything except C is an abstract noun or noun phrase. It's the kind of thing that Lewis Carroll would have loved, and that his weird creatures would have said all the time and probably have stretched to include direct paradox. The happiness of unhappiness reveals the mundanity of distinction. The profitability of loss resides in the rubberiness of exactitude.

Or you could do it -- with a vengeance -- with managerial language: the rationalisation of the organisation strategises the bendability of key-player identification. Or, to take an example closer to home, the magisteriality of felinitude underlies the performance of cathood.

Etc. Ask me to defend any one of those propositions and I will do so vigorously. It's not about the absence of logic or of truth; the more I played with the Generator the more astonished I became as I realised that almost every sentence it Generates can be defended as a logical proposition and quite possibly actually true as well. Abstract nouns are just like that.

To reiterate: what's being parodied and mocked by this game is not so much either the specific words or the general style, but rather the kind of use to which both are too often put. 'Academic language' is not a separate species; the academics who are also good writers (by which I mean here 'fully aware, thoughtful and discriminating about their word choices and their syntax') freely use the specialist vocabulary of their discipline, whatever that discipline may happen to be, as a way of identifying quite precise and specific things -- theories, concepts, ways of seeing -- but are able to use that vocabulary to clarify rather than to obfuscate, and to do so within a framework of accessible, engaging writing. 'Academic writing' doesn't occur inside a box, but along a spectrum of usage and style.

And I quite like specialist academic vocabularies, not least because I know that the thinkers who come up with them are almost always well-intentioned and benign. In a way it's the opposite effect from the one you get in the broad use of managerial language that Don Watson takes on in Bendable Learnings, and maybe this is partly because the purpose of so much managerial language is -- unlike the language of thinkers and scholars -- deliberate moral obfuscation. If you start out using 'rationalise' to skate over the fact that six hundred people have lost their jobs, or 'incentivise' to mean 'offer an indecent amount of money to one person who doesn't put in anywhere near as many hours as a truckie desperate to keep his job or the working mother of pre-school twins', it's an easy step from there to a whole managerial layer trained to say that the scale of the event potentiality is likely to negatively impact the outcomes, instead of 'Oh my God there's a monstrous unfightable fire headed your way in overdrive, get the hell out of there as fast as you can.'

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Normal people just keep cars in the garage

but some of us are running breeding programs.

Like a cat with a wind-up mousie

A person could play with this random academic sentence generator (props to my FBF Deborah Green) all afternoon. The real challenge here is to generate a sentence that actually makes perfect sense: a sentence upon the meaning of which one could elaborate convincingly if challenged. The green one in particular is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

The fiction of history as such functions as the conceptual frame for the discourse of print culture.

The emergence of civil society invests itself in the systemization of the public sphere.

The illusion of post-capitalist hegemony recapitulates the legitimation of agency.

The linguistic construction of normative value(s) asks to be read as the discourse of linguistic transparency.

The eroticization of the gaze functions as the conceptual frame for the authentication of the gendered body.

The (re)formation of praxis opens a space for the systemization of pedagogical institutions.

The emergence of pop culture recapitulates the fantasy of the specular economy.

Pounce claw toss batbatbat spraggle-upon-waggle pounce. Repeat 9,000 times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'We must sit down and work'

If you have 25 minutes to watch it, this is just lovely: two of the most elegant and eloquent women I know, Helen Garner and Anna Goldsworthy, at the launch of Anna's memoir Piano Lessons at Janet Clarke Hall where Anna is Artist-in Residence. Watch the whole thing if you possibly can; after Anna speaks, she plays a Chopin nocturne and then there's a quick snippet of her teacher, the extraordinary Eleanora Sivan. The heckling baby you can hear is Anna's son Reuben, born last summer.

The price of books: on the one hand this and on the other hand that, and anyway, nobody knows

In the wake of the federal government's decision the day before yesterday to reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation on Australian books and maintain the status quo on parallel importation, there's a fair amount of passionate discussion around -- here, for example -- about whether or not it was a good decision.

The free marketeers are really going to town on it, apparently unable to see it as anything but a straightforward market issue -- books as pure commodity, as in 'I'm not giving you a book for Christmas, you've already got a book'. Most of their arguments are based on the unspoken assumption that the producer/consumer relationship is at once symbiotic and fundamentally adversarial in literature (as it truly is in so many other activities), something they would know to be far from the truth if they had enough interest in literature to hang about at a few writers' festivals and observe the behaviour of the crowds.

I've always had a lot of respect for Allan Fels, but if he has anywhere actually addressed the concerns of those who feared damage and loss to Australian literary cultures, subcultures, infrastructures, practitioners and readers, instead of just saying the same thing over and over again, then I have yet to see it.

The free-market types are scornfully trashing the articles, essays, explanations and submissions from authors and publishers (including this particularly lucid piece by Text publisher Michael Heyward) as mere expressions of self-interest and therefore to be ignored. But whatever self-interest might have been involved (as if it were necessarily desirable, or even possible, to be both knowledgable and neutral on such a matter), these literary types addressed a broad range of concerns and explored various intricacies: of national and international publishing; of publishing contracts; and of the probable effects of the proposed changes on the ability of Australian writers to make a living -- and on the probable survival, or not, of the Australian literary culture that so many people have worked so hard for so long to establish, maintain and expand.

Since reading, writing, teaching, scholarship, reviewing, editing, interviewing, anthologising, prize-judging, blogging and what-all else inside said literary culture have been my life's work, I did have and still do have just a bit of a stake in whether or not, in literature as in so much else, the local and the national get subsumed in the global and every aspect of Australian history, landscape, cityscape, vernacular and regional variation disappears from our literature in an attempt to compete in the global market.

(I myself, for example, am working on a pitch to publishers involving the tale of a teenage sparkly vampire from Rivendell who finds an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed with mysterious mathematical formulae, wedged into a secret panel at the back of the wardrobe in the Master of Ormond College's bedroom, which is guarded by a T. Rex and an albino hippogriff called Layla, creatures past which she manages to slip with the combined aid of Heathcliff, Mr Darcy and Captain Jack Sparrow. Wish me luck.)

Anyway, such were the arguments of authors and publishers and they looked pretty reasonable to me. Among the submissions to the Commission I can see the names of at least 40 writers, booksellers, publishers and agents I've known and respected for decades -- Frank Moorhouse's submission is worth reading for its own sake just as an exceptional piece of writing -- but then I read this most excellent blog post by that most excellent blogger Bernice Balconey, who has written several subsequent posts on the subject, and is an energetic participant in the discussion at Larvatus Prodeo linked to above; Bernice's original post was the first argument for change I'd read from someone with insider knowledge of the Australian book industry and it is still the most persuasive. Some of her points have been convincingly answered by various commentators but the one I can't go past is her summary point: 'the cat is out of the bag. The consumer exists in a truly global market'. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for metaphors about cats and bags. There are some things there I don't agree with and others I wish I didn't agree with but Bernice very clearly knows whereof she speaks and as a blogger and commenter over the years she has given me every reason to trust her judgement, especially in such matters as this.

So once I'd read Bernice's post I gave up any ambition to take up a position on this. There are too many variables and too many unknowns, and the issues are too numerous and too complex and in some cases too self-contradictory, and there are too many possible computations and permutations and too many things have been brought into the argument, things that may or may not turn out to be relevant -- though I was struck by the clarity of two very different points made today on Crikey in a piece by one Michael R. James:
E-books. Utterly irrelevant to the argument, even if the statements about them being the death of printed books within the decade may come true. So what? Let’s pre-emptively destroy our local publishing industry before e-books do?

Copyright territoriality. Abolishing the PIR abolishes this. Australia would be removing it unilaterally while the UK and the USA have absolutely no intention of removing theirs. [My emphasis.] As bloggers have shown, [Guy] Rundle’s argument about Eire and earlier ones about New Zealand actually demonstrate the opposite: i.e. the loss of any publishing industry in countries that remove all restrictions.

As James suggests, many of the arguments being made on both sides are to do with the unforeseeable changes in the technology -- imagine yourself in 1985 trying to explain to someone else what a Kindle was. But the only thing in the whole tangled web of argument that seems even remotely clear is that nobody really knows what will happen, or would have happened, either way.

Even the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (among other things), Craig Emerson, who was behind the push to lift the restrictions, admits (all quotations from here) that
The Productivity Commission report acknowledged that removing these restrictions would adversely affect Australian authors, publishers and culture.

He also went on to say
The Commission recommended extra budgetary funding of authors and publishers to compensate them for this loss.

Yeah, yeah. Show us the money, Craig. Core promise, is it?

And furthermore,
The Government has decided not to commit to a new spending program for Australian authors and publishers. The Australian book printing and publishing industries will need to respond to the increasing competition from imports without relying on additional government assistance.

So yah boo sucks to you, eh? This sounds like a totally empty retro-threat to me -- "We'll say we were going to, although we didn't tell you that, but now we're not, so you've bitten off your noses to spite your faces. Or maybe not. You'll never know now, will you, so nyerdy nyer." This particular dummy spit looks to me like the words of a man whose ego has been bruised by the failure of his pet proposal to get up.

It's bizarre to see the free-market types joining forces with consumer advocates like Fels (apparently not an advocate of consumers of Australian books) while sneeringly dismissing the other side as 'economically illiterate', a phrase many of them are using to mean 'they don't share my world view, which is, of course, the only possible one'.

In my own case, why yes, it is indeed perfectly true that I know next to nothing about economics, having, like most people, spent my adult life studying and practising other things. And that is why I have refrained from forming, much less expressing, an opinion. What a shame those who know nothing about literature don't think they need to take the same precautions. The culturally illiterate blithely using a metaphor about reading skills to diss their perceived opponents is a very neat irony, the more so since -- being fundamentally uninterested in literature and its effects -- they're not equipped to notice it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I'm seeing a lot of complaining from east of the border about how hot it is. Now the Victorians just aren't used to sunshine and you have to feel sorry for the poor sausages, but can I just say that since Sunday the maximum temperatures in Adelaide have been 35, 37, 37 and 39, with today, tomorrow and both days on the weekend forecast to go to or above 39. Which will make it by far the longest November heatwave in Adelaide on record. How Emergency Services plan to deploy themselves for the several hours on Saturday morning when the iconic John Martin's Christmas Pageant and the International Three-Day-Event are both on is anybody's guess. Organisers have refused to cancel either event and it could end up a Guernica of dead horses and passed-out Santas FATHER CHRISTMASES DAMMIT.

If the SA Government had actually done something decisive and productive about water catchment and management seven years ago when they first got into office, and if the Eastern States had not conspired to kill the river out of greed, and if we hadn't watched gigalitres of rainfall go to waste all winter, and if one out of two Adelaideans were not openly flouting the water restrictions and admitting as much to journalists from the Advertiser, I might feel less enraged about watching the garden die.

If we're getting February weather in early November, it's likely that February will be beyond endurance. I thought last year, around the time of the fires when the temps got up to 47 degrees, that we were in unchartered waters, but it looks as if this summer is going to be, like, unchartereder.

If cats really were as intelligent as they are supposed to be, then there would not be two tortoiseshells stretched out with feline expressions of reproachful suffering on the hottest room in the house, where there is no aircon and no insulation in that part of the roof, instead of hot-pawing it to the study or the bedroom and bunking down there for the duration.

And if it's just going to stay at 39 degrees for the rest of my life, then I'm not at all sure how long the rest of my life is going to be.


Sometimes it's because someone else will be hurt, sometimes it's because someone else will be humiliated, sometimes it's because someone else will be enraged, sometimes it's because you'll permanently alienate at least three people important to you, sometimes it's because you don't trust your own motives, sometimes it's because you'll get done like a dinner for defamation and sometimes it's because it's against all the rules of civilised life to tell what you know.

But oh dearie me, I don't think it's ever been all of those at once before. No wonder I can't concentrate.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some thoughts on crime fiction: 1

I've just finished reading the latest Patricia Cornwell. Its title is The Scarpetta Factor, which considering that the previous one was just called Scarpetta suggests to me that Cornwell has utterly lost any interest she may once have had in decently clothing her obsessions.

Cornwell has always been obsessed with Scarpetta, for reasons not far to seek -- compare the physical descriptions of the character with the jacket photos of the author and draw your own conclusions -- but in the early books she was at least as interested in the baddies as she was in the goodies. It's been a long time, at least five or six novels, since Scarpetta's paranoid narcissism became the clear raison d'être of the books and the books became repetitive chants about Scarpetta and her circle and the awful people who keep trying to upset and hurt them, chants in which we the readers are still expected to be enchanted by Scarpetta's repulsive niece Lucy and the only believable character is the flawed Pete Marino and often not him either, with occasional brief, bored mentions of the bad guys.

Why then, you ask, did I pick up a copy from the stack in K-Mart that I happened to be walking past, and, having done so, read it through to the end, which is more than I have been able to manage with the new Ian Rankin? And reader, well may you ask. I don't know the answer either. But it's told me something useful that I'd not consciously realised before about what makes good crime fiction.

What makes good crime fiction is the constant interaction between the criminal and the decoder -- whether private detective, police detective, forensic pathologist or whatever -- and the way those forces are balanced, not only in the abstract moral narrative but within the telling of the tale. Cornwell has lost interest, if she ever had any real interest, in the criminal and the crime; her criminals are crudely grotesque and overblown, like the hairy French freak who turns up again in this new book, and she is far more interested in her little Scarpetta circle and the way they interact with each other, with particular reference -- wholly unironic -- to money, status, brand names and big toys. I don't think there can be another successful novelist on the planet who makes such frequent and earnest use of brand names as a mode of characterisation -- which in turn makes you wonder about the product placement aspect.

Balanced interaction and interchange of point of view is what makes crime fiction worth reading: fiction in which Good v Evil is a struggle that is (a) evenly matched, (b) real and (c) morally complicated within that dichotomy. It's (c) that makes for really exceptional crime fiction, as with the flawed-detective model (Peter Temple has produced an absolute blinder in this respect with Truth), with the sympathy-for-the-criminal's-seriously-horrible-background (Val McDermid is the mistress of this variant) or, most of all, as with Thomas Harris's truly exceptional first two Hannibal Lecter books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, where the narrative turns with delicate precision on the moral and psychological complications and manipulations of readerly sympathy and empathy for two major characters: Will Graham of Red Dragon, with his troubled and near-uncanny feel for the mind and heart of the bad guy, and, of course, Hannibal Lecter himself.

Crime fiction, like comedy (as in Shakespeare, not as in standup), is essentially a conservative genre, one in which the narrative trajectory is to do with the restoration of social order but, within that, privileges the individual psyche and individual freedoms. Most literary private detective heroes are by nature libertarians, and most tales of crime are about the way the individual psyche became deranged in the first place, though many (again like Peter Temple) are also acutely conscious of the social forces that set up the conditions for such derangements. It's not a simple thing. Really exceptional crime writers understand all of that, and factor all of it in.