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.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The cake is in the oven

As threatened, I have made Deborah Strange Land's family's traditional Christmas cake, and it is in the oven.

Deborah has beautiful photos of hers here so I didn't take bother to take any pictures of mine (particularly since my brown-paper wrapping on the cake tin looks like the work of a drunken three-year-old) except right at the beginning when the raisins, currants, sultanas, dates and glacé cherries were marinating in the brandy in the big red pottery bowl that S and P gave me one Christmas (I think) after I had admired theirs.

It's an essential part of the recipe at this in-the-oven point that you contact your female nearest and dearest to say that your Christmas cake is in the oven and you are thinking of them. And so, dear girly blogfriends, I am. (And any of the blokes what are interested, too; this may not be a permissible variant, but I'm fairly sure that at least half the men who read this blog are better cooks than I am, apart from anything else.)

Yesterday there was a good omen when I grabbed up a pair of very cheap loose light white cotton trousers from India via K-Mart, not even bothering to try them on, on a whim on my way to the checkout (the single hardest-to-find item in the whole Christmas cake shopping list? Brown wrapping paper), only to discover, when I arrived home, two things:

(1) We in Adders are set for the worst November heatwave on record, starting at 35 degrees on Sunday and up to 37 on Monday, which will last all week and possibly go on longer than that, and the white trousers (which fit perfectly and don't even need to be taken up) are the perfect garment for lying round the house whingeing and moaning in; and

(2) an acceptable alternative to almond paste/marzipan, which is the traditional undercoat for Christmas cake decoration but which makes many people gag, is a thing called Rolled Fondant that I found in Rose Levy Berenbaum's The Cake Bible, the instructions for which include a directive to wear all-white clothes while you're making it, because a single stray thread can discolour the fondant.

So, double serendipity. Sweet.

There is one thing very wrong with this recipe, though. Either Grandma Strange Land or Deborah herself has inexplicably left the kitteh hair out of the list of ingredients.

That has been remedied.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Code for 'we don't care'

When I first saw this article about Publishers Weekly and its all-male-author Best Books of 2009 (ah yes, it's that time of year again), it took me a minute to work out the title: 'Why Weren't Any Women Invited to Publishers Weekly's Weenie Roast?' I'd always thought 'wienie' as in 'wiener' as in 'frankfurter' was spelt with an 'ie' not an 'ee', and it's not clear whether 'weenie' is used here as a variant or a disparaging pun (though I'd like to think the latter), but either way it is, in this context, American for what we in Australia call a sausage fest. Boys' Own, if you like.

It was only yesterday that I was looking around the nation's various literary-cultural-political mags, blogs and websites and noticing with growing dismay that the general ratio of male to female writers represented -- both the people writing for the journals and blogs and magazines and the people being written about -- seems to have nose-dived*, even just since the beginning of this year, back to the good old days where 'male' meant the norm and 'female' meant some lesser variant; yet again I was reminded of the great Simone de Beauvoir, than whom nobody has ever described this phenomenon better. 'There are two kinds of people: human beings and women.'

And it was only last night that an otherwise apparently intelligent commenter on a literary blog referred disparagingly to 'the worst kind of 80s PC', apparently meaning that all that silly nonsense about considering the presence in the world of female people and black people and gay people that we used to have to bend the knee to is merely a memory of a now-despised fad , like satin jumpsuits and big hair, and it's über-cool in 2009 to have sunk right back into our straight white male supremacist good ole boy ways, as into a comfy yet manly chair, clutching the remote in one hand and a stubby in the other. (I'm sorry, I would have liked to have put that another way.)

And then up will go the passionate cry of 'But never mind all this gender nonsense, isn't it just about literary merit??', and back will echo faintly for the nine millionth time from a chorus of exhausted feminists that 'literary merit' is not an exact science, but is rather assessed by the values of the dominant culture, and if the dominant culture is a sausage fest, then, well, you know.

(Though one must look on the bright side: that list of ten books by blokes may ignore the fact that Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have both had books out this year, but at least it doesn't include the most overrated writer and sausage fest ornament of the 20th century, Philip Roth.)

I wrote here earlier this year about how gobsmacking it was that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges didn't notice that they'd come up with an all-male shortlist in a year when there were at least five realistic female contenders for the prize, and apparently this kind of 'human beings and women' thinking is once more rife in the US as well. After pondering last night with such disquiet on the turn things seemed to be taking, I wasn't as surprised as I wish I had been this morning to see a feminist Facebook Friend linking that post about the Publishers Weekly list. Here's that post's hook, a line strongly recommended as the default comeback next time some bloke -- or rogue girl trawling for the boys' approval -- accuses you dismissively of being 'just PC':

So is the flipside here that including women authors on the list would just have been an empty, politically correct gesture? When PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ They know they’re being blatantly sexist, but it looks like they feel good about that.

* It is however a relief to see that the November issue of Australian Book Review, which arrived today and which I just finished reading, does honourably buck this trend a bit: writers/reviewers include an Alison, an Andrea, a Belinda, a Claudia, a Gay, a Jacqueline, a Jane, two Judiths, two Kates, a Kylie, a Melinda, a Rosaleen (the lead article), a Sarah and a Stephanie, while the written-about include an Anna, an Emily, a Jan, a Jeanette, a Jenny, a Jeri, a Mandy and a Ruth.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Prime Minister's Literary Awards ...

... were announced today. Evelyn Juers' House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann shared the nonfiction prize with Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake's Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, while Nam Le's The Boat, to no-one's surprise despite the quality of the shortlist, won the fiction prize outright.

There's something unusually coherent about this set of winners; together, qua winners, they have about them the feel of a viewpoint new in Australian literary prizegiving, a strong whiff of post-nationalist awareness. Drawing the Global Colour Line is, as its title suggests, global in the scope of its analysis, while The Boat has been widely praised for its cosmopolitanism and its range, containing stories set in several countries. House of Exile is a 'group biography' of author and activist Heinrich Mann, his partner Nelly Kroeger and their several overlapping circles of acquaintances and friends, including Virginia Woolf (about whom there are some beautiful and surprising stories) and Heinrich's brother Thomas Mann, who despised and looked down on Nelly as a schreckliche Trulle which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

So congrats to the 2009 nonfiction judges Phillip Adams, Peter Rose and Joan Beaumont, and fiction judges Peter Pierce, Lyn Gallacher and John Hay, for taking the long, broad view of what, within its official brief, an Australian literary award might encompass. Especially a Prime Minister's literary award, the judging process for which one might have expected to be somehow more rah-rah but is glad it wasn't. This is not for a moment to disparage more nationally focused awards, which have an important place, but only to be pleased that there's also room for books like these to rise to the top of the pile.

I've owned all three for yonks but to my shame haven't read any of them yet, except for Nam Le's story 'Halflead Bay' for a review of Mandy Sayer's anthology The Australian Long Story. It's not quite a question of not having the time. It's more that books of this quality demand an answering quality of mind in their readers, a sharpness of focus and subtlety of attention that it can be very hard to bring to non-work reading when reading is what you do for a living. Because you need to be in a particularly alert and receptive state of mind to do any of these books proper justice as reading-for-pleasure.

'This new work took on fresh urgency with the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and the pitiless application of eugenic principles and racial technologies -- many of which had been rehearsed under colonial regimes -- in the heartland of Europe, the results of which were to finally scarify the conscience of the world.'

'Keep a straight back, Mrs Sasaki says. Wipe the floor with your spirit.'

'But the party was in full swing, the atmosphere rippling with anecdotes and laughter, so much so that a button popped off the decolletage of Nelly's red velvet dress to reveal the splendid contours of her lacy bra. I like to think that the little red velvet button described a perfect arc across the table and landed right on top of Thomas Mann's Charlotte surprise.'

Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary

Making Deborah Strange Land's Grandmother's Traditional Christmas Cake ...

... the recipe for which is here.

Stage 1: Shopping

Scary, innit. I've never made a Christmas cake before in my life, but there is a first time for everything.

Stay tuned.