Thursday, April 29, 2010

Poor old Gordon Brown

So since when was calling a bigot a bigot a gaffe?


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This is just wrong

The gendered search rules

If you have to write short reviews of the four novels you've read in the last week and you find you've mislaid one of the novels and the deadline is today, it's kind of a big deal. For ten or fifteen minutes, you flap about like a panic-stricken chook, ineffectually turning over piles of paper and clean laundry.

Then you regroup and write a list:

1) Take deep breath.

2) Have a girl's look.

3) Find book almost straight away.

4) Wonder what on earth it was doing half-hidden in a bagful of yesterday's shopping.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blog post of the week

Go and have a look at this lovely piece by Tim Dunlop for the ABC's The Drum on the achievements of Tony Abbott, including discussion of the Budgie's 'unconventional approach to policy' and his 'malleable approach to straightforwardness'.

The comments thread, featuring character analyses of Kevin 'Mugabe' Rudd and Tim 'Red to the Core' Dunlop himself, is also good for a laugh, but is not for the faint-hearted.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ANZAC Day dot points

* Because I still have my Sydney Morning Herald weekly book reviewing gig, I am still reading a minimum of four novels a week. In several different ways it's the most wonderful education, and I think most people would be astonished to learn how many contemporary novels are, one way or another, about one or both of the two World Wars. In particular, the effects and after-effects of World War 2, like bruises from some gigantic, crushing injury, are still coming up and out and showing in lurid colours on the surface of contemporary consciousness, especially, but not exclusively, in Europe.

But the Great War gets its share of attention from novelists too, and I read another one only recently. That wasn't long after I'd sat down and figured out the details of what my paternal grandfather's battalion, the Tenth, had actually been doing during the war while he was in it, from 1915: too late for ANZAC Cove but in plenty of time for the Western Front.

They were shunted back and forth between two of the worst places, Ypres and the Somme, for around three years. Three years of wading through mud, disintegrating body parts and large well-fed rats. Apart from anything else, I can't help wondering what he was thinking as he watched his only son -- his only child -- set off at seventeen to join the Navy in 1944.

* If I read one more inane blog post, tweet (is there no-one who will save this woman from herself?) or op ed about ANZAC Day and its construction and commemoration written by someone who's never heard of either C.E.W. Bean or Alan Seymour but isn't letting their total ignorance of (1) the single fundamental fact about the creation of the 'ANZAC Legend' or (2) the first real challenge to it in Australian culture (New Zealand may have its literary or historical equivalent) get in the way of a good self-righteous rant, I'm going to break something valuable and then throw up on the shattered fragments. Yes some people glorify war. No others don't. Yes it's used to sell papers and get TV ratings. No that's not actually ANZAC Day's fault, you morons.

And yes, some of us have soldiers, sailors and air(wo)men in the family history and no we don't want to forget about what they endured. I habitually get through the worst times in my own life by thinking about what some of my ancestors had to go through. They are a massive well of strength to draw on.

* I think I've pretty much exhausted my own archival material in former ANZAC Day posts, which can be found here, here and here.

* The biscuits, they rock. My grandfather, famous for his approach to food (and why wouldn't you be, after three years in the trenches), was wont to say to my mother as he reached for whatever was left on any given serving plate or bowl: "I'll just clean this up for you, Kerrie." To this day my sisters and I say this whenever anyone reaches for the last cupcake or the dregs of the champagne, and then fall about shrieking. He would have eaten the whole tray and come back for seconds.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All women's fault(line): whoever would have thought?

It's not very scholarly of me, but I'm going to assume that the Doonesbury page, in its 'Say What?' feature, is accurate both in its quotation and in the attribution of the quotation:

Many women who do not dress modestly... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.

-- Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi

One has heard of the earth moving but one never realised this was what they meant. I guess that little earthquake here in Adders the other night was caused by the number of people rudely bonking other people's wives and husbands reaching critical mass and causing some kind of butterfly-effect electro-magnetic earth-vibration thingy. It was Friday night, after all.

Next time you see someone say 'Human rights trumps cultural sensitivity', this is the kind of thing they're talking about. Mind you, I wish I could say that one never sees this kind of staggeringly wilful, or wilfully staggering, ignorance wheeled out to support ideological oppression and the maintenance of social power structures in the West, but unfortunately it happens all the time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Papa Cat's War, Part 2: 1944

Guest blogger: Papa Cat

'Mallee to Matelot'

Maybe it was learning of the exploits of Raleigh, Drake and Nelson at school in the 1930s (when history was still taught) [Never mind the editorialising, concentrate on the reminiscence -- Ed], or perhaps it was a fortunate sea trip to the UK in 1935 that influenced me to join the Navy during WW2. More likely, the fact that one could apply to join at age 17 was the deciding factor.

In any event, on 4 July 1944, I found myself with 20 or so other pimply-faced youths [He was not -- Ed] being sworn in to the service in the old drill hall of shore establishment HMAS Torrens, Birkenhead, South Australia.

That afternoon we entrained for Crib Point, home of Flinders Naval Depot, also known as HMAS Cerberus, south-east of Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula, about 90 minutes (in those days) by train from Melbourne.

The rail trip and the first few days after our arrival remain somewhat blurred, but were a mixture of swapping names, home towns or suburbs, being organised into classes, getting our shots, being allocated dormitories and finding the mess hall and bathrooms, but mainly getting to know our immediate boss -- usually a Leading Seaman in charge of each dormitory. We were issued with winter and summer uniforms, a blanket, a seabag, and of course a hammock. All our gear had to be stowed correctly in our lockers, and surprise inspections were frequent, especially for the first few weeks.

I think breakfast was the most interesting meal of the day. If you have ever seen three dozen eggs frying in a square flat pan and a couple more such pans further along the line at various stages of cooking, it's a sight you can recall instantly for the rest of your life. At this stage I must say that for the two years and 35 days I spent in the Navy, I was never hungry and the cooks were absolutely first class, especially the ones on HMAS Warrnambool 1944-46. Congratulations and thanks a lot.

From July 4 until November 14, we marched, drilled, learned to do what we were told when we were told [*Snort* -- Ed], and learned always to recgnise an officer, both on the base and, especially, off the base, when on leave. Paid a kingly two shillings and sixpence a day, we had gun drill, fire drill, stripping and assembling Lewis machine guns, large gunnery practice, boat drill, signal flags etc etc. From July 4 we had been called men -- and by November 14, we felt like men.

Every other weekend we had leave in Melbourne. Pictures [He means movies -- Ed], dances, transport, even the races -- we had free admission to all. My mates and I were lucky enough to see the mighty Bernborough win a couple of races at Caulfield. Winter in Melbourne was not fantastic, but being young and fit we were not worried at all.

The mighty Bernborough.

The two main organisations that raised money for the entertainment and welfare of servicement were the Red Cross and the Comforts Fund. Their members saw to it that servicemen were never hungry or lonely while on leave. Dances were on every night, usually with supper. These were held in suburban halls, as well as in the cities. We were even approached in the street, to be made aware of local halls and clubs who would see that we were made welcome.

We were invited to stay in private homes on our weekends off, but most of us preferred to stay in one of the numerous hostels in the cities. On looking back, the hospitality accorded us was incredible, and at the time we didn't realise the generosity of the people we met in all the cities we visited. Most of these people had family members to be concerned about, so I guess they felt good about caring for us.

At this point I feel compelled to interrupt briefly and remind the reader that these are seventeen-year-old boys we're talking about. Here is Papa Cat, centre, with two mates on Princes Bridge in Melbourne, a matter of days after joining up.

November 14 came around very quickly. A week or so beforehand, our class of 20 were asked if we had any preference as to the class of ship we would like to go to. 'Jacko' and myself were called aside, and because we had Leaving Certificates, we were prevailed upon to do a six-week radar operator's course in Sydney. Radar was fairly new in the Navy, and I suppose they presumed that we would be able to absorb the mysteries in a short time. We soon found out that our instructors were learning as they went along. We were told that we would be posted to a Corvette on completing the course.

The other 18 in the class were lined up. Surnames A-B went to Shore Base Darwin, and the rest to HMAS Australia. That's how the Navy handled preferences.

A mighty hunter before the Lord

The more forthright of the two tortoiseshells has just fatally impaled a small, airborne fly with one claw.

Every now and then one of them reminds me that I live in a house with two wild animals. They're only fairly small wild animals, of course, but so are stoats and wolverines.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Get off my lawn

No specifics, for reasons that will be obvious to frequent users of the interwebs, but various little events recently have reminded me how much I dislike it when people I've never met or heard of try, with varying degrees of blatancy and barefacedness, to use my and others' blogs to publicise their own, or to publicise or advertise other things.

This is not okay behaviour.

Not even when the material isn't obscene/illiterate/ideologically unsound.

That is all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

More on 'bad writing'

I've never understood what on earth people are talking about (and there are many of them) when they call J. K. Rowling a 'bad writer'. And now that I've read this (hat-tip to my FaceBook buddy Naomi Parry), I understand it even less.

Look at the exquisitely skilful, careful structure of this piece, the way it dances between its developing argument and its vivid concrete examples. Look at the semi-transparent fabric of reasonableness softening, but not extinguishing, the righteous anger. Look at the humour. Look at the precision of the word-choice and the careful crafting of the sentence structure.

I can only assume that when people say she doesn't write well, what they're referring to is the fact that she writes simply and clearly, using easy, familiar words that represent the way her characters think and speak. It's almost as though she were writing fiction about children for children. D'oh.

This, however, is non-fiction for grown-ups. Go and have a read.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Notes towards a definition of bad writing

Opening paragraphs, as any Creative Writing teacher will tell you in Week 1, are crucial to any writing venture but most particularly short stories or novels. Here's how not to do it (NB this is a real book):

Rose Season stood at the threshold of her sister's bedroom and silently watched the shadows of an oncoming storm stretch like plum-coloured talons across the empty bed. A great gust of icy wind from Lake Michigan howled at the windows.

Now then:

1) Calling your introductory and therefore likely-to-be-major character Rose Season ensures that the reader will not be able to take her seriously. You might as well have called her Cherry Season, or Rose Blight.

2) By 'at the threshold' do you mean 'in the doorway', which is more concrete (whereas 'at the threshold' is often used figuratively) and therefore easier for the reader to visualise the scene? [Reader thinks: 'Ooh look, a door', but probably not 'Ooh look, a threshold.']

3) 'Silently' is redundant. Presumably if Rose were not silent then she would be talking, and there would be dialogue.

4) Shadows are not plum-coloured, indeed they are not any colour, just a blockage of light. If you mean that the clouds are plum-coloured, say that.

[Here an internal warning is sounded to the reader: this writer apparently cannot think her way out of a paper bag and presumably neither can her editor -- either that, or her editor couldn't persuade her to change it. Either way, the horrible prospect of 445 pages of woolly thinking stands before one.]

5) Talons are not plum-coloured, either. Mixed metaphor.

6) Where there is a talon-shaped shadow, it is almost always the shadow of a talon, or, more usually, several talons, since talons tend to occur in groups. It's very rarely the shadow of a cloud. You are thinking of horror movies, or Foghorn Leghorn cartoons with chicken hawks in them.

7) You need to get rid of at least one of 'great', 'icy' or 'howled'. Three exclamatory adjectives in one short sentence is at least one too many, and in any case all three are clichés.

8) Do gusts howl? Are gusts not, rather, more inclined to bang?

9) And in any case, wind is by definition a thing in motion, but in order to howl at a window, don't you need to stand still at it?

First paragraph FAIL.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sometimes what you're advertising isn't what you meant to say

I've just come home from brunch with friends down the posh end of town, and as I crossed the road to return to the car I became mesmerised by a large banner slung overhead across King William Road. It was an ad for Pulteney Grammar School, one of Adelaide's pricey private schools, showing a picture of a little girl with plaits, bent studiously over an exercise book.

Above the photo, in giant letters wholly innocent of punctuation, appeared the following exhortation:


(Thinks: 'Hello darling, how was your day?'
'Excellent! I saw Ermintrude discover who they really are!'
'Who who really are?'
'Um, what?'

Now, I don't have any kids, and if I did they'd probably be beyond school by now, but if I had and they weren't and I was looking to educate them, any school that advertised itself using the so-called 'singular they' would get crossed off my list sharpish.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Let me get this straight: Christine Nixon is to be crucified for taking an hour off, when she wasn't even rostered on, in order to have dinner -- but it's cause for gasps of meeja admiration when the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition goes AWOL on a nine-day bike ride, taking yet another opportunity to wobble his budgie at slavering photographers and horrified truckies for the entire length of the Hume Highway.

Because, like, he's fit, and she's, you know, not, and everyone knows the skinned rabbit look equals virtue whereas a traditionally built lady must by definition be, you know, evil.

Have I got that right?

Have a read of that linked article, and then ask yourself how much more vile, ignorant, sniggering, misogynist fat-hate Nixon would be copping even than she already is if she were to emulate the Leader of the Opposition and say, in defence of the shocking crime of having an evening meal, 'I'm just being myself.'

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Papa Cat's War, Part 1: 1939-1943

It's over two years since my dad wrote down, at my request, his wartime memories so I could blog them. Ahem:

Guest blogger: Papa Cat

When World War II erupted in Europe in September 1939 I was twelve years old and in my second year away from home, going to a regional school about 25k from the farm where I lived with my parents (home for weekends and holidays, of course).

My father, a WWI Digger, who had survived the horrendous battles of the Somme [and Ypres -- Ed], was always huddled over the battery radio at news times. We only had one twelve-volt battery, which he had to take out of the old 1919 Dodge when he came home in the evening. Knowing the areas of Belgium and France from his overseas service, his opinions of events were many, varied and vocal.

At school we learnt the geography of Holland, Belgium and France and traced the advance of the German Army. How fortunate we were to have a Headmaster who believed we should learn history as it was happening. In our spare time after school, and at weekends, we collected papers and bottles and scrounged old rubbish dumps for items made of aluminium (much needed for aeroplane manufacturing). We knocked on doors and collected money for the Red Cross and the Comforts Fund. We older boys were encouraged to attend Church dances, not only to learn, but to partner the girls whose boyfriends and husbands were overseas [O RLY? -- Ed], mostly in the Middle East in the Army's famous 48th Division.

Rationing was introduced early in the war years: petrol, food and clothing. Petrol was hard for country people because of the distances to travel, and of course there was no public transport. A few deals were done between farmers and townsfolk. It was no trouble to swap some farm-killed meat, home-made butter and a few eggs for a petrol ration ticket or two. Of course one did not move anywhere in a car without phoning neighbours and friends to see if they wanted a lift or needed some shopping done.

A horse and cart, or 'sulky', were prized possessions and were a slow but sure means of getting around. Our 'sulky' had rubber tyres and I recall on one occasion, when the tube just couldn't take any more patches, my father -- displaying a stubbornness that probably contributed to his survival in WWI -- attempted to stuff the tyre with straw. I don't remember being around to see whether this was successful or not. Probably not -- I certainly would have heard about it if he had revolutionised our transport situation!

Clothing coupons were quite useless as far as buying a lady's outfit or a man's suit were concerned; one just had to save them up over time to get most things. So hand-me-downs and patching and mending were the go. Wool was needed for service uniforms, so it was difficult to get enough to knit socks or jumpers. As far as clothing was concerned, the solution was simple:

Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.

In 1942 I went to board in Adelaide to do the Leaving Certificate (as it was called then) at Adelaide High School. The city was abuzz, with Service uniforms everywhere. School was good. Plenty of sport. Much study. And how good it was to play cricket on a turfed oval! I just couldn't get used to not dodging stones and cowpats from the cattle that grazed on our oval in the country.

When not studying, I was riding around at night on my trusty Malvern Star, being a dispatch rider for the local A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) Unit. This mainly consisted of knocking on doors to remind people that their windows were not blacked out properly. Not many cars to contend with -- no petrol! Those that were on the road had to have their headlights 'blacked out', just showing a horizontal slit of light about two inches deep the width of the glass.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and from that day it was 'game on' as far as Australia was concerned. No wonder A.R.P was on everyone's lips. And so we teenagers pedalled around our allotted area with our yellow armbands on, doing what we were told. [Fat chance -- Ed] The girls did their bit as well, busying themselves with first aid classes.

Because of the rapid Japanese advance towards Singapore, it was a question of where they were going to stop. It became apparent that the possibility of air raids on the Australian mainland was quite real. Everyone had an air-raid shelter in their back yard. My father, no doubt recalling the WWI trenches, dug a shelter near the house on the farm -- 20 feet long [no wonder the poor old sod had sciatica -- Ed] and narrow, with a zigzag design. People generally were not nervous, just determined to be as prepared as they could be.

An English-style Home Guard was formed mostly in country towns. They had a variety of weapons, mostly owned by farmers, plus old WWI rifles loaned by the Army. They had plans of their locals districts; two-man teams were allotted large trees that could be felled quickly to block main roads; precious petrol made Molotov cocktails. They may not have won, but they would have caused a lot of havoc trying.

Don't miss the next exciting episode, 'Mallee to Matelot', in which Papa Cat joins the Navy.

Monday, April 5, 2010

In which she falls off the wagon

I've been trying to cultivate a more serious image and lay off the LOLcats, but this one is too good not to share.

Nothing like a good visualisation

Genetically cursed as my sisters and I have been with not just one but two bad-tempered extroverts for grandmothers, I at least (my sisters usually don't bother) spend an awful lot of time trying to be patient while my patience is tried. (And, usually, found wanting.) It's not just irritability, it's a full-on propensity to breathe heavily like Marvin the Martian and say in a posh high-pitched robotic voice 'You have made me very angry. [pant pant pant] Very. Angry. Indeed.'

Bugs Bunny And Marvin The Martian via

Unlike the sisters, however, I regard it as a major failing and character flaw, and -- as with other curses of the human condition, like migraines -- try very hard to stay out of situations that might bring it on. Unfortunately I have now failed to do this two days running, and find myself wanting to scream obscenities at two completely different lots of people -- one online, one off -- which is some kind of a record even for me.

And so there is nothing for it but housework therapy. By the time I've wielded the vacuum cleaner the length and breadth of the house, including the special attachments for curtains and sofas, I'll have vacuumed them all up in my imagination, consigned them to the disposable vacuum cleaner bag where they can be smothered by the kilos of cat hair, and chucked the bag in the bin.

Margaret Atwood on Twitter

This (hat tip to Judith Ridge on FaceBook) is lovely. (If any of my old students and/or English majors generally are reading this, see how many literary allusions you can spot -- I think I found four, but I'm sure there are more.)

Here, for example, is Atwood on the subject of her Canadian followers:

They’re sharp: make a typo and they’re on it like a shot, and they tease without mercy. However, if you set them a verbal challenge, a frisson sweeps through them. They did very well with definitions for “dold socks”—one of my typos—and “Thnax,” another one. And they really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that “Own the podium” was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested “A podium might be nice.” Their own variations poured onto a feed tagged #cpodium: “A podium! For me?” “Rent the podium, see if we like it.” “Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

This is why phones have cameras in them

I know Florida is odd, but still

The 'Say what?' feature at the Doonesbury site offers a daily sample of demented quotations from US public life. Here's today's:

"If you voted for Obama... seek urologic care elsewhere. Changes to your health care begin right now, not in four years."

-- sign on the office door of Florida urologist Jack Cassell

I suppose long immersion in matters urological might do strange things to your temper and world view eventually, but this is just extraordinary, possibly even illegal. And Robin Williams reckons we're unevolved.

Mind you, I imagine anyone who voted for Obama would, on seeing Cassell's sign, fall over themselves to get as far away from it and him as possible, so the Pollyanna view is that it's a win-win.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Which contains some unbelievably useful information ...

... if, like me, you are craving an iPad but feel it might be a tad excessive and self-indulgent to get one (see first question). This is an extract from my hero and technosaviour David Pogue's weekly Personal Tech column for the New York Times, whose expanded email version has just turned up in my mail.

All the main questions I had about it are answered right here. Pogue, like me, is a tad bewildered as to why this paradigm-breaking bit of gear is being criticised for not being an ordinary computer. D'oh.

Q: Am I really supposed to buy this thing when I already have a laptop and an iPhone?

A: It always surprises me how many people are made indignant by the very thought of the iPad, as though Congress passed a law that requires you to buy one!

You're not, as it turns out. Buying one is totally optional.

That said, the question is a little odd, because the iPad really is very different from a laptop or an iPhone. I guess people have a lot of trouble with the idea that it's a new category, something unlike anything they've used before. All people can do is compare it in their heads with stuff they HAVE used before.

But I'm telling you, the multitouch screen/software makes it very, very different from a laptop, and the screen size makes it very, very different from an iPhone. It's something entirely new. So yes, if it appeals to you, you'd have to buy it in addition to your laptop or iPhone.

All the same, I have to admit that the Bloke (who is himself incorrigibly gadget-minded, so this was actually quite a shocking question, coming from him) had a point when he asked what I planned to use it for, and I'm not quick-witted enough to have replied by asking why utility need be the only criterion for possession-lust (for, after all, it usually is not). Or to have invoked one of my favourite quotations: 'How do I know what I think till I see what I say?'

In which the older and wiser are not surprised

After a couple of more than usually frenetic weeks I was catching up with some favourite blogs last night and found this at Johnny's in the Basement, the music blog that celebrated Australian blogger Tim Dunlop writes for

I'd just like to say that, like my almost-exact contemporary Mark Holden, I thought that this child (as she then was) was the outstanding pick of the bunch even at sixteen, far too classy and original for Australian Idol. Go over to Tim's and watch it.

And speaking of generational tastes in music, there was a sad moment the other night when James Taylor and Carole King left the stage for their half-time orange quarters (and I'm not going to rave about them here for fear of being mocked by persons younger than myself; Leonard Cohen seems curiously immune from said mockery, but I fear Taylor and King may not be, despite their well-deserved legendary status) and my entire demographic got up and painfully stretched -- a great deal of Adelaide's cavernous Entertainment Centre is made of cement, including, it would seem, the seats -- thereby releasing an unmistakable eau de Boomer into the atmosphere. 'Ah,' said my friend D, 'the aroma of our generation. Half patchouli oil, half Denco-Rub.'

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some anniversaries are more ambiguous than others

It's 24 years today -- and yes yes, I know what the date is; how apt -- since I rolled and wrecked a brand-new car with my father in the passenger seat at the 110k speed limit just west of Bordertown, on a sinister traffic-eating stretch of the Duke's Highway, notorious for the number of single-vehicle accidents there, and came within millimetres of breaking my neck. Where other people have a smoothly curved cervical spine, I have an S-bend at C4 and C5.

How we both walked away without needing any first aid or going into shock I really do not know, but it's those sorts of times that prompt me to make a sacrifical offering of some kind to the tough-as-nails pioneering ancestors.

Now excuse me while I go and re-heat this wheat bag and take some Nurofen Plus.