Thursday, December 29, 2011

Something you might not know about John Clarke

I was lucky enough to meet John Clarke once, maybe fifteen years ago. Clive James was launching a big poetry anthology at the Melbourne Writers' Festival; Clarke was at the launch, and by sheer good luck I was talking (after the speech, not during it: one of my resolutions for 2012 is to go up to anyone who's talking during a speech, concert, movie or any other public performance and give them a good hard smack upside the head. No jury would ever convict me) to a dude who knew a dude who knew him, and finished up talking to him myself. He is a lovely, lovely man, and he loves poetry and is extremely knowledgeable about it.

He's just posted a link on Twitter to an 'appreciation' of Auden that he wrote in 2007 to mark the centenary of that great poet's birth. The poem with which he finishes this post is one of the few poems I know by heart. It's here.

 Photo from the ABC TV Blog

Anxieties. We has them.

What shall I worry about today? There are a number of choices. [NB: the state of the world is an ongoing given, no surprises there.]

Will the New Year's Eve dessert -- cherry and roasted almond ice cream for 17 -- get safely shopped for, made, frozen, transported and served intact, in the 37 degrees being forecast for Saturday?

Will I get my column done this morning in time to get to the market before all the cherries are gone? [Not if you sit here writing blog posts about fretting about it -- Ed.]

Will my pathological untidiness and I get the house cleaned up by Sunday when a dear friend is coming to lunch? She has a get-out clause about staying home in the cool, as Sunday will be even hotter than Saturday -- if the definition of a heatwave is five consecutive days over 35 degrees, as I believe it is, then Adelaide is cruising into one as we speak, according to the BOM -- so this one is flexible, but I must clean up anyway as a New Year thing. Just woke up out of a horrid dream about past crimes against tidiness. I see domestic detritus, in my case 95% paper products, as a sort of rabid, feral, malignant, hyperactive octopus that lives in the house and hates me.

Will I get next week's column done on time?

Will my father's 85th birthday be an easy, happy day, and what of my sister's hand surgery two days later?

Will the full afternoon of running writing and editing workshops for cluey postgrads be a success, or have I forgotten how to teach?

Will I be able to get access to everything I want at the library to write my conference paper? Never gave a keynote speech before. Anxiety coming in waves. Is this a good argument? Do I have enough examples and are they interesting enough? Do I even have an argument, and if so, what is it? (All Hons and postgrad students to whom I have ever sternly said 'But what is your actual thesis?' have my permission to snicker at this point.)

Will I be able to find my way to the Aldinga Library to give a talk about the Adelaide book, will I melt on the way if it's filthy hot, and if it's filthy hot will anybody turn up, and will I then be able to find my way home in the dark? (NB not worried about talk qua talk, but give me time.)

Have I got time to read all the books I haven't read yet by all the people whose sessions I'm chairing at Adelaide Writers' Week, and will those sessions all work out well?

Will I get my column done promptly every week in between all this stuff?

Will the ice cream go well? Will the lunch go well? Will the birthday go well? Will the surgery go well? Will the teaching go well? Will the conference paper go well? Will the Aldinga excursion go well? Will Writers' Week go well?

Look at that. Fretting fully booked till well into March.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Carols by Candlelight, Adelaide, Christmas Eve 1944

67 years ago tonight (thanks to Persiflage for the correction to my always-shocking arithmetic), at Adelaide's first-ever Carols by Candlelight, a population depleted and exhausted by the war and its effects went streaming down to the most beautiful place in the city, which apparently the current government is about to wreck, to spend the evening by the river and sing some carols. Not tacky 'Christmas songs', just proper traditional carols.

Fifty thousand. That's one-twelfth of the 1941 population figure for the entire state.

From the Adelaide Advertiser, December 26th 1944:

Amazing Christmas Eve Scene In Elder Park

Fifty thousand people celebreated Christmas Eve in Adelaide by attending the carol festival held in Elder Park in aid of the Adelaide Children's Hospital and the Somerton Sick and Crippled Children's Home.

Adelaide has never before see such a great gathering at night [although it was to see a bigger one less than a year later when the war ended -- Ed.]. Fifty thousand is the police estimate, but the number may have been even larger. Long before the festival began all the 30,000 admission programmes (£1,500) had been sold, and thousands of people unable to obtain one gave a donation at the gates, and sang carols from memory.

"Carols by Candlelight" was arranged by the Commercial Travellers' Association and [radio] station 5AD. It gave the city a Christmas scene of unique size and setting. Elder Park on the banks of the Torrens was solidly packed with people sitting from the City Baths almost down to the water's edge, and from King William Road more than halfway to Morphett Street bridge. The footpaths in King William Road were dense with latecomers unable to find room on the lawns, while down the road cars were parked in places two deep, in unbroken lines stretching beyond St Peter's Cathedral in one direction, and filling Memorial and Victoria Drives, and most of the adjoining streets. At one time the cars were three deep opposite the rotunda until the police compelled the line to move on.

Although the festival did not begin until 8 p.m. the crowd began to gather in the late afternoon. Many people brought tea [ie dinner; doesn't that take you back? -- Ed.] and picnicked on the lawns. By 6 o'clock they were beginning to arrive in thousands.

By nightfall the lawns had become black with people dotted red with the glowing ends of thousands of cigarettes. They sat outside the light cast by the band rotunda and a platform that had been built in front of it for the orchestra and 100-voice choir. The platform was lines with 7 ft. candles and floodlit from below.

The orderliness of the crowd was remarkable. There was no jostling or scrambling despite the great numbers. A single rope barrier round the platform was so respected that the police did not once find it necessary to patrol it. Everyone on finding a place sat down and remained seated till the end. St. John Ambulance officers had not a single case to attend to all night.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

"If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes across the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. The post-Kennedy period is often written up as a 'loss of innocence', a judgement which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought America had been until a quarter of a century ago. But, while Presidents had been slain before, they had generally been shot by political opponents of an indefinable if extreme sort, like Lincoln's resentful Confederate or McKinley's inarticulate anarchist. Moreover, the culprits were known, apprehended and questioned. With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where informative technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favour of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza."
-- Christopher Hitchens, 'Where Were You Standing?' TLS, November 1988.

I remember exactly where I was standing: in the living room on the farm where I grew up. The news had just come up on the teeve as a 'News Flash' (remember them?). I was ten. I also remember exactly where I was when I read this paragraph. It was the winter of 1992 and I was sitting in the living-room of my friend R's flat in Balmain, overlooking Sydney Harbour, with the sun coming in through the window. R was in the kitchen making coffee, and I had idly picked up the copy of Hitchens' For the Sake of Argument that was lying on the table and opened it on the page where this paragraph appears.

I thought I had been struck by lightning. I really did. This, it seemed, was what writing could do if it tried.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

'Conscience vote'

To use what might be considered an unfortunate expression, I have no dog in this fight. I'm a straight woman in her late 50s with no interest in marriage. (Been there, done that, threw up on the t-shirt.)


I think the people who say the ALP's national conference is being hijacked by the 'unimportant' issue of gay marriage aren't thinking hard enough about what importance is, or indeed about what politics is. To my mind this goes to two absolutely fundamental issues in politics: the quality of ordinary people's daily lives, and the question of who has power over whom, and to what end.

So the idea that it has anything whatever to do with Person A's 'conscience' when Person B and Person C decide that they would like to formally and legally celebrate their commitment to each other in the manner in which such commitment is most usually celebrated in our society is really just a case of a power struggle being dressed up to look like something nicer.

For whatever sense does it make, really, that Person A should wrestle with his or her own better angels about something that Persons B and C might want to do? No sense, that's what. Person A, if she or he genuinely believes this to be a matter of his or her own conscience, needs a bit of a lesson in how to recognise his or her own beeswax. And everyone knows that the Prime Minister's taking of the 'conscience vote' road is a totally cynical move in any case. And I can't be alone in finding something particularly rank and icky about dressing up a bit of pragmatic and strategic political gamesmanship as an issue of individual conscience.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Journalists I Have Known

I originally wrote this as part of the comment conversation on the last post, but I'd quite like to say something positive about journalists in a more accessible spot so here it is again. RIP Hume. (The other one's still alive.)

Such a strange profession.

I owe most of what I know about the art and craft of writing to one journalist, a man called Hume Dow, who was older than my parents, and who had worked on the Age, which I think was back then still the Argus, with George Johnston and Charmian Clift during WW2. Whenever he talked about the gorgeous and brilliant Clift, he was unable to finish any given sentence. He would just waver off in mid-syntactical construction and gaze off into the middle distance. Hume taught me how to proofread properly and what good 18th century prose looked like and why Hemingway in A Movable Feast, but not in his fiction so much, was a miracle of writing.

Another of my major mentors, whom I knew intimately and won't name (grounds, incriminate, etc) was also an exceptional journalist before he moved on to other pursuits. I have great respect for a number of contemporary Australian journalists (Megalogenis, Tingle, Marr, Grattan, Colvin et al), not to mention the legendary international ones, and I have just finished reading a novel about two heroic journalist-photographers, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, who both died in the service of their vocation. And I think all these things may be why I hold the bad ones in such contempt.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


In which the very savvy Mr Benjamin Law takes a screen shot of SA Liberal MP Michael Pengilly's Tweet this morning in response to one from journalist David Penberthy (Twitter is a bottom-up read) on the subject of the Government's response to the resignation of Harry Jenkins as Speaker.

Because, of course, any minute now someone's going to let Pengilly know that he wasn't having a private conversation, and that his opinion of the Prime Minister is there for all the world to see, and then he's gonna take it down. Much too late. Hah.

UPDATE, 2.07 PM: Yep, he's taken it down. Hee Hee.

Normal service will be resumed shortly ...

... now that the standard November pile of work has been whittled down almost to a reasonable level. (And don't think I'm not grateful to have work. Au contraire, for how else would I ever hope to pay the dentist?)

I heard the most wonderful interview with Paul Kelly on the car radio yesterday and wrote a long post about music in my head but of course it's all gone now. Well, nearly all; hands up anyone else who remembers Peter, Paul and Mary singing 'I'm in Love With a Big Blue Frog'. Sigh.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exams aren't what they used to be

This kind of stuff -- students buying pre-written essays to memorise and then regurgitate (and I use the verb advisedly) in their HSC exams -- has made me reflect on the olden days of last century, when I wor a lass, and my cohort had to sit a total of five, count 'em, five lots of public exams within three years.

In Intermediate (the year we all turned fifteen, the equivalent of Year Ten) we sat the exams for Commonwealth Scholarships for the last two years of school -- these were essentially IQ and general-knowledge tests, not things you could prepare for in any way apart from staying healthy and getting enough sleep -- and only a few months later we sat three-hour exams in each of eight subjects. The following year, Leaving (Year 11), we sat another set of three-hour exams in six subjects. And the year after that, we sat for another round of Commonwealth Scholarships, this time to university, plus more three-hour exams in five Matric (Year 12 / HSC) subjects, except for the exceptionally clever kids who did six because they could.

That's 60 hours of competitive public examinations over three years, in an era when there was no continuous assessment: your result for the year depended entirely on how you scored in the exams. And if you didn't pass a sufficient number of them, then that was it: you repeated the year or you left school.

Nobody cheated, perhaps partly because they were not the sorts of exams for which cheating of this kind would have been possible.

Then, of course, there were the university exams, by which time you could score at least part of your result through essays handed in during the year. Not much, though.  And if in later years as an academic I ever got sick of my Honours students complaining about how hard they had to work, all I had to do to make them stop was tell them about the assessment for my own Honours year: two 12,000 word theses, plus four three-hour exams in a total of six different subjects, two of them (Practical Criticism and Shakespeare) compulsory. Like many of my mates in that year, I was by then living away from home and worked all the way through the exams, in my case washing dishes in a Greek restaurant. I was, however, alone in the charming experience of going to court about my no-contest divorce about halfway through the exams.

What's more, I walked five miles to school and university barefoot in the snow. And I think you should all get off my lawn.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Love, music, sex and death

Never having heard of this delightful young woman, though I sure as hell have now, I was mesmerised by this song on the car radio this afternoon, on Adelaide's local ABC.

I used to listen to, and perform, a lot of folk music when I was in my teens and twenties. But I didn't have the analytical skills I have since acquired, in 35 years of reading and thinking about literature and society, to think about these kinds of songs in a way that any educated young woman would automatically think about them now. If someone held a gun to my head and said 'Write a 3,000 word feminist analysis of this song and its narrative structure in the next three hours or you will be shot,' there is no doubt that I would get out of it alive.

But never mind that for the moment -- and you will get the gist at a visceral level anyway. Just have a listen to Sarah Calderwood's filigree musicianship and this haunting tale of commerce and nemesis, impossible to tell convincingly in any but a minor key.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dear Dorothy Dix

Okay so this is totally a First World problem and a very minor one at that. If that offends you, stop reading now.

Ahem. There's this woman I know only very slightly and only from work-related meetings that we occasionally both attend. I don't know her outside this context at all. We have never had a conversation or indeed exchanged more than a couple of sentences at a time, if that. But every time we are in the same room, she greets me by patting or stroking my hand, arm or shoulder. She will occasionally do this again during the meeting if I am within striking distance. I haven't observed closely but I don't think she does this to any of the other people present.

Now I am not a cold person as a rule. I am on enthusiastic hugging and cheek-kissing (not mouth, not air) terms with family and with friends of both sexes. But I am so repelled by this woman's touching me that I can't control my distaste. I don't actually brush her off but I move away and am quite sure that my reaction is showing on my face. I hate doing this as it seems rude and hurtful, but it really is out of my control, like sneezing.

While it's a very long way from the hardcore sexual harrassment I occasionally experienced from men in my (much) younger days, and while it's hardly the sort of 'inappropriate touching' that we warn children about, I think any touching from such a slight and wholly professional acquaintance, much less stroking and patting which frankly I find a bit creepy, is inappropriate. I feel like the brat Hugo in The Slap saying 'Nobody is allowed to touch my body without my permission', and that can't possibly be a good thing.

Of course one can never know these things for sure, but I'm pretty certain that if I were attracted to women at all, this woman would not be among those to whom I was attracted. If I were a hot young thing myself then I would probably say philosophically with a flick of my blonde locks that inappropriate touching from people of all sexes was the price one paid for hotness. But, you know, seriously not the case.

If she has so far not been put off by my obvious distaste for being pawed, then it doesn't seem likely that discreetly murmuring to her 'Hello, boundaries' is likely to work either. In the meantime, I have to work with her, if only occasionally, and it's making me much more thoughtful and reserved about when and how I touch other people, which may be a good thing, but also may not.

Xenophobia exploined: 'The stranger had remained strange.'

From his first novel Open City by Teju Cole, who is a Nigerian New Yorker and professional historian of early Netherlandish art:

The classic anti-immigrant view, which saw them as enemies competing for scarce resources, was converging with a renewed fear of Islam. When Jan van Eyck depicted himself in a large red turban in the 1430s, he had testified to the multiculturalism of fifteenth-century Ghent, that the stranger was nothing unusual. Turks, Arabs, Russians: all had been part of the visual vocabulary of the time. But the stranger had remained strange, and had become a foil for new discontents. ... My presentation – the dark, unsmiling, solitary stranger – made me a target for inchoate rage ... But the bearers of the rage could never know how cheap it was. They were insensitive to how common, and how futile, was their violence in the name of a monolithic identity. This ignorance was a trait angry young men, as well as their old, politically powerful rhetorical champions, shared the world over. And so, after that conversation, as a precaution, I cut down on the length of my late-night walks.

So what DOES he think it is?

Latika Bourke on Twitter: "Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says the dispute 'isn't a Workplace relations problem...this is not a policy problem.'"

There you go folks, the aspiring PM in waiting doesn't know what a workplace dispute is.

As Stephen Fry would say, Lordy potatotes.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

In which politicians talk about Qantas and their metaphors give them away

Quoted in a report tonight:

Bob Brown: 'This lockout is also a sellout of the spirit of Australia.'

Tony Abbott: 'It is the responsibility of government to ensure ... that brand Australia is not damaged.'

Got that? Lapsed Presbyterian Bob Brown thinks Australia has a spirit. That devout Catholic, Tony Abbott, thinks it's a commodity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Well would you look at that

'There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about.'

-- Oscar Wilde

(From Bookseller & Publisher Online today.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

One degree of separation

I had to be dragged, not exactly kicking and screaming but certainly emitting weak staticky signals of protest, onto Twitter. But now that I'm there, I find there's at least one daily joy. If it's not Stephen Fry, currently in Australia and announcing yesterday that he's off to a barbie in North Perth and it's not really the weather for it but it's all about the sausages really, then it's a reminder like this that the world is really very small indeed. If you don't know who Ronan Farrow is, here's a hint: he used to be called Satchel.

Friday, October 21, 2011

We report, you decide

How have I managed never to see this before? Thanks to Lucy Sussex for the link.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

But one likes, as they say, to be asked

UPDATE, 27/10/11: I am reliably informed that the AGNSW did indeed have copies of the other books and had either sold them all or not unpacked them yet. I take it all back. This post was written with a small bit of my tongue in my cheek, in a knee-jerk reaction (if you will forgive the involvement of all these body parts) of a non-eastern-stater to Syd/Melb hegemonic etc etc. Mea culpa.

Cruising around the gallery shop yesterday at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I was glad for the sake of their respective authors, Delia Falconer and Sophie Cunningham, to see on display for sale a little stack of copies of Sydney

and another little stack of copies of Melbourne.

But alas, that was all.

Having put a great deal of time and effort into writing a book that could be read for pleasure and instruction not only by Adelaideans but also by interstaters and overseasers, I couldn't help thinking that surely visitors to the gallery shop might be largely from elsewhere, and therefore perhaps interested in Australia as a whole. And that even the Sydneysiders might interested in broadening their horizons by also reading Adelaide,



and In Search of Hobart.

Or is it really true that Melbourne and Sydney people think that the Hume Highway and everything to the east and at each end of it = Australia?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Things I would rather do than pose for photographs

I have done all of these things so I know whereof I speak. In ascending order of reluctance:

1) Give blood
2) Give a speech to a crowd, unprepared
3) Vacuum the whole house
4) Eat mushrooms I don't recognise
5) Have a general anaesthetic
6) Clean up cat vomit
7) Vomit (see #4) (also #5, and possibly #2) (and indeed #6 and #8)
8) Watch someone else vomit
9) Have the crowns on my two front teeth forcibly removed and replaced, while conscious
10) Wrangle Poppet into the cat carrier and take her to the vet

Maybe not roll and wreck another car. Not quite. But close.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Abbott promises to spill bodily fluids, Wong says 'Ew'

What on earth does the Leader of Her Maj's Opposition think he means by 'blood pledge'? Doesn't he know that Talk Like A Pirate Day was last month?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The lost brooch, the trials of ageing, and the spirit of the ladder: a post for Sean Williams

The first time I heard the expression l'esprit de l'escalier I was driving home with someone from somewhere (yes, this post is indeed about the failure of memory) and complaining that at one stage during the evening's very lively conversation I'd really wanted to argue the point but hadn't been able to summon a deadly phrase to nail it. 'I know what I should have said,' I wailed. 'I should have said [insert witty riposte here]!'

'Aha,' said my companion. 'L'esprit de l'escalier.'

Me and my schoolgirl French were all over this, or so we thought. 'The spirit of the ladder? What's the spirit of the ladder?'

'The wit of the staircase, you dope.'

'That doesn't make sense either.'

'It's the witty line you think of as you're going downstairs at the end of the night.'

Oh, right. Those French, all living on top of one another. They would have a saying like that. I still like the spirit of the ladder better.

And so we come to last night, when the lovely people at Dymocks in Adelaide held a launch of my book Adelaide, where I read a couple of bits of the book and did my best to answer some really excellent questions, first from host and interviewer Steph Hester and then from the audience.

One of the people in the audience was the celebrated Sean Williams, internationally fêted and prizewinning SF, fantasy, cyberpunk and space opera author extraordinaire, fellow proud South Australian and colleague on the Writers' Week advisory committee. At question time and in reference to the structure of the book, which I'd talked about a bit and which is based on a handful of objects -- the statue of Colonel Light, the Balfour's Frog Cake, Don Dunstan's pink shorts, my ticket to the 2009 Leonard Cohen concert in the Southern Vales and a number of others -- Sean asked me an excellent question: were there any objects, he asked, that were originally on my list of chapters but that I had subsequently dropped?

Why yes. Yes there were. There were several. But do you think I could remember what any of them were? The ageing mind went a complete blank. Sorry Sean, I said, great question, but I got nothin'.

About halfway home, I realised what I should have said.

When I first came up with the 'objects' idea -- which as many will already know was and remains in the air of much contemporary cultural theory, perhaps most recently in Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter which I didn't know about till a couple of months ago (thank you, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen) but which confirms to me that this was a good approach -- the original object I had in mind, the very first one I thought of to write about as an iconic object in 'my Adelaide', was the little blue and yellow flag-shaped brooch -- the colours of my House (though Gryffindor it wasn't, and nor were any of the others) -- that I wore as a student at Adelaide Girls' High from 1966 to 1970.

I remember being really shocked, when I first read a wonderful essay by the brilliant Adelaide write and printmaker Barbara Hanrahan called 'Earthworm Small', by her brief but pungent image of Adelaide class divisions real or imagined, as delineated by one's school, in the 1950s. Knowing from a very early age that a visual artist was what she wanted to be, Hanrahan had gone on from primary school to Thebarton Tech, but some of her classmates had not:
When I walked round the corner and sat on the slatted seat on my piano teacher's verandah with the girls I used to know in Grade Seven who'd gone on to the high school, I felt as different as a New Australian. They lived at Mile End too, in the same sort of house as mine, but now they learnt Latin and French and could look down on me. And the girls who learnt piano and went to Methodist Ladies' College and Walford House looked down on the high school girls, in turn. I wanted fawn gloves, lisle stockings, silver braces on my teeth, a little enamel flag brooch on my lapel to tell what House I was in.
The reason I was shocked was that I'd had one of those brooches, and had never occurred to me that it might be cause for envy of any kind -- except perhaps for the envy of the girls in the other three Houses, none of whose colours were as beautiful as Law House's blue and gold enamel with its darkly bright, heavily saturated colour and its subtle enamel sheen. Never one of nature's joiners, I couldn't have given a rat's about Law House but I loved that brooch because I thought it was beautiful, and wore it all the time. Nor was I envious of the private school girls, but rather an unpleasant little snob about the fact that they were often the unpleasant little snobs of Hanrahan's describing.

[UPDATE: Idly re-reading this post, I recall for the first time in a number of decades that when I was in Matric I gloried in the title Vice Captain of Law. My friends thought this was hilarious, as well they might.]

Given the pungent meaning now attributed to that little brooch by Hanrahan, it could easily have formed the nucleus of a chapter of the book. But in the end, its very richness and heterogeneity of meaning and suggestion meant there was just too much stuff to talk about: education, class, insignia, the blueness and goldness of the landscape, the long and wonderful history of Adelaide High. In the audience last night were at least three other women who'd worn the AGHS house badges in their time, plus at least one who taught us there. They would have quite liked it if I'd managed to remember it, I think.

Here's what happened instead. After I'd given up on trying to solve the problems of structure and coherence set by an object with too much meaning to be contained, and sadly taken the brooch off my list of iconic objects, its glowing colours remained. There's a sort of leitmotif of blue and gold with variations, as there is of the word 'light', that runs right through the whole book, I hope sufficiently unobtrusively for readers not to notice it consciously but nonetheless take it in on some subliminal level.

And in so doing, I managed to forget about it myself, but it lurks under almost every chapter of the book. Blue and gold are, to me, the colours of South Australia. Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and all above is azure bright.  Sean Williams, noted as he is for his use of South Australian landscapes in his work, is better placed to appreciate that than most. Sorry, Sean. Here's your answer.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A dirty word around here

I don't make a habit of yelling obscenities at my father down the phone, but when the conversation throws up (and I use the expression advisedly) the name of a certain tabloid hack, I cannot contain myself. After my father has demonstrated that he's fallen hook, line and sinker for the 'free speech' canard, and that he's one of the readers whom said hack has squarely in his sights when he (the hack, not my father) sets out to bring out the worst in human nature, in all its greed, spite, envy, small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, and my dad is not habitually any of those things as a rule, I say to him, Father, I say, let me ask you something.

Suppose, just suppose, that instead of being an evenly distributed mixture of both your parents, you had turned out the absolute dead spit of your father, with no visible sign that you were your Scottish mother's son.

Let us then suppose that for some reason you had been taken away from your father, or he from you, in early infancy, and, despite your lack of any family resemblance to her, you had nonetheless been brought up exclusively by your mother, in Edinburgh or Stirling or Glasgow, being taught her values and supported by her family.

Let us further suppose that then, one day, a grant or scholarship or job became available that was earmarked exclusively for persons identifying as Scots. And let us suppose that you applied for, and were successful in obtaining, said grant or scholarship or job.

What would you say, and how would you feel, if some non-Scottish tabloid hack then wrote a breathtakingly unpleasant, crudely sarcastic, factually inaccurate and demonstrably defamatory article identifying you by name and sneering at you for being a false pretender to eligibility for this prize, arguing that you do not look Scottish (for he just knows what a Scot is supposed to look like) and therefore cannot possibly be your mother's son, and therefore -- 'therefore' -- not a Scot?

Frankly I thought this was a pretty classy argument, and I was hoping it would stop my father in his tracks. Unfortunately, for him as for so many other people and to quote the great Fran Leibowitz, the opposite of 'talking' is not 'listening'. The opposite of 'talking' is 'waiting'.

AFL Grand Final: picture, thousand words, etc

Friday, September 30, 2011

Thinking about Alexander McCall Smith

The other day I heard someone in an extremely influential literary job describe the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, in passing and almost subvocally, as 'Shit.'

Fascinating, I thought, that someone for whom 'shit' is an acceptable judgement of anything should be so sure of her own literary judgement and so dismissive of someone almost preternaturally articulate, someone who has taken to Twitter like a duck to the proverbial and has elevated the Tweet to a new poetic form with an emphasis on the the way that meaning can be clarified and nuance introduced by means of punctuation. Not just fascinating, but remarkable, that such a judgement should have been formed and expressed. How nice to be so sure of one's place in the world.

Of course, I'm partisan: I love Alexander McCall Smith to death, and I think it's partly because I read his books for what they are, rather than judging them against the output of some more or less pretentious heavyweight or other of the contemporary literary world, or feeling that I must demonstrate how down I am with Great Literature by trashing someone who has never pretended to be writing it but who is nonetheless, in his own way, a great writer.

And if you doubt me, read this paragraph from The Forgotten Affairs of Youth. If anyone has ever seen this problem put this clearly and inescapably before then I would very much like to know where, and by whom.
'Yet you say that we need religious belief?'

Isabel did not answer immediately. The problem for her was the divisiveness of religion; its magical thinking; its frequent sheer nastiness. Yet all of that existed side by side with exactly that spirituality that she felt we could not do without; that feeling of awe, of immanence, which she knew was very real, and which enriched and sustained our lives so vitally.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More border protection


Sunday, September 25, 2011

You can't buy publicity like that

Especially not in the most widely-read column of the Sunday paper in your home town.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Border protection



Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Speaking lovingly of that with which we work

The inimitable Alexander McCall Smith is as we speak in the South Australian outback mining town of Coober Pedy. At this very moment -- and since he's getting a signal I guess he's come up out of his underground motel -- he's tweeting about the town and the opal miners he's meeting there:

Here in this remote mining town I met a miner who loves her job. Laconic, but amusing, she loves using dynamite. Loves opals too. ... We can all speak lovingly of that with which we work: the grain of wood, the thrill of figures; my miner: rocks and explosives. 


Sunday, September 18, 2011

In which a beginner thinks about Twitter

The brevity that is the soul of Twitter is not, I feel, entirely my thing.

It's enough of a struggle writing four short fiction reviews a week, into which one must somehow cram just enough of the plot to make one's subsequent remarks about the book comprehensible and then try to say two or three acceptably useful things about it, in a space the size of a hummingbird. For me, trying to fit pithy observations into 140-character Tweets is a sort of busman's holiday in triplicate.

What I'm enjoying very much about it, however, is following people. There are those who were already bloggy mates, who greeted me so warmly on my arrival in the Twitterverse that it felt like arriving at some gigantic cosmic party and catching sight of a group of one's mates waving to one over by the canapés. And there are those to whom I am unknown but of whom I am a fan at a respectful distance.

People in the latter category who have taken to the form like ducks to the proverbial include Crikey's brilliant First Dog on the Moon ('Poodles! I have seen them!'), ABC political reporter and incidental comedienne Annabel Crabb, the inimitable Stephen Fry, the dazzling Margaret Atwood and the incomparable Alexander McCall Smith, whose specialty seems to be poetically encapsulating complex yet common moral dilemmas in 140 characters or less.

I have discovered from reading his tweets that he is a fan of Auden and Vermeer, which makes me love him even more, and among other things he is the master of the gem-like obituary: 'Alas, alas Patrick Leigh Fermor is dead: a writer who was a master of elegant prose, Latinate in its feel; a beautiful voice is silent now.'

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Classical music: an introduction

Thanks to the newly discovered (by me) wonders of Twitter I just found myself here, where the wonderfully gifted and possibly distantly related musician and writer Anna Goldsworthy has responded to a request from fellow authors Benjamin Law and Krissy Kneen that she provide them with a guide to classical music for beginners.

I particularly like the section on Schumann, the end of which reminds me of the scene in Peter Temple's The Broken Shore where Joe Cashin is lying in hospital gravely wounded and in unbearable pain and a nurse brings him an iPod or similar with Jussi Björling on it, and listening to Jussi Björling gets him through the night.

Monday, September 12, 2011

If you'll be my bodyguard, I can be your long-lost pal

I wonder whether Paul Simon could have imagined Facebook when he wrote these words. I'm guessing not, but I think of them quite often when noodling around on FB.  I doubt whether the Coen Brothers had FB in mind when they shot the chilling scene in No Country for Old Men of Javier Bardem calling the man in the store 'Friend-o', either, but frankly FB sometimes reminds me of that too.

One of the strangest and most disconcerting conversations I've had lately took place a little while back when I rang the office of a publisher to check on some publishing details that hadn't been included with the review copy of their book that I was reading.

(Note to publishers everywhere: editors and reviewers need media releases to be provided with the review copies, and on the media releases we need to be told the publication date, the ISBN, the Australian RRP and the number of pages. If you do not provide this information, then we have to waste hours and hours trawling the internet for it. Now ask yourself whether putting editors and reviewers to this unnecessary trouble is something you really want to do. Thanking you in anticipation, lots of love, Pav xxx)

Anyhoo, there I was, on the phone, and the phone rang and rang. I wasn't familiar with any of the people at this particular publishing house and didn't know any of their names. Finally someone picked up.  I gave my name, I made my request for information, and there was a pause. And then the voice on the other end said, with a faint note of reproach tinged with accusation, not '$29.95' or '304 pages' or October 12' or '978-1-84471-130-9'*, but 'You didn't accept my Friend request on Facebook.'

Now I have had a lot of strange things said to me in my many years but I do believe that that one took the biscuit. I think, coward that I am, that I may have apologised. I muttered something about only accepting Friend requests from people I did in fact know. Then I repeated my request for information, which I was given, and I hung up shaking my head in wonderment.

Facebook is very clear about not sending Friend requests to people you don't know. And anyone who cares at all about their personal safety and privacy and who knows even just the very first thing and no more about the potential vexations and dangers of social media is always going to think twice before they accept a Friend request from someone whose name is unfamiliar to them.

The last time I foolishly accepted such a request, the person in question, a man of strong and eccentric opinions, cut and pasted a 'Note' I'd written in FB -- assuming, as you do, that only my FB Friends could read it -- into his own page, offering it up to his own thousand or so 'friends' as an opinion to be ridiculed. Boy did he get the chop in a hurry. But he taught me a valuable lesson.

There's another good reason not to accept requests from people you don't know, which is that the more FB friends you have, the less attention you pay to each person's updates and posts. I'm only on Facebook in the first place because it's such a great way of keeping in touch with a far larger number of people than I could ever manage to stay in touch with otherwise, but am still really glad to go on knowing. I use FB precisely in order to be able to give those people some of my time and attention, not to give it to total strangers and their lunch menus and their 800 pix of their dogs and kids doing cute stuff. I want to know about my friends' lunches and dogs and kids, but it's a hell of a stretch to ask me to care about those of total strangers.

I've accepted Friend requests from a number of people I've never actually met but whom I know by reputation or through their work. But to anybody else who for some mysterious reason decides that you want to be my Facebook Friend even though I've never met you (and it's something I can't imagine wanting to do): sorry, I don't accept those requests. It's just a rule of mine and it's absolutely nothing personal. And the very fact that there's nothing personal between us is the reason why.

*ISBN randomly generated to protect the innocent -- if it really exists at all, it's not the one in question.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The revamped Blogger

The Blogger platform, which has served me well since I was a beginner blogger in 2005 with no clue at all about what I was doing, has undergone a major revamp and one of the things it now offers is an array of stats -- daily numbers of page views, sources of traffic, search terms and so on. I was able to find out most of these things before from a different stats counter but the Blogger stats are available at one click instead of six plus password so I tend to look at them more often.

One of the numbers I like a lot is the one you'll see if you scroll down to the bottom of this page. I didn't think I'd make 200,000 visitors (I don't think they're unique visitors; the stats counter, which is very basic, doesn't differentiate and I don't care enough to find out, and am in any case more interested in the people who like the blog enough to read it regularly and visit it often) by Sept 13, the third anniversary of this blog, but we're there with two days to spare. It also reminds me that I've been blogging for just short of six years; those stats don't include the previous blog, Pavlov's Cat.

More charming to me still, however, are some of the search terms that have led people, via search engines, to this blog. This week's list includes 'tiny white spider', 'yellow things', 'cat priest', 'sifting sugar' and 'Dumbledore's brother'.

I'm also astonished to see that there have been eleven page views this week of 'Christmas Eve cake post' for December 24 (der) 2009, and can only conclude that Spring must be the time of year when persons better-organised than I start harbouring thoughts of ceremonially whipping up a Christmas cake, to be wrapped in brown paper, put in a tin in the back of the cupboard, and ceremonially brought out and unwrapped once a week from now till Christmas for its regular injection of brandy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Blessings. I has them.

Okay, so a lot in life is currently awry if not completely cactus, but every time I go out into the back yard, the smell of the jasmine all down the side fence wafts over to me in sweet little gusts.

The whole back yard smells like flowers.

And there are other less heady but equally climby and spilly things further down the back.

Given that one of the things getting me down is the treacherous weather, reverting to grey and wet and windy and freezing after that glorious brief breath of spring, it's hard to believe that half an hour ago when I took these photos, the sky looked like this.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dear Adelaide #2

This time it's not a salutation, it's just a description.

Semaphore Road, 8pm, September 8th 2011.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tony Abbott, family man

It's perfectly all right to parade your daughters around to prove you're a straight, clean-living family man. But on the other hand, everyone knows that giving birth is icky secret women's business. Those wussy football clubs whose players and officials don't think twice about stars missing a grand final if their partners are in labour, or indeed Ricky Ponting missing the second Test in Sri Lanka, are just pansies and need to grow a pair.

Whoops, did someone say 'pair'? Not if Daddy Tony has anything to do with it.

Tony Abbott. The go-to guy for all that is spiteful, punitive, hypocritical and mean of spirit.


Dear Adelaide

Dear Adelaide,

You know nobody loves you more than your Auntie Pav. But I tell you what.

It doesn't matter that you have a local ABC radio station: if some of the people on it are insufferable self-identified big frogs in a little puddle, then that's just not quality radio.

It doesn't matter how many brilliantly gifted local artists and musicians you have: they can't sustain their work, much less develop it, if you keep cutting the arts funding, which undermines infrastructures and destabilises long-term planning.

It doesn't matter how many great festivals and events you hold: if you have no faith at all in the homegrown talent, then that sends a really terrible message to anyone who might be thinking about coming here for them. If we think so little of ourselves, why should anyone else be bothered?

And it doesn't matter how many funky little red, white and chrome cafes and sushi bars and baguette joints you cram into the CBD: as long as you start closing them and everything else up around 3.30 pm*, you'll never be more than a small provincial city. Really you won't.

Lots of love,
Pav xxx

PS: as with ethnic jokes and blonde jokes, the only people who are allowed to diss Adelaide are those who live here. Any comment deemed unacceptable will be removed.

*This is not an exaggeration

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Trusting the girls in the back room

On the grounds that it's never too early to start worrying about something, I have been worrying about a keynote speech that I don't have to give until February. I have to worry about it now, because, come the day, all my worrying capacities may well be used up on the problem of how to get to the venue in 47 degree heat without losing consciousness, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

In the meantime, what to say to an academic conference when you haven't been an academic (not a fulltime one anyway) for thirteen and half years? How to approach this topic? What to do?

But a few weeks ago as I headed south down the unlovely Tapley's Hill Road, en route to the marginally less unlovely West Lakes Mall across the road from AAMI Stadium, registering on autopilot the elderly road-crossers, the non-signalling lane-changers, the speed-limit-excessers, the potential drag racers and the current price of petrol and bananas while thinking about my shopping list and its eccentricities, the solution came to me. It just appeared as if by magic, dropping into consciousness like a ripe fruit. There it was.

After I got home, I sat down at the computer and checked the Doonesbury strip for the day, where I found a link to a rare interview with its author (is that the word for a cartoonist?), the incomparable Garry Trudeau:

There must be many days when the ideas don’t come. What does he do then? Walk in the park? Dose himself with double-espressos? “That pretty much describes every day. I spend a lot of time not coming up with ideas, but assuming you’re temperamentally suited for deadline work, you do learn to trust the boys in the back room.

“I know how to prepare myself, but I have no idea how the actual imagining works. I often abandon an idea as hopeless, only to find weeks later that my brain has mysteriously solved the problem without any apparent guidance from its owner.”

My idea for the keynote speech had most certainly come from the girls in the back room. One minute I was floundering, and the next minute I had a phrase that constituted a whole argument, plus a potential framework for a structure. I'd call it a thesis sentence, except that strictly speaking it's not a sentence.

But in my own work, I trust those backroom girls more for the bigger projects than I do for the weekly deadline. Sometimes -- often -- they are napping, and writing four short fiction reviews a week, which is in fact a highly exacting task if you have any ambition at all to do it well, is something they couldn't always be bothered to stir for. They are the Marys to the mind's Marthas -- the Marthas being the girls in the bar, if you will, cheerfully serving the drinks, cleaning the tables and keeping an eye on the till. Those girls are the years of experience and training, and their job is to say to me 'This is your life's work. If you can't sit down and write a workwomanlike piece as part of the day's tasks after all this time, then you can't do anything at all.'

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Last night in Melbourne's Federation Square, the new Stella Prize for the best book of the year by an Australian woman was launched as part of the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I did something uncharacteristically frivolous and flew over for the party.

The only people in this photo I actually recognise are journalist George Megalogenis, the tall dark dude over to the left, and Scribe publisher Aviva Tuffield, who is the smiling woman with darkish shoulder-length hair tucked behind one ear, at far right.

Chris Gordon, the events manager at Readings bookshop and a fellow member of the Stella Prize steering committee (as is Aviva, above), spoke persuasively of the need for sponsors and donations, and then introduced Australian feminist legend Anne Summers, author of Damned Whores and God's Police, which if memory serves was the first, or certainly one of the first, books in Australia to look at Australian history and culture through the lens of a feminist reading.

Anne officially launched the prize, reading the notes for her speech straight off her iPad, the first (though no doubt not the last) time I'd ever seen anybody do that. One of the most arresting things she said was that things were actually better for women in 1994 and we had apparently gone backwards.

But mostly the party was about the prize: what we've done so far, what we have still to do. The large crowd included most of the steering committee, mostly Melbourne writers and publishers: Chris, Aviva, Monica Dux, Jo Case, Rebecca Starford, and Sophie Cunningham who started it all.

Sophie Cunningham (R) with Pip McGuinness from NewSouth Books, the brains behind their Capital Cities series and therefore publisher of Sophie's book Melbourne and, next month, my book Adelaide.

The other Melbourne committee members include Jenny Niven, the MWF programmer, who I don't think was there (if I were the MWF programmer I'd be home in a coma by now) and Louise Swinn, who wasn't well. Susan Johnson from Brisbane also wasn't well enough to come, though she'd planned to. Kirsten Tranter and I flew down from Sydney and Adelaide respectively. See the Stella website at the above link for more detail on all these people.

L to R: Monica Dux, Rebecca Starford, Jo Case

Others spotted in the crowd included Melbourne publishing legend Hilary McPhee; longtime literary editor of The Age Jason Steger; publishers Philippa McGuinness from NewSouth Books and Michael Heyward from Text; Adam Bandt MP, the Federal Member for Melbourne; and Mark Rubbo, Managing Director of Readings bookshop, who has been a quietly effective supporter of the Stella Prize from the beginning.

Sophie Cunningham, Adam Bandt. The person he is talking to is probably Kirsten Tranter -- I think I recognise the outfit.

It was Kirsten who wondered on Facebook the night before the party which members of the steering committee would be out in Flinders Street drunkenly shouting 'Hey STELLA!' before the night was over. The closest I got to that myself was a quiet bottle of Stella Artois back in my hotel room later that night as I read the grisly new Val McDermid. My days for this sort of thing are a very long way behind me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Of course they bloody do

Michelle Grattan's piece in the Age today is not only disingenuous but even perhaps a tad hypocritical, reporting today from well up in the high moral ground that the Federal Labor MPs all have cheat sheets, media questions, for the answering of.

Because as if the very best efforts of Craig Thomson were not enough to bring the party crashing down around his ears and usher in the era of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who if he falls over will be replaced by Prime Minister Julie Bishop, some unidentified (a) total doofus or (b) rat in the ranks (tick one) has left his or her notes lying around on a chair where, of course, the meeja just happened by and picked them up.

Whether it was done by accident or design, you can only imagine what Julia Gillard is thinking this morning. When you've been forced by circumstance to make a fateful lose-lose decision about leading your party, fought an election, exercised your stunning negotiating skills to form government, kept it all together for over a year despite some truly frightful attempts to oust you, and made a few appalling mistakes all by yourself, who needs a rabid, grubby Opposition, a hostile media, a big smear of misogyny right across the national board (Opposition, media, electorate, one's own party, you name it) when you've got one f*ckwit who can't keep either his credit card or the other thing in his pants, and now another who is too absent-minded, or treacherous*, to avoid leaving this kind of thing lying around?

But here's the thing. Of course they've got a bloody cheat sheet. No sensible person who has anything at all to do with media questions would be without one. Because most, not all but most, journalists in our country in its current incarnation seem to think that journalism is about nagging, needling, asking hostile, mindless gotcha questions (50 extra points if you make someone cry or lose his/her temper) and then putting as sensational a spin as possible on whatever the answer was in order to sell more papers. Even Michelle Grattan, who used to be the gold standard.

Or about taking some perfectly ordinary fact, like, say, that MPs have had media training and have paid attention to the advice they were given, and blowing it up with the rhetorical equivalent of a few acronyms and punctuation marks, as here, where the invisible OMGs and exclamation marks are thick on the ground. Get real, Michelle. If the media were doing a good job of reporting neutrally and truthfully on the facts, just the facts, about the way the country's actually being run, people wouldn't nead cheat sheets to help with the Augean-stables task of resisting being tormented and misrepresented by the ladies and gentlemen of the press. As it is, WTF do you expect?

*I'm going with 'treacherous'. You don't 'inadvertently' leave your notes 'on an Opposition seat in Parliament'.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Don's legacy: more complex than you thought

The lovely Greta Bradman, granddaughter of Sir Donald.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dr Max Nicholls, 1927-2011: a good start in life

When people say 'So-And-So had a good start in life,' they usually mean that she or he was born equipped with silver spoon. I can't claim that, though I do remember being very struck by the words of the great South Australian activist, novelist and parliamentary reformer Catherine Helen Spence, on the first page of her autobiography: 'I count myself well-born, for my father and my mother loved each other.'

My sisters and I had that: they loved us too, and we had a country childhood, and there was enough money (though farming is a tough and jumpy-making gig, whatever townies may think).

And as I now know, as of today, I had the good fortune to be delivered by a very distinguished man.

My earliest memory is of gorgeous red and purple rhomboids and lozenges of light, reflected in the polished boards of the hallway, from the stained glass in the front door of the building I was born in. The Curramulka Hospital had been built on land donated by my great-grandmother (I do so love the enlightenment implicit in that sentence); she laid the foundation stone with the silver trowel presented to her by the contractor for the purpose, and then they all went across the road to the Institute for ice cream and a fund-raising fox-trot competition. Oh, it was all go in Curramulka in 1927.

In February of that year, my dad and a man called Edward Maxwell Nicholls were born within eight days of each other, country boys in different country towns. After an eventful education, Max Nicholls arrived in Curramulka with his young wife in 1951, and stayed long enough to escort me into the world two years later at the age of 26 (him not me) before moving on to Mannum later the same year.

Both of my parents always spoke highly and warmly of him. But I knew nothing about his life as a pioneering geneticist in the wake of that early stint as a country GP until today, when my older sister handed me a clipping she'd saved for me: a content-rich obituary by his daughter Christine Nicholls, herself a distinguished scholar with an international reputation. I particularly like these bits.
... he topped the state in mathematics in his Leaving Honours year. Although he wanted to study pure mathematics, his father urged him to follow a vocational pathway so Max accepted a full scholarship at the University of Adelaide where, in 1944, he enrolled in medicine, boarding as a secular student at Wesley Theological College with his brother, Les. At Wesley, Nicholls's relationship with the authorities was uneasy and his stay was punctuated by constant arguments with resident theologues. He also organised a dance - at a time when dancing was frowned upon by hardline Methodists - and came close to being expelled from the college.
After graduating in 1949, he was a resident medical officer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital before joining the Royal Darwin Hospital. As a flying doctor in the service's early days, Nicholls visited remote Aboriginal communities and leprosariums and delivered babies. As a 23-year-old, he briefly found himself in charge of the entire Northern Territory Medical Service when his senior medical officer announced, at a day's notice, that he would be taking annual leave interstate.
In 1953, the family moved to Mannum on the Murray River ... He attended many serious boating and drowning accidents and regularly visited the large Aboriginal settlement near Swan Reach, where he co-operated with the indigenous midwife to deliver babies.

He did postgraduate study in genetics in Mannum -- picture the scene: postgrad studies by correspondence in a South Australian country town while managing a large general practice and a growing family -- and not long afterwards was offered a university job, where his research made a significant contribution to what we know about genetics. Read the whole thing here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus

What are the odds of reading two new novels in 24 hours that both reference this painting, I wonder. But having done so, I felt compelled to find it online and have another look at it. Breugel died in 1569, when Shakespeare was five. Imagine still haunting human imagination 550 years later.

If you're wondering where Icarus is, click on the picture to embiggen and then have a look in the bottom right-hand corner.

W.H. Auden was a profoundly political poet and his work, more than most, was written for and about his own times. But he didn't go in for knee-jerk rejection of any universalising thinking, either, and in 'Musée des Beaux Arts' he uses this painting to say something about his own times that is probably true of any place and any age.

Monday, August 8, 2011

She got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it: vale Nancy Wake

I'd say RIP, but she doesn't look to me at all like the kind of person who'd have any interest in resting in peace, not even at 98.

Here's a question*: why is it that Australian history devotes thousands of words to that pair of expensive, incompetent show-ponies Burke and Wills, not to mention the criminal and obviously a bit disturbed Ned Kelly, but that there are few books, and I was never taught anything at school or university and I bet nobody else reading this was either, about this heroic ratbag and tearaway of a woman?

*Rhetorical. You know the answer, and I know the answer.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly

The Good:

NewSouth Books who have just sent me my advance author copies of Adelaide,

which were waiting for me tonight when I got home from my brush with death (see The Ugly).

French brandy.

My dad.

The Stella Prize.

My friend Stephanie, aca and entrepreneuse extraordinaire.

The lovely Garry Disher's Challis and Destry books.

The bathroom scales (never thought I'd say that).

The Bad:


The South Australian government and its treatment of employees and citizens. On the other hand, Premier-In-Waiting Jay Weatherill belongs under The Good, at least for now. (NB the Neanderthal mindless macho bullshit rhetoric of the Opposition here.)

Otherwise intelligent anti-feminist women setting the cause back 50 years. Not that I have anyone in particular in mind or anything.

The Ugly

Idiot drivers who come barging out of side streets straight into the oncoming heavy traffic, in the dark, in the rain.

Supermarket white bread.

Great big slugs.

The cat litter tray.

Please feel free to add to these lists.

Friday, July 22, 2011

'Harry Potter' sexist. Yes, and I am Jessica Rabbit.

"In the end, 'Potter' may go down as the most sexist story ever told."
— Andrea Peyser

Yes! Never mind Susanna and the Elders, Lolita, the Book of Genesis, Breath, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Wind in the Willows or anything at all by Philip Roth: look at the Harry Potter books. Observe the many female characters who exist only as sex objects and relative creatures, and have no individual agency or importance in the story. Mrs Weasley! Luna Lovegood! Professor McGonagall! Lily Evans! Bellatrix Lestrange! Powerless ciphers, playthings, fuck bunnies and male-fantasy projections, every one.

How is it possible that such bitter, incoherent, talentless, mean-spirited, humourless, eaten-up-with-naked-envy (of other people's fame, money and niceness) utter crapitude is appearing regularly in the New York Post? Either blackmail is involved, or someone is very, very good in bed. The former seems much the more likely.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Dear Telstra, American Express, etc etc,

You know when you get some young minion to ring me up and try, under the guise of doing me a service, to screw even more of my money out of me than you're already getting? You know those calls?

Don't tell the young minions to call them 'courtesy calls', okay? You obviously don't know what 'courtesy' means, or you wouldn't apply it to the act of invading my privacy via telephone, almost always in the middle of a sentence/paragraph/train of thought that I am trying to finish, in order to try to get your despicable corporate mitts on more of my hard-earned. 'Courtesy' is not the word for that, however you might try to dress it up. You know what it is they say you can't polish.

And while I'm here, the next young minion (or indeed anyone else) who tells me 'Not a problem' – when what s/he actually means is 'Certainly, Madam' or 'Yes' or 'If you say so' or even just 'If you must' – is going to get a smack upside the head.

Especially if those kids are still on my lawn.

Lots of love,

Pav xxx

They've done what?

The national broadcaster has apparently produced an allegedly comic mini-series, to be aired later this year, about the Prime Minister's private life.

Can you imagine anyone ever writing or saying that sentence about any one of the other (ie male) Prime Ministers in Australian history, while they were in office?

No, neither can I.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sometimes Annabel Crabb just nails it straight through the heart

As here:
Margaret Thatcher earned her 'Ditch The Bitch' placards in 1971, when as education minister she abolished free school milk for the over-sevens in British school. That's pretty hardcore. When you consider that Julia Gillard gets caned for handing out free libraries, you get an idea of the general trend described by the entitlement culture over the intervening four decades.

Fact v. opinion: surely not even Tony Abbott can be that dumb

From The Age online this morning:

An IT consultant challenged Mr Abbott over bagging climate scientists and economists, asking: 'Who would you listen to out of the experts?'

'The public,' Mr Abbott said. 'In a democracy in the end the people are sovereign.'

Either he really does think science is a democracy – in which case, well, you know – or he is *gasp* LYING.

This story reminded me of something I heard on ABC radio yesterday: a baby journalist interviewing another baby journalist -- for this is what passes in these benighted days as news -- about the Prime Minister's Press Club speech. 'Ms Gillard said she thought journalists were getting facts confused with opinions,' said the young woman. 'Do you agree with that, Peter?'

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Another dollop of the cream of British acting stirred into the Potterathon

So, hands up who recognised the lovely and talented Ciarán Hinds, aka Captain Wentworth in the most excellent movie version of Persuasion in the mid-1990s,

as Albus Dumbledore's brother Aberforth

in the eighth and final Harry Potter movie. (And what an excellent movie it is.)

I keep telling people 1953 was a good year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Destroying our way of life

The [carbon] tax, after all, was not on people, but on 500 high-polluting companies. The compensation was to guard against costs those companies might pass on to their customers.

So, no big deal, I said to myself when the details were announced. Surely this’ll all blow over. And then, found myself more than a little surprised when a Herald-Sun commenter (one step above YouTube on the food-chain, I’ll admit) said “Somebody needs to assassinate Julia Gillard NOW before she totally destroys our way of life.”

Gee, and there was I thinking one of the cornerstones of our way of life was the luxury of living in a country where heads of state don't get assassinated.

Quotation is from the brilliant rant here at Heathen Scripture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

No salted caramel macarons for me, then

Well. Today I went to Hutt Street on a follow-up visit to the nice surgeon who removed my gall bladder and, while he was in there, (gulp) biopsied (is that a verb?) my liver.

The good news is that there is no new bad news about the liver, and that everything that was eating at my innards has now been surgically removed and is healing up nicely. The bad news is assorted: (a) that gallstones can in fact form in the bile duct, so there's no guarantee that I won't grow more, and (b) the confirmation that the condition of my liver is not at all what it should be (NB this has nothing to do with drinking, so there) and if ignored and neglected could easily lead to something called non-alcoholic cirrhosis, which is exactly like alcoholic cirrhosis except that you didn't have any fun. And cirrhosis -- well, you know.

Now Hutt Street, as Adelaideans know, is an excellent place to have coffee and cake. I had coffee. No cake, no biscuits, no gorgeous French patisserie and absolutely, positively no salted caramel macarons. Not today, not next week, and only very occasionally as a special treat ever again. Sugar, fat and alcohol, formerly three of my main food groups, are off the menu for the foreseeable.

The bright side is that if I take this seriously, as who would not, then my days as a traditionally built lady might be numbered. Goddess knows I'm already ten kilos less traditionally built than I was when this all hit the fan two months ago. It could be the start of a whole new look.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On being ill

The opening sentence of Virginia Woolf's classic essay on this subject says it all, really:

Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down in the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth - rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us - when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

If you think she is being a tad melodramatic, consider that she had lost her mother at thirteen, had then lost a brother in youth to typhoid fever, would lose her friend and rival Katherine Mansfield to tuberculosis when Mansfield was only 34, and was herself embroiled in a lifelong struggle with physical as well as mental illness.

She was also writing in 1925, three years before Alexander Fleming looked at the mouldy culture and didn't realise what he was seeing, and therefore well before antibiotics -- an assortment of which, over the last month or so, I have either ingested or taken intravenously in amounts sufficient to save several horses. This might be contributing to my current lightheaded state but has saved me from the sort of imagery Woolf uses, which is a tad apocalyptic even allowing for her beautiful ironic hyperbole and her well-founded awareness of the mortal dangers, in her own time, of being ill.

Ideally, the removal of the gall bladder involves a routine laparoscopic surgical procedure, followed by a night or two in hospital and a few days' convalescence. By this reckoning, I should have been completely recovered from my June 24 surgery by the last day of the financial year.

But several different post-op complications, including further surgery that then developed its own complication, have meant I'm still not good for much and keep having to lie down, and how those two extra 8mm gallstones got (a) into, much less (b) halfway along, a bile duct that doesn't look anywhere near big enough to contain them is anybody's guess.

I have now been surgically relieved of everything that could possibly have been causing the attacks I'd been having intermittently since February (and 'attack' is the word; it was like being ambushed by a wild animal, and gave me a new insight into whichever classical Greek came up with the story of Prometheus being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten every day by an eagle, only to grow back at night and have the eagle come back at sunrise for seconds: he had gallstones), so if I keep having them then clearly it was something else all along. But I digress.

For me the interest of this not intrinsically very interesting exercise ('The main purpose of the gall bladder,' as some wag remarked, 'is to keep general surgeons on a steady income') (my own surgeon is a saint, BTW) lies mainly in the experience of helplessness. The abjection of being in hospital is a complex thing, and applies both in the Kristevan sense and in the ordinary sense. The hospital experience is full of the drama of the untidy body: of blood, sweat, vomit, bile, all the other stuff normally contained and hidden. But in hospital, the normally compliant body does not, will not and cannot maintain its normal boundaries or habits, so any chart or graph of its constantly-monitored functions looks like a web spun by a spider on acid.

You emerge to full consciousness from your second anaesthetic in five days to the sound of some poor sod barfing his heart up two beds down in the day surgery area, and you wonder how long it'll be before you're next. (Nearly four hours, as it turned out.) You are still dotted with deep, strangely placed little bruises sustained during the first surgery, and wonder exactly what caused them, while you were out of the world. Your cotton theatre gown, under which you are instructed to wear nothing, ties up, most precariously, at the back. Your temperature is up, your oxygen saturation levels are down, and the nurses frown and tut as though you had somehow done these things on purpose, just to be naughty.

You are desperate for water but Nurse Ratched won't let you have more than tiny sips. She takes your water jug away and puts it out of reach, upon which you are consumed with the desire to maim and kill, if only you were strong enough to sit up. One thing I've learned over the last week or two is that the institutional infantilisation of a woman in her late 50s and in full possession of her faculties can create sufficient force to split the atom. It may be the answer to a clean energy supply.

The staff, not just from member to member but from moment to moment, go in for a kind of psychotic toggling between 'You vill do as ve say or you vill be shot' and earnest, frowning requests that you grade your pain level on a scale of one to ten, or that you decide for yourself, in your addled post-operative state, what medication you'd like to take.

They take blood tests and plug you into potassium drips and keep waking you up or otherwise disturbing you every five minutes to take your temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels, and yet basic standards of hygiene and care seem remarkably hit-or-miss. In the shared bathroom in a four-bed ward, you step carefully over a pan of someone else's urine on the floor of the loo and wonder whether this is world's best practice.

Your sister, who is an old-school RN and a Leo, wangles you a private room through sheer persistence. They lose your pain medication and keep insisting that you know where it is. The fourth nurse to whom you suggest that it might be in the locked cupboard next to your old bed in the four-bed ward actually goes and has a look there, unlike the first three, and comes back with it in its plastic bag.

The infection subsides, you stop being sick, the pain begins to recede, and finally, after much paperwork, you are allowed to leave.

For the next few days you sleep under a clean white doona in your sister's pristine spare room, where a little table holds a framed photo of your mother as a small child. You are wearing your own soft dark-blue nightie. Your sister sees to your dressings and your diet with a mixture of supreme competence and sibling clowning. You eat dry toast and play cards and watch Masterchef and play with the cat. You come back to yourself, and gradually remember your name.

Friday, June 17, 2011

In which Ian Rankin does something unusual

Here's a little puzzle for people who habitually read literary journalism, especially in Australia.

What is quite unusual about this piece by Ian Rankin? What does it have that we don't often see in articles about literary favourites and highlights, or indeed in literary journalism at all?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Because you're only allowed to have your coffee hot if you've done your biological duty

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt says the campaign would be a misuse of taxpayer funds.

"This announcement adds insult to injury for Australian taxpayers," he said.

"Australian mums and dads are being asked to pay for the Government to advertise why mums and dads should pay higher electricity prices."
On the other hand, we are happy to let them gouge those of you who are not mummies and daddies till your ears bleed and your small intestine is tied in a bow around your liver.

Way to keep the Labor faithful faithful, Mr Hunt, even here in this dark forest where the light on the hill is lost.

Quotation is from here, where you'll see that Labor can't get anything right to save themselves either.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Silver lining

Long time no post once more, as I am balancing the meeting of deadlines with the managing of health Ishews. If you ever find yourself with the sort of gall bladder that must come out, but looking at some delay as the surgeon is not available for a few weeks, look on what has for me been a very bright side: you will lose six kilos and counting.

This is because, as I was warned by a friend who's been through this particular brand of hell -- is there any other ailment that is this painful and frightening and yet this fundamentally non-serious? -- you get to the stage where merely thinking about eating anything with any scrap of fat or oil in it of any kind (and you quickly discover that this includes about 97% of the food in the universe, including my very favourite among them, cheese. Especially cheese) is enough to make your inner vulture start chewing away at your vitals again. Or, in my case, thinking about eating anything at all.

Over these last few weeks I have been reminded repeatedly of that sketch from, I think, Beyond the Fringe about the couple in the English countryside during World War 2. (In a strong West Country accent): 'I'll never forget the day that rationin' was imposed. My wife came out to me in the garden, her face ashen in hue. "Charlie," she said to me, "rationin' has been imposed, and all that that entails." "Never you moind, my dear," I said to 'er, "you put on the kettle, and we'll have a noice steamin' cup o' hot water."'

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

There's a name for this

But look on the bright side, there's a cracker of a dystopian novel to be written about it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Speedos on fire

Whenever Julia Gillard takes a different position on something from the position on it that she took some time in the past, Tony Abbott and his goons immediately revive the 'Ju-Liar' meme.

But when Tony Abbott does a complete 180 degree turn, it's because 'everything was different then'.

And the reason for this is that, like, um. Because, erm.

Face it, Tony, you've made an utter dickhead of yourself, yet again, and have demonstrated, yet again, that you don't give a rat's arse about the long-term future and all you're interested in is being Prime Minister.

I notice he doesn't explain why 'It was before Copenhagen' (say what?) should explain why he used to be in favour of a carbon tax and now he thinks it's the devil's work. I get the feeling that what he means when he says 'everything was different then' is that a pro-carbon-tax position was one that opposed what Labor was doing at the time, and he's now still opposing what Labor's doing, so what's the problem, I mean what is the matter with you people? I think he genuinely believes that it his job not to have policies, not to have principles, not to have convictions, not to understand stuff and not to represent his Party, but simply to be loudly against whatever Labor is for.

And if I hear one more person say 'The Opposition's job is to oppose' then I will throw up. Of course it's not the Opposition's job to oppose. The Opposition's job is to provide checks and balances, to represent the people who voted for it, and to maintain itself as a viable alternative guvmint. Good luck with that.