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