Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Book review: Listurbia, Carly Cappielli (2019)

Cappielli’s story is told in the form of a series of lists. The list is a nice short form that chimes with the times. On social media brevity is king and on Twitter threads are common. A thread is where someone wants to post something longer than can fit in a 280-character tweet. It is created by replying to each of your own tweets in series. You add more information as it becomes available. Another Australian writer, Amanda O’Callaghan, has taken this road. In her short story collection ‘This Taste for Silence’ she uses a very short form for some stories. The emergence of threads on Twitter might have had something to do with O’Callaghan’s choice of form for some of her short stories, but in Cappielli’s case I suspect that idea for her work came from the way that we are, these days, surrounded by messages all the time in a way that was unknown a generation before.

The protagonist in Cappielli's novella is not named and the world around her is filled in, as though the hole that exists where her sense of herself should be somehow demanded such a strategy, by details gleaned from her environment. Some of the lists used in the book are taken from real life, so are nonfictional. The paradox of this novella is that just by filling in the space around the protagonist – even to the extent of sometimes providing only one side of a conversation she is involved in – the author manages to vividly evoke her creation’s interior life. It's like a classical Chinese painting where a few brushstrokes let you see an entire world, and where white space, even though it is blank, can serve to communicate deep emotions to the viewer.

I haven't completely fixed my opinions about this work and they may change with time, but the effect the writing produced in me was profound. And the western suburbs of Sydney have a good chronicler in Cappielli. The distances, the way the evening shuts in quickly as the sun sets beyond the Blue Mountains, the trains that thread their way through seemingly endless suburbs to the centre of the metropolis. The West comes alive in this novella in a way that is appropriate for the themes that are dealt with in it.

Western Sydney is full of wonderful things, from the Moon Festival that is held every year in Cabramatta to the Ramadan Food Festival held every year in Lakemba. You can even go to a festival in honour of Krishna if you time your visit right. The West has worlds within it, including the story of Cappielli’s narrator, whose world is filled with auguries and premonitions that she must deal with in order to thrive.

Sometimes we are lucky to be alive, wherever we live. Sometimes absence can speak louder than words. Sometimes what is hidden is more powerful than what is visible. Sometimes you can feel your heart beating in your chest (if you are fortunate, only sometimes). Sometimes the outward evidence of something is hidden from sight. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Book review: Offshore, Joshua Mostafa (2019)

The publisher is promoting this as a novella but it seems to me to be too long to warrant that label so I’m going to call it a novel. The premise is simple: Australian institutions have broken down in the face of an economic crisis along with the consequences of climate change. Authority has disappeared and life is dangerous in Sydney.

Much of the book takes place in the western suburbs of the city, with excursions to the Blue Mountains, and on an unnamed island in the Pacific. Early on in the story, the narrator (who is not named), a professor in the humanities, meets up with a woman named Sarah and a man named Bart, the latter being a former mature-age student from one of the protagonist’s classes. The narrator is immediately flagged as unreliable when he pours scorn on Bart in his manuscript – he secures a notepad and pen at some point in his journey on the boat that will take him to the island – and subsequent events show him to be very imperfect.

Mostafa cleverly turns the tables on Australia by making it necessary for its own citizens to flee overseas. In real life Australia operates a camp on the island of Nauru where refugees who have tried to reach it by boat are kept in a camp. There are more refugees in Papua New Guinea who want to come to the country but who are not allowed due to government policy. I have written at length about Australia’s refugee policies elsewhere.

In the novel, the way that the country adapts to changed circumstances brings visibly to mind the types of problems that people who seek refuge in Australia face in their countries of origin. The violence, the corruption, the human rights abuses, the coercion and injustice. It is all here in a form that makes it relevant to every Australian, and it’s done in an engaging and vibrant way. In a way that brings to life the awfulness of despotism and its logical correlate: anarchy.

About a year ago I read another book that places asylum seekers at the centre of its drama. This was ‘On the Java Ridge’ by Jock Serong. Mostafa’s novel is literary fiction and I suspect will do better than Serong’s attempt, which didn’t make much of a splash, but it was a thriller. I didn’t particularly like it because of the way that, in it, life appeared to be of little value. In Mostafa’s book there is just as much to be horrified by but it feels better-handled, and the violence is portrayed with more compassion for the characters involved.

For a writer of speculative and engaged fiction there is a danger of producing something where the themes are overdetermined and narrow, a work that is too politicised and therefore fails to offer a credible storyline with believable characters. I find such shortcomings too often. But there is in Mostafa’s novel a broad awareness of where the community sits with regard not only to geopolitics. It might be surprised to see its own nature revealed but what is created here has the ring of truth.

This novel is realist in design (with an interesting metatextual divertissement thrown in just to demonstrate the author’s philosophical chops) and has a progressive political bias. The former competently carries the burden placed on it by the latter. There is no shoehorning of ideas into unsuitable containers. Things seem, in this work, to gel nicely. I’m convinced that Robert Hughes would have been proud of it, if he had lived a little longer.

To put Mostafa’s story in context the following is a graphic showing rainfall in the Victorian town of Ballarat, since the end of the 19th century when such records began to be gathered.


To end this review, a short note on Double Bay. I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and even in the 1970s Double Bay was anything but monocultural. It’s more culturally diverse now than it was then. 

Monday, 11 November 2019

A need for a new profession: the personal brand manager

This post was written in the middle of September and sat unused on my hard drive for two months. But then I saw a tweet from futurist Ross Dawson at around 10.45am (Sydney time) yesterday that said, “Interesting piece in @TheAtlantic on the rise of ‘Personal CRM’ services to help you manage your personal relationships and how some people are using tech to keep in touch with those important to them - does it help or hinder relationships?” The Tweet came with a link to a story on the company’s website but I don’t have a subscription so I didn’t click on it.

Celebrities offer comfort. We gravitate to the names of actors, artists, musicians, writers, movie directors, poets (and criminals). We nestle in the warmth of the stories that surround them. Their personalities bring us reassuring certainties that are so different from the anxiety that the rest of our lives delivers in such abundance.

We turn sportsmen and -women and even our politicians into celebrities too. And don’t forget royalty! They allow us to spin reliable stories and share them with like-minded people, people who add to the feeling of security we crave as we navigate our ways through the thickets of life. Celebrities offer people a desirable prospect because they are not us. They are not, in our view, cramped by insecurities and by the difficulties of deciding, all the time, what to do with their time, their money, their energies.

We put them on a pedestal but crucify them when they disappoint us. If this happens, our response is out of proportion to the offense, we insult them and verbally abuse them and ostracise them until they become outcasts from the community.

Fame is thus a poisoned chalice. The bigger you are the harder you can fall. And by applying to celebrities (even some journalists and some scientists) a higher degree of scrutiny than we apply to ordinary people we make such people more careful about controlling what messages about themselves that are made public. They become paranoid about leaks and whistleblowers who might endanger their precious social cachet. Hence the severity of punishments for frivolously endangering it, which the state enforces through defamation laws. And hence the state’s penalties for people who reveal information that might embarrass any of its organs.

With politicians, a kind of balance is struck through the existence of freedom of information laws but in practice these are not always entirely successful for the person who is trying to uncover evidence of wrongdoing or of government malpractice. Objections to the stated request may be put forward on the grounds of secrecy or on the grounds that revealing the requested information could put innocent people at risk. Furthermore, the cost can be prohibitive, and if the release is judged to require too much time to carry out it can be refused on the grounds that doing so is not feasible.

Politicians and celebrities and sporting clubs employ public relations professionals – many of whom have been either trained as journalists or who have worked as journalists – to make it easier to control the messages that get out into the public sphere. Partly in response to this perception of obfuscation, whistleblowers, in turn, are celebrated and are given recognition by the community as protectors of freedoms. The debates that rage around such people are, however, often characterised by rancour as people express contrasting views.

Trust is easily lost and most large organisations have a problem maintaining it. People in the broader community respond by raising up their own, chosen celebrities, people whose use of social media has propelled them into popularity. People are loyal and unthinkingly support their heroes, and the cachet of being an “outsider” clings to such people even if they are successfully appropriated by the entertainment industry.

News about celebrities is often derided as meaningless but I think that this view is misguided. As I wrote in a post published on 25 May 2015, all news stories are proxies for larger debates. So a story about a celebrity who does something wrong can contain important messages, for example, about such things as trust (if the celebrity lied) or about sexual assault (if the celebrity raped a woman). We use such stories as important tokens that express things about ourselves and we share them with our peers as we go about our daily business and as we talk about what we did on the weekend or the evening before (watched a movie, read a news story).

Privileging a celebrity as an actor in stories that are meaningful for us is perfectly natural. Humans are social animals and language is innate so the creation of stories that help us to make the communities we need to survive is a species behaviour. In our stories we have protagonists who represent certain values and who embody certain things about ourselves and about our societies. We invest them with parts of us but we fail to do the same for ourselves. But unless we are a psychopath we are not the heroes of our own stories. Most people are beset by misgivings and doubts and search out ways to allay such feelings, even going so far as to create gods that they worship as all-powerful and benign and able to settle the confusion amid which they live their lives.

All of this is uncontroversial and should be common knowledge. But we need now to be able to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, to give to ourselves the same quantity of belief that we give to celebrities and to gods. As we move on in time, and as we become more used to the capacity each one of us now has to publish our own stories, we need to be more able to fashion positive stories about ourselves that we can share, instead of just building up one celebrity or tearing another one down. We can choose to leave behind the comforting certainties offered by celebrity and embrace a more meaningful existence as, ourselves, people worth celebrating on the basis of our own, individual qualities.

In a sense this is already happening. It is happening along lines marked out by the trajectories drawn by identity politics. There are more and more memoirs being published written by people who are only remarkable on the basis of the stories that they are able to tell. These revelations of suffering and of challenges overcome are bought by ordinary people who want something authentic to use to divert themselves from the fear and loathing that they experience in their own lives. True crime, also, is very popular. And so we have started out on our journey toward fulfillment, to a place where we can leave behind the sterile and gratuitous search for meaning in the lives of others, so that we can find it in our own.

Perhaps now there is a place for professionals whose job it is to create and fashion a personal brand for individuals who are not particularly remarkable but who want to engage in a more meaningful way with others in the community on social media. A personal brand manager of this kind could talk with you over a period of a couple of days in order to establish the kinds of things that you want to represent online, and help to orient you within the available narratives so that you can choose one suitable for you, one that both authentically reflects who you are and that can help you to achieve your personal goals. They could then give you advise about how to promote suitable narratives on the various platforms that you use, such as Facebook and Twitter. And they could also provide guidance about what kinds of conversations to avoid.

This kind of professional could work for anyone and it could all be done over Skype or FaceTime. I had a service of this nature a year or so ago when I wanted to improve my LinkedIn profile. The woman I spoke with lives in California and she helped me to construct a useful personal profile on the site that would project my strengths in a way that is easy to read and comprehensive but that avoids some common problems such as verbosity and an excess of detail. The blueprint for a personal brand manager is already with us and the need for this class of person is real.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Book review: Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics, Peter Drew (2019)

Released in Australia on 6 August, this book hasn’t made much of a splash and it’s easy to see why. Drew seems to be a little confused about life and he’s got a hot head – which is probably why street art appeals to him; it makes him feel good to break rules – but his understanding of the importance of stories as social glue is correct. Language is innate so the use of stories to create community is a species behaviour.

I wasn’t sure though why Drew seems so wedded to the idea of belonging either to a left wing or a right wing, politically speaking. (I liked his poster with the skulls and the word “equality”.) Being politically agnostic might help him, and people like him, to simply forget about that kind of nonsense and deal with individual issues on their merits.

But then, if you did that, people might ignore you, which might lead to disappointment. It feels good to belong to a group and mobs are born when people are given an opportunity to gratify an instinct to gather to achieve a common goal. Mobs can be unruly and Drew appears to regret the polarisation that characterises the public sphere in the age of social media but his book was born in exactly that place, so the reservations he expresses are not entirely convincing.

The pacing of the book is good but it flags once the campaign has finished that uses the image of an Indian migrant wearing a turban. The image sits on well-known posters that Drew has put up all over Australia’s capital cities. The problems that enliven the narrative in the book from that point seem to be domestic ones that don’t have much to do with the posters except through Drew’s use of rhetoric to construct an argument.

I wondered if he wasn’t perhaps brought up ae Catholic considering his emphasis on what he doesn’t term transcendence (though that’s what he means; seeking out an adrenaline rush from postering is linked to the same urge) and the power of a kind of spiritual awakening that can be used to overcome problems and find relief. To find redemption. He doesn’t give the reader much detail on matters of faith as it relates to him personally but he says that he has been, since the age of seven, an atheist, which is what someone who has been brought up in a religious family would say.

Drew’s constant use of the word “empathy” bothered me as well as his admiration for Aboriginal culture, a culture in which elders are (allegedly) respected on account of their ability to impart wisdom. But then he turns around and lambastes every white, middle class guy aged over 50 who says he doesn’t like his posters. A double standard seems to be in play but this is just one example of the author’s inability to recognise his own biases for what they are. The lack of rigour evident in this regard is typical of the book generally.

On a related note, the title is a bit of a puzzle, since by the time the story ends Drew is already 35 and hardly a “boy”. Seems a bit like false advertising, but the publisher probably liked the idea. Makes the project fit the profile if you are trying to gain traction on the internet.

There is more I could say, for example on the subjects of racism, but I won’t indulge myself. The book is, in fact, worth reading even given the points I’ve listed but Drew will not win any prizes for his effort.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Nine

This is the ninth in a series of posts relaying conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

25 September

Caught a cab from Broadway outside the University of Technology, Sydney. I was going home and it was late in the afternoon. The driver and I started talking after he said something about the prime minister. It happened in the following way.

A car in front was sitting in two lanes and my driver couldn’t move forward to the lights, which were red. He said aloud, as though to the driver in front of us who, naturally, couldn’t hear what he was saying: “Keep moving!” The car ahead of us was stationary, so was impeding the movement of our cab. “Keep the country moving!” he went on, aloud. “Like Scott Morrison said.” In the end the little car in front moved forward and took a lane that would allow it to turn right into Darling Drive.

The radio in our cab was tuned to a commercial station and the news was on. I asked the driver if he liked Morrison, the Australian PM. He said he did adding, with a wry smile and with a twinkle in his eye as he angled his face in my direction, “And I like Donald Trump too.” As he watched the road ahead of us I asked him why he had said that and he said that Trump is, in his opinion, the only politician who can stand up to the Chinese. I looked right at him and voiced another question that I formulated on the spot: “But where are you from?” He said, “I’m Vietnamese.” I then told him I thought he was right about Trump’s stance vis-à-vis the Chinese. Just before we arrived at the intersection at Harris Street, where we were about to turn right, he added that he didn’t agree with everything Trump says.

He said that the Chinese leadership are bullies, and that the country has problems with all its neighbours: Tibet, India, Mongolia. Even the Russians, he went on, don’t like China but wouldn’t say so publicly. He was scathing of the One Belt, One Road initiative, and told me about an island in Sri Lanka he had heard about that the Chinese, he averred, had taken over from that country after the Sri Lankans hadn’t been able to pay back a loan given to them to use for development.

I put my oar in from time to time, telling the driver at one point that I had just that day had coffee with a friend who had just come back from China and who had told me that the air pollution in Beijing is terrible. (My friend had actually said, “It’s not air.”) The driver said that China was a developed nation but that its leaders don’t want to do anything about the environment. So that they wouldn’t have an obligation to take action on the environment, he said, China’s leaders were telling other nations that their country was still developing. The sentiment and the idea voiced by the driver matched exactly what Morrison had the same day announced from Chicago, where the prime minister was visiting, and they were ideas that Trump had publicly echoed.

For good measure, the driver added to his monologue another fact: that the rich people from China spend little time in their native country and live for parts of the year in other, cleaner, places (“Even in Sydney,” he carried on pleasantly), and so don’t care about Beijing’s poor air quality.

He also talked about China’s navy, spinning a tale – and I had no way to know if what he said was true or not but listened, captive, as he listed the faults of his ancestral home’s mortal enemy – about how the Chinese had bought an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine on the basis that they were going to convert it into a floating casino. Then after they had brought it back to their country they had copied it and built two more like it, “only bigger”. He added that China was still 20 years behind the US in terms of technology but that they were stealing a lot of IP, and that Chinese students studying in Western countries were part of a strategy of surreptitiously acquiring IP that others had developed.

The cab driver appeared to be delighted to have a receptive audience for his opinions, although I said hardly a word the whole time we were together, and he went on again about Trump as we came closer to my home, saying that he thought the US president would win the election in 2020. I said I thought so, too. Trump had brought the unemployment rate down, he said, and people in the Midwest only care about jobs. “When was the last time unemployment was so low?” he asked me. “Only after the war,” he gleefully answered himself. He also said that US businesspeople liked Trump because of the tax cuts he had given them, and so he felt sure they would support his campaign.

He said I have an American accent and asked me why. I said I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney. “Why do you have an American accent, then?” I said that a woman I had met not long before had told me I sounded Dutch. He dropped me off in my street and I paid using EFTPOS.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Book review: Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power, Eben Kirksey (2012)

An amazing book by an activist ethnologist is a place to learn more about West Papua and how it has struggled to achieve its goal of independence from Indonesia. Kirksey is clear about where his sympathies lie, so a certain degree of scepticism should be employed when reading it, but on the whole I was convinced that the author performs reliable corroboration of the facts he uses to substantiate his claims.

The title is ambiguous but Kirksey explains the meaning of the words he has chosen to act as a front for his work, work that has taken up many years of his life. As a US citizen, Kirksey is aware of the power of public opinion and as an academic he is careful to substantiate his findings.

The future looks harsh for occupied West Papua but the use of fracking to mine for shale gas in the US has, in the years since this book appeared, possibly weakened one of the links tying the US administration to the aspirations of commercial interests involved in West Papua (which Indonesia calls its provinces of Papua and West Papua). At the time of writing this review there had been no official call for West Papuan independence that had gone very far, although frail sprouts pop up from time to time.

Kirksey’s primary metaphor is the rhizome, a term he borrows from a French intellectual. Kirksey also deploys the metaphor of the banyan, a parasitic tree that tends, when fully grown, to prevent any other plant from growing nearby. The rhizome seems to stand in for the freedom fighters and the banyan tree for the TNI (the military).

The banyan had been used as a symbol by one of Indonesia’s political parties and its meaning in the book is subtly deployed, in the light of the way that the military in the country has involved itself in not only the political process but also in business. In fact, you wonder at the chances of West Papuan freedom fighters and political activists when you think of all the forces arrayed against them: the TNI, the police, the Indonesian government, mining companies, and the US government. What chance have they got in the face of such obstacles?

Perhaps as a rhizome at least the spirit of struggle never dies. Kirksey’s use of the word “entanglement” in the title and his deployment of the metaphors of the rhizome and the banyan are elegant contrivances that point to the ways that the global community operates today. You can learn things, by reading this book, that are of broad applicability, not just being relevant to West Papua and Indonesia.

The figure of the zombie, implicit in the undying struggle the rhizome emblematises, is also fitting. Mystical elements of the West Papuan narrative that combined in people’s minds to form stories about their country are, of all the things that Kirksey chronicles, possibly the most fascinating discovery available in this book. The complexities of the arrangements that exist between people and between communities are, anyway, so intricate that the injection of articles of faith into the mix seems like a form of understatement.

It’s charming but it is a potent rhetorical device: given the complexity of contemporary life and the existence of forces outside of the individual’s control perhaps, nowadays, a form of belief – not just in a God, but even in something else entirely – is the only thing that works for people. We live in an age of tribes.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Dream journal: Eleven

As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is always the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory. There aren’t any journal entries for September; in that month I started a course of medication to deal with anxiety, a fact that may have led to the dreams stopping temporarily.

30 August 2019

I remember part of the last segment of this dream. I was in a wetland that had a river or stream flowing through it and I was trying to get down a slope to a path that had rushes and grasses growing on either side of it. The path looked well-trod and it looked as though it was paved with pebbles or rocks offering a firm base for the feet of walkers. The path led to a small cliff that I jumped down from onto a slab of rock, like a shelf, beyond which was the stream flowing placidly. I walked to my right along the stream, looking for signs of life.

I felt as though I were the last man in the world. When I came to an elbow in the stream, beyond which I was not able to walk, I saw some fish in the stream and this sight reassured me that there was other life in the world. A large, white fish was swimming near me but I could not touch it. I bent down and stirred the water next to the bank with my right hand, and as I did so a cluster of small, black fishes came toward my hand, evidently looking for food. I repeated this action several times before I turned away from the stream to go back in the direction whence I had come.

7 October 2018

I saw the following recount on Facebook on 7 October 2019. This is because the site reminds you, on a regular basis, of old posts, which you can then choose to repost if you want to show them to your followers again. This post hadn’t made it into the first post in the “dream journal” series that appeared on this blog on 13 November 2018.

Dreamt that they were bringing people back to life after death. The dream started with people installing angle grinders into a structure that could then be submerged to take it down to where the caskets containing the dead bodies were kept. I was evidently then using scuba gear when I saw the first dead body: that of a dog. The skin had completely come off its head but I patted it on its skull anyway. One by one the dead bodies were removed from their protective caskets, including that of Einstein, whose hair was still full and rich and whose face looked a bit worse for having been buried for many decades. He was still recognisable however.

15 October 2019

I hadn’t had a dream to remember for so long, but on this morning I had a faint memory of a dream the night before that involved me explaining to someone – I don’t remember who, or even if it was a man or a woman I was talking with – my theory about the rise of the power of the West. I remember that I had started to explain about the invention of computers – the day before I had had a conversation in my unit with two people about precisely this subject: computers – and then had been about to go on to explain about the Humanist project, but then something had happened to stop me continuing my peroration. Or was it not a dream at all? Was it, perhaps, that I had, during our real-life conversation, decided against putting forward my pet idea out of a fear that I might bore someone? Had I just imagined, awake, saying something and then, later, imagined that it had been a dream? I shall never know.

29 October 2019

Dreamt I was on a horse that was negotiating a set of stairs. I had to get down to the bottom of the stairs because the authorities had closed a road that might have taken me to where I wanted to go, and the horse and the stairs were the only way for me to get there. The horse was light brown and it had a shaggy mane. The stairs were made of metal and there were railings installed along the way that were attached to the scaffolding holding up the structure. I grabbed the railing with my hands at different points as we made our way down.

Initially, I didn’t want to go on the horse and said something like, “There’s no way I’m going down there on this horse.” But the horse was already negotiating the top step by the time I had a chance to utter these words, so I had to commit to the descent. The horse had its own mind made up and, for good or ill, was determined to negotiate the steep staircase that lay in front of us.

As we made our way down the incline, I heard the sounds the horse’s hoofs made as they struck each metal step, one by one. The angle that steps were set at seemed impossibly acute to me perched, as I was, on the animal’s back. I was terrified but, on the other hand, I had confidence that the beast would be able to do what it had set itself as a task to complete. When we arrived at the bottom of the stairs I sat waiting on the horse so that my companions could catch up.

1 November 2019

I had a dream during the night but in the morning I couldn’t remember anything from it. I did however remember waking up in the dark, or at least partly gaining consciousness, and thinking to myself, “I had a dream, I wonder if I’ll remember it in the morning?” then going back to sleep. Later, near bedtime, as I was using my browser, which hanged, interrupting my online activity, a scene from the dream flashed through my mind.

In the dream, of which I now remembered parts, I was in San Francisco – a city I had visited for a day or two in 1978 during a trip I took with my family to the US – and there was a busy road. I was trying to cross but many cars were streaming down the hill. I was facing up the hill – the road was to my left – and then a group of children coming home from school were on the footpath beside me. They ran into the street and dodged between the rushing cars, all of them reaching the opposing kerb safely. I had tried to cross the road but the volume of traffic had prevented me from doing so.

After that short episode, I went into a playhouse, right next to the road, where a performance was shortly to begin. I met with a woman who had arranged to meet me there; she was with an organisation I knew about but, in recalling the dream, I don’t remember anything about it. The two of us were in the theatre’s lobby when we met each other and there were chairs and couches for guests to use. We walked to the far side of the lobby, talking about something.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book review: The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, ed Jeremy Noel-Tod (2019)

This is a watershed publication that can serve as a compendium of styles and modes from the beginning of the moment, in the middle of the 19th century, when high culture appeared (privileging the individual, the elites) and, abruptly, at the same time as working-class consciousness emerged, took off on its own path.

Noel-Tod’s book is important and thrilling and demonstrates an acquaintance with a wide array of work including people as well-known as Gertrude Stein (an extract from her ‘Tender Buttons’ of 1914 is here; I’d never read her work before) and Charles Baudelaire (‘The Stranger’ and ‘Windows’ of 1869 are included).

Noel-Tod wisely starts from the present and goes backwards. This tactic allows you to feel comfortable with the selection before you are asked to read pieces that, because of their distance from us in time, are written in styles that might be more difficult to identify with.

While reading the poems in the first section of the book I had the feeling that prose poetry resembles in a way the formulaic prose of officialdom or of commerce. Then, when I got to the second part of the book (the Postmodern moment, which noel-Tod leads from the middle of the 1940s to 1999) I found my feeling echoed directly back to me, in an explicit way, by Laurie Duggan’s 1985 poem ‘Hearts’.

I will start at the beginning: it seems as though, I think, we have had a return to the demotic in a form that combines it with the political. The more recent stuff also seems to have a good number of people writing it who are from marginal groups (women, migrants). After the Postmodern mode had run its course we suddenly wake up to a world where the everyday (conventional narratives, genre tropes) has been regained and is, now, the mode of literature with the most utilitarian purpose despite it having, from its origins, the avowed purpose of entertainment. If you want to find politics in a book of fiction you read genre novels now or, at least, the hybrids that are being produced these days. It’s a paradox.

I was reminded of the shortcomings of Postmodernism and the need to revisit more conventional modes of representation when I was reading Peter Robb’s brilliant study of the mafia, ‘Midnight in Sicily’ (1996). Robb notes how postwar Italian novelists such as Italo Calvino might avoided realism out of fear of the consequences of portraying reality as lived in the country in the years since WWII. Calvino’s first novel, ‘The Path to the Nest of Spiders’ was clearly about the antifascist partisans but in the following years he relied mainly on self-referential and metatextual ploys to make meaning.

I call our new literary mode “Divergism” and I’ve written about it here and here.  Good examples of this kind of writing in Noel-Tod’s book are an extract from ‘Adventures in Shangdu’ (2012) by Cathy Park Hong, a Korean-American poet, ‘Conversations about Home (at the Deportation Centre)’ (2011) by Warsan Shire (a Brit, but her parents are from Somalia), and ‘Phases of the Moon in London’ (2004) by Amjad Nasser, which was translated from Arabic. Nasser lives in Britain and uses a pseudonym for his writing. In this section of the book I particularly admired his piece.

In Noel-Tod’s second section, on Postmodernism, the metatextual elements are handled well in ‘In Love with Raymond Chandler’ (1992) by Margaret Atwood, and ‘Chekhov: A Sestina’ (1990) by Mark Strand, a Canadian-born American poet who died in 2014.

In the 90s, furthermore, you tend to get a large number of words such as dream, dreaming, imagined, desire, wishes, and sleep appearing in published prose poems. There is for example one poem titled ‘Human Wishes’ in this section. In one poem the word “real” crops up, too, suggesting ambiguous feelings about the nature of existence itself.

‘Meeting Ezra Pound’ explicitly combines a dream with the metatextual impulse. It deals with a person attending a literary festival. The event might or might not have happened. There are questions as to whether the person through whom the narrative is focalised really exists and whether the world itself exists. But the fact of literature, functioning like a tunnel connecting two people from different times, is something that the poet marks out as real even though literature is, by its very nature, evanescent. This piece is by Miroslav Holub (1980), translated from the Czech. Holub died in 1998.

This metatextual impulse emerges again in an extract from Jack Spicer’s ‘Letters to James Alexander’ (1959) which is in the form of a letter from a man named Jack (the poet, presumably). “I read them all (your letters and mine) to the poets assembled for the occasion last Wednesday. Ebbe was annoyed since he thought that letters should remain letters (unless they were essays) and poems poems (a black butterfly just flew past my leg) and that the universe of the personal and the impersonal should be kept in order. George Stanley thought that I was robbing Jim to pay James. They sounded beautiful all of them.” Spicer, who was gay, died in 1965.

There is also collage in Frank O’Hara’s 1954 poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, which uses a quote from Hester Thrale, a 18th century diarist, about a person named Fanny Brown. The quote is (reportedly) from page 407, volume 1, of ‘Thraliana’, in the two-volume Oxford edition, which first appeared in 1942.

‘The Clerk’s Vision’ by Octavio Paz, 1951, is particularly fine. Also, in the next section (Modernism), I liked the extract from John Lehmann’s ‘Vigils’ (1942) and George Seferis’ ‘Nijinski’ (1940). (Lehmann, an Englishman, was also gay.) ‘A Day’ by Rabindranath Tagore also good (1921). It provides the reader with a moment in time that is captured and contextualised as a fragment of eternity. (Fragments are used to make collages.)

The theme of dreams returns with ‘The End of the World’ (1878) by Ivan Turgenev, which is subtitled ‘A Dream’. There are also other collages, such as Amy Lowell’s ‘Spring Day’ (1916) and Jessie Dismoor’s ‘London Notes’ (1915).

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Book review: The Hive, Morgan Baden and Barry Lyga (2019)

On 26 October at 5.15am (AEST) Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, tweeted, “The global wave of demonstrations we are witnessing shows a growing lack of trust between people and political establishments. People are hurting and want to be heard. We must listen to the real problems of real people, and work to restore the social contract.”

I was reading ‘The Hive’ at the time this tweet appeared or, to put it more accurately, I had put down the book to use social media for an hour or so. But the message in Guterres’ comment – which referred to protests that had broken out over the previous month or so in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Chile – made me think, when I saw it, of Baden and Lyga’s young adult (YA) technothriller.

Its plot is based on a concept that two other people (not named here) gave to the authors, a married couple. In a future America, a social media platform that requires authentication for people to register to use it allows flashmobs to carry out a form of justice – Hive Justice, under law – in an authorised form of violent, and sometimes deadly, cancel culture. So the links with the present are strong (and the president, Dean Hythe, closely resembles, in his verbal mannerisms, Donald Trump).

We now live in a time when social media acts as a mirror to ourselves (we are judgemental and extreme in the form of expression we choose to communicate online).   In the future, the authors of this YA novel ask, what if the government uses this kind of tendency of the human species in order to control people, even to control whole communities. In such a scenario, Cassie McKinney, who is 16 or 17 at the time the book opens (she’s in what in the US is called the “senior year” of high school which, in Australian terms, is Year 12 of secondary school) get caught up in an episode of Hive Justice when she makes a tasteless joke at the expense of the US president’s daughter’s new baby. This part of the novel echoes themes explored in Mona Awad’s brilliant coming-of-age novel, ‘Bunny’. Cassie is trying to fit in with a group of socially adept girls in her school, and makes an error of judgement which turns into a crisis.

Under the type of “Hive Justice” that is subsequently unleashed, where people online Condemn Cassie for her gauche remark, she is allowed to be killed. She’s also not allowed to get rid of her phone. She must run to escape the mob which follows her (her phone alerts people nearby to her location). The people they come across behave like zombies, which is unremarkable when you consider the way, in real life, some people conduct themselves on social media. Cassie’s mother Rachel tries to help her daughter but the forces at play are beyond even her control. Then a young man, who has been attending one of Rachel’s classical history classes, steps in.

The forward movement in this work of fiction is strong, which is not surprising given the intended audience, and the use of delay to increase the suspense the reader feels is solid, but the authors have also made sure to capture how the protagonists feel and even, sometimes, their thoughts. The narrative is focalised through Cassie in some parts and through Rachel in others. It touches on a range of themes, including racism, intolerance, and the nature of individual agency.

There is a lot of highly-toned action of a physical nature, including dramatic escapes, but the novel’s message hinges on the question of how an individual should conduct him- or herself. Cassie’s father Harlan had been a hacker and his presence shadows Cassie’s experiences, though he had passed away shortly before the book opens. Harlan hovers over the universe the authors have created like a tutelary god, a presence that Cassie returns to time and time again as she navigates her frightening world.

Harlan had, among other things, written a piece of code that gives Cassie access to his “personality” using a computer program. She has conversations with “him” when she is alone in her room, away from her mother (who, she thinks, doesn’t understand her). And while he had also helped her to become a good programmer, when push comes to shove Cassie has to make decisions by herself that will determine the outcome of events.

By the end of the book the emotions are running high but there are, thankfully, no simple answers. I give this novel five stars. I thought I saw in it a reference to Don DeLillo’s wonderful short story, ‘The Angel Esmerelda’ (1994) but I am not entirely sure.

The other works of fiction I was reminded of while reading this book were ‘Surveillance’ (2015) by Bernard Keane, Michael Brissenden’s 2017 ‘The List’, and Caroline Overington’s 2018 ‘The Ones You Trust’. In each of these novels, social media features heavily. All three of these Australian writers are journalists. Baden and Lyga and the people who came up with the ideas behind ‘The Hive’ have followed the indicators offered by writers such as these and gone to the next level: a full-throttle dystopia.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Grocery shopping list for October 2019

This post is the tenth in a series. My shopping for groceries online started in the month of September. Due to still feeling anxiety when going out in the street, in October I continued to buy online most of my groceries and get them delivered. 

I already had over 7600 words for this post when the Woolworths story broke in the Sydney Morning Herald on the second-last day of the month. The company, it was found, had underpaid thousands of employees over a period of years. Keep in mind if you read what follows that the people picking products, packing them, and delivering them might have been underpaid, and had not said anything about it. Meanwhile, because of their efforts, the machinery of commerce had, most of the time, operated smoothly.

30 September

Went to Woolworths’ website and ordered Scotch fillet steak, sliced mortadella, fetta cheese, King Island blue cheese, Truckle Brothers Cheddar cheese, celery, shallots, low-salt margarine, eggs, milk, and some bottles of flavoured mineral water (no added sugar). I booked the delivery to come on the morning of Wednesday 2 October, which is why I included this order in October’s list.

Then I remembered I hadn’t ordered bread so I went back to the website and amended the order, which meant redoing the payment and resetting the delivery date and times. Just before getting ready for bed I remembered I had forgotten to order salads so went back to the website, logged in again, and amended my order a second time, adding to it lentil salad, coleslaw, and potato salad.

The order confirmation email that arrived (at 8.59pm) said that I could amend my order again before Tuesday 1 October at 5.45pm, but I knew that this would not happen as I had now made all necessary changes. The email also said that the delivery would happen in two days’ time between 7am and 10am.

1 October

Early this morning I received an email from Woolworths asking me to rate soap I had bought the previous moth through their website. The email contained this:
We'd love to know what you think of some of the products you purchased by giving them a rating and/or review. Sharing your thoughts, even if you don't have much to say, will help millions of everyday Australians with their weekly shop.
It seemed to me that it would be hard to review a cake of soap but presumably, I mused idly, some people might love to give their opinion about how their favourite soap performs in the shower. On further consideration I clicked on the link in the email and gave the soap a five-star rating, then accepted the terms and conditions (without reading them). After I did this a new page opened up in my browser with fields where I would be able to add a review, a title, and a screen name. I wrote, “Pears is very mild and I have a skin condition.” I put my first name in the field labelled “Your public name”. “Thanks for your review,” a new screen said after I had submitted the content.

At about 11.45am I went to the Campos Coffee website and ordered a kilo of their “Superior” blend, which is what I normally buy. Then, in the late afternoon, on the way home from the psychiatrist’s office I stopped at the bottle shop and bought a six-pack of zero-alcohol beer.

At 8.03pm an SMS arrived from Woolies announcing that their delivery would be made the following morning, repeating the hours during which it would be made. (The email that had arrived the day before said that the “delivery window” would be confirmed on the day of the delivery. It had also said that I would be notified about any out-of-stock products.)

2 October

In an email arriving in my inbox with a timestamp of 2.44am Woolies advised me that, “All items in you [sic] order have now been hand picked by your Personal Shopper. Some meat item/s in your order are sold within a weight range. These item/s have been supplied in your order, but their weight is less than the maximum displayed and price estimated at checkout.” This would be in reference to the steak and the mortadella. At least this time the steak wasn’t out of stock, which was a plus.

I knew from previous experience that the amount eventually charged to my credit card would be less than the initial acknowledgement email stated. In last month’s ‘Shopping list’ post I talked about how this happens. Woolies initially gets your bank to hold the value of the order that you see during the checkout process, but it is altered once the final total has been fixed. This can only be done once your order has been picked, and it also depends on what types of items you choose. With goods that are priced by weight – fresh fish, say, or sliced deli meat – Woolies cannot know until picking happens how much to charge you.

At 7.25am the intercom buzzed and I told the deliveryman I would come downstairs to meet him. He said, “Ok,” and I got two tote bags and my keys and got into the lift. Downstairs, he was already in the foyer (I hadn’t buzzed him in so he must have got inside when someone left the building) and he helped me put the groceries in my bags. The loaf of bread in one of his storage boxes was sitting under some bottles of mineral water and one end of it was squashed. I mentioned this to the man. He told me I could get a refund but I said, “It’s ok.” With my finger I signed on his mobile phone to acknowledge receipt then got in the lift and went back to my unit.

Inside, I unpacked everything and then got some sandwich bags so I could bag the meat – which had come packed together on a covered plastic tray – before putting it in the freezer. I noticed the slices were thinner than I would have liked, and so put two slices in each bag: one bag would do for one person’s meal. The order acknowledgement email showed the line item “Beef Scotch Fillet Thin Slice Whole” proving I hadn’t selected the right item. I had had time to change the order but I hadn’t read the acknowledgement email with enough care and also, when I had been ordering the meat, hadn’t paid attention.

The margarine that came with the order was actually olive oil spread (which is what I normally buy at the supermarket) but I had thought I had ordered low-salt margarine. The mistake was mine? The company’s? I couldn’t remember clearly what I had selected – on reflection I had a tiny inkling that I had initially selected low-salt margarine but then had later seen olive oil spread, and had changed my selection before starting the checkout process – but in the end the result was actually to my advantage because what arrived was what I would have picked if I had seen the option on the web page.

The printed tax invoice that came with the order had the total of $102.82 on it. The acknowledgement email from two days earlier had given a total of $109.16. The photo below shows part of the invoice the deliveryman gave me in the lobby. Unlike the order acknowledgement emails, the invoice classifies the line items in separate categories. These categories didn’t, in all cases, conform to the categories used to organise goods and that are shown on the company’s website.


An email came from Campos Coffee at 8.29am telling me that my order of the previous day had been “completed”. I had been confused by this term on a previous occasion and had, at that time, contacted the company as I had not seen their package in the lobby on the day their email arrived. They have a company-specific definition of the verb “to complete” and the answer to the puzzle arrived on 26 June after, in response to my query, a staffer emailed me to clarify what was meant:
This notification is confirming that your order has been processed and packed here with our despatch team, ready to be collected. Once collected, you will receive another notification with shipping details.
Australia Post sent me an email (at 4.27pm) notifying me that the coffee would be delivered the following day. “Your delivery is coming,” the email went. “It’s on its way.”

3 October

At 7.03am I received an SMS from Australia Post with a notification that my coffee would arrive this morning. It asked me to respond with a digit depending on how I wished the delivery to be made. 
Reply ASAP with 1, 2 or 3:
“1” Leave if there’s a safe place (& accept T&Cs)
“2” Someone will be home
“3” If no one’s home take to a Post Office
I replied “2”. Then at 7.41am I received an email from them telling me my package had been delivered. I got my house keys and went down to the lobby in the lift to pick up the box in front of the windows where it had been left by the postie, a young woman who was still outside the building putting letters into mailboxes. 

That wasn’t the end of the process however as at 10.34am I received an email from the company asking me to rate their performance. “Based on this most recent delivery, how likely are you to recommend Australia Post to family and friends?” I gave them a “10” out of the 10 numbers available. Clicking on the number took me to a web page and I then went through about five screens answering questions about my experience. At the end there was a checkbox saying, “Please do not contact me to discuss my feedback,” and I didn’t mark it.

Woolworths sent me a promotional email (timestamped 11.03am) reminding me of their no-charge delivery option: “Don't forget your Delivery Unlimited - skip the fees on orders over $100~” The order I had just taken receipt of had had a value of more than $100 and when I checked to see if I had been charged a delivery fee I saw, in the order acknowledgement email, that there was no charge at this line. 

The same email also pointed out current specials and gave me a link to follow to find a range of new health-food products. (There was, among other things, a link to follow to get dog food.) Looking at the fine print I found that the company doesn’t allow customers to buy any items online “for resale to a third party or for trade purposes”, which would rule out “daigou” (bespoke shoppers; people who buy goods from retailers and sell them to buyers overseas) using the website to shop.

I ignored all these links in the email but what I did do this morning was start a shopping list in a text file stored on my PC, so that I could keep track of things I needed before I forgot what they were. When you are in a supermarket you can push your trolley around and backtrack if you forget to collect an item you need, but online you are not able to look at rows and rows of shelves stocked with goods, or read the signs that retailers hang from the ceiling at the ends of their aisles. You can’t ask a staffer where to find the spices or the toilet paper (which might be necessary if you are in a supermarket you are not used to). Online you have to rely on memory – and I had found that mine was not always completely reliable – or else use a saved list updated from time to time.

In the late afternoon just before preparing dinner I went to the Woolies website and ordered lamb chops, ling fillets, barramundi fillets, sliced Polish sausage, Truckle Brothers “Roaring Forties” Cheddar cheese, Jarlsberg cheese, a cos lettuce, tomatoes, potato and sweet potato salad, pumpkin and couscous salad, taramosalata spread, bread, strawberry jam, flavoured mineral water (no added sugar), and sandwich bags. Delivery at no charge and the truck to arrive on Saturday (the morning of the 5th). 

Even though I had a shopping list this time I forgot to order kitchen paper towels, an item that had been on my list. So I went back into the website and put in an order for this item but since the order this time came to an amount less than the minimum $50 required to select home delivery, the database wouldn’t process the order (I had selected “home delivery”). 

I closed the browser tab but as I was cooking dinner I remembered that you have to “amend” your order (the process has to be followed in the correct way to get the right result). So after my fish was ready and my full dinner plate was on the table I hurried back to my desk and selected the appropriate option, adding kitchen paper towels (a brand that uses recycled paper) and successfully completed the transaction. The total amount for the order, according to the acknowledgment email that later arrived, was $102.57. The email also said I could amend my order up until Friday 4 October at 5.45pm.

5 October

I received an email from Woolies (timestamped 2.22am) referring to the variable-weight items I had ordered. The email said, “The pending charge on your credit card used for payment will be reduced by $3.52 prior to payment finalisation.” This was because, for some of the items picked, “their weight is less than the maximum displayed.” I guessed this was in reference to the fish I had ordered; of each kind – ling and barramundi – I had asked for 500 grams but the fish comes in fillets so its weight cannot be known until it is picked and packed. It would also have referred to the sliced sausage (I had ordered 400 grams of this item).

The day before at 8.04pm I had received an SMS from the company advising me of the pending delivery and then, on this day, the intercom buzzed at about 7.15am. I told the deliveryman, who stood outside the building and whose face I could see in the device’s screen, that I would come downstairs. He said, “Ok,” and I grabbed my house keys and two tote bags and made my way to the lobby. 

It was raining in the street. There were two guys standing outside in the sheltered space in front of the building’s door: the guy I had spoken and a younger guy with dark skin who appeared, from what I observed in the minutes that followed, to be a trainee. I had never seen either of them before; the deliverymen are always different each time. These two put my purchases in the bags I had brought down in the lift with me, and I signed to acknowledge receipt on the young guy’s mobile phone. 

Upstairs, I unpacked things and put them away. The order acknowledgement email had said “Fresh Barramundi Fillets Skin Off” but the fillets that arrived had skin on them. There were two barramundi fillets and I put each of them in a sandwich bag before putting them in the freezer along with the other protein. Unlike the barramundi, the ling fillets were frozen almost solid but I was able to cut them into pieces small enough to bag.

6 October

Went to Woolworths’ website and ordered Scotch fillet steak, salami, eggs, bread, “Dodoni Greek fetta” cheese, King Island “Roaring Forties” blue cheese, lentil salad, coleslaw, sultana cake, Jatz crackers, and flavoured mineral water (no added sugar). I looked up the fetta online and saw that the name of the town of Dodoni is protected for the exclusive use of a Greek company and it wasn’t clear from the web page if the cheese Woolies was selling was imported or if it was made in Australia. King Island Dairy is based on an island in Bass Strait off the coast of Tasmania. I had ordered their blue cheese before.

I had initially forgotten eggs and bread but a reminder from the database prompted me to select bread before checking out and then, later, I went back in and amended the order to add eggs to my list. The order’s value was just under $100 so the delivery wouldn’t be free but it was fixed for the afternoon of Tuesday the 8th.

A bit later, I had a friend to visit and we shared some biscuits but while I was getting them ready on the plate to serve them I noticed that there were very few left in the jar, so after my friend had left to go home I returned to the Woolies website to amend my order. I added two types of biscuit – McVitie’s digestives and Stags and Hinds shortbreads – and then went to check out, but when I did I saw that the Scotch fillet steak and the lentil salad I had ordered earlier the same day were marked as unavailable. As a result I went back to the shopping interface and added a different type of beef (also fillet steak, but one called “beef eye fillet”) and some potato-egg-and-bacon salad. Now the order came out at more than $100 so the delivery would be free of charge.

7 October

Went to the convenience store across the road and bought a bottle of Pepsi Max and a bottle of orange-and-mango flavoured mineral water.

8 October

Received an SMS from Woolworths (timestamped 8.03am) advising me of the pending delivery; between 2pm in the afternoon and 7pm in the evening. At 1.13pm I received an email from Woolies telling me that some of the items I had ordered had come in under the ordered weight and that the charge for the order would be reduced by $20.07 “prior to payment finalisation”. This would be in relation to the steak, I thought to myself. I assumed that the delivery would still incur no charge, even though this change would bring down the order total to below $100.

An SMS arrived from the company at 4.48pm telling me the delivery had been delayed. This seemed unnecessary to mention as the time of day still, at that moment, lay within the window I had been advised would apply. But by 6.25pm I was still waiting and so checked the fridge to see how much milk I had left adding, also, a line in my current shopping list to remind me to put in a new food order on Wednesday 9 October for delivery on the 10th or 11th. By that time, I estimated, I would have run out of milk.

At around 7pm I started cooking dinner – barramundi (fried), couscous and pumpkin salad, potato salad, and sundried tomatoes – and by the time I had finished eating at 7.20pm the delivery had still not arrived, but at 7.37pm the intercom buzzed and I told the deliveryman I would come down. He said, “Ok,” and I grabbed two tote bags and my house keys and got in the lift. 

Outside, the drinks I had ordered had been bagged (even though I had specified “crate-to-bench”) as well as the bread, which was in another bag with a box of biscuits. The use of bags for the drinks was a good idea, though, since it effectively stopped the bread from getting crushed out of shape. On the other hand, since there were two crates the picker could have put the bread in the other crate with the rest of the groceries.

The deliveryman put these items in one of the bags I had brought downstairs with me, and I signed on his mobile phone to acknowledge receipt of the order. He waved goodbye and cheerily said “See you!” as he went off back to his truck and I headed inside the building, holding the three bags.

Upstairs, I found that the tax invoice from this delivery was in one of the bags as well as the tax invoice from the delivery that had arrived on the 5th. Woolies had not charged me for the bags this time and the total for this day’s order was $90.30. So even though the total after picking had come in under $100 they hadn’t charged me for delivery but I did notice a line item on both of the invoices that showed a $2 charge for “crate to bench”. 

This was a delivery option I had selected when finalising my orders. The other option you can choose at that point in the process is to ask for your goods to be bagged before delivery. I choose the bagless option because it minimises my impact on the environment. I keep single-use plastic bags in a drawer in my unit and I didn’t, at this time, need to keep any more in store. It wasn’t clear to me, looking at the invoice, why Woolies applies a charge of this kind as I always bring downstairs my own tote bags and the deliveryman and I simply put the groceries in my totes before I go back inside the building.

Anyway, I got back to putting the stuff away in the fridge. The steak as described in the acknowledgement email that had arrived on Sunday 6 October was priced at $24.75 but what arrived weighed just over 300 grams and was priced at just over $13. The container of coleslaw was smaller than expected and the container of potato-egg-and-bacon salad (which was classified under the heading “Fruit & vegetables”) was larger than anticipated. The packet of salami, which had about enough in it for two sandwiches, was classified under “Serviced deli”. The coleslaw was classified under “Chilled”.

9 October

Went to the Woolworths website and ordered barramundi fillets, Truckle Brothers “Roaring Forties” Cheddar cheese, lentil salad, milk, bread, water crackers, carrots, mushrooms, Nutella, and flavoured mineral water (no added sugar). Delivery for Friday 11th. At 6pm a promotional email arrived from the company that contained a code to use on my next visit to their website that would give me 10 percent off the purchase total (with the proviso that you spend a minimum of $150 on groceries). 

There was a colour bar with some words on it which said, “The Odd Bunch means we waste less of our fruit.” I clicked on the link provided and saw a web page promoting the company’s offerings of fruit and veges that have a suboptimal appearance. You would have to say that such a policy is a good thing as tonnes of produce is routinely left to rot in the field or is thrown away after picking and sorting by farmers who have to meet retailers’ quality standards. Wollies’ policy has “saved millions of kilos of fruit and vegies from being wasted”, the page said. A link to “shop the range” was provided, but I had already done my shop for the day.

Just before retiring for the night I went back in to amend the day’s order not because I wanted to add anything to it but just in order to make sure that everything I had asked for was going to arrive. I added an extra bottle of flavoured mineral water, checked out, and saw that everything was still listed as available.

10 October

Received an email from Woolworths (timestamped 11.04am) informing me that the one-month free-trial period on my website subscription was about to expire. “Delivery Unlimited” is a program the company runs where you don’t get charged a delivery fee on orders over $100. Once the 30-day free-trial period ends, the program only applies for your purchases if you pay a monthly fee of $19. The date for the company to start charging me a subscription fee would fall in a week’s time, the email said. I had already saved $40 in delivery costs up to the present (the 10th of the month), the email went on. I would not need to do anything for the program conditions to continue to apply.

11 October

The night before at 8.04pm I had received an SMS informing me that the delivery was due and at 7.46am this morning the intercom buzzed. I told the deliveryman I would be down in a moment and he said, “Ok.” I grabbed two tote bags and my house keys and went down in the lift. 

The man put my purchases in the bags I had brought with me, and a mobile phone materialised so I could sign to acknowledge the delivery, then he asked me about my surname. I told him about my paternal grandfather coming from Africa but that I was a mixture of Anglo and Portuguese influences. He said my name is very common in some countries. “I’m from Brazil, that’s why I asked,” he said cheerily. As I was carrying the bags inside the building, from where he was standing behind the truck he had driven to my street, he called out, “See you!” 

I took the bags upstairs and unpacked. The picker had put in a complimentary packet of Calbee “Harvest Snacks” described on the packet as “black bean baked crisps”. In big letters on the front of the bag it said the contents contained less salt and less fat. “Baked not fried,” it went on. Calbee is a Japanese food maker. 

The printed tax invoice that came with the delivery showed a total charge of $68.49, including a delivery fee of $15 and a “crate-to-bench” charge of $2.

I had to go to the pharmacy and on the way home I stopped at a convenience store and, to break a $50 note, bought Doritos. I used the same outing to get a haircut, and chatted with the barber, who came from Serbia. On a pervious occasion he had told me that during a trip to the old country he planned to go to Jerusalem and now I asked him how it went but he said that he had chipped a tooth and had had to go to the dentist, so had run out of time. We also talked about the Nobel Prize in Literature being won by the Austrian author Peter Handke. There was some controversy, the barber said, and I told him what I knew. He didn’t say much about it but we chewed the fat until his work was finished, then I paid and left his shop. 

I note the haircut here because this trip outside was the longest I had made since the first day of the month, on which day I had gone to meet with my psychiatrist. So getting home with a neat appearance and without any heart palpitations felt like a major achievement.

12 October

Went to the Woolworths website and put in an order for lamb chops, pork chops, sliced Polish sausage, Cheddar cheese (a block of Bega and some Truckle Brothers “Roaring Forties”), fetta cheese, hummus-and-beetroot spread, eggs, canola oil, a capsicum, corn on the cob, pumpkin and couscous salad, coleslaw, a pouch of curry laksa, carrot cake, bread, some flavoured mineral water (no added sugar, as well as some with no sugar), and mouthwash. Delivery for the 14th at no charge. Here is a screen grab from the checkout page. As usual, the order acknowledgement email, with its list of selections, came within minutes. The “crate-to-bench” line item had a zero next to it this time.


14 October

The night before (at 8.03pm, to be hideously precise) I received an SMS from Woolies telling me about the pending delivery, then at 2.20am this morning an email arrived with notice of variations in the order. This, I knew, is standard practice when an order lodged in the company’s database contains such items as fresh meat, which that are sold based on weight. At 7.57am the deliveryman buzzed me on the intercom and I told him I would be down. He said, “Ok,” and I grabbed a couple of tote bags and my house keys and headed down in the lift. 

Outside, he put the drinks and other things into the bags I had brought with me and I signed with my finger on his mobile phone to acknowledge receipt of the goods. The bread I had ordered was, once again, crushed by bottles of mineral water. 

When he saw me lift both bags with one hand the man asked me, “Do you need help?”. You need a hand free to handle your tag to activate the proximity sensor next to the front door in order to get into the building. So I told him, “It’s ok,” and he turned and left the covered space, heading back to his truck.

Upstairs I unpacked and saw the picker had put not one but two capsicums in the crate (I had ordered one), although they had only charged me for one. They had also put in a single kiwifruit, which I had not ordered and which they hadn’t charged me for. The printed tax invoice gave a total of $110.21. One of the eggs had a dent in it. I bagged the lamb chops and the pork chops to be ready for meals on other days. 

15 October

The last time I had been to the IGA on Miller Street was on 9 September. This day on the way to my psychiatrist’s office I saw that the store had been turned into a Woolworths “Metro” outlet. On the way home from the doctor’s office I stopped by the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of zero-alcohol beer.

The Metro type of Woolies outlet was launched in 2013 but there’s no branded home page for it on the company’s website. On Wikipedia it says there are 40 such stores in Australia, some of which were previously named Thomas Dux Grocer, a brand the company ceased operating in 2013. 

16 October

Went to the Woolworths website and put in an order for Scotch fillet steak, ling fillets, barramundi fillets, sliced ham, potato salad, coleslaw, milk, celery, Jatz, and flavoured mineral water (no added sugar). Delivery booked for the next day.

In the afternoon I received a promotional email from Woolies advertising their Halloween lines as well as (again) their lines for pets. I don’t have a dog or cat, or even a goldfish (although I do have a long-suffering spathiphyllum that has been with me since 2008 and appears to show little inclination to die, unlike the other house plants I have owned at various times over the past decade). Furthermore, my children are adults and, in any case, I have never in my life celebrated Halloween. I live in a multi-storey apartment block and local kids never ask me for anything. When I was young Halloween wasn’t even a thing in Australia. 

At 8.04pm an SMS came from Woolworths with reference to the following day’s delivery scheduled for between 6am and 9am.

17 October

At around 7.25am this morning the Woolworths deliveryman buzzed me on the intercom and I told him I would come downstairs. “Thanks,” he said. Then I grabbed two tote bags out of the chest of drawers I use for bags, and my house keys, and went out to the lobby on my floor. A young woman was waiting for the lift and, when I greeted her, she said, “How are you today?” She was going to the fourth floor and as she exited the gondola she said, “Have a good day.”

Outside, I told the deliveryman my name and he put my purchases in the bags I had brought with me. Then he whipped out his mobile phone and said, “Can I have your signature, please?” I signed to acknowledge receipt of the goods and went back up to unpack the things I had bought. 

There had been no email this morning about variable-weight products and, according to the tax receipt the deliveryman gave me, the meat I had ordered came in at 612 grams. It was packed on two trays each with plastic vacuum-wrapped over its contents. The total cost of the meat this time conformed to what I had ordered online; on previous occasions it had been less. I bagged all the protein and put it in the freezer to be used for future meals.

18 October

An email came from Woolworths at 4.34am this morning. It was a “refund notification” and it thanked me for returning my online reusable bags (something that I hadn’t done) and also for “helping us to work together towards a greener future”. My credit card would be credited $1, the email went on, in the next three to five days. 

The reason for the email was a mystery. I always choose “crate to bench” for my deliveries (which means that the retailer doesn’t supply plastic carry bags with the order). On one occasion, two carry bags had been included with my delivery, possibly due to the large number of bottles of sparkling mineral water I had ordered. This was despite the fact I had specified for no bags to be used for my deliver on that occasion. 

19 October

Put in an order on the Woolworths website for Scotch fillet steak, sliced corned beef, Truckle Brothers “Roaring Forties” Cheddar cheese, fetta cheese, eggs, lentil salad, couscous with pumpkin, coleslaw, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, a carrot cake, and flavoured mineral water (both some of the type with no added sugar and some with no sugar). Delivery at no charge set for Monday the 21st.

In the afternoon I went to the Campos Coffee website and put in an order for a kilo of Superior blend.

21 October

The night before at 8.02pm an SMS arrived from Woolworths about the next day’s delivery. Then this morning, with a timestamp of 2.37am, an email arrived notifying me that an item I had ordered – the Scotch fillet steak – had been replaced in the order by another item. A new item, “beef scotch fillet thin slice whole”, would be delivered instead of what I had asked for. 

I also got another email from the company at that early hour, before I woke up. It had a link to a survey asking me to rate the substitution. The survey questions was, “Was it ok to replace Woolworths Beef Scotch Fillet Steak 3-4 Pieces 360g - 900g with Beef Scotch Fillet Thin Slice Whole 450G - 750G?” I answered “Yes”, though I would have preferred to get the thing I had ordered. The thin steak, which I mistakenly ordered on an earlier occasion, doesn’t cook the same way as regular beefsteak, but it is at least serviceable.

At around 6.15am the intercom buzzed and on its screen I saw the deliveryman waiting downstairs. I said, “I’ll come down,” but initially he didn’t hear me, so I repeated the phrase and this time he got it. I grabbed two tote bags and my house keys and went down in the lift. Outside the street door, he put my purchases in the bags I had with me, the mineral water in one bag and the rest of the things in the other. He held the eggs in one hand while he loaded the second bag, not wanting to put them in the bottom of it, and I took them from him and placed them in with the bottles. 

Then he whipped out his mobile phone so I could sign to acknowledge receipt of the goods. He sounded Thai; always the deliveryman is a different person from the last time so I hadn’t seen this guy before. He said, “Have a good day,” when I thanked him. Then he moved to help me with the front door – the door to the building’s lobby – but I said, “It’s ok,” although I had two full bags in one hand. 

I got through the street door to the lobby, then went upstairs to put away the stuff. The printed tax invoice that came with the delivery showed a total cost of $92.47, so although they had made a substitution which had brought the total down below $100 – the minimum you normally have to accrue to qualify for free delivery – they hadn’t charged me for delivery this time.

In the afternoon an email arrived from Australia Post (timestamped 4.42pm) telling me that my Campos Coffee order was expected to be delivered the next day.

22 October

An SMS came from Australia Post at 7.03am asking me to tell them how to deliver my coffee. I responded that there would be someone at home. Last time I had done this, they had in any case just left the box with the coffee in it in the building’s lobby, and had not buzzed me on the intercom.

At around 9.15am the deliveryman from Australia Post buzzed me on the intercom and I answered, asking him if he wanted me to come down. He said he did, so I grabbed my house keys and went to the lobby. Outside, he told me he had a package for me (using my name) and then got me to sign on his mobile phone to acknowledge receipt of the goods. I took the box upstairs. It had come from Banksmeadow, near the Eastgardens shopping centre. 

This morning while I was using social media I noticed a tweet from someone I follow that contained a retweet from a vegetable grower named Anthony De Ieso, who names himself as manager of Thornton Park Produce which is based in Adelaide and in Brisbane (two of Australia’s state capitals). I tried clicking on the Twitter handle for his company but TweetDeck announced there was an error with the account, so I did a Google search instead. 

De Ieso had put up a video he had shot inside what looked like a loading dock. He covered over the name of the supermarket involved but his tweet said, “Supermarket rejections fresh off the truck.” I watched the video on my mobile phone. The spring onions that were at the centre of the matter looked fine to me and the person who had tweeted the video had said, “Hey supermarkets, that’s ridiculous! They look great and are a credit to the grower.” 

I thought so too. I tweeted to De Ieso at 7.22am, “Woolies has a program that it puts in its promotional emails, offering customers veges that don't meet normal standards of appearance, so this is a bit odd ...” This was in reference to an email and its contents I had seen on 9 October. At 7.25am the grower replied, “Wasn't woollies. However while they are not as bad we still would be a victim of the spec.”

Later, I had to pick up something from the pharmacy and, as I was down that way, I dropped in at Coles and bought some milk and eggs. At the checkout the customer occupying the register started asking questions of the woman who was totting up her purchases. The conversation was about the price of something the customer had brought to the counter, after it had been rung up on the register, and it looked like this could go on for a while so another staffer came and opened another register in order to clear the backlog of shoppers. A man was just coming up to the newly opened checkout and he obligingly waved me through ahead of himself. A woman with a pram did likewise. 

23 October

Went across to my local Jordanian’s convenience store and bought a loaf of bread, some Pepsi Max, a bottle of flavoured mineral water, a pack of salt-and-vinegar flavoured chips, and some Doritos.

24 October

On the Woolworths website I ordered Scotch fillet steak (because fillet steak had not been in stock the previous time; they had replaced it with another item), pork loin chops, salami, sliced shoulder ham, Jarlsberg cheese and clue cheese, a lettuce, potato salad, a bean salad, flavoured mineral water (no added sugar), and strawberry jam. Delivery at no charge scheduled for the morning of the following day. A bit later I went back to the website – where I found I was still logged in – to add some cake, as I hadn’t had this item on my list, and checked out again.

25 October

The intercom buzzed at about 6.25am and I said to the deliveryman I would come down. He didn’t hear me at first but then I repeated my words and he got the message. Downstairs, we put my purchases in the bags I had brought with me. The drinks and some other things had already been bagged. 

I noticed that the steak wasn’t in what he had brought and I asked what had happened to it. After searching through the bags, he picked up the paper tax invoice and read it. He said the steak wasn’t included because it wasn’t available in the store. 

After I signed on his phone, I said goodbye to the guy and carried everything upstairs to put the stuff away. Woolies hadn’t charged me for delivery even though the total amount without the steak was $79.05, in other words less than the $100 minimum under which delivery fees apply. They also hadn’t switched the Scotch fillet steak I had ordered for another type of beef. (They had switched beef items on the morning of 21 October because what I had ordered had been out of stock.)

26 October

Went to the Woolworths website and put in an order for fillet steak, ling fillets, sliced corned beef, eggs, fetta cheese, Cheddar (Bega) cheese, bread, carrot cake, pumpkin and couscous salad, coleslaw, some McVitie’s digestive biscuits, some packets of Calbee “Harvest Snaps” baked pea snacks, and flavoured mineral water (no added sugar). I took care choosing the beef item this time so that I wouldn’t be disappointed again. Other times I had chosen steak from the menu, it had been out of stock. Delivery would be at no charge, scheduled for the next day and, as expected, at 8.05pm an SMS about it came from the company.

27 October

An email from the retailer was visible when I opened Outlook in the morning. The email was timestamped 2.56am and it notified me there had been variations in the weight of some products ordered and, “The pending charge on your credit card used for payment will be reduced by $10.60 prior to payment finalisation.” The total for the order at checkout had been just over $111 but, in any case, when this kind of variation occurs to bring the total down below the $100 threshold for free delivery Woolies doesn’t charge you for delivery.

At just before 7.10am the deliveryman buzzed me on the intercom and I told him I would be down. “Thank you,” he replied. I got downstairs and together we put the goods in my bags, then he whipped out his mobile and I signed for them. So that he could hand them to me he bent at the waist and started picking up the bags but I said it was ok, indicating with these words that I could manage on my own and, without straightening up, he put the bags back down on the ground. Once I had the bags in my right hand, he opened the door for me so I thanked him again. I went upstairs and unpacked everything, which involved bagging the protein and putting it in the freezer. The steak came in at $13.60 so the order total was $101.20. The bread was out of shape, as had happened before.

29 October

I was down at the pharmacy filling some scripts and popped into Coles to buy milk. Then at home I went to the Woolworths website and bought lamb chops, barramundi fillets, sliced corned beef, Jarlsberg and fetta cheese, lentil salad and potato salad, some Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, flavoured mineral water (no added sugar), kitchen paper towels, and soap. Delivery at no charge scheduled for the following morning.

30 October

At 8.03pm the previous night I received an SMS from Woolies about the delivery today. Then at 2.40am there was an email about variable-weight items in my order: the total to be deducted from my credit card would be reduced by $4.04 before transaction completion.

At 7.30 on the dot the deliveryman buzzed me on the intercom. I told him, “I’ll be down, I’ll be down,” and he said, “Thanks”, and started whistling when my voice had stopped. When I got downstairs he was sitting on the crates that had been placed on his trolley. I held open one of the bags I had brought with me and he loaded my purchases into it. I said, “Did I order eggs?” and started looking through the items that had been loaded into the bag but didn’t see any. I asked about the printed tax invoice that they usually put in with the order and he said they hadn’t put it in, so there was no way to check if I had made a mistake or if the company’s employees had forgotten to give me eggs. 

I signed on his phone and took the bags upstairs and unpacked, bagging the meat and fish. After doing this I checked the email acknowledgement and saw that, in fact, I had forgotten to order eggs. So when I went out after midday to drop off some dry-cleaning and to go to the post office, I went to Woolworths and bought eggs and bread. 

In the post office I waited in line to be served. At the counter stood a woman aged about 30 giving the woman who was serving her a very hard time. An authorisation was required from the person to whom an item of mail had been addressed, and the customer was not happy that she had to go back to her workplace to ask the man to provide it. The woman serving her was a migrant from China and there was a misunderstanding; something the young woman – who was born in Australia – had said didn’t register with the franchise employee. I felt sorry for the staffer.

In the Woolies “Metro” store I found the eggs in the same place they had been when the store was run by IGA but the bread was in a different place from where it had been under the other company’s management. The aircon seemed to have been put up higher than it was when IGA ran the store. The woman at the checkout smiled when she served me. I put my purchases in my rucksack and left with a receipt as well.

Today saw a big story break on the Sydney Morning Herald website: Woolworths had been caught underpaying staff. The story ran for a few days. 

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Book review: The Bamboo Stalk, Saud Alsanousi (2015)

I don’t know if Alsanousi spent a lot of time in the Philippines, but what he writes about that country in this engrossing novel of manners – split, as it is, between two worlds – rings true. I’ve never been to the country but I have travelled to developing Asian countries, including Thailand. I’ll have to leave the final judgement about these parts of the novel to someone else, preferably someone who has lived in the Philippines.

The title of the book – bamboo can be easily transplanted and the protagonist’s father Rashid conceived Jose in Kuwait, where Jose’s mother had been working as a maid – tells you enough about the direction the story will take away the shame of giving away, here, clues about it.

As in an old novel, one made in an earlier time, a coincidence is used near the end of the book to create drama and to propel the narrative forward. But this novel is, as another reviewer has noted, a “page-turner with depth”. The woman who wrote those words runs a website dedicated to the promotion of Arabic writing and her remarks are unsurprising since, in Alsanousi’s novel, nationalism, religion, and identity are central themes.

More surprising is that it has been largely ignored in the West. More’s the pity! It certainly deserves to be more widely read. The idea of a novel based half in the Philippines and half in Kuwait: this must strike your average inner-city Labor voter as appealing.

Keeping in mind the reservation already expressed, I have to say that I found ‘The Bamboo Stalk’ to be both wise and funny. The young Jose – who uses the name Isa in Kuwait – struggles with life in both of his homelands, and struggles as well with his own feelings. He is not overly bright and seems to be puzzled by many things but Alsanousi shows that, despite differences in the forms they take in different contexts, the things that drive us all – no matter where we are born and no matter who our parents are – are the same.

In the parts of the book that are set in Kuwait the social dynamics that are evident consone with ideas I had already come across elsewhere: in a masterful book of history by Englishman Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The way that custom in Arab countries functions to maintain the social hierarchy, even in the face of the moderating force of revealed religion, make a place like Kuwait starkly different to, for example, the Philippines. There, on the other hand, other problems exist that contrive to work against overcoming inequity and helping to achieve justice for all. But in Kuwait, according to this author, the forces of conservatism are remarkably resilient.

The entire narrative is focalised through Jose/Isa but there is a large cast of characters and all of them are portrayed with empathy. The character of Gassan, a friend of Jose’s father, is particularly well realised. Gassan is from a family with nomadic roots (such people are commonly referred to as Bedouin, and they live in many Middle Eastern countries) so he is treated as an outsider by the broader Kuwaiti community.

Alsanousi’s novelistic vision has resulted in the production of something wonderful. If you give this book a go you’ll be rewarded with hours of pleasure.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Visual disturbances: Four

On Saturday 5 July 2008 I walked from Central Station, having caught the train from the suburb where I lived, through Surry Hills to Paddington. I took 474 photos on my way to an art gallery to hear a presentation given about an exhibition of photographs, then more photos were taken in the gallery itself, and more as I walked to the city where I intended to catch a train for the ride home. In this post there are 61 photos taken between 12.31pm and 3.50pm, but my snapping started about 10 minutes earlier than that, when I was in the space beneath the railway viaduct over Campbell Street, near Central Station.

Oddly enough the National Gallery of Victoria had an exhibition of Petrina Hicks' photos on at the time this post was written. The show started on 27 September and would run into the following year.

In the previous post in this series I talked about how, after a certain age, you become invisible. It’s clear that I wasn’t invisible at the time the following photos were taken because there is one here that contains an image of me: my body’s reflection, as I stood on the footpath on Flinders Street, caught by the camera in the glass door of a passing bus. In that photo I am not wearing the suede-and-Nylon belt that I still use now, over a decade later.

The gallery I visited on the day no longer operates and the people who are in these photos are now somewhere else or, perhaps, they are no longer of this world except as physical remains. Even if these photos had been in focus, the people who are caught in them, if they are still alive now, would look different from how they looked then, so it is fitting that it is merely their movement through space, rather than their outward appearance, that has lasted. Only the ephemeral, spectral outlines of their shifts remain.

In any case, people change over time. We are but the ghosts of our former selves. I think I remember learning that the human body is completely renewed every seven years, every cell replaced by a new one that fulfils one of the essential functions that sustain life. As I walk down the street today, over 11 years away in time from that July day, I can wonder about who those people were and how their lives have since changed.