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Friday, 13 February 2009

Mark Dapin's Strange Country (2008) includes a number of features written for Good Weekend magazine, a Saturday supplement with The Sydney Morning Herald. Subtitled 'Travels in a very different Australia' it's a gentle comic wander through the lives of some odd people and some normal people who do things that readers of the magazine might think are odd.

Dapin's background with a lad's magazine has stood him in good stead. Comedy is not an absolute quantity and must be balanced in the measurement of virtue against the things it singles out for censure, praise, or merely for acknowledgement. There's a normative essence Dapin writes to, and it's not too different from that of most people who live in Newtown, or would like to live in Newtown, or visit Newtown occasionally.

You can see the editors thinking, 'Let's get Mark to write about cane toads' or 'What if we ask Mark to write about crossing the desert on a learner's licence?'.

There's a strange homogeneity about the pieces here, which were written over the period of several years. The framing narrative about his son - why would an Englishman want to write about Australia unless he had a schmalzy reason to do so (his son is an Australian) - is also gentle and pleasurable.

But there's more to Dapin than the gentle sentiments implied or expressed. He's a very good feature writer. He looks for the comic angles when talking to people. (He might be a funny guy himself). He asks stupid questions and gets serious answers (which is funny in itself). He has excellent timing and he knows when to stop.

All of which makes reading the book a fun experience.

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