Sunday, 28 June 2020

Crown Casino under construction

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about people in Darling Harbour taking selfies in front of the city skyline. Just this phrase – city skyline – elicits positive emotions. In fact, our love of cities is so deep that consolidating shots in hundreds of movies and TV shows every year have cities in them. You know the ones. You get a break in the action and suddenly you’re up in a helicopter hovering above the metropolis, its busy streets slipping by and a serried rank of glass-encased buildings approaching from the fore.

There’s something about what the Americans term “downtown” and what Australians stubbornly insist on calling the “central business district”. For example the newest addition in Sydney, which will be 271m high and have 75 storeys. I mean of course Packer’s Pecker, or the Crown Casino. Built at a cost of $1.127 billion, it is to have a $100 million penthouse on the top floor.

To make this symbol of economic power and prosperity – these two ideas being the reason for all those cinematic establishing shots – the company commissioned two firms to design the building. Architects Wilkinson Eyre, founded in the UK in 1983, designed the Guangzhou International Finance Center which is 439m tall and has 103 storeys. It was completed in 2010. The firm has over 200 employees. Structural engineers Robert Bird Group is a Brisbane-based company founded in 1982 that is part of the Surbana Jurong group, a Singaporean government conglomerate. At the time of the merger, RBG had 600 employees globally.

Crown Casino has a profile similar to the Guangzhou International Finance Center, which also tapers toward the top. Below is a shot of the tower taken with a mobile phone in Pyrmont, next to a park outside the Star Casino. This photo was taken at 2.06pm on 23 June.


In the following photo you can see Venus rising. This photo was taken with a Canon SX620 HS at 7.19am on 26 June.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Ad capture (02) – Nurofen

This the second in a series of posts that are designed to take a detailed look at TV advertisements. I want to slow down the experience and pay attention to what is offered to view between programs on the small screen. This kind of content tends to be considered unimportant or ephemeral.

This 15-second ad came after one for a home building company and before one for a food delivery service. The narrator asks: “Looking for osteoarthritis pain relief?” With this voiceover, the screen fills with a store aisle and, on a blue sign in the top right, the word “Prescriptions” as though, for reference, you were being placed in your imagination in a pharmacy. The shelves are pale and grey, with only the occasional sign indicating that you are supposed to be in a real place.  Some of the objects on the shelves are boxes, some are bottles. They are in a section of shelving marked “Pain Relief”.

They look like the types of bottles that liquid comes in but whatever they contain, the dream-like and washed-out colours give the space an unfamiliar feel, as though the woman in the ad had suddenly found herself in a distant shopping centre – convention might tell you something about where you are but a lack of the fine detail that accompanies you on an everyday outing to your local supermarket means you feel disoriented.

Entering the frame from the right-hand side, the woman has blonde hair and a slim build. She turns her head as she progresses, slowly and tentatively, on foot, approaching the camera. She moves from right to left, giving you the impression that you are at the beginning of a story. The imagery links cosily with the voiceover and the suspense you feel at being part of this woman’s quest – she’s someone struggling to solve a problem (what drug to buy?) – is lessened by three quick cuts that bring her rapidly to a column of shelves marked at the top, in big white letters, “Pain Relief”. The same words are printed on blue signs plastered to the sign of not one but two columns of shelves (see screenshot below).


No time is wasted in getting to the point and the blue of the signs, in stark contrast to the grey and white of the confusing shelves, offer a bit of comfort, blue a colour freighted with meaning in Australia as it is associated with authority. It is used by the police in most states and territories and it’s also the colour used for highway signs that contain general information – for example those giving notice of rest areas and of exits where food can be purchased – whereas green signs on a motorway will be used to provide directions. So blue reassures in the context of the ad, eliciting welcome feelings. In contrast to the conservative blue signs, the blonde woman wears a modern, sporty, bright pink cardigan. It’s a colour – unlike, say, pale blue, which might also suit a blonde – with other connotations, and an older woman like the one we see in the ad might be making a statement in wearing it. It suggests she has alternative views.

I will return to again and again to the contrast between opposites used in this ad. So, for example, the plain packages of the goods on display offer contrast to the unsightly gaps between the shelves. These two elements combine to give the early shots of the ad a forlorn look and make you feel that something is missing. The woman, for her part, looks lonely and afraid; the pink of her cardigan is, moreover, feminine, underscoring how vulnerable she must feel all alone among the confusing array of products, none of which is what she is looking for. 

To add to the feeling of being disembodied, or in a dream, more disturbing information is delivered via the voiceover. The narrator refers, using his confident male voice, to legislative changes regarding the sale of painkillers. As Senior magazine relayed on 30 May: 
FROM Monday all modified release (MR) paracetamol products, such as Panadol osteo, often taken by osteoarthritis sufferers and other with chronic pain, will only be available from behind the counter at pharmacies. 
The Therapeutic Goods Administration made the decision to reclassify the schedule 2 medication to a schedule 3 (pharmacist only) from June 1, 2020, because of concerns around deliberate and accidental overdose.
The ad exploits changes in federal law designed to promote responsible use of a product that is commonly used by seniors (the woman in the ad looks to be aged in her late 50s or early 60s – about retirement age), and the drab setting underscores the unease people feel about using medications.

In the third shot the woman is shown front-on to the camera, but now she’s turning her head, scanning the shelves with their grey boxes, her relaxed facial muscles pulling down the corners of her mouth. While unsure of herself, she looks like a woman who can give a crisp answer to a question, and who doesn’t like feeling out of her depth. As she turns her head to the right (our left) – taking us back into the past in our imagination, into the realms of memory – her eyes slide in the same direction, emphasising forcefully the notion of “searching”. It is clear that there’s an answer to the woman’s problem, but so far she hasn’t hit upon it.

Added to the feeling of unhappiness the woman evokes in the viewer’s imagination are her big, dark eyes, their colourlessness merging with the grey shelves and contrasting with the bright pink cardigan she’s wearing. The contrast is designed to keep our interest, even as the colourless packages on the shelves lull us into a dream-state, but this first section of the ad lasts for approximately half of the available time – about seven seconds – and this protracted period of disorientation is powerful and compelling for the viewer.


On her left shoulder the woman carries a handbag and in the final shot of this section she is situated just within the right-hand half of the frame. When she finishes turning her head, forming a point of punctuation for this quick, efficient series of shots, most of the screen is filled with those boring grey shelves with their endless ranks of grey boxes. They surround the woman. “And why,” you can hear her asking herself, “are things so hard to find now that the law has changed?” Perhaps she had heard about the change as she was listening to the radio in her car … (She used to be able to go into her local supermarket and buy Nurofen Osteo in the cosmetics aisle when she picked up soap and toothpaste …)

At the bottom of the screen are two rows of fine print that you might have the time and inclination to read, and the lack of colour in the shots encourages you to do so. They say that the medicine being advertised in the ad may not be right for everyone. They also say that the medicine is for temporary pain relief. This is all fine in general, but as far at the woman in the ad is concerned the medication is absolutely essential – why else would she subject herself to such rigours? These pesky grey boxes! It’s impossible to find anything in this place!

From the shot of the woman in her bright pink cardigan we cut to a shot (see image below) showing shelves with ranks of identical grey boxes of painkillers. We’d seen boxes of drugs looking like these in an earlier shot, rows and rows of them on offer. But not the ones the woman is looking for.


You see a hand scanning from right to left (the tonic directionality showing that a question is still to be answered) and the tendons and bones in the back of the hand are clearly visible through her skin. It is a hand that has been carefully thought out as is the packet design of the boxes of painkiller which resembles that of the main competitor of Nurofen (but it is not the brand the woman is looking for). The main competitor being Panadol, which is made by GlaxoSmithKline, and which uses green on its packaging. 

At this point in time, it is the hand that is shown doing the thinking. It’s an intelligent hand, with the thumb cocked, the index finger pointed, and the three remaining fingers bent at the knuckle, as though finding the right box of painkillers were a matter of the utmost importance. This kind of definition of the problem faced by the woman will be familiar to people aged over 50, for whom the youthful luxury of a feeling of having unlimited time has been replaced by the necessity of selecting, based on experience, the appropriate form of activity for each segment of the day.

Visible in this shot, near the top of the frame, is a barcode such as you find on products displayed in retail outlets. It’s there to show that, despite the grey boxes, this is a real shop and this is a real situation such as any 60-year-old woman living with chronic pain might confront on any day of the week. Two more barcodes are visible each side of the woman’s wrist but they are abstract and impersonal, giving nothing away. The hand looks very much like it could be the hand of the woman we have become familiar with as our avatar – a person slim enough and blonde enough to be a fitting representative of everywoman (even us!).

The next shot (see image below) is fascinating not only due to its centrality. The woman stops scanning, looks straight ahead (still with her head and shoulders situated in the right-hand half of the screen, with her right eye at the centre line of the frame) and up pops her head, as if finding the right product had enabled her to levitate. The horizontal of the gap between the shelves behind her head bisects, in the middle of the frame, the vertical created by the shadow under the woman’s hair, to form a cross. A fitting symbol of suffering and redemption. The horizontals of the woman’s eyelids, her eyes, her mouth, and the two gaps between shelves behind her create a nice rhythm in pictorial form to accompany the woman’s sudden broad smile. She’s slightly narrowed her eyes, enabling the viewer to see her eyelids.

Before her eyelids had been invisible. The eyelids are important because they show that the woman is healthy and not puffy-eyed (as a person might be if they consumed too many medications). Now, the woman is so high that the top of her head is cut off by the frame. She’s high as a kite! And her eyes and mouth are so dimensioned and contoured to be almost the same shape as each other.


Note how the hair on her right shoulder is swept back, increasing the lightness of the imagery used to orient the viewer. The tan strap of the woman’s handbag declines to enter into a rhythm with the gap between the shelves, her eyes, her mouth, and the shadows made by her hair, and in this shot harmonises with her hair and with the pink of her cardigan. We are now at the ad’s midpoint.

It’s a point where certainty has been disturbingly delayed for seven seconds – an eternity in advertising time. The narrator now says, “Thankfully, there’s Nurofen!” The tone of his voice shifts to match the popping head of the woman in the pink cardigan, and lifts to a peak on the first syllable of the product name. Your mood instantly becomes brighter as the man emotes happiness with his voice. It’s a voice that is on the high end of the scale for men and whereas before he had been downbeat and factual – all that talk of frightening legislative change – now he is as surprised by fate as the levitating woman.

The next shot, showing a comforting array of boxes of the drug the woman has carefully and determinedly been searching for, appears precisely in tandem with the spoken word “Nurofen.” Perspective now goes not from the right-hand edge to the left-hand edge, but the other way: from left to right, which is subliminally comforting for the viewer. We are arriving at the conclusion.


To consolidate the achievement of a form of closure, the shot of boxes of drugs is quickly replaced – it shows for about a second – by an animation (see image below for its end state) that is labelled, in the top-right corner of the screen, “Dramatisation”; (honesty is important). Now, a range of things happen in quick succession in an ambience saturated with very bright colours. The rapidity and colourfulness contrast dramatically with the long sequences in the washed-out store aisle belonging to the first seven seconds of the ad. 


First up, you see a knee with the bones visible as though an X-ray were had been made of a leg. A red glow around the joint demonstrates that the people who make the drug understand how pain can be crippling if it’s severe enough. Then, from the left-hand side, at the bottom of the screen – the “real” zone – an image of the drug packet slides succinctly into place. You can almost hear it make a “click” as it comes to rest at a polite distance from the aching knee, with its calf muscle carefully outlined in white. 

The words “reduce inflammation” run in the voice-over as this happens, and then suddenly the words “relief of pain + inflammation” emerge in caps above the packet as a set of interlocking rings, with red on the outside and yellow in the middle, appear behind the knee and the words “… and relieve osteo pain …” are layered over the visuals by the male narrator, though the voiceover doesn’t end there and continues as the shot changes to the next one.

Establishing a link between pain and inflammation using the plus-sign is clever, hinting at the speed of the drug’s effect when taken in a suitable dose (which information will be on the packet). The rest of the voice-over’s sentence (“for up to eight hours”) arrives on top of the following shot.


The blonde woman is smiling broadly now, the ends of her hair lying on her pink cardigan. She occupies the right-hand third of the screen, and in front of her face holds up a packet of the drug. The colourfulness and her location in the shot – especially her eyes, which are in the top-right of the frame – combine to give this composition of elements a positive energy. Reinforcing this, the front of the packet of drugs is clearly visible (though it’s seen at an angle) so you know what she’s looking at. Behind the woman’s hand three shelves full of packets of the drug, their bright label in full view (this is what made the woman smile so broadly before), are clearly visible. Their fronts show the same three-ringed symbol as the graphic that came up behind the aching knee in the earlier shot, which had made explicit and unambiguous a link to arthritic pain.

“Switch to Nurofen,” the narrator says as the final shot appears (see image below). The bright white radiating glow coming out from the space behind the logo (made up of its distinctive triple ring of red, orange and yellow) on the idealised packet not only take up the critical central space of the screen that had previously been occupied by the worried-looking woman, they are also echoed by similar rays on the small bottle that is offered as a product packaging option for fussy consumers who might want to travel and hence want something a bit stronger than a cardboard packet.


My analysis is almost over. I just want to quickly note how the ad achieves the transition from the image of the now-smiling woman to the brand shot that closes it out. It is very clever, and uses the three rings of the logo in a compelling fashion.

As the woman stands in the frame with her packet of drugs – the acquisition of which being an achievement that fulfills her immediate goal – colours enter from the extremities of the screen (see image below) and zoom ecstatically toward the centre, the canonical splash ending up as the logo on the packet pictured in the image we saw before. 


Then, in black and red, the words “Switch to Nurofen” are visible at the top of the screen, in the ideal zone, and this message is underscored by the narrator’s voice, which says, “Switch to Nurofen.” The first syllable of this sentence is said in a high tone, with the voice descending in pitch to end with a neutral point in the middle of the narrator’s vocal range.

This ad is incredibly good and uses a full range of elements to achieve its goal: to convey a message about the importance of going to the pharmacist’s shop to get the painkillers that some older people might need to live meaningful lives. It’s a difficult subject to address on TV due to the negative connotations aroused by, for example, the law change. But the ad comes at the problem with alacrity and verve.

Nurofen is shown to be an alternative brand for the thinking woman. It is a brand of Ibuprofen made and marketed by Reckitt Benckiser, a British company that is publicly listed. According to Wikipedia Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that was discovered in 1961 by Stewart Adams working at Boots UK Limited, and initially marketed as Brufen.

In the above I focus mainly on the secondary messaging that operates in addition to the words used in the voiceover. Almost like subliminal or hidden messaging, in subtle ways video and audio content affects the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of adverts.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Anzac Bridge commuter

A man with a rucksack on his back walks down the access ramp at the eastern end of the Anzac Bridge in Sydney at 8.51am yesterday.

What caught my eye were the curves comprising, in the composition shown below, a concrete ramp, pylons, and balconies on the apartment building in the background that sits on Bank Street at the corner of Quarry Master Drive. As well, you can see the retaining wall for the planter box underneath the ramp, a streetlight, and bollards installed to protect the massive structure. In fact, the entire image is filled with gradients of more or less extremity and acuteness.


The bollards were put there since many trucks use Bank Street (see street view, below) to get to local building sites, as well as to the cement mixing station that is operated by a private company, and which sits next door to the Fish Market. The second image below shows the map of the area, with the green squiggle of the access ramp near the centre of the frame.



Tuesday, 23 June 2020

IAG sign on tower two, Darling Park, Sydney

Consciousness is a filter automatically applied to sensory perception. The “socius” of postmodern theory is the layered physical ground upon which ideas are inscribed.

Or, as with this IAG (an insurance firm) sign on tower two of Darling Park – a development on Sussex Street, in Sydney – forming a palimpsest. Beforehand there was a sign for the professional services firm PWC, and when the designers ordered the signs to be changed out they were unable to match the exact shade of grey to obliterate traces of the previous occupant of this piece of marketing real estate. So you can still see how the one firm was pushed out by workmen handling the big letters of the second firm.

Sussex and Darling – the former being the name of a duke and the latter of a governor – belonging to the colonial era that preceded the one we now inhabit. Now, we give our principal institutions acronyms as names instead of noble monikers.

In the photo the remnants of the morning’s fog being burned away by the winter sun might remind the viewer of a Roman god devouring a human, like Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’ (1823), a detail of which I saw on Twitter as I was editing this post. The crane at the top of the photo is installed on a different building, not the one I’m talking about in this post. Saturn was the god of renewal and dissolution and his symbol is the scythe; it’s fitting, then, that the tops of the buildings in this image are shaped like sickles.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Exhibition review: Sydney Biennale 2020

It was raining on the weekend but I went to see the Biennale. The ferry to Cockatoo Island was almost empty and the seagulls were screaming when we hit the shore. They paraded around on the grass verges or on the pavement and a sign told us they were nesting.

The signs inside were held by clipboards hung from walls and other vertical surfaces. Exhibit signs are often a bit tiresome, and the ones in this show were no exception, asking you to gulp down wads of text before looking at works that were, often, not that crash-hot. Mostly I ignored the signs.

Two themes dominated this show: the environment and colonial oppression. It was a bit oppressive, frankly, and a more levity might have added lustre to the exhibition, which threatened to become over-determined. It features artists from around the world. Most of the works are not suitable for private collections as they are too big to fit in a room at home, and only work in a space like Cockatoo Island.

Near the entrance were exhibits by Artree Nepal that were comprised of glass cases filled with gold objects. Behind them, two movies showing protesters with writing on their bare torsos confronting police behind ranks of barbed wire. In the following photo you can see both the gold objects – pills packets, medicine bottles, and lotion bottles among them – and one of the videos.


I liked the gold objects in the glass cases, the latter reminding me of a 19th century gentleman’s curiosity display cases, or else the cases you see in shops. In fact, the cases themselves were redolent with meaning in a way that evaded the gold pharmaceutical containers. Inside the enormous, industrial structure the exhibits occupied, the dainty glass cases felt odd and out-of-place, as though put there by mistake. 

The gold paint covering the objects was a bit rough and ready, as though a better alternative couldn’t be found. Ideally they would have been a bit shinier, to complement the shiny glass of the cases they were sitting in. 

Curious conjunctions were also the method used by Philippine artist Manuel Ocampo, the painter of some large paintings – also near the entrance – hung from the walls. These works combined disparate elements in a skilful manner. One painting had words painted on it: “poeme banal” or “banal poem”. It’s the kind of simple French that any English speaker would be able to understand, signalling at the artist’s target: someone from the comfortable middle class who might’ve done a few years of French at secondary school. The use of French also underscores, as does the content of the second painting below, the importance to the artist’s vision of colonialism. This theme will reappear in other works covered in my review.


The above painting has a loose style which is pleasant, and the colours are quite nice though I feel that the overall impact of the work is not overly strong. In the painting below the drawing is not perfect, though the Postmodern irony is very refined.


Near Ocampo’s paintings was an installation with a video that was, in my mind, the highlight of the exhibition. This is Latai Taumoepeau’s ‘The Last Resort’, the remnants of which were strewn around the place inside the enormous industrial setting of the Cockatoo Island shed, once a repair shop for engines of boats.


The video was made up of two separate points of view that were displayed beside each other (see photo below). In the left-hand section of the video frame you can see a man and a woman shod in strange, high-soled shoes that are used to stomp on shards of glass. They move very slowly as to fall over in this predicament might risk serious injury. The woman has a rake she uses to arrange the broken glass. The man has gloves on his hands and with his right hand he does the same. At one point he is squatting on his haunches to get closer to the object of his interest, as the woman stomps around nearby.


Just opposite this installation are some metal sculptures by Andre Eugene. These are a bit obvious – the phallic mufflers welded on motorbike frames – and I wasn’t sure about the anatomical skulls on top; perhaps some analogue for a head could have more usefully have been found. Or else the skulls were a wry comment on the artist’s own Haitian origins.

The work is titled ‘Lavie & Lanmo’ (‘Life and Death’). He is about my age or a bit older and perhaps, like me, he owned a motorbike when he was young. The message is clear with these sculptures, and echoes that of Taumoepeau’s work: the destruction of the natural world in the industrial age.



From the same part of the world is Jose Davila (though he is younger, born in 1974), whose works are next. These large assemblages of found objects sourced from Cockatoo Island (see photo below for an example) fit snugly with the space’s industrial feel. They are titled ‘The Act of Perseverance’, which echoes the colonial theme of Ocampo’s works.


The object shown above is only one of Davila’s inventions, and is a large, bare block of concrete with a fragment of concrete strapped to it with a trucker’s fastening. The yellow of the fabric is lovely when seen in contradistinction to the dull reddish grey of the fragment of concrete, buried in which you can see particles of the aggregate used to make the substance. Concrete is made by mixing cement with sand or pebbles. This mixing is done when the cement is still liquid, so that the two types of element are fused seamlessly together in a solid mass, and often the mixture is vibrated (though not too strongly) so that is blends well. 

The only thing holding this block of concrete in place is friction and the assemblages are not obviously beautiful, requiring a bit of thought to find something with which the viewer can satisfactorily engage. 

The drawings of Paolo Nazareth, which come next, are not that strong, and the skills used to make them are mediocre (see images below). These drawings remind you of how, during the colonial era, the skeletons of Indigenous peoples were acquired and shipped back home to feature in museum displays.



The images are combined with an assemblage on the floor of the space that includes rocks (see below). Using rocks like this reminds the viewer of the glass cases of the Nepalese installation but, here, the message is diluted by the over-definition of the artifice. A bit more thought might have gone into this work to make it equal to those of Ocampo or Davila.



The environmental theme reappears in the installation of Hobart organisation Adrift Lab (see image below). The space here was dark, the light coming from the objects on display.


Nearby was an installation by Lhola Amira from South Africa. Amira is a queer artist who has adopted the plural form of the pronoun.


One work I failed to get photos of was by S.J. Norman, an Aboriginal artist. This was in a room filled with black chairs, each of which had a brush sitting on it. In front of the chairs, in two flanking rows, were hung video screens showing people having their hair brushed. The message was about the hair of Indigenous people being thicker and less manageable than the hair of white people. But hair is a funny substance as it is always adorned or managed, in a way that depends on the culture in question.

Next was a room full of painted sculptures (see image below) by Anna Boghiguian, an Egyptian artist. Like Taumoepeau’s, Boghiguian’s works featured sacks full of things – again signalling at the colonial experience. But here the artworks are both paintings and sculptures. The thin wash of the board lending drama to the works, which were commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from the Council for Australia-Arab Relations of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In the artwork below the standard post-colonial narrative is underscored by the paper the woman is holding. It reads ‘A History of Human Oppression’, and so is a critique facing both ways: at the colonial nations and, also, at formerly colonised nations that use post-colonial narratives to oppress their own people. In many countries, in different ways, the cycle of oppression continues today …


On the day we went to Cockatoo Island a ferry left Barangaroo every 30 minutes, and subsequently returned thence at the same frequency, taking visitors back to the city from the exhibition, so the show is easy enough to get to. The ferry trip takes about 15 minutes and you get to see the waterfront suburbs of the harbour (… pause …) site of colonial oppression.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Ad capture (01) – E45 cream

This the first in a series of posts that are designed to take a detailed look at TV advertisements. I want to slow down the experience and pay attention to what is offered to view between programs on the small screen. This kind of content tends to be considered unimportant or ephemeral.

In what follows I focus mainly on the secondary messaging that operates in addition to the words used in the voiceover. Almost like subliminal or hidden messaging, in subtle ways video and audio content affects the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of adverts.

This 15-second ad – coming after a promotion for a Network Ten cooking show, and before an ad for an insurer and one for a non-dairy milk substitute – starts with a mix of low-key and dramatic elements. You see words rendered in 3D on a glossy background looking like a display window that you pass on a street in the retail district, or else a museum diorama – which are displays so beloved of children.

Prominent are the words, “What’s new?” They are set in a modern typeface, in red and white, looking like the masthead of a women’s magazine. This portmanteau brand has its own website and belongs to a company called Now Screen (based in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo) which has been around for 16 years. "E45" is a brand of skin care products from Crookes Healthcare, a subsidiary of Reckitt Benckiser.

To grab your attention, in the ad the word “new” is red as is the question mark, and the words slowly rotate, as though on a turntable, spinning so that the right-hand side of the assemblage comes toward the viewer. Reassuringly, the words are placed in the bottom half of the screen, but not too close to the bottom: there is room for the phrase to stand comfortably in the available space. The placement and appearance of the words gives them realism, as though, instead of digitally enhanced imagery, you were looking at objects that, with perfect artifice, had been formed out of some ideal substance and put on a clever mechanism, a tribute to your own ingenuity.

A reflection of the letters is visible in the ground in front of the words, and a white light is set over the background, so as to give a feeling of depth to the field on the screen in front of you. You feel as though you are looking into a landscape, and within these confines sit the words you read, with their promise of something both reassuring and novel. You feel as though there will be no nasty surprises.

Then again, there’s the little matter of those three additional words, in smaller type: “In skin health.” Should you be worried? With this segment a soundtrack uses the same words (“what’s new?”) but, this time, sung by youthful female voices. The stress is on the end of the phrase, and the tone rises to finish the delivery, emphasising the feeling that the singing women are asking a question. The congruence of the written phrase and the audio track is reassuring, but the fact that the movement of the 3D phrase is from right to left tells you that you should pay attention; we are at the beginning of something, not at the end.

Along with the singers is a simple, unadorned instrumental accompaniment, as if someone were playing a piano. “If dry or flaky skin …” goes the voice of the narrator, “is causing you frustration or embarrassment, try E45 cream.” At the same time as these words are being beamed into your living room you see a brown-haired woman sitting down to have daytime refreshments with two friends (see image below). She’s wearing a yellow sweater and as she gets comfortable in her seat – not really though, as we shall see – she turns her right shoulder toward the woman who is talking (and who wears a disturbing, red T-shirt). Behind the woman with glossy, long, brown hair are three windows filled with light – reassuringly, the same light we saw in the opening sequence – and the curtains covering them are translucent, like the white glow behind the letters we saw at the outset. The colour white is a trigger for positive feelings, and is used in several of the segments.


The Asian woman, on the right-hand side of the table, also has short sleeves on her garment. On the table in front of the women are clean glasses and a plate, possibly containing salad. There is also a flat plate that looks as though it contains biscuits but none of the food is very noticeable. The pale arms of the two flanking women are prominent, however, and are bent at the wrists as they reach in, one after the other, to nab food. Contrarywise, the woman in the yellow sweater, who is in front of the viewer, has her arms crossed. She’s covering up her arms, which are anyway invisible because of the sleeves of her sweater, and she is looking downward, shamefaced as the segment ends.

The next frame shows the E45 cream – sitting in an artificial field like the one used for the opening sequence – in place of the words and the question mark we had seen before. The shot of the cream is quickly replaced by video showing a woman putting cream in a thick, white impasto on her left arm, and then smoothing it in with her right hand, presumably in order to make the cream disappear (see screenshot below). We are looking over her shoulder, in a way similar to how, in a daytime soap opera, one character can be shown talking to another. The face of this unidentified woman is hidden outside the edge of the frame, though we can see her jaw and neck. Because of the white straps over her shoulders we can also see part of a singlet or some other form of undergarment; both shoulders are visible in this carefully crafted shot.


In the background are what look like louvres, wooden shields set in a rotating mechanism. By manipulating a control you can swivel them horizontal to open them, or vertical to close them; here they are set at an angle of about 10 degrees off plumb, so that light seeps in modestly from outside, flushing the space with a glow. You normally see louvres covering windows in standalone houses (apartments don’t usually have them) and the feeling of this shot is light, but secluded, as though privacy were important for the woman applying cream to her arm. She might be the woman in the yellow sweater, but there’s no way to know by viewing this segment. White is also the dominant colour in this scene. 

Lengthy warnings are set in small print at the bottom of the screen but it is unlikely that you will have time to read them, unless you make a screenshot. Though over the top of this segment of the ad are easily visible other words: “Relieves dry skin in eczema & dermatitis.” They give the company making the cream and promoting it on our televisions leeway to use images and sound inventively while not, in a narrow sense, claiming that its product will overcome such conditions. The feint lies in the use of the preposition “in”. If a different word had been used – say, “from” or “of” – a dissatisfied customer, one who had used the product and had not had their dermatitis eliminated, might have grounds for complaint. 

Next we get an animation showing blue bubbles rising to hit a wavy barrier – meant to represent the surface of the dermis – and bouncing dramatically off, heading back into the (putative) interior of the arm (see screenshot below). The bubbles, which represent moisture, bounce around lazily, as though relieved of the need to exit the body, glad to stay within the woman’s arm, in safety (like in a museum diorama). 

In the top-left of this shot is the name of the product, in a capsule-shaped field. The product name looks like marketing material that is routinely made by pharmaceutical companies in order to promote their products. Providing continuity, in the bottom-right corner of the frame are the words “What’s new?” 


The repetition of the phrase is reassuring, and so is the fact that the critical top-right zone of the screen is left empty. This indicates that there is nothing in what is being shown that prevents a viewer from reaching a happy future. This segment of the ad underscores the implication that it can be dryness, and not a genetic trait or an allergy, that is the problem, though dermatologists will, in some cases, get people with a skin condition to use a moisturiser.

Approximately 10 percent of the population is atopic – meaning they are more liable to eczema, hay fever, and asthma – so this cohort (and people who are worried they might belong to it) is being targeted by the ad, which preys on viewers’ insecurities. 

Before the end of the ad – which will feature a stack of jars, much like what you see in a pharmacy’s display window or in a department store – you see three women walking on a street talking and laughing (see screenshot below). It’s possible that they are the same women we saw before though the only one I was sure about is the Asian woman. The woman on the left might be the same brown-haired woman as the one with the yellow sweater in the earlier segment but here, instead of looking unsure of herself, she is laughing animatedly and she is wearing a loose, pink, patterned print dress with short sleeves. 

She’s a different woman, but the street – with its pavement, vegetation, and its fences – looks like a regular suburban street; there is nothing unusual about the scene. The glamour of the opening shot, with its magazine-style letters, has happily disappeared and now everything is quite normal. 


“Feel comfortable in your skin. Switch to E45,” goes the narrator as the women are replaced by a stack of jars. The implication being that women always use some form of cream on their arms each day – so why not a medicated one that is good for you as well as being unobtrusive? By the end of the ad even the question has gone away, like the cream as it dissolved into the skin of the woman in the nice suburban house with her cosy bathroom and its louvres.

Despite the warnings in the red shirt of the woman in the opening sequence, the fine print, and the sense of doom that someone who lives with, say, psoriasis, might feel when confronted by the ad, it engages with received ideas and promotes a product in a way that makes the idea of using it – just a few dabs on your itchy patch in the evening before going to bed, or in the morning before getting dressed – seem easy and anxiety-free. 

Like the cream itself, the ad offers relief from a form of stress – looking different from the people around us can be challenging. And unlike the demanding regime perhaps necessitated if you consult a medical specialist, despite the fine print in this ad you’re reassured that you might have a common problem that, with E45 cream, can be simply fixed. 

Friday, 19 June 2020

Time to change the date of Australia Day?

All the ruckus kicked up during the pandemic – which has caused people to react more violently and with more emotion than they otherwise would – in the wake of the death, on 25 May, on George Floyd, has resulted in novelty. Statues have been vandalised. In the UK, a statue of a former politician was encased in a box to protect it. A retailer in Australia pulled from its shelves beer with the word “Colonial” in the brand name, and the brewer made a public statement.

Even closer to home, I was talking with a friend using the video function in Facebook Messenger and we got to this subject – she’d asked me if there was anything in my country to mark the death of Floyd a month ago, and I listed some – when she got up and went to fetch a cap she had bought a year earlier. The reason for her sudden departure from the screen was a bit complicated, but since I’ve only put up a couple of political posts this year, I’ll include it here.


She’d been visiting Sydney (where I live) and had needed a cap to protect her face from the sun which, in summer, is very harsh. The pink cap she bought for this reason (see image above) had the country’s name stitched on it, as well as “Est 1788” (“established in 1788” – the year marking the arrival of the First Fleet full of convicts in the waterway that would become Sydney Harbour). But as soon as she bought the cap she painstakingly picked part of the rubric off, leaving only “ES” and “88”. A lack of melanin in her skin necessitating the purchase and her sense of justice necessitating her subsequent actions. Their low-key nature highlighting the passion that motivated her to behave like this; the embroidery took time and effort to remove. 

Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the remainder had read “GF” and “20”. It’s fortunate for our government that the regrettable murder of George Floyd fell in May and not, say, in November as, if it had been five months earlier, calls for the date of our national day to be changed – to reflect the depth of feeling of the Aboriginal community, for whom 26 January is a reminder of a period of great suffering – would undoubtedly have been overwhelming. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Book review: Mao’s Great Famine, Frank Dikotter (2010)

I have no recollection of where I bought this volume, but it happened sometime in or soon after August 2011, the sticker on the back cover tells me. I like the design of the front cover: the use of a contemporary photo lends gravitas and immediacy to the production, and the colour – red, which in China denotes luck – is an index of the scale of the tragedy the story relates.


Dikotter gets down to brass tacks immediately, wasting no time on preliminaries. His study covers a period of about five years – 1958 to 1962 – and takes you from one extreme point to another. It includes accounts of a foreign government meeting in Russia, for example, the death of a child in Hunan, and everything else in-between. The story is deeply upsetting and this book is not recommended for people who are triggered by accounts of suffering or indiscriminate violence. Parts I didn’t read and at times, while reading, I was tempted to put it down, but persisted because I felt it was important to at least be a witness to the wickedness Mao was responsible for in the pissing contest he entered into with the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in order to be seen as the leader of the Communist sphere of influence.

Mao began the Great Leap Forward – which was to result in the deaths of so many people – upon the death of Stalin, followed as it soon afterward was by a repudiation of Stalin (so many deaths resulting from his policies), which was a policy change orchestrated by Khrushchev. In response, thinking that the new Soviet leader’s move equalled a criticism of himself, the egotistical Mao took to patronising Khrushchev. Mao’s subsequent policy, on which the book focuses in considerable detail, reflected the depths of his feelings on this issue.

The title of the book reflects the Dutch historian’s own feelings on learning of the events, mostly from documents he consulted in provincial archives. Central government archives remained, at the time of publication, unavailable except to approved researchers sympathetic to the Party, but despite some odd incongruities – especially relating to the low number of deaths from disease – Dikotter does a good job with the material he has. He is able to paint a vivid portrait of the terrible suffering many Chinese experienced, sometimes leading to death, in the late 1950s and early 60s, although I was unsure about some of his figures. Access to archives is going to continue to be a barrier for authors and their readers who want to know more about the Party’s history.

In fact, even such basic things as population numbers remain contentious. Dikotter uses a 1984 source to set the population in 1960 at 650 million – a figure that has to be taken on faith and which includes, in any case, the separate country of Tibet – and since then China has existed for most of the time under the one-child policy – it was introduced in 1979 – so a population today of over twice that number seems, to me, to be impossible or, at least, highly unlikely.

If not for the extent of the harm they caused other people, Mao’s actions – which saw at least 50 million people die unnecessarily (this figure seems conservative given the contents of the book under review) – would be comical. In the effects of his pathological obsessions – an attempt to come to terms with the suffering he and the Party’s members had experienced because of war, with the shame China had experienced at the hands of foreigners since the 19th century, and with damage to his own standing in the Communist world resulting from actions of Joseph Stalin – you can see the poverty of a system where the franchise is limited to one man, or to a small coterie of men. The wellbeing of the collective was sacrificed for the sake of the vanity of a few, the irony being that collectivisation – the leitmotiv of the book and the gist of the Great Leap Forward – was meant to serve the interests of all, though it only served those of a small number of people, at the apex of the pile being the Chairman.

Contemporary echoes can be felt due to the way Mao and his deputies ran roughshod over experts for example by accepting outblown production estimates from provincial cadres, which led, in some cases, to produce that might have kept starvation at bay being routed to cities or, even, to foreign countries. Mao couldn’t bear to lose face and his overweening need to be seen to exceed Britain, on an economic basis, within 15 years – this was his boast, backed up by no reasonable minds – inexorably led to chaos. Schemes that Mao thought would lead to excesses of food proved, in practice, to be the opposite of useless, as resources that should have been put into the making of grain and other produce were diverted to other activities, such as the construction of irrigation infrastructure and cackbrained smelters that produced nothing of value.

All because Mao thought these were good ideas. If you could’ve dreamed up a bad leader for China, then the suspicious, vindictive, over-sensitive, and cruel Chairman of the Party would’ve been it. The paradox being that it was precisely such qualities that helped him to get to the top.

Why you might want to read this book – if you have no particular interest in China – is because it shows what happens when ideas trump facts; when ideology is given free rein at the expense of expertise. Donald Trump would be bowled over by Dikotter’s version of Mao – so different from the official, Party-approved version that has been offered for consumption – because the two men are so similar. Mao would’ve wholeheartedly embraced the idea of “fake news”, but rather than criticising the media, Mao would’ve had the journalists – and their managers – sent to re-education camps, or worse.

The scale of the chaos being however much worse under Mao than under Trump. The ideology that was used to force through undesirable policies and that led to millions of deaths in China was, of course, an extreme left-wing one. Reading this book you come to a different level of appreciation for Capital, or, in other words, a political settlement where self-interest is allowed to determine the allocation of resources. The book is well-written although the occasional oddity escaped the editing process – “obverse” doesn’t mean “reverse” (though possibly only people who collect coins will be likely to get this right).

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Book Review: Inheritance, Sharon Moalem (2014)

I’ve had this book in my collection since buying it soon after its publication, probably at Books of Buderim on the Sunshine Coast. Until recently it sat unread on one or another of my bookshelves.


Subtitled ‘How Our Genes Change Our Lives, and Our Lives Change Our Genes’, it’s a fun read, and for someone, like me, who knows little about genetics and epigenetics (the second word meaning how genes are affected by environment) there’s plenty in the book to wonder at – in fact “wonder” is like a talisman that kept repeating in my mind as I was reading, this branch of science so new and so complex that it seems to embody something about the future itself. Though it reads a little, at times, like an invitation to get your genome sequenced.

It’s becoming clear to specialists that inheritance works in subtle ways, and that, for example, trauma suffered by a person in one generation can be passed down to his or her children. All of the ideas we thought we possessed about inheritance are set to be thrown out the window. And because genetics and the health practices that are allied to it are so new, the laws that define how information contained in your genome can be used is often either new or non-existent.

Some of what Moalem writes – at least what he says about the law and the economics of healthcare – will be irrelevant to many readers because the US health system is so different from what applies in most developed nations.

And each country will be in the process of coming to terms with the new reality as it reflects advances in genetics and epigenetics. How health insurance companies access such patient information might, for all I know, be completely different in the US from how it happens in Australia. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed to be the case. For readers of this blog located in Helsinki or Agadir, I cannot offer much advice, but rest assured that change is on the way.

While you don’t need any background information to engage with this book as most terms are explained, it might help to be acquainted with a few key concepts, such as “allele”. Wikipedia might help those who lose track of things when unfamiliar words are used, but in the book there is usually enough secondary detail to enable you to orient yourself so that you can follow the narrative. “Allele” is a specific term that is used to talk about inheritance, as this passage from a web page demonstrates.
Although an individual gene may code for a specific physical trait, that gene can exist in different forms, or alleles. One allele for every gene in an organism is inherited from each of that organism's parents. In some cases, both parents provide the same allele of a given gene, and the offspring is referred to as homozygous ("homo" meaning "same") for that allele. In other cases, each parent provides a different allele of a given gene, and the offspring is referred to as heterozygous ("hetero" meaning "different") for that allele. Alleles produce phenotypes (or physical versions of a trait) that are either dominant or recessive. 
Genes are found on long strings (chromosomes) of chemicals (nucleotides) in each of your somatic cells – the cells that make you up apart from reproductive cells (I told you this would be complex). The four chemicals – so few! – are used to construct your code, the code which is duplicated each time a cell is made. During the production of your originary cells, which will become the embryo from which your body will be formed, if one of the chemicals is copied incorrectly, either put in the wrong order or exchanged for another of the four – one marker out of the billions that make up your individual code – then you can have a disease that can lead to death, or that can lead to a change that will dramatically impact your life. And just because your parents didn’t show a trait, doesn’t mean that you will be exempt:
Somatic cells contain two alleles for every gene, with one allele provided by each parent of an organism. Often, it is impossible to determine which two alleles of a gene are present within an organism's chromosomes based solely on the outward appearance of that organism. However, an allele that is hidden, or not expressed by an organism, can still be passed on to that organism's offspring and expressed in a later generation.
What is of interest perhaps to most people is how invisible traits can suddenly express themselves in the children of two individuals, neither of whom shows any sign that they have a disease. It is not, however, possible for such a trait to express itself when it is recessive. Moalem talks about such things and provides examples, but because of the nature of the material I am pretty sure I won’t be able to meaningfully talk about the even more complex subject of epigenetics – though it is such an interesting field of enquiry – for a long time to come.

It’s clear to specialists like Moalem, but it’s probably news to you, that life experiences can affect the genetic makeup of your children. So just as characteristics that in an earlier age might have been slated down to morality are now understood to be part of “just the way you are made”, the way we understand our responsibilities to the children we are destined to love so much, is changing. Random acts can have consequences not just for your own future but, indeed, in the lives of people yet to be born. Do you really need to have that second drink?

Family is something we hide from most people; you only get to know such things about a person after meeting with them under the right circumstances a number of times. But family is at least something that we are willing to discuss with friends. We should be talking about inheritance more, as it is to become more prevalent as part of our lives. We all want to be healthy and we all want our children – if we are lucky enough to be able to conceive – to be happy and well.

Recommendations for similar books to read are welcome. The author had help writing ‘Inheritance’, and though his prose is flexible and accurate the book contains some errors (“free reign” …?) and awkward expressions, all of which might’ve been eliminated by better editing.

Monday, 15 June 2020

TV review: Into the Night, Netflix (2020)

What do you do if the thing that gives you life – the sun – turns poisonous? This elegant and entertaining 6-part series, each episode only about 45 minutes long, poses the question.

The day after I started watching it I came across, on Twitter, the word “doomscrolling”. The feeling that you have when you read all the negative stories – each one more doom-laden than the next, each chronicling a new episode in the degeneration of society as we move into the future.

Early on in my time spent with ‘Into the Night’, I was reminded of ‘Gilligan’s Island’, where a group of dissimilar people are suddenly thrown together by contingent events and required to live their lives in a community isolated from the material comforts and spiritual security offered by the broader society. In the 1964-67 CBS show, a storm overtakes a pleasure cruiser and leaves its occupants stranded on a remote island. Drama is added due to the fact that the eponymous character is prone to accidents. ‘Into the Night’ has no such character – each of the passengers, and the relations between them, used to keep the plot ticking along. In ‘Gilligan’s Island’ the Professor was used to solve urgent technical problems on the “desert island” but in the series currently under discussion there are (more credibly) a number of different characters with a speciality. Sylvie (Pauline Etienne) had served in the military and other expertise comes from Laura (Babetida Sadjo) and a Pole named Jakub (Ksawery Szlenkier). There’s even a climate scientist (Vincent Londez).

The only way to escape destruction being to keep the plane they are travelling in, moving. With a sense of urgency like what you find in thrillers, small things are blown out of proportion. Mistakes that might seem insignificant in another context become life-changing emergencies.

Sometimes in such TV series characters can be oversimplified and become caricatures. As well as injecting a sense of crisis to heighten the contrast in characters and events, with ‘Into the Night’ the ideal of collective decision-making set against the need for speed in making decisions also helps the filmmakers interrogate the notion of governance. The way the individual is valued is also a matter of concern and the show also runs an interesting Anglo-Gallic conversation that is rooted in history.

This is a modern show and responds to the needs of a different society than the one that existed during the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, globalisation is a major issue, and a number of the people who manage to get onto the plane are not Belgian (the show is a Belgian Netflix original). As well as Jakub there’s a Russian mother (Regina Bikkinina) with her young son and an Italian soldier (Stefano Cassetti). There’s also a Turk played by Mehmet Kurtuluş, who was also in ‘The Protector’, which I reviewed here in March. His character has echoes of that earlier drama and to fill him out the filmmakers use history in an inventive way. Evidently Belgians, due to their past, are heavily invested in the notion of history, so there is a black woman (Laura) who, like the chauvinistic Rik (Jan Bijvoet) and a stewardess (Astrid Whettnall), is Belgian. Rik is very different from a cleaner played by Nabil Mallat.

The show reminds the viewer of the mystery of people. You never know, standing in a queue in the departure lounge at the airport, who has what skills, what they are going through at that moment in their lives, or what kind of personality they have. This is timely, and demonstrates that it is the little things that count, like being able to go out and get Mongolian marinaded beef for dinner on a Friday night without worrying that your food has been genetically altered by solar rays.

The drama also signals toward something topical: the tendency for people on social media to judge others regardless of their own faults. The premise is redolent with secondary meanings. You can take a hint as to the helplessness people are inspired with when the thing that sustains them turns toxic but ‘Into the Night’ also strongly reminds us of the importance of protecting the environment. Technology (embodied, here, in air travel) is evidently problematic: a cause of problems and also their solution, the two things sitting in uneasy contradistinction, one next to the other.

The segment of music used to accompany the ending of each episode’s opening sequence, and to close out each episode, has a nifty techno feel. It creates and enhances suspense in a subtle way, adds dramatic punctuation at key moments, and was emblematic, for me, of the production’s overall quality.

A lot of thought went into everything that you see and hear. While most of the action takes place inside the cabin and cockpit of the aeroplane each episode opens with scenes from lives the passengers and crew led before the flight, helping to round out their characters. So, for example, the first ep starts with Sylvie entering the airport, and the third ep starts with a scene from the life of the pilot Matthieu (Laurent Capelluto). Sylvie and Rik are particularly interesting, and fit, though diametric opposites, into the scheme of the production. ‘Into the Night’ is a catalogue of mortal desire, the yearning to sustain life that is an essential human trait, so it is not strange that different types of personality should be featured in the show. Like the Covid-19 response – at least in some countries – it shows us how multiple points of focus for the collective can damage everyone in it. Our greatest strength – diversity – can turn into our greatest weakness.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-three

This is the twenty-third in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually 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.

9 April

Dreamt I was in the bush walking down a hill through the trees with a person who reminded me of a man named Christian who I had met in Ecuador in November 2013. We had to get to the main road and he went off, to the left, down a narrow track marked in the grass by wear and tear, in fact by the action of the feet of walkers. I had wanted to go a different way, to the right, but decided to let Christian take the lead. I consoled myself with mentioning that, if it had been raining, the track we were on would be practically impassable, and that the other path was better-quality.

After we joined the main road we turned left and walked for a while until we came across the wreck of an aeroplane. I could see where it had come in out of the sky, ripping up the shoulder of the road and making marks on the road’s surface, although the fuselage was still intact and it looked just like a car that had skidded off the roadway. We exclaimed at the sight and then, after we’d walked past it, I turned around to snap a photo of it with my phone. The phone screen was very dusty and dark and I couldn’t see the plane on it, but I pressed the shutter button at a time when I thought I would catch the image.

We turned around to continue on and then met my grandmother at a location where there was a large clearing. (It was my father’s mother, who lived with us when I was growing up, in Sydney.) By this time a fire had started near the wreck and threatened to overtake us. Granny was sitting at a desk talking on the telephone. I told her we would need a lift. She was chatting in a friendly manner with a man who, I somehow knew, could come and collect us. I said that she would need to hurry up and organise the lift, but Christian and I turned away and continued walking away from the fire.

A car came along the road and I held out my thumb to get it to stop so we could get a lift but the driver, a middle-aged man, didn’t pull up. Another car came off a road perpendicular to the road we were on, but it had sheep in the back and the driver (also a middle-aged man) guided it over our road, heading toward a paddock to our right. We started to see more and more sheep on the road, in flocks. There was the occasional cow as well, and we walked on, glancing back every now and then to survey the fire which, we saw, was advancing. I started to get worried but endeavoured to stay calm.

I could see down a hill to a small valley, and we came across a bull in the road. We skirted to the right to get around it and I saw a teenage girl standing there. I asked her if we could get a lift and she said that spaces in the family car, which was not at that moment visible to Christian and I, were, because of the fire, already fully allocated. She said we could use another car, and pointed at an old, red, 30s jalopy. By this time it was pretty obvious the fire would catch us up, so I indicated that Christian and I would take the car she had pointed out, but then I woke up.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Book review: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, Jonathan Clements (2004)

I’ve lost all recollection of how this book came to be in my collection, but it’s been there for a good long while – from memory, at least 10 years. It came out of a small UK press and seems not to have been talked about much, which strikes me as like a wasted opportunity. This is not only a thrilling (though, like most nonfiction, complex) work of history, it’s also topical.


Complexity can of course put some people off though what might attract readers are the pirates and the smugglers. The story is set on the coast of China, in Taiwan, and in Japan in the 17th century. Dutch traders headquartered at Batavia (now Jakarta) engineered deals through their operatives in northeast Asia and often these turned into skirmishes with Coxinga’s father, a pirate-turned-admiral named Iquan. Coxinga’s mother was a Japanese woman but Iquan later married a Chinese woman who lived at his base in Amoy (Xiamen).

If this sounds complicated it’s not surprising as you are dealing with four cultures (counting the Taiwanese, closely related to Pacific islanders) each with different histories and priorities. It’s however rarely daunting as the style used for the conveyance is at the same time flexible and robust, though at points in the narrative you feel things get a little slippery – which seems fitting given the nature of the story being told.

Since derring-do is so popular these days, perhaps over-the-top TV viewers might want to sample real stories of sorties and escapades, of fortunes stolen and kidnappings, of epic battles and men clad in iron. On top of this kind of relatively predictable scenario – predictable at least in terms of the prosaic motives that seem to drive people, in a way that is much the same as in narco-thrillers – you also get access to solid history.

Here things are fortunately less predictable – depending on your personality, of course; some people like things black-and-white, others prefer greys of different shades (the story of Coxinga’s life is most definitely of the latter brand) – but I’m not sure Clements always makes the most of his material. Perhaps he could have used more that can be found in ancillary records, such as those belonging to the Dutch East India Company, or in China’s or Taiwan’s historical archives.

Why you might want to read Clement’s book, if you are not all that interested in history, would rest with the fact of China’s current standing in the world and the way it positions itself vis-à-vis the West. As Taiwan forms a prominent element in the drama, too, the story of Coxinga has contemporary echoes; it was only with the Qing that Taiwan was brought politically into China’s orbit, so its being considered by some to be “part of” China is a relatively recent innovation.

As for Iquan, how he earned his commission from Beijing might furnish material for a TV drama, but it’s all true (as Shakespeare said of his play ‘Henry VIII’). While the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) did have a naval presence for part of its reign, it shut down trade apart from Macao, so Iquan’s position as admiral was complicated, as he had financial interests, prior to accepting the posting, that depended on overseas trade. He also kept up good relations with men employed by the Dutch East India Company. If you were to write Iquan’s story today you would have a drug dealer turn into a narcotics policeman.

The Manchus would restrict trade even more radically once they took control. Coxinga, raised in early childhood in Japan, was a very different kind of man from his father. He was educated, steadfast, and loyal to the Ming Dynasty, embodying the Confucian ideal in a way that the arriviste Iquan couldn’t manage to do. The two men expressed their patriotism in different ways.

This difference providing a dramatic hinge upon which the story, to a degree, depends, but the interest inherent in the book isn’t limited to armed conflict alone. It’s actually quite a complex story about the nature of good governance. Cruelty appears often, allied with such ideas as patrimony and justice, but there is little space given to other ideas – love or beauty are absent beyond possessiveness – and so while it is comprehensive as far as the records consulted allow, in a sense the book has a limited scope. Justice without love or beauty is a fragile thing.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Visual disturbances: Twelve

‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’, Marcel Proust, trans. James Grieve, Penguin, 2002 (originally published as ‘A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur’, 1919), from pages 477-78:
[‘]So, is there a huge difference between an outfit by Callot, say, and an average dressmaker? I asked Albertine. – Huge is the right word, young fellow! she replied. Oh sorry! The only problem is, alas, that they charge you 2,000 francs for what you can get for 300 somewhere else! But of course, it never looks the same – except to people who’ve got no idea, that is. – Precisely, Elstir said. Though I wouldn’t want to say the difference is as far-reaching as between a statue on the cathedral at Rheims and a statue in Saint-Augustin. Speaking of cathedrals,’ he said to me, alluding to a conversation which the girls had taken no part in, and which would have been of no interest to them, ‘remember when I was saying the other day about the church of Balbec looking like a great cliff, a great outcrop of the stone of those parts. Well, have a look now at the opposite, he said, showing me a water-colour. Look at those cliffs – it’s a sketch done not far from here, at Les Creuniers – see the power and delicacy in the way these rocks have been chiselled. Aren’t they reminiscent of a cathedral?’ They did resemble vast pink vaulted arches, but, having been painted on a very hot day, they appeared to have been turned to dust, pulverised by the heat which, across the full breadth of the canvas, had also reduced the sea by half, diluting it to a haze. Illuminated in that way, reality had been almost destroyed by the light, but had been concentrated in dark, transparent creatures which by contrast gave a more vivid and faithful impression of being alive: the shadows.
Two days after I came home from a walk in the city where, before lunch, I took – just after midday – the following photo, I read the above passage. And then also the following, which is on page 501 of the same book:
By now we were out of the little wood and into a network of rather deserted lanes, which Andrée followed without difficulty. ‘Well, here we are! she said all at once. Here are Les Creuniers for you! And you’re in luck – the weather today and the light are just as in Elstir’s water-colour.’ But the game of ring-on-a-string had knocked my high hopes from under me and I was too sad to take the pleasure I might otherwise have enjoyed in suddenly coming upon the sea-divinities whom Elstir had watched for and taken by surprise: there they were, directly beneath me, crouching among the rocks for protection against the rays of the sun, under the glow of a dark glaze as beautiful as any used by Leonardo, those wonderful furtively sheltering Shadows, nimble and soundless, ready at the slightest feint of light to slip under their stones or hide in a hole, and just as ready, once the threat from the rays had passed, to slip out again and lie awake beside the rocks or the seaweed, watching over them as they drowse drenched in the light of the cliff-corroding sun and the faded ocean, unmoving, insubstantial guardians, showing on the surface of the water the viscid shimmer of their bodies and the vigilant dark of their eyes.
On 28 May, I was beguiled by a shadow on the pavement in Martin Place where a couple of seagulls waited near a fallen leaf as a man walked up the hill, heading eastward. The access point in the photo is distracting – as though I had been waiting for some creature to emerge (a golem or the kraken) – though what actually drew my gaze at the time were the strong lines made the shadow cast by a building. The sun also strong. And then, on the storefront, a watchmaker’s name ...