Thursday 31 August 2006

You know you want it... I promised, and here it is: my first assignment for second semester. I don't know what mark I got as it's still in my tutor's hot little hands.

It contains references to Australian political figures, which non-locals will probably not understand. People living overseas who are not Australian may still find familiar resonances with their own political systems.

Previous posts are on how I got feedback from my friend the journalist, and before that I posted on an e-mail correspondence with my tutor about it. Earlier, I posted on how nervous I was about the workshopping. I also posted on the process of collecting the information for the story.

Suburban Heartland Suffers Electoral Psychosis

“It’s just, you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and get John Howard out,” says Lauren, standing under the shade of the pedestrian overpass at the back entrance of the Penrith Westfield shopping centre as the cars and choppers swish and growl over the speed bump at the pedestrian crossing and the Saturday shoppers scuttle across against the lights.

Lauren, a Penrith resident, is in the minority — at least at the federal level: the Liberal Party holds the federal seat of Lindsay, which encloses Penrith, an enclave on the edge of the suburban sprawl of Sydney, near the Nepean River and the M4 motorway. Driving north along Mulgoa Road from the M4 exit you pass the Penrith Panthers Rugby League Club, its asphalt apron suffocating under the press of thousands of cars that glint luridly in the noon sun.

“And, you know, my mum prefers the Liberal in our area, but I voted for the Labor Party because of the bigger picture,” continues Lauren. “Just to get John Howard out. I quite liked Mark Latham too. Most politicians say what they’re told to say. He’s calling people ‘ass-lickers’ and I like that. But it wasn’t so much that I like Latham’s policies, just I didn’t want John Howard in.”

Robert, another shopper, voted for the Liberals at both state and federal elections. But he’s not always impressed with what politicians get up to. “It’s been a bad week. If you take what they’ve been up to this week with the chickens and whatever, you wouldn’t vote for any of them.” Robert refers to the commotion caused when Labor members brought a toy chicken into the House of Representatives to lambast Peter Costello, the Treasurer, for cowardice in the face of John Howard’s refusal to give up the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, and the prime ministership. “Who’s running the country when the Wilson Tuckeys and the Kim Beazleys are having a blue outside the Parliament?”

Penrith would seem to be a neighbourhood at war with itself. The federal seat of Lindsay is held by the Liberal Party with a majority of five per cent. The state seat of Penrith, which lies entirely within Lindsay’s borders, is held with a similar majority by the Labor Party.

When the Reserve Bank governor is set to retire, media commentators point to the power of political incumbency. When a state election date is announced, as it was recently, they do the same. But is it incumbency that is at issue? Is it, perhaps, something worse? Do voters just switch off?

“Absolutely. They all lie,” says Sandra, another Penrith resident. Did she remember how she voted last time? “No. I can’t change anything, so I just go with the flow.” David, however, thinks he voted for Jackie Kelly, the federal Liberal member for Lindsay, but he’s not sure. “I do like what she does. But I can’t remember who I voted for,” he says.

Are voters so desensitised to the manoeuvrings of politicians that they just don’t care any more? Or, is it that your average voter is simply tired of the faces of politicians zapping onto the television screen in the living room at 6:30 p.m. every evening when he’d really prefer to be watching a footy match or even a bunch of minor celebrities mucking about on ice skates?

Although most of the 22 shoppers interviewed for this story professed a tendency to vote one way or another, not one of them voted both for Labor at the state level and Liberal at the federal level. All state and territory governments in Australia now are Labor. The federal elections have been dominated by the Liberals for the past ten years. There seems to be no sign of this situation changing, at either state or federal level.

Chris and Emilio are staunch supporters of the current losers and the current winners (but for how long?). “Oh, I’m just a Labor voter from way back. Always been a Labor voter,” says Chris. Emilio tries to remember who he voted for. He thinks he always votes Labor but like many others spoken to on that sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Penrith, he’s not sure.

The political settlement in Penrith could point to other factors, however. As Imre Salusinszky mused in March in an article about the outer suburbs of our cities, published in The Australian: “Does it mean that the electorate has decided it likes warm and cuddly social democrats to look after its services but right-wing death beasts to manage the economy and national security?”

The opinion outside Penrith Westfield is mixed, but no single individual manifested the behaviour that is causing incumbency to be such a strong point for governments. Some of the people interviewed were committed to an ideal, even if it was a negative one. “Well, Labor’s more for the ordinary people and the Liberal’s more for the upper class,” says Cheryl. “And I mean, the way the federal government gives hand-outs to private schools and forgets the public sector, you know…”

But other voters are simply tuning out, not getting any messages, turning away even before a message can be transmitted. Do they despise an Opposition that rejects everything the Government does, out of hand, simply because they are the Opposition?

“No matter who gets up there, they’re going to be doing the same thing,” says Nicolle. But she voted Liberal at the federal level. “Yes, I did. Because I didn’t like Mark Latham.” She laughs out loud because she thinks it’s funny that she cast her vote out of dislike for one of the candidates. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

“I don’t believe in the Government,” says Rebecca, who was the only person interviewed who voted for Pauline Hansen. “I think they’re all in it for the money. I hate voting. I think the politicians are all in it for themselves.”

The donkey vote for the House of Representatives in Australia rose from 3.2 per cent in 1990 to 5.2 per cent in 2004, when it was particularly high in New South Wales, at 6.1 per cent. But it was higher still in Penrith: 7.45 per cent. The statistics include voting results for the Senate, which uses much more difficult ballot papers but shows lower levels of informal voting, and so suggest that many of these donkey votes are deliberate. “Many of these voters will have turned up simply to avoid being fined,” according to an article on the Web site.

Nicolle voted for John Howard at the federal level but she doesn’t remember who she voted for at the state level. “I just went there just so I didn’t have to pay a fifty-dollar fine,” she says. “It’s the truth.” Does the political process turn her off? “No, just all the crap that goes along with it, all the things they say that never happen. So you just go there so you don’t pay the fine.”

Rowena is different. She thinks she voted for The Greens, but she’s surprised to find that she’s not quite sure at first who she voted for. “I did, I voted for The Greens,” she pipes up, relieved. She thinks they offer a louder voice for people who are marginalised.

Other Penrith residents also hold strong convictions and are more involved in the political process. Melissa always votes for Fred Nile at the federal level, but she says that she is a swing voter at the state level. “If they promise something good that I like, I’ll go for them.”

“I voted Liberal,” says Linda. “I look at the policies… I guess I’m what’s called a swing voter. I look at the policies and make my decision.” Does she get turned off by the political process? “No, I think we’ve got one of the best voting systems in the world.” She also volunteers to be an electoral scrutineer on occasion.

What does Antony Green — another electoral buff (perhaps our most significant), who is an election analyst with the ABC, the public broadcaster — think about the current political settlement in Australia? “Well, some of it is just an accident of timing. … [T]he Labor Party seem to do perfectly well at the state level. They just haven’t won any federal elections. So the Labor Party can’t be that weak at the moment.

“The federal Liberal government was elected at a good time,” he says. “It’s profited from a decade of glorious economic sunshine in the same way that the Blair government in Britain has. Both have come to office when the previous governments were discredited with high interest rates in the early nineties.”

Adam, another Penrith shopper, agrees with Green. “I disagree with the Liberal government riding on the back of interest rates. They take too much credit.” He voted for The Greens.

Continues Green: “But the gap between federal and state voting intentions has been seen before. It’s not something which is particularly new to this decade. If you go back to the nineteen-seventies, the electorate was happily electing the Fraser government in the outer suburbs of Sydney at the same time they were voting for Neville Wran and the Labor Party at the state level. So there’s nothing new.

“I think there is always a terrible tendency for people to try and draw conclusions on philosophies of views of the electorate,” he says, “when often what’s occurred is just an accident of history.”

Wednesday 30 August 2006

Without taking my umbrella with me I took a detour to the Co-op Bookshop at lunchtime. A sale table beckoned! From there I picked up two books:

Selected Cantos, Ezra Pound
Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1, John Birmingham (2004)

And because I just can’t help myself when it comes to sales, I grabbed three more volumes from the 20%-off sale table a few feet away:

Seeing, Jose Saramago (2006)
Shalimar the Clown: A Novel, Salman Rushdie (2005)
A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry (2005)

The cost? Around $100, which is not so bad for that many books. Sigh.

I then meandered down to a distant newsagent to pick up some magazines, because they’ve got a better selection than the one close by my place of work. I could only find The New Yorker however, which disappointed me somewhat. And on the way back to my desk I got soaked in a spring shower. In two days’ time it’s the first day of spring!

Tuesday 29 August 2006

Searching for the Secret River has just been released, according to the University of Sydney's Web site.

Kate Grenville wrote the award-winning novel The Secret River and this non-fiction sequel "in her room in the University's Woolley Building as Honorary Associate in the English Department".

It traces her trawl though the original sources and sets quotations from the historical records against the fictionalised scenes they've become. It follows her field research, her bouts of camping in the bush, her attempts to make a slush lamp, her expedition to Kununurra where she met some "very powerful, stern, knowledgeable old men".

Louise Maral from the publications group at the university interviewed Grenville for the story.

But the thanks Grenville has received from members of the Aboriginal community is worth more to her, she said, than any of the prizes.

"They recognise that the book is my act of acknowledgement, my way of saying: this is how I'm sorry."
My next assignment is due on Thursday week. But because I'm a worry-wort, I've already written almost 2,000 words. Yesterday arvo — I had the day off work — the university library beckoned. The number of works there on Daniel Defoe is significant and I found two which I think may furnish further matter for my essay. That brings the total borrowed for this assignment to six.

It is to be presented in class and handed in afterward, and should total about 1,800 words, we've been told. I'm already over the limit, but it's probably not a great issue to be so.

Comparing a work that is over 280 years old with one that was published in 1979 seems to be easy. There is so much water under the bridge, after all. Defoe's True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild seems to us so stilted and moralistic compared to Norman Mailer's magisterial The Executioner's Song — a prose romance and true account all rolled into one. Where Defoe polished off his pamphlet in 40 pages, Mailer took 1056. That's 26 times the volume.

I want to say that while Defoe may have had the moral majority on his side, Mailer had art. In fact, Mailer insisted that his publishers label his work 'A True Life Novel' rather than journalism. It is of course both. The unit of study I'm enrolled in is called 'Literary Journalism: Theory and Practice'. So far, we've had plenty of the practical side of things. I've not yet read anything that could be classed as 'theory', although our tutor is certainly steeped in the subject.

But I'm really enjoying it. All the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature that I read in 2001-03 is starting to pay off. I'll post the whole thing here after I finish.

Monday 28 August 2006

BookMooch is an online service that allows you to find and have sent to you books that you desire. I just discovered this service via Condalmo.

You get 1/10 of a point for every book that you list in your inventory — that you are willing to give away. There are other rules, but you'll be able to look for yourself.

One point of interest is that at one place in the Web site they say "you have to send out at least 1 book for every 5 you receive" but at another it becomes "you need to give away at least one book for every two you receive".

I'm not sure what the situation is if you have zero points. Are you still able to request books to be sent to you? Oh, OK. I just tried it. If you have zero points, you cannot "mooch" (request) a book. My second mooch was refused: that 1 point of my inventory was cancelled out by my single mooch.

It's a lot of fun. I mooched In Cold Blood by Truman Capote from a member who is located in Australia. Mooching books from people in your own country requires only 1 point. If you mooch a book from someone in another country, you need to have 2 points. There are currently 733 books listed for Australia. So it's quite a big number to choose from.

Except for one, all the books that I listed in my inventory are duplicates. I listed 10 including DBC Pierre's Ludmila's Broken English, Martin Amis' Money and Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (so if anyone's looking for one of these wonderful books, you now know where to find it!).

One caveat: I can't find it now but they stress at one point that you should only list books in inventory that you are genuinely willing to give away. That means: don't just fill up your inventory with books so that you can get points and start fraudulently mooching without any intention of giving your books away. But I can see how the system could be rorted. There are many books on most peoples' bookshelves that nobody would actually want to mooch. So it should be possible to generate many points knowing all along that your collection will remain intact.

Sunday 27 August 2006

The tools in LibraryThing allow you to create an accurate tag cloud, and to tag all books appropriately. Having started entering my library into this wonderful online interface on 14 August, today I have completed tagging all my books. Finally!

My most popular tag by a long way is 'fiction'. This includes, of course, all novels, poetry, drama and other fictional writings. Next is 'twentieth century' — obviously most of the works I own fall in this period. I took the period for tagging from the date of first publication, even though the date that I used for the volumes themselves is the date of the edition I own.

A friend at work suggested breaking it down even more, but I decided that it would be too time-consuming. For example, you could go for decades: 'nineteen-forties', 'nineteen-seventies', etc. (Maybe I'll make that my next project.)

If you want to see the whole of my cloud, click here.

It's a bit of a struggle, staying consistent throughout the whole 41 pages of entires. Making sure that all tags are allocated for each book in turn, not missing any, and sometimes going back to add tags that occurred to you later in the process. I like my tag cloud. It's neat and efficient. Most books took four tags. An example is Ian McEwan's Enduring Love: 'british', 'twentieth century', 'novel', 'fiction'; and for Banjo Patterson it would be (although I don't have any of his collections) 'australian', 'poetry', 'nineteenth century', 'fiction'. (I decided to clump England, Scotland and Wales together for some reason. If I were Scottish no doubt I'd choose to do it differently.)
Arun Thai is a restaurant on Macleay Street, Potts Point. To get there, after I was invited on Thursday night by my friend Grant, I decided to avoid parking troubles and catch the train. It's only the third time since I moved to this flat that I've taken the train.

Packed in my bag were a swathe of magazines to entertain me on the trip. I needn't have bothered. It takes only about 30 minutes, with the house lights flaring in the blackness as the trees run past before them, although it's disorientating, travelling on an unknown trajectory at night. Sydenham station is painted orange, so I stood there waiting for my connecting train colour-matched in my heavy winter jacket. It would be too hot. Many times I would wish I'd chosen something more suited to the weather of late August.

I saw a young woman descending the staircase holding a lit cigarette, so I snuck in behind the stairs and lit up myself. The train arrived. I got on board. Kings Cross station was soon signed in the window and I got off.

Outside the restaurant there seemed to suddenly be a hundred, or at least dozens of, young women walking down the pavement. I was early, and slipped inside to order a beer while waiting. A friend I'd not seen for twenty years arrived. We shook hands. Others filed into the bar area at the front of the restaurant, and we sat down at a long table set for about twelve.

The food is nothing special, the wine horribly expensive. Corkage for bring-your-own wine is $15 a bottle. All up the account came to about $40 per person. Since I buy my cigarettes by the carton that amount of money would normally last me a week, besides groceries. Much too much for the quality and volume of food served. The conversation was not much better. I spilled a glass of wine into the lap of my old friend, Rahul.

It turns out he's gone mystical in his middle age. He talked about the Devas, the Hindu scriptures, and how he is studying them. Rahul is a doctor. He talked about getting a locum for two days a week and taking a creative writing course, since he wants to write a guide book to good living that would include spiritual as well as lifestyle advice.

I went off about my wife and our hassles. The evening ended. We're all getting old, set in our ways. The spark of youth is gone. "Let's get together," said Rahul before giving me advice about exercising regularly, and we agreed to meet some time for dinner in Campsie.

Saturday 26 August 2006

Australian Literary Review (ALR) is to be a new supplement to The Australian newspaper, appearing for the first time on 6 September. According to the broadsheet the review will "explore the work of the country's leading writers and thinkers and provide a chronicle of developments in literature, culture, politics, scholarship and the arts".

Following on the heels of the decision by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to launch The First Tuesday Book Club, this new periodical represents a welcome addition to cultural dialogue in this country.

The publication is a joint venture with The Australia Council (the federal arts body which provides funding for cultural activities), The University of Melbourne and Melbourne University Publishing (which The Australian erroneously refers to as Melbourne University Press). There is no information about ALR on the MUP Web site or on the Web site of The University of Melbourne. This oversight is puzzling, considering the exposure given to the venture by today's broadsheet.

In the initial issue readers will find contributions by Stella Clarke, Jacqueline Kent, Don Aitken, Aidan Davison and many others.

Other offerings include historian Peter Stanley gently sinking the slipper into Peter FitzSimons for his overblown and inaccurate Tobruk, Jaya Savige penning a long love poem to Brisbane and David Burchell reflecting on Australian politics.

No point in googling ALR — there's nothing online apart from the broadsheet's announcement.
Robert Hughes, influential expat and art critic, will publish a memoir in November, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

To be entitled Things I Don't Know, the book is described as a "critical insight" into the life of the famous author and car-accident survivor.

He accuses the media of "hateful snobbery".

"So what the assembled meejah saw was the intensely gratifying sight of a wealthy, stuck-up eastern expat who had run over these honest young Australian workers, lads who laboured on a trawler to bring us our daily fish fingers," he writes.

Hughes didn't emerge from the encounter unscathed, although I think the fine was the least of his worries, as a man in his declining years recovering from horrific injuries (according to the Wikipedia "Hughes's right leg was broken in five places and his right elbow was shattered."):

Seven years later, Hughes says he is often racked with pain and unable to stand from the injuries he received in the accident, for which he ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm. He was fined $2500 and banned from driving for three years.

I once possessed a copy of The Shock of the New but it went the sad way of my Bukowskis and Calvinos — it disappeared after I moved overseas in 1992 — but I recently came into possession of his Heaven and Hell in Western Art, which sort of compensates for my loss.
Yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald contains a short piece from the Australian Associated Press about some trouble with Rolf Harris. It seems as though the indefatigable troubadour-cum-dauber has produced some material that might offend Muslims.

Rolf Harris has been unwittingly entangled in a BBC scandal over a program that has been pulled after making taboo jokes. The BBC Radio Scotland program, Franz Kafka Big Band, included a sketch in which the Australian entertainer draws cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and Buddha.

Strange! A radio show featuring a visual artist...

There must be something else to this kerfuffle. So I googled the Web site. It has a press release which contains more detail, but no mention of how an artist painting pictures on radio could shock anyone. Because, of course (in case it hasn't dawned yet), you can't SEE anything on radio. The release is headed:

By Lisette Johnston, Scottish Press Association

And in the body of the piece it provides some detail:

The show has a segment called Rolf's Blasphemous Cartoon Time portraying Rolf Harris drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and Buddha. Another sketch has a voice-over for a famine appeal while the person is eating. There is also sexual content.The group's second series was billed as "sure to surprise even the most unshockable" by the BBC when it was commissioned. But Nick Low, the executive producer for this series, defended the work of the group, who have been in talks with the BBC over a television deal. He said: "We are disappointed because we have been working on this for eight months and now I don't know if it will ever see the light of day."The Franz Kafka Big Band have always been about not compromising what they do. It is very funny and dark and we have delivered to the BBC whatwe thought they were looking for."The BBC have been very supportive, it is just whether we can thrash things out and whether a compromise can be made."I don't think we are talking fine tuning, there are major changes that would need to be done."

The use of quotes is rather confusing, but I think that the quotation is continuous through most of the above paragraph from "We are disappointed...".

The press release on the Web site provides some nice spin:

BBC Radio Scotland’s comedy sketch show ~ The Franz Kafka Big Band ~ will air their second series during the last week in August, 2006. Following on from their successful first series broadcast autumn 2005, which was repeated uncut in a late night schedule, their second series will again break new ground by being broadcast in a prime late night slot, daily, for one week.

This special broadcasting event beginning on Monday the 28th of August 2006 will showcase the cutting edge and hilarious comedy sketch show, The Franz Kafka Big Band. Uncompromising in its 10.00 p.m slot, you’ll either love it, or hate it: you won’t ignore it.

Franz Kafka Big Band publicity photo from their Web site
It seems that they haven't got around to updating this release just yet. But press releases are generally the last thing that people look at on Web sites, anyway. The 'Who and What' section of the main page contains the following:

The Franz Kafka Big Band is a comedy group that makes programmes for BBC Radio.

Recorded entirely in the studio, the shows combine the written sketch with a sophisticated editing and recording process, the surreal and the naturalistic, improvisation and music.

The Big Band have made two series for BBC Radio Scotland, and are currently in development for television.

Written by Colin Edwards & Innes Smith - additional material by the performers; Jenny Ann Marshall, Craig Stobo, Dave Barr & Innes Smith.
Original Music by Colin Broom, CNUT, Bozilla & Mind Sculpture.
Engineered & Sound Design by Kahl Henderson at Savalas Studios.
Produced by Colin Edwards.
Executive Producer is Nick Low.
The Franz Kafka Big Band is a Demus Production.
Website Content & Design by Rob Eijkman & Innes Smith.
Website Managed & Hosted by Bandspace

There is a complete rehash of the press release published on the Web site of The Daily Mail, a U.K. tabloid, which includes a place to leave comments. There are only three comments at the time of writing. I think I'll add my own thoughts about this curious debacle and the conundrum at its heart.

But I can just see Rolf Harris sketching Muhammad using a big, thick paintbrush and a tin of black paint. I'd love to see it, personally.

Doesn't it also strike you as odd the way the AAP story started: "Rolf Harris has been unwittingly entangled in a BBC scandal..."? I mean, he surely knew what he was painting, so how is it that he's 'unwittingly entangled' in the scandal? Surely it would be better to say 'embarrasingly entangled'? I think that's more accurate.

Friday 25 August 2006

William T. Vollmann is interviewed by Matt Thorne for The Independent. The novelist, who Thorne describes as "known mainly as a cult novelist, revered more than read" divulges details of the books he's currently working on.

He's currently working on a number of new projects. One is a non-fiction book about his experiences hopping freight trains across America. "It's really fun to think about the connections with the Beats, rereading Jack Kerouac, but also Jack London and Mark Twain, travelling fast through the country, that solitary, wild American experience."

Another forthcoming book is about Imperial Valley. "I've been working on it for ten years," he told me. "I'm trying to tell the history of the US-Mexican border from earliest times to the present. I'm looking at how a line on paper can change things. When you first look at Imperial Valley it seems hot, flat and dull, but the more you look into it the more secrets you can find. There's a labyrinth of illegal Chinese tunnels, which was considered to be a myth. But I finally got to go into these tunnels and they're fascinating. There's parquet ceilings and I found this velvet nude painting, and some old Cantonese letters I had translated. Some tunnels became brothels and gambling dens and valuables were hidden down there."

Then there's the long-awaited volume five of the Seven Dreams series, his septet of novels dealing with "the repeated collisions between Native Americans and their European colonisers and oppressors", which concerns Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. Vollmann and his father are going to trace the route Chief Joseph followed when he attempted to escape to Canada.

He also talks about his working methods, which are said to be extraordinary, with massive injections of time from the moment he rises until he decides to go to bed. He says:

"It depends on the book. I read and write for most of the day, but I do let myself be interrupted by real life. I enjoy going out with friends and try not to take myself too seriously."
A review by Jenna Krajeski (an editor on the staff of The New Yorker) of Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman has been posted on the Web site of The San Francisco Chronicle,

It's one of the best reviews of this latest work by the Japanese master that I've read. I think. There have been a lot of them in the past month or so. As there should be: it's a publishing event in a major key.

Inconclusive, bewildering and totally engaging, the whodunit survives in Murakami's work as a tired framework to be purged of its contents and refilled with ironic, metaphysical, quixotic mysteries: hard-boiled narratives for the postmodern set.


True, penetrating anxiety ... rumbles beneath many of the stories like a dormant volcano; just because Murakami never names names doesn't mean the murderer isn't ready to pounce.
As promised, I got back some comments on my assignment from a friend who is a trained journalist. I feel quite comfortable with the article now. It seems like everything is in place. If I had another two weeks to think about it, and if I were to let it lie for a week or so then come back and look at it afresh, I'd find something else to ponder and, no doubt, change.

The article is about the way that people living in some electorates vote. In some areas of the city, the same person who is voting for the Labor Party at the state level is voting for the Liberal party at the federal level. This is what I wanted to cover. Especially, there's a quote from a journalist, which will be revealed when I post the whole article on the weekend, that encapsulates very humourously the situation in a single sentence. I love this quote. It's wonderful. You'll see in a couple of days.

Here's a few of my friend's comments (she's going to hate me for posting these, but since you know neither my identity nor hers, I guess I'm covered):

“It’s just, you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and get John Howard out,” says Lauren, standing under the shade of the pedestrian overpass at the back entrance of the Penrith Westfield shopping centre as the cars and choppers swish and growl over the speed bump at the pedestrian crossing and the Saturday shoppers scuttle across against the lights.

BRILLIANT opening. It's just fantastic.

Lauren, a Penrith resident, is in the minority -- at least at the federal level: the Liberal Party holds the federal seat of Lindsay, which encloses Penrith, an enclave on the edge of the suburban sprawl of Sydney, near the weed-choked Nepean River and the mighty M4 motorway. Driving north along Mulgoa Road from the M4 exit you pass the massive Penrith Rugby League Club, its asphalt apron suffocating under the press of thousands of cars that glint luridly in the noon sun.

Okay, here's the onset of a problem: you're reveling too much in the prose, showing off (as well you have a right to), and it's overshadowing the point
of the story. I'd go through and take out every 3rd adjective and see if that doesn't lighten the reader's load.

point for governments. Some of the people interviewed were committed to an ideal, even if it was a negative one. “Well, Labor’s more for, you know, the ordinary people and the Liberal’s more for the, you know, the upper class,” says Cheryl. “And I mean, the way the federal government gives hand-outs to private schools and forgets the public sector, you know…”

I'm not sure if you're using the "you knows" and "I mean" to help create a character, which is of course one option. But to me, it makes her sound kinda like a valley girl... and in the same way that journos usually clean up all the "ummms" and "welllls" and things, IF you don't want to define her with those, I think they should be dropped.

Nicolle voted for John Howard at the federal level but she doesn’t remember who she voted for at the state level. “I just went there just so I didn’t have to pay a fifty-dollar fine,” she says. “It’s the truth.” Does the

WHAT? You guys are fined if you don't vote?!!

She also volunteers to be an electoral scrutineer on occasion.

Is this a real job description? It sounds like a Caribbean pirate!

“I think there is always a terrible tendency for people to try and draw conclusions on philosophies of views of the electorate,” he says, “when often what’s occurred is just an accident of history.”

Great concluding quote.

I just wish I didn't hate politics so much!

Thursday 24 August 2006

Following the workshop on Monday night, on Tuesday my tutor sent me the following e-mail:

I thought I should check in on how you felt about the workshop - and to see if it was helpful for you? I think you got a lot of good advice. But it can seem like a free for all at times, and you do need to sift the useful advice for the not so useful. You also need to listen to your own conscience on this, and work out a writing process and style that SUITS YOU whatever advice you may have got. The trick of course is to consider why people might have offered the advice and respond in ways that make the story stronger, whatever direction you choose.

I responded on Wednesday:

To be frank I was dreading it beforehand. But I found a lot of the advice consistent, which meant that there were real problems with the story that many people saw. Definitely there were too many quotes by too many people in the first six paragraphs.

Especially, I decided to expand the introduction, describe Penrith (and the shopping centre) a bit more to give readers a feel for the location. Then I lifted the position of the information about the political settlement, to make it clearer to readers what the main focus of the story would be.

I also got a lot of good pointers from the comments handed to me, especially yours. I did indeed locate the donkey vote statistics for Penrith, so I added that.

In general I felt more confident about the direction I wanted to take after the workshop. I worked on the story the same night, and rewrote it quite a bit, removing a couple of the quotes and lengthening others.

Thanks for dropping me a line about this. I feel much more confident about my story, changed the title and worked on it for a good couple of hours straight. I'm also getting some feedback later this week from a friend of mine who is a trained journalist. That should also be helpful.

I must admit that I feel a little odd about doing a complete rethink on the tone of the story, as you suggested (having "a bit of fun" with it). I don't feel confident that I can achieve the correct tone -- maybe for the longer assignment at the end of semester I'll throw caution to the wind and lash out a bit. I will probably continue to play it pretty straight but to generally tighten up the construction, as advised during class.

To which he answered straight away:

That's all good news to me, and I am glad it was so useful. Watch out in seeking advice - and getting it! - from so many sources that it doesn't push and pull you in a million directions. It sounds though from your email that you have a much more coherent grasp of things now. As for my comment on 'tone', that is something that comes from you - it was just a suggestion, but you should go your own way. I look forward to reading it!

The whole experience is very satisfactory. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Wednesday 23 August 2006

In the row over ball-tampering it seems that nobody has got to the heart of the matter.

The Pakistanis were angry with the claim that they were abusing the ball and therefore would not return to the field after tea. But Darrell Hair is the umpire, not some puffed-up generalissimo in an Islamabad committee room. Whether you agree with Hair's call or not, you've still got to abide by it.

It seems to me that the problem with the Pakistani approach is that they did not deem the ruling sufficiently compelling to return to the field. Only when they realised that their dummy-spit wouldn't sway Hair, did they decide to return. An Australian side would never behave like this.

The Pakistanis come from a country where the rule of law is still rudimentary and abuses by the authorities are commonplace. That's why they took the stance they did. They think that such abuses extend to the cricket field. In Australia, even if you think you've been dudded by the umpire, you get on with it. You swallow your pride and play. The Pakistanis have simply shown the true nature of civil society in their homeland, and have made it clear to the rest of the world that Pakistan is a country where the rule of law — that the same laws apply for everyone — is a myth and not the reality.

It is shameful in the extreme, to show your own country's lack of development like this, on the world stage. No wonder they are so angry. To expose yourself and your country in public like this must be so painful.

Monday 21 August 2006

I survived, and now see the light at the end of the tunnel. A cold glint that makes me smile with anticipation. Some time after it started — maybe five minutes — I realised it would be better than I anticipated. And it was.

Workshopping is fun. Now I know that, I've got nothing to fear. Most of the criticism was merited and the comments were remarkably consistent, demonstrating the existence of real flaws. So I rewrote the piece.

But there's one thing I don't want to do. They suggested using longer quotes from fewer interviewees. And that means going back into the recordings for more fuel. Not something I relish, especially with all the background noise on the recording making some people impossible to hear.

For kicks I've sent the story away to a friend who is a trained journalist, for her comments. When I get those back, I'll do some more digging next weekend, and post the result. Then you, too, can benefit from reading my cool constructions and stylish sentences.

Sunday 20 August 2006

What a relief! Just completed assignment number one for one of my courses. 1600 words of perfect prose (although there was one missing pronoun that I discovered after e-mailing it out to the class). We workshop the piece tomorrow night. Workshopping is a frightening experience, I've concluded.

It's like being ripped to shreds by a pack of hungry beasts. Maybe that's wrong. Perhaps it's a useful way of discovering the weaknesses in your work, a method of taking another person's point of view. In any case, I'm frankly terrified. Probably I'll just cower in my seat like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an on-coming vehicle. On the other hand, maybe I'll enjoy all the attention. We all love to be talked about, after all.

I remember in the first class of the course, some weeks back... We had to interview our neighbour and write a few hundred words, in class, to make up a story. A tough assignment. My confrere — or should I say consoeur — did a nice little job on me. And because she's the outgoing type, and quite confident to boot, she read the thing out to the rest of the class! Mortified!

But I survived. To greet another day with assurance and humour. Now that I've finished my assignment, I'm going to sit down and read the assigned readings for Monday night's class. I haven't had time to read anything else for weeks.

Saturday 19 August 2006

My new bookcase has just arrived. It's just under one centimeter too narrow to completely fill up the assigned place, but I'm not worried about such quibbling things. The two delivery blokes have just left to go on to their next delivery, and then return to Claphams Furniture and Antiques in Lane Cove, from whom I purchased this lovely item of tan-coloured pine furniture.

Already two and a half shelves of the seven are full, but I suspect that, what with my studies and continuing money issues (child maintenance etc.), it should take me at least two years or more to fill it completely. I hope so. I've only got a small apartment. When this unit fills up I'll need to get a new one made for the bedroom. Or maybe the kitchen. There's no room anywhere else!

I also picked up today a print that I had framed at Studio 275 in Earlwood: an etching by Pixie O'Harris that she gave me decades ago. So I'm happy.

Just time for lunch. I've done my laundry. After I finish with the broadsheets I'll get stuck into my uni assignment.

Friday 18 August 2006

Accompanying a New York Times review of a new book by Ali Alatas, "the former longtime foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations", is a map showing (purportedly) East Timor, the subject of the book and the article:

Note the location of the state, which somehow has been pushed up toward Sulawesi. Now, here is the actual map of the region, from another Web site:

How could they get it so wrong?
David Mitchell looks like the kind of guy who marries Japanese womenDavid Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years and is married to a Japanese woman, Keiko (a common-enough name). As someone who has lived in Japan for nine years and is also married to a Japanese woman (although now separated), I can understand the allure of the place. According to The Guardian’s book page, “next month they move back to Japan”.

The heady narrative trips of the 37-year-old's first three novels owe a debt to the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (the title of Mitchell's second novel, Number9Dream, is a veiled tribute to Murakami's masterpiece Norwegian Wood, in that both were named after lesser-known Beatles songs).

Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas sold 500,000 copies, so he’s obviously doing quite well on the financial front. After living in Holland, away from his permanent residence in Ireland, Mitchell will soon return to Japan.

In June, Murakami had an interview with Ben Naparstek, a Melbourne reviewer:

“You know the myth of Orpheus,” Murakami says. “He goes to the underworld to look for his deceased wife, but it’s far away and he has to undergo many trials to get there. There’s a big river and a wasteland. My characters go to the other world, the other side. In the Western world, there is a big wall you have to climb up. In this country [Japan], once you want to go there, it’s easy. It’s just beneath your feet.”

The floating world re-emerges as a paradigm of life in the land of the Rising Sun. A. S. Byatt said in The Guardian article:

"He is wise to live in remote places," says Byatt. "He needs time and space to write those long intricate books and I think he has the good sense and the confidence to give them to himself."

I miss many things about Japan. It is true that realities are more fluid than in the West. In Australia there is a solidity about daily life that is gently reassuring. In Japan, you never quite feel as though you know what’s going to happen next. You could see a person dressed in outrageous attire, a man sleeping on a train, a woman patiently putting up with the gropings of a salary man on board a train. And the politeness is astonishing and refreshing. Here we are so informal all the time. It’s first names for everyone. In Tokyo, you greet most people with the honorific ‘-san’ attribution, always mindful that you are living in a city with a population greater than that of all of Australia's towns and cities put together.

In an essay, Mitchell outlines his reasons for preferring life in Japan, from the point of view of his writing:

In Japan, I am, in writer/critic Donald Richie's phrase, an alien amongst natives. The Lonely Planet guide quotes the idea that some countries have a 'mission' attitude towards foreigners, and some have a 'club' attitude. 'Mission' countries define foreignness by behavior -- act like a native, and as far as other natives are concerned, you eventually have as much right to be there as they do. 'Club' countries define foreignness by your lineage or passport -- it will never matter what you do, how well you learn the language, how many soccer teams or famous department stores you buy -- you are foreign and always will be. Japan is a classic club society. Living here, I kiss my sense of social belonging goodbye. When I was a kid, my main talent was sulking -- spectacular, multi-day sulks. I don't think I sulked to manipulate: the point was to isolate myself. I sometimes believe that my real motive behind living abroad is to enjoy the same fruit.

He says he reads Japanese like a ten-year-old (which is better than me) and that he gets lost sometimes in adult discourse. I can understand that. When I lived there I spent a lot of time playing with children. Every weekend I would be with my own kids and they, in turn, would want to play with the kids next door. So I would be out in the car park at the back of the apartment block pushing five-year-olds around on skateboards and kicking a soccer ball with their big brothers and sisters. You learn a lot about a culture from playing with children: the way the games create a society, the way they get upset and run off home, the way they have adventures. And when we went skiing it was me (who couldn’t ski) who was delegated to mind the kids. I didn’t mind. In fact I rather enjoyed it, being a big brother to the rug rats. It all adds up.

In another interview, Mitchell said:

I can argue with my wife in Japanese, but I can’t win the arguments.

Amen to that.

Wednesday 16 August 2006

It seems that I’ve been ‘tagged’ by Kimbofo of Reading Matters to do a book meme. This is not painful but still it is new to me: a newfangled invention beyond the powers of my jaded wit to criticise. Memes are part of the clutter of blogging that I have up until now hesitated to engage with, seeing them as an overly-cute method of communicating, and preferring always the direct, old-fashioned approach in my writing. They simply seem like a quick way of filling up space with short, direct sentences. But now that I’ve been tagged by one whose blog I esteem so highly, I’ll humbly comply. Here are my responses to the meme:

1. One book that changed your life?
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

2. One book you have read more than once?
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

3. One book you would want on a desert island?
The Norton Shakespeare

4. One book that made you cry?
Bleak House by Charles Dickens

5. One book that made you laugh?
Ludmila’s Broken English by DBC Pierre

6. One book you wish had been written?
Whatever Nabokov was working on or thinking about when he died in mountainous Montreux when I was fifteen and growing up, unaware of his very existence, in sunny Sydney

7. One book you wish had never had been written?
There are lots of bad books, but much worse than that venal crime is censorship itself (i.e. the more the merrier)

8. One book you are currently reading?
Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe

9. One book you have been meaning to read?
The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama

10. Now tag five people
Perry of Matilda, Kerryn of A Fugitive Phenomenon, Georg of Stack, Meredith of Marrickvillia, and Sharon of Bibliobibuli
The Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced:

Carey, Peter Theft: A Love Story (Faber & Faber)
Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
Edric, Robert Gathering the Water (Doubleday)
Gordimer, Nadine Get a Life (Bloomsbury)
Grenville, Kate The Secret River (Canongate)
Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down (Canongate)
Jacobson, Howard Kalooki Nights (Jonathan Cape)
Lasdun, James Seven Lies (Jonathan Cape)
Lawson, Mary The Other Side of the Bridge (Chatto & Windus)
McGregor, Jon So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury)
Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men (Viking)
Messud, Claire The Emperor’s Children (Picador)
Mitchell, David Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
Murr, Naeem The Perfect Man (William Heinemann)
O’Hagan, Andrew Be Near Me (Faber & Faber)
Robertson, James The Testament of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton)
St Aubyn, Edward Mother’s Milk (Picador)
Unsworth, Barry The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton)
Waters, Sarah The Night Watch (Virago)

The longlist of 19 books was chosen from 112 entries; 95 were submitted for the prize and 17 were called in by the panel of judges.

I've only read one of these: Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story. And with my study commitments it looks like I won't be reading any others before the shortlist is announced. According to their Web site:

The 2006 shortlist will be announced on Thursday 14th September at a press conference at Man Group’s London office. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 10th October at an awards ceremony at Guildhall, London.

Tuesday 15 August 2006

On Sunday I telephoned Dymocks Booksellers in Penrith because the Burwood branch didn't have what I coveted: Mapping the World (2006). They had five copies at Penrith and one at Broadway, which is close to my work but inconvenient to visit at lunchtime.

So I ordered the book from the Penrith store by credit card: including postage it came to just over $36. The book is on sale. The big, full-colour volume that contains hundreds of pictures of maps, from various ages, arrived at work today.

The U.S. publisher, Chartwell Books (New Jersey) has licensed the book from a London publisher, Compendium Publishing Ltd. The author, Michael Swift, has assembled a large collection of maps painted and printed at various times in history. I'm a major map-lover, so this book is right up my street.

The chapters tell the story. It starts with some explanatory text, then there are time-specific sections:

Introduction (pp. 6 - 31) — 'Why Maps?', 'The Development of Cartography', 'Maps for a Growing Market', 'Major Figures in the History of Mapping', 'Types of Maps', 'Glossary of Cartographic Terms'.
To the End of the Sixteenth Century (pp. 32 - 109)
The Seventeenth Century (pp. 110 - 147)
The Eighteenth Century (pp. 148 - 205)
The Nineteenth Century (pp. 206 - 255)

Sunday 13 August 2006

Patrick White seems to be out of favour with Christopher Pearson, a columnist for The Australian.

I suppose it's unnecessary to be unduly concerned by this, given the often right-wing stance held by the newspaper. But he wrote such a good column for this weekend's Inquirer section that I wonder if I'm missing something.

The column charts the history of his attraction to the written word, from earliest times. As a primary-school pupil, Pearson recounts, he all at once, one day, got the idea of writing, as he told an interrogator about his abiding interest in books and reading:

My mind raced back to a rainy afternoon in Bellevue Hill primary school in Sydney in 1956, with the smell of wet asphalt drifting into the classroom. The teacher had just joined up show cards — with a C, an O and a final W and a picture of a cow — and the penny dropped.

It was a short time later that he started reading The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

About the time of this first brush with the canon, there were a few other, more temperate encounters. I recall hearing one of my great-grandmothers and an aunt reciting by heart tracts of the Oxford Book of Ballads, getting a first taste of The Magic Pudding and Gulliver's Travels, and being given a bound volume of instalments of one of Charles Dickens's magazines called Household Words. Owning something that is more than 100 years old at the age of eight is a great stimulus to the imagination.

Later, in his teens, he encountered Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Trollope and the poets: Shakespeare, Marvell, Donne, Herbert, Marlowe, Hopkins and Eliot. "An only child with well-read parents, I soon realised that curling up with a book was the most exciting kind of companionable silence." "On first reading the novels of Patrick White at 16, it seemed to me as though the two (sacred and profane love and a countervailing sexual ambivalence) had converged, almost for the first time apart from Brideshead Revisited, in a way that wasn't louche or self-indulgent." This is all very straightforward reminiscence of good times had with a book in his hands. The problem comes, as in any good column, in the final paragraph:

But while I don't rate White as highly as before, no longer see him as any kind of role model and can seldom bring myself to reread his books, I don't begrudge the years spent immersed in them. It was a bracing, intellectually demanding encounter. They taught me a good deal about the vagaries of human nature and much else besides. The best of them, from Voss to The Eye of the Storm, often ran fiercely counter to the prevailing Zeitgeist until, nearing his dotage, the spirit of the age began to enthral White and exacted a terrible, exemplary revenge.

I wonder what he means? Any ideas?

Saturday 12 August 2006

Interviewing people at Penrith Westfield is not my idea of a great way to spend an afternoon, but that's what I've just done. It's a 40-kilometer trek out west, and I wanted to arrive there around 2:00 p.m.

My assignment is due for workshopping on Friday so I needed to get some material this weekend. I drove out west on the M4, through the Light Horse Interchange, and then turned off onto Mulgoa Road. You drive about three kilometers northward from there to arrive at central Penrith. I turned into Westfield — you get three hours' parking for free.

It only took me about two. In order to avoid being interrogated by the shopping centre's security personnel, I stationed myself on the street at the east exit, between the old and the new sections of the shopping plaza. I think it's Riley Street that crosses between the two halves of Westfield.

In order not to be too conspicuous I only targeted people who were smoking, i.e. who were standing around filling in time. I'd say about 60 per cent of those I approached were willing to talk, which I thought was fair.

So, now I've got 22 short (1- to 2-minute) interviews to transcribe and weave into a meaningful narrative for my feature story. I hope to do a couple more interviews early next week, by telephone.

To add some spice to my visit I also popped into Angus & Robertson and Dymocks bookshops, just to have a quick squiz. Fairly typical, I thought, as I dashed back to my car on parking level 1. Then off back down the motorway, home.

Thursday 10 August 2006

According to the Real Estate blog Patrick White's house was listed on "the New South Wales Heritage Register, to save it from any future development." The post is dated 21 November 2004. Matilda said on 23 February 2005: "It is now in private hands and is coming up for sale in the near future." The Real Estate blog followed up, on 8 March 2005:

The Centennial Park house of the late writer Patrick White has had its auction rescheduled for April 6, and the home's four beneficiaries still expect it to sell for at least $3.5 million.

The auction of the Federation bungalow, Highbury, was postponed in November to allow time for the National Trust to raise funds for its plans to create a writers' centre at the home.

Here the online record ends. There was a piece published recently but I didn't clip it, unless my memory is failing faster than I believe is the case. Does anyone remember?

Now, however, according the the Sydney Morning Herald, Grace Cossington Smith's home has been heritage-listed. It's taken her 60 years to reach this exalted region. I wonder if anyone will be willing to purchase the Turramurra property for a painting school, as supporters of White's legacy urged for his place. This artist was a significant modernist, in the Australian canon, anyway. Not comparable with White, in any case. But it's nice to know that these things still mean something, even if White's house was not fully repatriated. The tone of dismal failure is eloquently conveyed by Peter Watts, (then and still) director of The Historic Houses Trust:

"...we looked at the possibility of a museum but the house was so small and so fragile it could only have limited numbers of people going through it".

"We did a plan which showed a large loss. The Government explored some form of writer in residence scheme which would mean it would have an ongoing life," he said.

Some of their recent acquisitions can be viewed in the list on this page.

Tuesday 8 August 2006

William Blake’s Adam Naming the Beasts has arrived from Scotland. As I mentioned earlier, I discovered the painting at Pollok House, which is located outside Glasgow. Although the package is slightly bent from transit, the print is undamaged. From the time I found the link to the William Blake Archive on Edward Champion’s blog to its delivery, was just under two weeks.

Adam Naming the Beasts by William Blake 1810I purchased the A3 version, and will take it to be framed in a few weeks (after my bank balance rebalances) at Studio 275 in Earlwood, just down the street from my place.

My impression of the painting, my visual image of it before opening the package, was different from the reality. For some reason, I had pictured in my mind Adam turned three-quarters on to the viewer, facing the marching procession of animals traversing the picture space of the middle ground. But, in fact, he’s facing directly toward the viewer, finger raised, eyes unfocused and aimed off to the left, into the distance, as he conjures up the mystical names from his subconscious. “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2.19). Of note is the fact that Blake painted a sister picture: Eve Naming the Birds. This is typical of Blake’s inherently irreverent attitude: although he was very religious, it was an idiosyncratic belief that he nurtured. He saw spirits. So he needed to embellish on scripture for his own ends. It’s fitting that he made a twin for his great painting, so that he could include women in his cosmology: the other half of the sexual equation.

Also, the colours I had imagined to be brighter than they are. It’s a very delicate colouring, with the predominant pale brown offset by the red of the snake Adam fondles at his breast, and the yellow bloom of the sky to the right of the space. Truly, a beautiful artefact.

Adam Naming the Beasts in the Aberdeen BestiaryIt seems as if this is a favourite subject of pictures at different times in history. There is the Aberdeen Bestiary, which enters recorded history “in 1542 when it was listed as No. 518 Liber de bestiarum natura in the inventory of the Old Royal Library, at Westminster Palace.” According to the Web site: “this library was assembled by Henry VIII, with professional assistance from the antiquary John Leland, to house manuscripts and documents rescued from the dissolution of the monasteries.”

The subject reappears among the stained glass designs of William Morris, “one of Victorian England’s foremost leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement.”

Sunday 6 August 2006

Patrick White Reader's Group gets a mention in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday. Susan Wyndham is obviously keen to exploit the Internet in her weekly column. She put a call out recently for votes on the best Australian fiction of the last ten years. And now she's put in the link to this blog, set up by Ron from BiblioBillaBong.

The headline of the piece is 'Patrick White Hoax Inspires Debate': "I thought the recent hoax by The Australian ... was silly and smug. But it has inspired some interesting discussion online. The contributors to ... have decided to read The Vivisector as a way to re-examine White's work."

Actually, the decision to read The Vivisector was finally taken by an online poll at the Patrick White Reader's Group. But the idea started at Sarsaparilla, that's true enough.

It seems from the comments on the Patrick White Reader's Group that some people have read the piece in The Herald and logged on. The reading challenge starts in September.

Friday 4 August 2006

Another gala day of book buying… Gulp. After leaving work this afternoon, I sauntered down to the Co-op Bookshop and picked up a text book and a sale book:

The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, Robert S. Boynton (2005)
The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Tariq Ali (2002)

Then I loafed over to Gleebooks and bought the latest issue of The New York Review of Books because I had discovered at Matilda that it contains a review of Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story (a very good review, by the way, showing me aspects of the book that I’d neglected to see). I also picked up, on the sale tables upstairs at No. 49 Glebe Point Road:

30 Days in Sydney: A wildly distorted account, Peter Carey (2001)
The English Yeoman, Mildred Campbell (1942)

It was raining. I swished along Parramatta Road, turned up Crystal Street and into New Canterbury Road, then popped into the bottle shop for my Friday beers. Four bottles of Amsterdam Mariner, a packet of chips, and four mini salamis later, I received a telephone call on my mobile phone from the furniture-maker, who regretted to say that the carpenter couldn’t do more than 26 centimetres between shelves. My new bookshelf was delivered last weekend but only had six shelves, so I had them make a new one. I’d ordered seven shelves, after all. So now they’re making a new unit — to my specifications. It seems they’d got the height wrong. Sigh! The good bookshelf, that they’d successfully made for me and delivered about five months ago, has 30 centimetres between shelves. I don’t want the shelves too close together, since if they are I’ll not be able to fit hardbacks on the shelves. They won’t deliver before next weekend, anyway. I hope they get it right this time!
Review: Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut (1952)

Vonnegut's satirical reach is refreshing. In this snapshot of the future (note publication date) he winds up the stoney-eyed simulacrum of Metropolis and gives us a binary class system: the engineers and managers vs. the average man. It takes a doctorate to become a real estate agent. The centralised planning of production — originally introduced during the most recent war — has generated mass unemployment and the plebs are either in the army or on road crews (Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps). A typical exemplar is Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm — chosen by the computer database to be shown to a visiting potentate, the Shah of Bratpuhr, who thinks that these people are all slaves.

The personnel machines had considered the problem and ejected the card of Edgar R. B. Hagstrohm, who was statistically average in every respect save the number of his initials: his age (36), his height (5'7"), his eight (148 lbs.), his years of marriage (22), his I.Q. (83), the number of his children (2: 1 m., 9; 1 f., 6), the number of his bedrooms (2), his car (3 yr. old Chev. 2 dr. sed.), his education (h.s. grad, 117th in class of 233; maj. in business practice; 2nd string f'ball, b'k'tb'l; soc. comm., sen'r play; no coll.), his vocation (R&R), his avocations (spec'r sports, TV, softb'l, f'sh'g), and his war record (5 yrs., 3 ov'sea; T-4 radioman; 157th Inf. Div.; battle stars: Hjoring, Elbesan, Kabul, Kaifen, Ust Kyakhta; wounded 4 times; P'ple H't, 3 cl.; Silv. Star; Br'ze Star, 2 cl., G'd Cond. Med.).

But the real drama in this wonderful, dark and intriguing novel occurs in the life of the protagonist, Paul Proteus, head of the Ilium Works, a massive, computer-automated manufacturing plant in New York State. Because Paul wants out. The pressure of his boss, his wife and his society are ranged against his desire not to give his friend up to the authorities, who continue to fear subversives.

Strange things happen occasionally, as Proteus discovers when he goes to the police station after being fired from his job:

While he waited for someone to notice him, he interested himself in the radiophoto machine behind glass in one corner, which was fashioning a portrait of a fugitive, and noting beside it a brief biography. The portrait emerged from a slit in the top of the machine bit by bit—first the hair, then the brows, on line with the word WANTED, and then, on line with the large, fey eyes, the name: Edgar Rice Burroughs Hagstrohm, R&R-131313. Hagstrohm's sordid tale emerged along with his nose: "Hagstrohm cut up his M-17 home in Chicago with a blow-torch, went naked to the home of Mrs. Marion Frascati, the widow of an old friend, and demanded that she come to the woods with him. Mrs. Frascati refused, and he disappeared into the bird sanctuary bordering the housing development. There he eluded police, and is believed to have made his escape dropping from a tree onto a passing freight—"
  "You!" said the desk sergeant. "Proteus!"

Wednesday 2 August 2006

Beauty arrives by mail. Finally, I found it, and it will be here soon! The power of the Internet to provide good service is proven, in my books.

On 25 July Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant blog posted a brief notice on The William Blake Archive. I’d been looking for a particular painting by Blake for some years, without finding a commercial reproduction anywhere. So I e-mailed them:

I'm a big Blake fan and I've been looking for a specific painting: 'Adam Naming the Animals'. I've contacted print sellers here in Sydney but no luck — it's not on their books.

I wonder if you can help me find where this painting is located, and whether it has been reproduced?

Will replied:

The painting you are looking for is called "Adam Naming the Beasts," and it is located at Pollok House in Glasgow, Scotland. Blake executed it in pen and tempera on fine linen and dated it 1810.

We do not currently have this image available in the Blake Archive. To inquire about reproductions, you might try contacting the Pollok House directly.

So I e-mailed them and Suzanne Finn replied immediately saying they stocked postcards at 40 pence per card, but that if I wanted anything bigger I should try Glasgow Museums Photolibrary. I e-mailed Winnie Tyrrell there and we exchanged a few messages (her: “We can provide you with a colour ink jet print of this painting. Either A4 size at a cost of £10.45 or A3 at £20.90. Postage & packing of £4 would be added to these costs.” and me: “I assume that the quality of the ink-jet print will be adequate for framing (which will cost me at least as much again as the print itself). If you could send me details of the print resolution, that would be great.”) sorting out the necessary details and arrangements.

I also purchased a telephone card at my tobacconist and called her twice: once to ascertain the quality of the print they would supply and the packing method, and once to give my credit card details. The print is in the mail.

Tuesday 1 August 2006

First Tuesday Book Club (“the show for people who love to read and want to share that passion with other enthusiastic readers,” according to host Jennifer Byrne in her intro, “after all, isn‘t that what readers do? We may read alone, but as soon as the reading ends the talking starts: what worked, what didn‘t, who we liked, who drove us nuts.”) is a casual, sparring affair. Five people sit on beige armchairs in a circle with shelves and mock-up books in the background, and debate the pros and cons of two books. One book is a recent release (“maybe something brand-new, maybe something already making waves”) and the other is considered by one of the (“brave”) participants to be a ‘classic’.

“We want you, Australia’s readers, to be part of our club,” said Byrne enthusiastically.

This month — the club’s first to air — the participants were Jason Steger (the literary editor of The Age and former sports journalist), Jacki Weaver (famous Australian actor), Marieke Hardy (granddaughter of the famous Australian writer Frank Hardy and now a script-writer and radio host), and Peter Cundall (host of “that television institution, Gardening Australia”).

Each book is introduced by a dramatisation of the plot. In the case of The Ballad of Desmond Kale this took the form of various clips of film of re-enactments of life in the early nineteenth century in the new colony: black-and-white snippets of action with some jazzy background music. It’s quite entertaining, but nothing special.

“I think The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a terrific book,” said Seger. “It’s got virtually everything in it, all you could ask for. It’s a fascinating picture of [the] early 1800s in Australia. It’s an incredibly imaginative book written in a very distinctive style, which I think makes demands on the reader. But if you respond to those demands, you get a huge amount of pleasure from the book.”

“Well, Roger McDonald is a poet,” said Weaver, “and so it is a bit like reading an epic poem. And some of the syntax is very odd and eccentric, and some of the sentences are very convoluted. But once you get used to that… the way that he’s writing… I mean, now and again you have to read a sentence several times like you do with a poem, to find the gist of the sentence…”

“I actually found that quite cumbersome,” interjected Hardy. “I was quite willing to go along on the journey with him with characters using dialogue but…” and the rest was masked by distortion as others joined in the discussion. You see how it is when people discuss books. They get very passionate and argumentative. And that’s good. We should get passionate about books.

“Occasionally I did find it like flicking through a school text book,” added Hardy. “I found it so ponderous.”

“I liked the characters, though,” Weaver jumped in. “The characters were very Dickensian, especially the villan…”

“Stanton,” piped up Cundall. “Well he is, but this is the amazing thing about the book. I mean, look at it, it’s the size of a house brick, isn’t it. The first thing I noticed is that there’s Desmond Kale — I mean ‘kail’ is an Irish cabbage.” Cundall, true to his grass roots, then took exception to the fact that Kale was flogged for stealing an iron rake. It was more likely to have been made of wood, he averred. Laughter ensued.

“Well let’s be honest,” resumed Byrne. “Kale is nowhere near the centre of the novel. … He’s retreated off to develop his superfine sheep, with some kind of gardening implement or whatever he’s using out there. But the real character, the real driver of the book is his rival for the sheep. And this guy — Matthew Stanton — I mean, did he work for you?” “Oh he’s brilliant,” replied Seger. “He’s a brilliant character, I think, and yet his very presence is absolutely, completely realised by McDonald.”

“I think the two points,” continued Seger, “the two characters: Desmond Kale, who is absent, and Stanton, who is so very present, I mean, that’s what makes the book really … So we’re seeing Desmond Kale through all these other peoples’ experiences, or the news that drifts around about him. Whereas Stanton is absolutely real, absolutely there all the time.”

Seger then quoted from the book. Hardy said that the character described sounded like the Magic Pudding. “I think it’s quite a weakness of the book that it takes two or three hundred pages to either get used to the style or go on a journey with it. And by that stage I resented Roger McDonald.” “I found these strange, back-to-front sentences a bit hard at first,” said Cundall, “and it’s true we had to go back. But I also noticed that as we got towards the end of the book it’s almost as if Roger McDonald decided to hurry things up a little. He dropped that style towards the end, he dropped it completely.”

“I didn’t enjoy the female characters at all,” said Hardy. “The ones that didn’t spend half the novel lying on their back were, I felt, not as fleshed out or fully realised… I guess the argument against that is that if he had fleshed out every female character we’d be in two volumes.” “I thought the women’s characters were quite layered,” said Weaver. “I was pretty impressed with the daughter of the parson and the Jewish girl and the relationship they developed I thought was terrific, and I thought showed quite an insight into the way women feel and behave.”

Some amount of confusion prevents me from redacting the entire discussion, but the verdict on McDonald’s book was mixed. Questions and comments posted on the Web site would be responded to by the author. This is a nice touch, and a demonstration of the benefits to be derived from using the Internet creatively. I think it’s wonderful that you can get feedback from the author of a book you admire, in real time (as it were). It'll be interesting to see if anyone participates online.

Book news: Jonestown, the much-debated biography of Alan Jones will apparently be published “some time before Christmas”.

The second novel to be discussed was Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, chosen by Byrne herself. She thinks it’s “a classic and a brilliant satire”. After the music and the video clips, the discussion started.

“I think it’s brilliant, too,” said Weaver. “And I was one of the people that rushed out… the main reason I rushed out and devoured it as soon as it came out in 1991 was because: how dare anyone tell me what I can read. I’m very anti-censorship and like everyone else in my class at Hornsby Girl’s High School when we were fifteen I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because it was banned. And at the time I devoured American Psycho, the particularly repugnant nature of the murders that he goes into with great detail was sickening and nauseating, but at the time I read it I kind of coped.”

“I found it really boring. I think that it could have been a fantastic short story,” said Hardy. “I’m with Marieke here,” added Seger. “I thought that in the end it was a dull book. I think it’s a very moral book, actually. I think anybody who says it should be banned is missing the point completely. It’s just in too much detail.”

“I couldn‘t believe what I was reading,” said Cundall. “It’s about the most insignificant, useless, parasitical, self-centred, greed-driven people on earth. And it’s a whole book about them. And, not only that, it’s got pages and pages of their half-witted conversation.” “The writer, he decided to spice it up,” went on Cundall in full irate mode, “with a few murders and a lot of explicit sexuality. And this is the part that really got me. Because the murders are horrific. They’re ghastly. And he’s delved into his shallow, little, inexperienced mind to dredge up the worst things he could think of.”

“But that’s the point,” countered Byrne. “These are the people, who have no morality, no judgement, are the richest and most powerful — as they were then — on earth…”

Cundall really let loose. Weaver added a bit of reasonableness: “Jacobean drama, all those plays that were written during the reign of James the First, the early seventeenth century, they are particularly bloodthirsty and gory, they are revolting and I hate going to see them, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go to see them, because they are classics.” Cundall, however, wanted to cut the book up and use it for compost.

Nuf said. We'll see what the next month brings, when the books for discussion will be The Shadow of the Wind (1st pub. 2001, trans. 2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The First Stone (1995) by Helen Garner.