Monday 31 March 2008

The Archibald is a three-in-one deal. You get the Sulman (best "subject painting, genre painting or mural project by an Australian artist") and the Wynne (best "landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours, or for the best example of figure sculpture by an Australian artist").

This year, it's more than just Kathryn Del Barton's 'mother picture'. It's more than Sam Leach's Hitler pose. It's more than the Packer's Prize. And it's more than the Heath Ledger portrait of Vincent Fantauzzo.

In the Wynne this year a standout for me is Maria Gorton's Ancient blue, which features a lovely set of deep blue elements: a lost cavern or a remote gorge where animals go to die.

In the Sulman there's Vilma Bader's Home brewed. She's doing a masters at Sydney Uni having completed a bachelor's at the National School of Art. I choose this one because it's a set of painted book jackets, mounted on the wall. I would love to list the titles included. The work taps into a long-running debate about an indigenous literature (is it being taught enough in schools and universities - this is one aspect of the public debate).

Also in the Sulman is Dallas Bromley's revolutionary The morning after - the party's over, which is done in what I learn is a signature style. This is compulsively Romantic, genre-based, and determinedly figurative.

That's Bromley's work at the top of this post. This one, named The Constant Adventurer, reminds me of the tunnel scene in Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is part of the narrative of the stalker Charles Kinbote. It has to do with the king in prison following the revolution in the northern country that is Kinbote's birthplace.

Lucy Culliton's Hartley landscape - cactus garden continues the figurative mode preferred (these days). It is full of a forceful red colour, which frames the pale green cacti of the name.

Also worthy of note are two works by James Powditch, both assemblages using rulers, pages from books, stamps, squares of wood and slats of wood laid horizontally to create a rich and retro effect. One is Superpower - made in Japan (Sulman). The other is Pulp - show us your map of Tassie II (Wynne).

Including the latter in the Wynne stretches the prize definition a bit, but his sleek assurance demands recognition. Which he has got from me.

Finally, a word about Leslie Rice's Quartered, drawn and hung: Adam Cullen on public display. Cullen is a 'controversial' artist, it seems. Rice's very dark pieces show body parts because in the old days it was customary for criminals convicted of serious crimes to be hung, drawn and quartered. Most people do not immediately acknowledge what this procedure entailed.

Rice gives the procedure contemporary relevance (possibly Sam Leach felt a similar sensation after his work was pilloried by a Jewish community spokesman).

It's also useful to note that Rodney Pople (who had a work showing in each prize, including the fantastic North South runway, Sydney airport (Wynne)) expressed a similar idea in his Archibald entry (Art is what you can get away with - self portrait) which uses the famous 'shooting' painting of Goya (circa 1814) to make a point about the public sphere in Australia.

Sunday 30 March 2008

The First Stone, Helen Garner's 1995 look at a sexual harrassment case that took place following events at an elite Melbourne university college (Ormond), is, says Fiona Giles, "a map of ambivalence". However, its reception is best described as 'polarising' (and this happened along pretty predictable social lines).

Giles, who teaches journalism, also points out that the reception of the case, in the public sphere, was early predictable, especially to "the two young women".

Garner's book was "too complex" for journalism. This is astute, and Garner repeatedly signals her awareness of this (in terms of a failure of journalism, and especially the courts) in the book.

Garner's book is most interesting as a map of ambivalence, however inappropriate that might have been as a response to the two student's painful circumstances. Unfortunately, her ambivalence shifted into a simpler oppositional mode under the weight of its reception, and debate rapidly polarised. Her written response was too complex to survive translation into journalism, a danger that the two young women seem to have realised long before Garner when they chose not to speak out. The First Stone is an abjectly personal and painfully honest confessional narrative.

Possibly the details of the events described in the book are too well known to require adumbration here. It is the two words I've put in bold type (above) that interest me most.

The Ormond master (named by Giles, but referred to by Garner as Colin Shepherd) could not find work because of the press exposure. He was too tainted. In this light, the girls' unwillingness to come forward and talk with Garner, is easily understandable. At the start of their careers, things said in such a book could easily be 'misconstrued'.

Especially where the issue is so highly polarised. How could you know how a prospective employer, for example, would take the meaning of a comment casually made? As in the case of Garner's later book, Joe Cinque's Consolation, the main players refused to speak.

This is part of the nature of the public sphere. In the book, Garner often talks about a 'war' (rather than, for example, a 'public debate').

A Green Left article on the book (which is still online after ten years) criticises Garner for criticising the two young women for going to the police (in preference to a less forthright, internal step), saying they were just availing themselves of laws made for such purposes.

But Garner has a point. Up to a point. The 'fundamentalist' label she uses is to be expected, if we agree (as one reviewer states) that women are still "an oppressed people". It is necessary to ask 'what is the alternative?' when blaming committed feminists for their sharp views.

On the other hand, recent changes in fashion and the relentless 'democratisation' of culture demonstrate a greater ease, among young women, with responsibilities vis a vis their rights as equal citizens as well as sexual animals. In Garner's subtitle ('some questions about sex and power') lie avenues that recent adults could profitably explore.

In fact, Joe Cinque's Consolation can be held up as a sequel to The First Stone. (The weekend Spectrum includes an interview with Garner, on the occasion of the publication of a new book, The Spare Room - quite a different cause.)

While feminism continues to be an issue in the media, other ones (climate change, national security) are more prominent. Racism, too, could be addressed as an 'issue', in light of the Camden protests against the building of a Muslim school.

Garner may also be planning another book soon. Susan Wyndham notes that "Garner interrupted work on another nonfiction book about a murder case".

This may be the Diane Brimble case. If it is, then her main thread (how do women and men live together?) will continue into a third book.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Demolishing the Cahill Expressway has been mooted for a generation. Converting George Street into a pedestrian mall similar to Martin Place has been done in Melbourne. Now, Clover Moore has taken advantage of a slow news week to spruik plans that would make her as well-known as Joe Cahill, the NSW premier who launched the Opera House.

The Sydney Morning Herald has given over a two-page spread as well as half of the front page to Sydney redevelopment plans. The fault lies with ex-prime minister Paul Keating, who on the weekend hit the papers to tell planners to keep their hands off the Opera House.

They were looking at the idea of building a new concert hall nearby on Botanical Gardens ground. Today, Joyce Morgan has added words by the Herald's architecture reporter, Elizabeth Farrelly, to those of livable city pundit Jan Guhl.

Guhl was frequently in the news late last year blaming automobiles for Sydney's perennial malaise: overcrowding. It's true, though. Over the Easter break I visited the central business district (CBD) and, with a friend, sauntered about taking in the various architectural styles on show, many dating from before WWII.

In addition to the glabrous General Post Office building (now a hotel), and the Commonwealth Bank building at 5 Martin Place, there are some striking examples of Art Deco modernism. Possibly the best is 44 Martin Place (the Henry Davis York building, formerly the MLC building).

'Inter-war art deco' is the label attached to the headquarters of law firm Henry Davis York, which is owned by a Lend Lease subsidiary. MLC stands for Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Co. There is virtually no information online about this lovely structure, although the National Library holds a drawing that is an "alternative design" dated 1937 by photographer Sam Hood.

On the front of the building as it currently stands, facing Martin Place, is a figure on one bent knee holding a faggot. It is the same faggot that Mussolini used for warplane wings and flags following his switch from Communism to Fascism. In fact, the 'fascio' of the political system's name means 'faggot' in Italian.

The company was created in 1908 when the Citizens' Life Assurance Co (founded in 1886 by Irishman James Patrick Garvan, a friend of notorious toymaker and politician Henry Parkes) merged with the Mutual Life Association of Australia.

Garvan came to the colony in 1847. As an associate of Parkes he belonged to the class then referred to as the 'middling sort'. Parkes was vociferous against the resumption of transportation and was thus against William Charles Wentworth, a major sheep grazier.

The faggot is interesting, fitting within the tendency of the then-style of stripped classicism. Nevertheless, dating from the period immediately prior to hostilities in Europe, the symbolism is curious.

Parkes and his ilk were eager to slough off the 'taint' of convict history and tried to make themselves respectable.

It was an aspirational trend that inhered in the middle classes - the tradesmen, small traders, manufacturers, and lesser businessmen of Sydney. Among other things, they hoped that a self-sustaining economy would reduce the power of the squatters, whose Whiggish politics was already looking dated.

The 'new men' were the heralds of future growth. But one cannot just shuck off the notion that their desire for a 'healthy' and 'virile' society lent itself rather easily to interpretations we, now, tend to overlook.

Isobel Crombie's book, revewed here recently, is instructive. Intent on improving the 'race' and preventing 'degraded' folk (especially Irish ones) from coming to Australia, the ideas of the middle classes verge on being seen as some sort of (admittedly relatively benign) ethnic cleansing.

The building is an enduring illustration of many ideas Crombie develops in her book on the photographer Max Dupain.

After slouching around Martin Place, we visited the Museum of Sydney, near Circular Quay. As well as photojournalism exhibits (some very nice pieces by Trent Parke and his wife, Narelle Autio) they've got a permanent, interactive kiosk where you can hear the 'real' voices of early subjects. And see their faces, as 'imagined' by conservators.

Among them is a 'conservative amateur historian'. What you do, if you want to see him, and the others, is select two characters and listen to a pre-recorded conversation with a video component. Listening to this character discuss the 'realpolitik' of colonialism is to experience the disgust of the inner-city elites expressed in concrete form.

According to the caption under his (unfortunately) florid face, the man is convinced of the superiority of Western culture. This of course is WRONG.

Naturally eminent figures such as Parkes would agree with the amateur historian. But it is unfortunate that contemporary politics ("I never read Quadrant" etc) should cloud our understanding of what, in reality, is the emergence of a significant democracy.

As to whether Australia has its own 'style' of democracy, I'll need to read more. I think that Clover Moore would agree with the kiosk's authors. I wonder what Joe Cahill thought?

Monday 24 March 2008

Louisa Waugh's Selling Olga (2006) chronicles human sex trafficking. Near the end of the book she quotes a figure: over a three-year period it was estimated that 15,000 women and girls had been trafficked "through" the Balkans.

The most startling news concerns a sudden influx of trafficked females in the wake of the UN's entry into Kosovo as part of its remit to restore stability to Serb-controlled regions. Kosovo quickly became a prime destination for the women.

Many are from Moldova, a small ex-Soviet-bloc state that borders the Black Sea. Waugh visits Moldova as well as Kosovo. She also spends time investigating British responses to human trafficking. It is here that she discusses issues that came to light in Sydney recently with arrests linked to Korean sex slaves operating out of a city apartment building.

The outcome of the investigation by Sydney police is yet to be fully covered by the metropolitan press. It was common knowledge, during my media study last year, that investigating coerced sex workers in the Kings Cross district would be perilous for a journalist.

Hopefully new stories will emerge. In the meantime, Waugh's book notes that the business has developed and become more professionalised. She says that Italian mafia are involved. Also, a new trend is for ex-slaves to become pimps and traffickers themselves.

This is, she says, an ideal way to control information, as recruitment and economic benefits are well-suited to securing complicity. And silence.

In Britain, she says, a major area of need is how human trafficking should be handled: as an immigration issue or as a human rights issue. For the most part, the women victims are willing to help secure convictions (the participation of victims is key to prosecutorial success).

In other cases, they do not want to be 'helped' because it could mean retribution (for themselves or their families). And because the immigration issue has yet to be fixed, the likelihood of repatriation deters many from assisting in investigations.

Temporary shelters have been set up in London, but the number of beds is not adequate, says Waugh. There are moreover 450,000 undocumented workers in the Isles, she says, and so a less draconian response to the presence of an 'illegal' living onshore is required. The alternative is that sex workers, who were desperate to leave impoverished conditions back home, will not come forward, or will not help government agencies stop their 'bosses'.

Waugh spent three years working on this, her second, book. The first, Hearing Birds Fly: A Year in a Mongolian Village was published in 2003. While writing and researching Selling Olga, Waugh worked part-time in a mental-health unit.

This is literary journalism at its best. Adding colour (she even recounts a far-off fling with a handsome man she met - or, at least, hints strongly at this) serves her ultimate purpose well. The 'colour' facilitates delivery of otherwise dry facts. It also serves to cement facts in the reader's mind.

Travelling on the cheap meant staying in the houses of friends or of people she met who were associated with her research. There are many interesting 'characters' in this book. Most of them are female.

There are some horror stories too. But the main element of interest - UN peacekeeping forces contained men who both had sex with, and trafficked, vulnerable women - should give us all pause. Official moves for change have started. The main concern is, she says, that many soldiers who conducted themselves dishonourably escape any trial in their home countries. They already have immunity from prosecution in the target country under the UN charter.

Recent post-election disturbances in Kenya led to a TV documentary about women raped as a result of a sudden break-out of lawlessness. Some were interviewed on-camera. Some were not young. Some were very young.

When laws are inadequate and when authorities sell compliance to the monied criminals, those who cannot help themselves get hurt, says Waugh.

The ultimate solution, it seems, is ensuring political stability and so securing prosperity in struggling (mostly small) nations. You sort of wonder about Fiji, too.
Truman Capote's first Soviet piece, written for The New Yorker, which paid his costs (he left for the Continent in December 1955), came by way of a drama contact, Harold Arlen (pictured). According to Gerald Clarke's biography, Capote had wanted to try journalism for some time, and Arlen's suggestion was an ideal reason to begin.

Arlen had worked with Capote on some of his unsuccessful drama works. Capote does not chronicle the genesis of the piece, which covers ninety pages in A Capote Reader, and swings, instead, into third gear from the word dot.

At first, the piece feels raw and undisciplined. The number of 'characters' (members of the drama troupe and associated staff) is excessive, so it is virtually impossible to keep track of who says what.

This holds true even after the Americans arrive in St Petersburg (Leningrad at the time). But Capote does not insist on any cultural or racial stereotypes, instead relaying exactly (he insisted at the time of writing In Cold Blood that he had over 90 per cent recall) what was said.

Who says things is less important than the kind of things said. In the case of the Americans, there's a lot of flippant banter. Much of this has to do with stereotypes, some of which turn out simply to be the truth. The poverty of the city, the possibility of surveillance, the freezing cold - these things become fact.

The magic Capote weaves derives from his making them exist as truths, proven and delivered without fanfare or gross compliments to his native country.

The sincere pleasure the performance of Porgy and Bess (first performed in 1935, and with music by George Gershwin) gives the Soviet audience is tempered by Capote's shrewd reading of audience responses. At the critical moment, Capote is awake to the nuances that applause, or lack of it, carried.

It is a tour-de-force or literary journalism, and forshadows (in its assured movement from standstill to full speed) the triumph of the book he would write in the following decade, and which would alter him forever. The piece ends at the end of the first performance; this 'jump cut' in prose gives gravitas to what came before.

It was, quite literally, a voyage into the unknown, a kind of Columbus moment in American cultural history. A similar moment may have recently occurred, when the New York Philharmonic toured North Korea, performing in Pyongyang to an audience that was subsequently viewed, on TV, by millions of people worldwide.

A major difference in that case is the size of the entourage: 80 journalists went on tour on the peninsula, according to The New York Times. Daniel Wakin, the paper's reporter, calls it an "updated version of ping-pong diplomacy". A similar thing happened, he says, in the 1970s with Maoist China. There is no mention of Capote's tour.

This is a shame. Regardless, the fact that the iron curtain fell only forty years after Capote drank in the grimy backstreets of Nabokov's home town with a man who spoke fluent English and admired one of the troupe, the woman named 'Nancy' in The Muses Are Heard, must give us pause.

Another thing that Capote does is to render in detail things many would either forget or deem unimportant, such as the goings on of 'Delicous' Swann and her puppy Twerp, or those of the state-appointed translator, Miss Lydia. This fine attention to ephemeral detail grants significant affect to what could so easily have been a form of journalistic crusade: the sophisticated Americans bringing 'high' culture to an oppressed people.

Nevertheless, Capote does not shy away from telling stories both countries may have preferred left untold. The events surrounding Stefan Orlov, for example, are quite curious. "A man in his late thirties, clean-shaven, dignified, an athletic figure with a scholar's face," he took a fance to Nancy (Miss Ryan - the old-fashioned title is touching), and sort of followed the troup around.

Capote dined with Orlov in the Hotel Europa before following him off the Nevsky Prospekt (St Petersburg's Champs Elysees) and continuing the drinking in "a workingman's place". But is his initial picture of Orlov tempered by what came later? We cannot know.

Earlier, Capote had fronted the 'real' Russia during a break in the train trip across Eastern Europe. At Brest Livosk, The Blue Train stopped to have its bogeys replaced so that the train could continue running on the Soviet Union's larger-gauge rails. Capote and Nancy alighted and went looking for refreshment (the arrangements on board left much to be desired, it is quickly clear).

They go through "a small red door" into "an extraordinary restaurant" where they are seated with a drunk and another man, who they think to be Russian. They order beer in the absence of stronger liquor and start discussing their companions, one of whom leaves in disgust (they later learn).

The other man turns out to be a Norwegian timber merchant who, in fluent English, tells them a lot about contemporary Russia:

Whenever I go to your country ... it always strikes me that Americans are the only people who remind me of Russians. You don't object to my saying that? Americans are so generous. Energetic. And underneath all that brag they have such a wishing to be loved, they want to be petted, like dogs and children, and told that they are just as good and even better than the rest of us. Well, Europeans are inclined to agree with them. But they simply won't believe it. They go right on feeling inferior and far away. Alone. Like Russians. Precisely.

Whether this episode really took place, is something that (since the writer is dead these twenty years) we can only guess at.

I like to think it is a true account. If so, it is a stupendous find, something only an artist could be either lucky enough, or generous enough, to discover. Even just the fact of soliciting such sentiments from an aberrant stranger in a nothing dive in an unknown part of an invisible city - this shows real talent.

The same talent would serve Capote well in his conversations with Perry Smith a few years (published in 1966, In Cold Blood took almost ten years to write) later. With Smith Capote felt on sure ground. He identified a sophisticated intellect but one that had been oppressed by early experiences to hate the world. Smith found no purchase, using his mind, in the cliff-face of his childhood. By the time he matured, it was already too late.

Capote revisited Moscow after deciding, in 1957 (a year after returning from Russia), to write a piece about "the pampered, privileged, and thoroughly Westernized young people he had met in Moscow". He started research for the piece but broke off to go to Europe, as he usually did each year. Returning to New York, Breakfast At Tiffany's was in the shops.

In early 1959 he returned to Moscow for more research, wrote 40 pages, but then told his publisher, William Shawn, that to publish would bring state-sanctioned violence to the homes of his subjects.

It is possible that it was published in The Dogs Bark (1973) as the current volume is said (Wikipedia) to contain "most" of Capote's non-fiction. I will reconnoitre (to borrow a military metaphor) and try to find it.

It would make great reading, I'm sure.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Milan Kundera's Identity is, like other novels by the same author, a little gem full of wisdom (and the kind of wisdom that seems to have practical application in the mode of the every-day).

One beautiful piece of novelistic exegesis is in Jean-Marc's description of what friendship means, nowadays. It is, he says, purely for the purpose of what he calls "polishing the mirror". A friend can no longer do much for us, but what they can do is bear witness (he doesn't use this slightly hackneyed phrase) to our past. They are necessary "for the proper function of our memories".

The old type of friendship (which Jean-Marc says he has always wanted above anything else) is the kind shared by Dumas' three musketeers. In the modern world, you are more likely to get help from "someone anonymous, invisible, a social-service outfit, a consumer watchdog organisation, a law firm".

For Jean-Marc, "friendship was proof of the existence of something stronger than ideology, than religion, than the nation". The mistake Jean-Marc makes is to infuse his romantic attachment to Chantal, with friendship.

It almost destroys the relationship. Or perhaps it does. It's impossible to know, in this novel, where the individual's identity is always being filtered through the lens of someone else's. In the intertwining of their distinct personal narratives (the thing that proves you exist, because it makes sense only to you) the people in the book generate a lot of light.

And some heat. But Kundera, who has made romantic philosophy his trademark, is accustomed to handling the little brush fires that erupt when things don't go as planned. In this way, a book by Kundera seems, ineluctably, to resemble life.

And this is why we still read him, despite the fact that he's been around for as long as anyone under the age of sixty can remember. Kundera is one of the great 'stayers' of modernism. A beacon always shinging bright. A shield against the impoverishing imperatives of consumer culture, where the thing that was popular yesterday is popular tomorrow (due to the corrosive effects of retro-culture).

I particularly liked the scene in this novel that takes place in the Eurostar - the underground train linking France with its ancient nemesis, England. It's the last scene that makes much sense. After this, it's into the realms of Le Grand Meaulnes (a book I seem to keep coming back to in my mind, despite the fact that I've not read it since high school).
In Andrew Hutchinson's Rohypnol (the title is the name of a notorious date-rape drug), the keen flicker of brutally-short sentences in the opening - and which continues for much of the book's length - is replaced, after the arrests begin, by lyrical, multi-clause sentences.

Hutchinson is astute. His novel is about, several chapters tell us, The New Punk. This cute label disguises, the author tells us, a ferocious reality, a reality grounded in the always-on Internet with its spectacular mountain of porn (for all tastes; visible pubic hair is, now, an exotic feature in some sites).

It also draws strength from the strenuous quest for wealth. Who has not heard about mortgage stress, and too-high entry prices on property in the capital cities, its entry-level concommittant?

Money is available to the boys in the novel. They have access to plenty, and no need for parental assistance in this area. They despise their overworked and under-cultured parents, so there is no effective role model. They are dogs off the leash.

Where they roam is around Melbourne's clubs and pubs. Recent months have brought news in metropolitan centres of convictions where men without the patience or drive to score using legitimate means, force themselves on unsuspecting females. Rohypnol is a worst-case scenario.

But, then again, we're all aware of the Bilal Skaf rampage. His victim, Tegan Wagner, has even published a book about her experiences. There's also the case of Dudley Mark Aslett (uncle) and Steven James Aslett (nephew). The two men entered an apartment in Newington (the suburb created out of the Sydney Olympic Village), tied up the Chinese parents of a 16-year-old girl, and raped her.

"I read the news today, oh boy..." There are some echoes in Rohypnol pointing to other rapes and occupations (possibly the European settlement of New South Wales) but they do not survive a first reading. This suggests to me that Hutchinson is still developing.

In a recent movie, Lust, Caution (based on the 1979 novella by Eileen Chang), marquee film desperado Ang Lee develops themes of occupation and deceit by focusing his attention squarely on the story of underground operative Mrs Mak (Tang Wei) and detested Japanese collaborator Mr Yee (Tony Leung).

In the film, Lee extends the dominant themes of occupation, deceit and desire from the domestic (the sexual affair between gorgeous Mrs Mak and powerful Mr Yee) to the political (Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s). Even individual scenes of lovemaking are redolent with notions that bleed across the boundary between the two spheres: the domestic bleeds into the political, and vice versa.

But in Hutchinson's book, the salient concept (The New Punk) remains restricted to a series of encounters between the young men (boys really) and the women they target. It is a purely urban affair.

This is a shame. On the other hand, the use of the name Uncle for one of the men seems to point directly to the Newington crimes.

Another great movie that goes further than Hutchinson does is Craig Monahan's 1998 The Interview, in which a suspect is interrogated by police for hours until, finally, he is released. As in Hutchinson's work, we know he was involved (deeply involved).

As in Hutchnson's book, too, we grow to like the culprit, despite knowing he has introduced terrible brutality to innocent victims.

Perhaps the ghost of Ned Kelly and the haunting refrain from Waltzing Matilda have infected our collective imagination to the extent that we, by default, sympathise with the criminal. "Australians all let us rejoice / For we are young and free..."

Wednesday 19 March 2008

In response to the Lhasa rioting ('An Intense Longing for An Unequivocal Truth') and the second-plus-a-bit anniversary of the Cronulla riots ('Her Place Among the Virile Races of the Earth'), I submit for reader enjoyment two photomontage pieces dated this month.

An Intense Longing for An Unequivocal Truth: Photomontage, March 2008

Catalogue of contents (photos are numbered according to order of appearance, beginning at top-left)


Hilary Swank in character for a promotional photo for 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004, dir Clint Eastwood), with film review in The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 2005.


New Canterbury Road, 15 July 2007, 6.27pm.


Illustration by Jim Woodring, published with a review by Paul Bibby in The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 2007. Woodring was in Sydney for a spoken word performance at The Studio, Sydney Opera House.


Spectators at a gay rights rally, mid-1980s, opposite St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst Road.


Shanghai residents flock to the Bund in recognition of the handover of the former colony of Hong Kong (now labelled a special administrative region by the Communist Party) to The People's Republic of China, 21 July 1997.


While working with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, in 1951 Madge Dean, my great-aunt, takes her summer holidays in Hong Kong and Singapore. She sails on the Empire Pride to Hong Kong harbour.

"Liz and I were taken on a drive through New Territories," writes Madge, "as close as one can go to Communist China. The Chinese peasant women resented having their picture taken, and I had to sneak up on these to get those strange hats, with the black cloth drapery."


'Lhasa streets tense', BBC News website, Sunday 16 March 2008. Photo caption: “Tibetan sources say that as many as 80 people were killed during the unrest, though Chinese authorities said just 10 people had died.” On Tuesday 18 March 2008, the evening news includes a segment on Hu Jintao, who gives one press conference each year. This year, the Chinese president (and 'Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China'), chose this day for the event, prompting comments by the broadcast journalist to the effect that the choice of day for the gathering was of interest in itself.


The sketch I made and included, colourised as an overlay, dates from 1989 and is untitled.


Shanghai neighbourhoods empty into the streets as residents celebrate the handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic, 31 July 1997.

Ten & eleven

Bjork, Charles Betz' blog, posted 12 May 2007. Bjork is superimposed onto the East Timorese flag.


'A group of Chinese – From a sketch by our special artist', Illustrated London News, 1861.


Three more photos of gay rights protest, this time on Oxford Street adjacent Taylors Square. Other participants on the day were conservative Christians, such as are visible in the two bottom photos. They also carried banners. The top photo shows two policemen who supervised the event, one of whom is mounted on a horse.


The background colours are an assemblage comprising the Indonesian flag (red and white) and an element (the yellow border on three sides of the image) taken from the Tibetan flag (not currently used in any official way).

Her Place Among the Virile Races of the Earth: Photomontage, March 2008

Catalogue of contents (photos are numbered according to order of appearance, beginning at top-left)


Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.12pm.


Catherine Zeta-Jones photographed at a promotional event in Sydney; photo in The Australian, 11 March 2008.


Commonwealth Park, Canberra, 26 January 2008, 8.08pm.


Eighteen-year-old Mecca Laa Laa, one of 17 Muslims who stepped onto the sand at Cronulla as qualified surf lifesavers in February 2007; she wears a ‘burqini’ which she says “doesn't make me any different”; photo in Middle East Online, 4 February 2007.

Five - thirteen

Twelve-year-old Huda Ghaliya discovers her family has been killed by a bomb blast during a picnic on a beach in Gaza; images from MSNBC website, 19 June 2006.


Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.24pm.


Woolworths ad on Channel Seven, 2 August 2007, 7.05pm.


"Urakami Catholic cathedral was destroyed by the atom bomb, only these portions of the entrance porch standing. A wooden Japanese school is built here now," writes my great-aunt Madge Dean while travelling and photographing Japan in 1949.


Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.04pm.


Canterbury Road, 22 July 2007, 1.18pm.


File photo on Year of the Surf Lifesaver page, SLSA website; caption: “Celebrating 100 years of heroes”.


‘Original 1940's photograph of a young Pacific Islands woman shielding her face,’ purchased on eBay on 4 March 2008.

Twenty one

Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.35pm.

Twenty two

Beatrice Dean (nee Kewish), my grandmother, on a beach near Melbourne in the 1940s.

Twenty three

Beatrice Kewish, her friend Dora, and Bea’s sister Reba Kewish at a beach near Melbourne in the early 1920s.

Twenty four

Beatrice Kewish in the 1920s performing eurhythmics after moving from Leongatha in country Victoria, to Melbourne. Classes took place at the local Presbyterian church. She is about 21 years old.

Twenty five

Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.05pm.

Twenty six

Porn ‘beurette’.

Twenty seven

Bondi Beach, 9 March 2008, 6.07pm.

Twenty eight

Henry Andrews, painting of William Pleater Davidge as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, c.1846, from the Maugham Collection of Shakespearean characters, Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London.

Blue text is from an unpublished personal memoir - ‘Growing’ - by Peter da Silva, 2002.

Yellow text is from a book title, ‘Ils Disent Que Je Suis Une Beurette’ (Paris, Fixot, 2000), by French author Soraya Nini.

Saturday 15 March 2008

Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (2004), recently published in English after becoming a bestseller in Arabic (first published 2002), does not fully deliver on the promise of its title. The building that gives the novel its title is not the main character, nor is it particularly well-delineated.

As a metaphor for the nation state of Egypt, it may appear, at first glance, to give a nicely heterogenous fillip to complexity - different classes of people are depicted in the book - but the thematic demands of Aswany's individual narratives dominate to such an extent that the building-as-metaphor is subsumed in the clamour of conflict they exhale in our minds.

In fact, the list of complaints Aswany levels at his society is not entirely novel for a Western reader. The book, however, is a page-turner and because Aswany is in control of his characters and the situations they get into, we feel happy to read without stopping, knowing that the author is in command of his material.

Unfortunately, we are able to say that The Yacoubian Building is a 'must-read' for any student of the Levant, of the Third World, or of history. Because art takes second place to polemic. In this way, I feel that the novel is a valid exponent of the 19th century novel of ideas.

A particular failure in this sense is Aswany's inability to delineate the reason for Dawlat's frenzy. Zaki's sister turns, at some point in her maturity, into a harridan but we do not know why. The ethical conclusion of the book - inherent in the final scenes with Zaki and Busayna - seems to coruscate Dawlat but we are not told why she became that way.

Empathy is the particular province of the novel and Aswany's failure to do justice to Dawlat is signal for me. His rendering of Taha's trajectory from eager police conscript to something far more dangerous, is a tonic developing nations with large Muslim populations should 'take on board'.

Taha's story is probably the most striking of the lot, and echoes that of Shalimar in Salman Rusdhie's Shalimar the Clown (2005).

Equally problematic, from a Modernist point of view, is the story of Hatim the homosexual newspaper editor. This story is very interesting in the way it taps into the rich stream of Western gay fiction (I was partiularly mindful of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends (1975)).

But Egyptian sexual sensibilities are more fully illustrated in those peripheral scenes where the topic is discussed casually among neighbours and between friends.

It is impossible to end the book with any other impulse than a wish for the author to continue writing engaged and relevant books about a culture we never, or rarely, see. But I would qualify this by hoping that this medical doctor (who obviously has lived with leisure for a long time) would look deeper.

There are still things to say about Islam that most, including Aswany, shy away from articulating. This is dangerous, as a full understanding of the psychological and aesthetic imperatives behind radical Islam is required to adequately address its consequences.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, for example, if someone wrote a book about the similarities between wahabism and the Puritan ethos of the 17th-century Commonwealthmen? Perhaps a Muslim student living in England could be studying history.

As part of his education, he investigates the reasons for radical Christianity from the Middle Ages to the end of the Renaissance. Where would his sympathies lie? How does he react to the flippant hedonism of middle-class English boys?

Thursday 13 March 2008

Isobel Crombie's Body Culture (2004) takes its cue from the career of Australia's most famous modernist photographer, Max Dupain. The subtitle indicates the area of interest: 1919 to 1939.

In this twenty-year period ideas about race that had existed in Western culture since the Darwinian revolution, manifested themselves with increasing frequency.

Their ultimate expression would appear in Germany under the influence of democracy in the ideology of Germany's National Socialist Party headed by Adolph Hitler. It may be surprising for many Australians to recognise similarities in 1930s imagery published in, say, Berlin and Melbourne, but it's a fact.

Crombie, who now works as a curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, developed the book from a doctoral thesis. Now is a good moment in Australia's history - a $20,000 compensation package is being debated this week in the Senate to redress wrongs perpetrated by dead generations on aborigines - to revisit her work.

The photos here are of my grandmother, Beatrice (nee Kewish) Dean, who is dead these past decades. In fact her daughter, my mother, is now in her late seventies. According to mum, the leftmost photo is of Bea in her late forties at a beach near Meblourne. The centre photo shows Bea with Dora, a friend, and Reba, Bea's sister, in the early twenties.

The rightmost photo shows Bea in the 1920s performing eurhythmics after moving from Leongatha in country Victoria, to Melbourne. Classes took place at the local Presbyterian church. She is about 21 years old.

In her book, Crombie provides plenty of guidance to a reading of any of these photos. The 'vitalist' tendency in Australian culture after WWI found expression in such activities as eurhythmics and beach culture. The epitome of this latter in the photographic record is photos of surf lifesaving, a movement born in Australia in the first decade of last century.

Tied to ideas about physical culture and its importance for personal wellbeing and happiness was the bizarre notion that doing things like weight lifting and farming would protect the health of the 'race'. In Crombie's book, the 'Australian race' is frequently (and quaintly) referred to.

Another bizarre (and, we now know, completely false) idea was the notion that miscegenation (marriage between ethnic groups) led to the weakening of the 'race'. Now we know that miscegenation strengthens the gene pool because it combines unlike elements: less opportunity for genetic diseases.

Dupain's father George was deeply involved in both body culture (he operated one of the country's first gyms in the Manning Building, near Central Station) and eugenics. In fact, most of the elite at that time believed in eugenics, including many scientists and doctors.

Norman Lindsay's ideas about physical culture would dovetail, here, for any reader wanting to look into it. Lionel, Norman's son, was a straight-out Nazi. Both father and son, and others, like Dupain pere, who took an interest in eugenics, looked to Nietsche for inspiration.

But the story is not so simple. Crombie also points to writers such as John Cowper Powys and D. H. Lawrence. These men had strong ideas about the spiritual side of life in the industrial age. Their ideas also work on such later writers as Henry Miller, who tried to reconcile ideas about the productive capacity of the West and its (apparent) spiritual decline.

Narratives of decline are age-old, however. Crombie does not point to earlier eras when changes in society due to increasing wages caused disturbances, especially among the elite, who had most to lose from changes in social structures and patterns of cultural production. The 18th century is replete with members 'of the better sort' moaning about a weakening social fabric.

Somehow we have, in the first half of last century, a concern with the baleful effects of city living. Eugenics, eurhythmics, vitalism and other such artefacts are due, I believe, to fear of the unknown. Especially, the loss of credibility of the monotheistic god of the Christians.

A similar thing is happening, now, in the Islamic world. The cult of the martyr seems, to me, to hold a similar appeal for Muslims as, during the period Crombie studies, the lifesaver held for Australians.

A final comment is due, I think, because of our lamentation at the so-called 'stolen generations'. The eugenic ideas of our forbears (who held that aborigines were closer to the same 'root' in humanity's developmental tree as Europeans; ie Europeans were 'more developed') remain in precisely the sector most vocal in support of Prime Minister Rudd: the Left intelligentsia.

How many non-Anglo-Celt names are there in politics, the arts, and journalism? It is in these areas (95 per cent Anglo, by any measure) that work still needs to be done. The Left's cries at Howard's declaration speech ring hollow, for me, because these people refuse - through culture bias and bullying in the form of silent agreements - equal opportunity for the 30 per cent of Australia's population that was not born here.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Photomontage requires a lot of free time if the files you use are large. Because a mistake can be costly, you need to be able to transform a finished draft at leisure. A bad decision can result in lost data, which may have taken hours, days or even months to collect and assemble.

It is necessary to wait for each processing delay to complete before moving away from the computer monitor. A single lapse in concentration - unless you write down what you've just done and what remains to do - can result in disaster.

The Burwood Road combo here is made of a street photo taken in Burwood (4 November 2007), and of traffic along New Canterbury Road (15 July 2007). There is also one of traffic signals on Victoria Road, Top Ryde (2 September 2007).

Other images include television news stories and one scan from a printed news story:

  • Arrest of Kaihana Hussain on the Gold Coast, The Australian photo published 1 November 2006
  • Today Tonight (Channel Seven) story on, and interview with, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (visiting for Sydney Writers' Festival), 30 May 2007
  • Channel Seven News story on underwear-maker Bonds' spring fashions, 2 August 2007

Painting clips:

  • The Torture of Prometheus (1819), Jean-Louis-Cesar Lair
  • Three studies from the Temeraire (1998-99), Cy Twombly
  • [sic] (1988), Juan Davila

There are also three Internet download photos:

  • Samantha Harris, aboriginal model
  • 'Anna' porn model (photo taken 5 August 2002)
  • AFP photo of Carnival, Rio de Janeiro (in The Sunday Age, 22 May 2005)

The second montage constitutes photos taken at Westfield Burwood's carpark on 4 November 2007.

This picture is relatively straight-forward and will always seem, for me, slightly contrived. I attempted to create movement using arrows painted on the carpark floor and lines made from other vehicle guidance elements applied to the concrete pavement immediately after the building's construction.

For me, the contrast between the pristine shop access lobby and the various spilled drinks, chewing-gum blotches and assorted rubbish discarded by consumers rushing to leave the building after completing their purchases, is signal.

The last picture is made from snaps taken on the evening of 31 December 2007. The location, as is clear, is The Rocks. There is also one taken further south, down Sussex Street, on the edge of Sydney's CBD.

We spent hours mingling with fellow revellers - ourselves revelling in a rich confusion of faces in the crowd of 1.5 million.

There were 1500 police in attendance. The fireworks took a total of about twenty minutes to burn. The first bout started at 9pm and the second immediately before midnight.

In Canberra a month later, we saw Australia Day fireworks off Commonwealth Park, which sits beside Lake Burley Griffin with the National Library, the High Court and the National Gallery distinct on the far shore.

All photos by me were taken with a Canon PowerShot A530 and I assemble the files at the default resolution (with a height of 1944 pixels) that applies when a photo is loaded to the computer.

Each montage in the original Photoshop ('.psp') file format is about one metre square (303MB, 346MB and 228MB respectively). Files loaded here are JPEGs and are much, much smaller (121KB, 112KB and 58KB respectively).

Saturday 8 March 2008

Capote comatose taken from the Manhattan apartment he lived in is just part of the picture missing from the 2006 film, Capote, that chronicles but one of the mythical windows of time Gerald Clarke recounts (and interprets) in his engaging 1988 biography.

Just before the closing credits we read that Capote wrote no books following publication of In Cold Blood, his "non-fiction novel". The story is endlessly more complex than this brief and sentimental note implies, and Clarke's book is a good source for the curious.

One element contributing to the author's decline - the lengthy series of appeals and hearings in various courts culminating in the hangings - is not highlighted. And it should be. I think that part of the problem Capote had was that his creative act was severely interfered with by delays he didn't control.

In essence the book took over his life. Which makes his early prediction that it would change the way people wrote particularly poignant. Despite the knowledge that the book would change his life, he could not predict all the ways it would do so.

A quibble - the film is very nice, if overly enthusiastic about its subject - is that Capote did not invent literary journalism. John Hershey's Hiroshima (also written for The New Yorker, and published there) is just one in a viable English-language tradition that may be traced back to Daniel Defoe (Lay-Man's Sermon upon the Late Storm appeared in 1704).

A film can never more than approximate a book, even a work of non-fiction such as Clarke's biography. But here we have the opportunity to see how a writer can be perceived by his or her conationals.

Striking is the fact that Harper Lee and Capote grew up next door to each other in the same Alabama town. Lee, who is still alive, also never wrote another book. To Kill A Mockingbird, which deals with the inmates of an insane asylum, remains her only publication.

America's love-affair with Hoffman-Capote seems to have completed its honeymoon phase. The actor is onto other things and the writer is at peace with his personal deities. Yet at least we are encouraged to read the other books of a truly talented writer.

A personal note in favour of Capote is that he never relinquished his step-father's name despite earnest lobbying by his biological father. The Cuban may have been responsible for a point of future conspiracy for those desirous of rapprochement between the two countries.

Castro is out of the seat of power but Mr Capote will always find a seat at the table that is kept for American men and women of letters, with an offering of pride placed before each of their constructed images. In the film Capote shows Perry Smith a copy of Thoreau's Walden saying, in effect, that like Smith and like Capote himself, the nineteenth-century New Englander was always an outsider.

It is a pity that this vignette, with powerful links to an American dream of entitlement, cannot help many, especially the young (and especially those young men who routinely take revenge on an uncaring society by shooting dead random individuals placed in proximity to their moments of casual violence).

Capote's tears near the end of the film do not seem to fall fast enough to catch the attention of the American media.

Friday 7 March 2008

Del Kathryn Barton's mother picture "beats Heath ledger picture" opines a mendacious sub at The Sydney Morning Herald.

And the journo at the gallery managed to corner a (clearly bored-stiff) Edmund Capon for the requisite sound-bite, during which the doyen of Asian art allowed it was likely that a decision in favour of the actor's portrait could have been seen as a stunt.

But did this sway the judges? I hope not.

Barton, an extraordinarily aticulate brusher, whose lively voice I caught while waiting for a friend to do some pressing business in Quay Street, is a decent choice.

The best, in my opinion, was by painter Hong Fu (one of eight with Chinese names among the finalists).

It is of Dr Joseph Brown, "who arrived in Melbourne as a 14-year-old Jewish refugee with his impoverished father and five siblings" (according to The Age, 11 May 2004), and who "ended up with doctorates from three universities and an art collection worth $60 million".

But Barton, one of whose drawings I enjoyed last year at another AGNSW exhibition, is something of a flavour-of-the-month. Her works sell for six figures. Despite the wealth, she sounded excited to have won the Archibald Prize.

Sebastian Smee, in The Australian (29 February 2008), wrote that Fu's painting "has real presence". I delightfully agree. "It uses an array of different descriptive modes to arrive at a portrait that looks traditional but is in fact beguilingly original."

Another stand-out for me is Ben Quilty's Self portrait after Madrid. It's a muscular take on a face otherwise remarkably regular, in a typical Anglo way, and it does not perish in memory.

What struck me in Fu's painting are the fresh 1970s modalities: a gaunt, umber cloud is thrown casually across the back of Dr Brown's head. It contains rich echoes of (for me) byegone days spent fumbling round the galleries in Paddington.

I also love the way Dr Brown's starched collar (remnant of East-European decorum) is mirrored by a polygonal hill (or pyramid) that crisply staples the sitter's rumpled garments to the paving of Fu's bright canvas. This last is a delicious compote of drab greens and burnt browns we recognise in memories of organic abstractions from a lost and benevolent age.

Barton's voice transcript follows.


This is a painting, ever since I became a mother a little over five years ago, that I've been trying to find time to make.

So entering this year's Archibal with a self-portrait as a mother was the perfect excuse to sort of give myself a deadline to make that painting.


The reporter squeezes pathos into a track, segueing from the statement as to Barton's work being "not controversial" to noting that the Heath Ledger one was "painted shortly before he died". It's a clumsy movement from sunshine to the interior of a suburban pub on a Friday night: a locus of clammy cameraderie that I'm sure such as Ledger's family would prefer to overlook.

The implication is that celebrity can cast some of its shine onto visual arts that do not depend on short-term favouritism for an admiration future generations will be unlikely to transfer to cinema icons except with the salty chuckles that will thrive only within a naughties retro rave party.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Xia Tao hijacked a bus "for several hours" threatening to blow it up. He had a bomb strapped to his body. He freed nine of his original hostages but kept a NSW woman and an interpreter hostage before boarding a second bus.

As he approached a toll booth on the way to the airport, the police shot him dead.

Details of the incident are scanty. In today's Sydney Morning Herald, there is no official announcement as to a motive. A "diplomatic source in Beijing", according to the reporter, said that such random violence is commonplace in China.

Only Australian news outlets carried the story. More details emerged today after reporters talked with an Australian businessman who passed the bus and police in a taxi. Nick Hunt is general manager of Nufarm in China.

"The whole area between the toll gate and the bus was swarming with armed uniformed police and paramilitary types with dozen of vehicles," he said.

"The staff manning the toll gate were in a state of near panic and were just waving cars through.

"The actual hijacking was over by that stage and I saw no sign of the hijacker or hostages," the Shanghai-based Mr Hunt, said.

"Actually, the first thing that came to mind was they were making some type of movie, because every second person seemed to have a large video camera and microphone.

"They were doing interviews, filming marching troops in front of the bus and taking general footage of the scene.

"Quite surreal, actually. It wasn't until I got back to Shanghai and accessed foreign media that I found out what had transpired.

A friend who is Chinese says there is no story on the main Chinese-language websites.

Xi'an, a city in the centre of China, is described as in the "north-west" in extant stories. My friend says that anything north of the Yangtze River, for southerners, is northern China. Northerners tend to think of land located to the north of the Yellow River as 'northern China'.

The picture is of hostage Rhiannon Dunkley, of Corowa in NSW. Another picture, also in The Sydney Morning Herald, shows police "recounting the details". They are not "answering questions" is implied in this choice of words.

In the photo below, furthermore, there is nothing to indicate that it was taken in the Xi'an police offices. The sign at the back of the room says, simply, "press conference". "Chinese reporters are scared of these people," says my friend. "They have all the power."

According to the Herald, Xia "reportedly had a grievance with the Xian police (known as the Xian public service bureau or PSB)". In another story, we learn that Xia went to police headquarters "where the police chief exchanged himself for the hostages".

But Dunkley and "Eric" (the interpreter - more obscurity here) were kept by Xia for an unknown number of hours before Xia boarded the second bus. Dunkley was "on an educational tour with Australian travel agency China Bestours" when taken. She works at Corowa Travel Link.

The women were half-way through an "eight-day educational tour of Beijing, Shanghai and Xian". Jimmy Liu, from China Bestours in Sydney, says such tours are common.

Chinese authorities keen to downplay any security risks ahead of the August Olympic Games in Beijing have restricted reporting of the hostage drama and are believed to have seized footage and photographs of the siege in Xian's bustling Bell and Drum Tower square and at the airport.

Chinese officials and security officers also filmed the drama, but have refused to acknowledge or release any material.

None of the material Hunt saw being filmed has been released to the Australian media. On a quiet news day, the Herald gave it two columns at the bottom of the front page, with no photo. The photos here are from the Herald's website.

Coverage in China is scarce. Hua Shang Wang, a website associated with the Xi'an newspaper Hua Shang Bao, ran a story but it contains very little information. Hong Kong vehicle Da Gong Wang has more, but the Herald is more detailed.

The official website of the Xi'an newspaper has no story. Website has almost exactly the same information as the Xi'an vehicles. Not indication of motivation is found.

Don't go looking on the BBC website for a story, either. They have headlined Sydney's mortgage stress, but this story - which is far more significant because it offers a window in the heavy wall of Chinese authoritarianism - gets no run.

Luckily, the Herald has thrown significant resources at the Xia Tao story. I've counted five reporters to date, including China-based (but Melbourne-raised Mary-Anne Toy.

Monday 3 March 2008

The 2MBS book bazaar at Pymble served up a bunch of good things on Sunday. The trip, undertaken while in thrall to raging flu, led to me netting several choice items, including this. Henry M. Stanley's Through the Dark Continent (in one volume, 1879) can be bought for over a thousand dollars through AbeBooks.

My edition is slightly worse for the wear it survived over more than a century in the possession of at least one man, a student of Melbourne's Haileybury College. The headmaster awarded the book for proficiency in Latin and Greek (proving that the traditional disciplines endured as significant elements of secondary education well past the scientific revolution of the mid-1800s).

The book is richly illustrated and includes a map showing the trajectory of the explorers who travelled from the Atlantic coast up the Congo River and across to the Indian Ocean.

Another item is a first edition of Noel Coward's Play Parade (William Heinemann, London, 1934).

The contents page shows the plays included. Like the Stanley book, I intend to sell this. The cover is reasonably stained on spine and is hand-worn at top. The page edges are discoloured with age.

Despite these drawbacks, I think it will net a hundred. Other books in my hoard, which cost me $225, are more likely to remain on one of my many bookshelves. This, despite the fact that several are worth a good deal more than I would normally pay for the privilege of reading the author.

One such is William Styron's first novel, in a first edition, which was published in New York and Indianapolis by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, in 1951. Online listings show a value near US$2000 for a good exemplar. Which this volume most decidedly is, as the picture shows.

The dust jacket is slightly torn but it at least exists. The original owner, or someone who had the book in their collection subsequently, took care to add a plastic wrapper over the paper cover. As a result, the illustration is clear and clean. Which brings me to observe that an author's early books may be better-presented than those which are published in his or her maturity.

Thea Astley, who died in 2004, is a mature Australian author and is, moreover, one I've never read. This is surprising as she won four Miles Franklin awards, including one for The Acolyte (1972).

Another find in my library following Sunday's binge is her 1979 collection of short stories, Hunting the Wild Pineapple. I now have four Astleys in my library. If she's as good as the literati seem to think she is, there is plenty of enjoyment coming my way.

Another school prize book is this one by "the first Australian novelist to gain international recognition", Katherine Suzanna Pritchard, who is another unknown for me. The lovely cover is worth the insignificant purchase price all on its own. I'm sure the girl who received the book (Fiona Watson, 3rd in grade 4A) treasured it for this reason alone.

The final item's cover shows a painting of Barry Humphries by James Fardoulys and it's delightful. A more serious man is seen in Cecil Beaton's photo, which is on the back cover.

This little volume should help keep me away from the DVD counter, where recordings of The Chaser boys are sold. With Bazza in my hands, I have no need for the common man's Media Watch.

Speaking of which, the series started again tonight with Jonathan Holmes, the new host. Clearly Aunty has taken note of accusations of bias from the right-wing print media. Holmes give good face and is far less strident than Monica Attard, who he replaces in the new series.

I suspect the content is much the same, so any alterations are likely purely cosmetic. Possibly that's all the school bullies need to feel wanted. A less threatening opponent may be less likely to cause them to want to rip his head off and mount it on a stick in the public sphere.

Whatever that is.

Sunday 2 March 2008

LibraryThing's interface changes are gradual, like personal knowledge. But before you know it something amazing has occurred.

Or else, it's like waking up (as I did this morning) to find the sneezes and constant nasal evacuations of the previous evening have disappeared. LT regularly has downtime - usually to increase some part of its processing capacity - but the evidence (23 million books catalogued in around two-and-a-half years) shows people don't mind.

I look out the window today at the six-thirty skyline's remote pinpricks of light disappearing in the sub-cloudal grey and relish the vacuity of my sinuses. I am no longer sneezing every two minutes. I am ready for a new day.

LT's member profile page alone has several interesting developments. Some of these are layout changes, which may not be trivial. Changes in layout can potentially enrage a user not expecting them.

Here, the 'tag cloud' and 'author cloud' links have been shifted from the main block to the global navigation that sits just beneath the site nav tabs. And there's a new arrival here too.

The 'recommendations' link takes you to a page where you can use your keywords to generate a list of similar books (similarly tagged) belonging to other members. The accuracy, naturally, depends on the likness of your keywoards to others'.

For example, if I go to the Recommendations page, select 'history' (a keyword of mine) using the drop-down, and click 'non-fiction' next to the 'Similarly-tagged books' label, I get an interesting list of others' holdings:

1. The landmark Thucydides : a comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
387 copies. 7 reviews. Average rating 4.41. Why?
2. Fourteen Byzantine rulers : the Chronographia of Michael Psellus by Michael Psellus
104 copies. 3 reviews. Average rating 4.06. Why?
3. Byzantium : the decline and fall by John Julius Norwich
217 copies. Average rating 4.12. Why?
4. The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan
392 copies. 3 reviews. Average rating 3.97. Why?
5. The Dutch Republic : its rise, greatness and fall, 1477-1806 by Jonathan Israel
97 copies. 1 reviews. Average rating 3.83. Why?

If I click on the word 'why?' next to a listing, LT gives me something like:

Because you own: The History, The History of the Peloponnesian War

I can also click on the link next to 'Special-sauce recommendations' and get:

1. History of Art - Ancient Art by Elie Faure
10 copies. Why?
2. History of Art - Medieval Art ( Trans. by Walter Pach ) by Elie Faure
12 copies. Why?
3. Love, death, and money in the Pays d'oc by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
21 copies. Why?
4. Capitalism in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century by Violet Barbour
9 copies. Average rating 4. Why?
5. The Barbarian West : The Early Middle Ages, A.D. 400-1000 by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill
76 copies. Average rating 3.5. Why?

Hey, this is a lot of fun! Elie Faure was a fave of mine as an undergrad.

My first question? Just how are the lists generated... I find odd, for instance, that there are so many books about ancient and pre-modern history instead of, say, books of twentieth-century history. I would have thought it more likely that LTers would own books about WWII than about the Peloponnesian War. I would have been incorrect.

We do get told why, of course.

Rather than using your own tags—and not everyone uses tags — "Similarly-tagged books" uses the most significant tags applied by the entire LibraryThing community.

As normally happens, a book's ranking is based on frequency: the book that has the most copies in LT matching your keyword, appears at the top. There are other new items, too.

If I then go back to my profile page and click on the 'stats' link in the global nav section, the regular page appears. But there's something new, here, too. A series of book lists below the bar graphs shows famous individuals who owned books of mine.

Alfred Deakin is here, as is Marie Antoinette. Thomas Jefferson sits just above Sylvia Plath. Being in such company adds a certain glamour, not only to my personal book selections, but to books themselves. They gild the lily (which was already a bright shade of pale).

The fleur-de-lis is a recent object of fascination for me. I'm daily tempted to purchase some object with this design as a dominant element, or a cast or carved exemplum.

Speaking in these terms makes me remember how easy it was, yesterday, to burn a CD using Vista. This is because Vista assumes (like the Mac OS before it) that if you copy a file and paste it to a volume loaded to the DVD R/W drive, it means you want to burn a CD.

For this reason today I salute Microsoft, whereas yesterday I damned the company.

The navigator, moreover, is very easy to use. It now has more axes of movement for navigation. Instead of going up and down a tree structure (as you used to do with XP), in Vista you can also shift horizontally between trees. So you can more readily copy a file from a deep location on your hard drive to a temporary drive such as a USB stick.

Speaking of convenience brings me back to the picture on this post. My LT 'work multiples' keep growing because my library has no storage method. If it were alphabetical, I'd see a shorter list. This calls for a complete makeover, but how to find the time!

Saturday 1 March 2008

The photo of Joan Didion was taken by Quintana Roo Dunne, the author's (deceased) daughter, and is unmistakably of Hawaii. Several elements of the narrative of the novel Democracy take place on the island.

In a similar way as we find in the preceding two Didion novels, characters in Democracy move through a privileged space together. It is within this space that we learn facts. But as usual in her work, it is almost impossible to track events. This is because she uses deft clips of conversation to tell most of the story. These are accompanied by recounts so dense we cannot see which stem leads to which flower.

The three novels of Didion's maturity are:

  • Play It As It Lays (1970)
  • A Book of Common Prayer (1977)
  • Democracy (1984)

In my mind the second of these is the moment of greatest effect. Democracy, written 'about' a set of people Didion is well acquainted with, is more opaque, less defined. It is gossamer not velvet.

But this doesn't mean it's a failure. Indeed, it could be said that the accomplishment of an author might be his or her ability to demonstrate total control over the book's forward motion. By 'control' I mean whether it is manifest, despite the amount of information given to the reader, that the author knows what will happen in the future.

In Didion's novels, however, we are also always trying to see into the past. In other words, we are peering in two directions at once (or, possibly, at different moments we peer right or we peer left). The meaning of the future is discernible within the afterimages of past actions.

I think it is significant, for this reason, that Democracy was published in 1984. If we go to another cultural moment of the same period, we can find a similar anxiety. I think it is safe to assume that Didion mostly acts as a sentient being. In fact, she is probably more knowing than most, more aware of the ramifications of, what others see as, routine political events.

Didion is both a reporter and a novelist. Like Mailer, she is on top of the zeitgeist.

Jon Wozencroft, in his monograph The Graphic Language of Neville Brody (1988), says Brody "felt that there was no typeface at the time that suited the specific mood he sought for The Face. The gemoetric quality of the type was authoritarian, drawing a parallel between the social climate of the 1930s and the 1980s".

The Face, which closed in May 2004, was a leading pop culture vehicle, published out of London, of the eighties. Publisher EMAP, significantly, now sees healthy revenues from its weekly womens title Grazia. In last week's The (sydney) magazine (a monthly Fairfax vehicle), however, I start to see '80s elements, such as those pioneered by Brody, appearing in feature spreads.

In Democracy a few things definitely occur:

  1. Two people, a man and a woman, die in suspicious circumstances
  2. A woman (Inez) marries a wealthy man and has a long-term affair with a man whose occupation is 'shady'
  3. The daughter of one of the lead women is a heroin user who travels to Vietnam during war
  4. One of the men runs for president (of America, naturally)
  5. A high-profile Hawaii businessman is also killed

Apart from these items, there is very little remaining in mind from reading. If the only achievement of the book, however, is to cement there (forever) the image of the daughter working in a Saigon cafe, then Didion has succeeded admirably.

Similarly, my only remaining memory of Play It As It Lays is of a woman, possibly on the brink of a nervous breakdown, driving at high speed on California freeways. A single image, well planted, may bring forth strong fruit.

I think that the daughter is the 'real' main character. The nature of other characters has meaning only in terms defined by our understanding of her.