Thursday 31 July 2008

Cold New World, William Finnegan's 1998 study of American poverty, is subtitled 'Growing Up in a Harder Country'.

Finnegan's immersion technique includes spending a lot of time with his subjects. But you often feel as though the tone is changed by the fact that they are being observed.

How many times have wee seen individuals on TV being videoed as part of a news story. The smiles, the contentment, the assurance that observation by an outsider brings.

In Finnegan's book we learn about disagreements, shootings, knifings, aggressive behaviour. But the fights are never 'caught' by Finnegan's voice recorder. The action takes place off-stage, as it were.

What we do get are the voices of his subjects. Finnegan is a self-confessed small-'l' liberal and you would expect him to take the part of the people he writes about.

He does, and in his epilogue takes exception to government inaction on behalf of the underclass he chronicles. Yet in the same book he takes exception to the 'fundamentalist' approaches of some of the young people.

fierce and rigid answers [fundamentalism] supplies to the bottomless conundrums and bottomless pain of black America.

This on p 50. But it could also be said that nuanced approaches to inequity merely buttress the status quo. Where were these nuanced approaches when the Protestant 'fundamentalists' of 16th century Germany and 17th century Holland were pushing their own agendas?

This oversight is odd, too, because in the epilogue admits that you can't expect young people to have a good historical grasp of their situation. It seems that Finnegan lacks the same thing.

Is it possible that well-meaning journalists like Finnegan are diluting the strength of a message that, potentially, can turn around a battelship on a dime?

At least Finnegan gives us the opportunity to see the dynamics at work. In the absence of his creative method, we would be simply overrun by statistics and exhausted by position statements and other paraphernalia of the political process.

Yet Finnegan takes it upon himself in the epilogue to become an op-ed writer.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Bypass (2004), is Michael McGirr's chronicle of a trip by bicycle from Sydney to Melbourne.

He starts alone, having recently left the priesthood due to misgivings about his qualifications. He felt that a celibate man could not give advice to those in need.

But he does not end alone. Instead of the copy of Anna Karenina he finds solace and companionship in the arms of a woman, Jenny. Jenny is an ex-dancer who owns a better bike than Michael.

Riding a bike on the Hume Highway provides plenty of food for thought. And although McGirr had left the priesthood when the book starts, he does not abandon all of the Catholic Church's major tropes.

Most of the book's sections start with passages about the famous celebrity runner Cliff Young, an elderly man from country Victoria who ran between the cities in the mid 1980s. Young was on television. I remember him.

McGirr couples this event with stories from the notes kept by the explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hilton Hovell. Making up the trinity of narratives that form the book's keystone is McGirr's changing preferences in terms of the opposite sex.

He settles on flesh-and-blood Jenny over fictional Anna Karenin. It seems to be a bargain, for McGirr learns to accommodate another person in his life. This provides a centre around which his astonishingly fecund mind can profitably turn.

McGirr's main premise is that it is possible to be happy with very little. And in this sense he shows that leaving a religious order doesn't eradicate the religious impulse from the man.

In fact, much of the book's charm lies in its aphoristic structure. The short chapters, each headed by the words of a bumper sticker noted during his journey, are something like lay psalms.

And while McGirr celebrates the simple life, he reveals by telling tales out of the past that he has had a crisis of faith and it took the form of intolerance. This, I think, is why he left the priesthood.

He did not suffer fools gladly. This is an excellent qualification for a writer, but a poor one for a priest, so McGirr has chosen his new profession wisely. A priest who cannot suffer fools is like a farmer who shoots members of his flock if they stray.

A wise farmer buys a sheepdog to fetch them back into the fold.

McGirr displays a fine touch with both poetry and humour. This is a wonderful book for the afflicted - in other words, it is suitable for anyone at all - because it displays a man's humility before his better self. McGirr has found a way to forgive himself for his own weaknesses.

To do this he must inspect the world with a grave and careful eye. So he combines the acuity of the artist with the patience of a convent. He also possesses a just disposition, and pays keen attention to detail.

I suspect that some of these chapters took quite some time to assemble, given the amount of factual detail many contain.

The Hume Highway has found a suitable chronicler. It is the first highway of our common dreaming and, as such, deserves respect. If only so that we can make others not like it, but better.

Hume and Hovell set off in the third decade of the 19th century. By the end of the century, Melbourne would be bigger than Sydney, despite the fact that the main northward avenue out of the southern city is called Sydney Road.

Sydney has no analogue of Sydney Road. Sydney is Australia's Rome, to which all roads eventually lead.

Saturday 26 July 2008

Marrickville Open Studio Trail has been running for some years but organisers seem to be over-optimistic in terms of coverage.

Last year, for example, there were fewer artists' studios on the map and it went for two days. This year there are 35 dots on the map.

It's impossible to visit all in a day. I got to only six, starting about 10am and finishing - belly rumbles beckoned me home for a bowl of spaghetti and a side dish of steamed zucchini - at 3pm.

Gilbert Grace's Cooks River VI (2004) is shown above because the river seems to be something of a symbol. Dimitri Kuznichenko, first on my list at number 10 (because closest to my home) also paints the river.

It's a lovely river, though not frequented by me much. Yet this should change, especially in winter when a couple of hours walking in the sun can do such wonderful things for the constitution.

Kuznichenko's art is surprising. I think he was surprised to see me walking toward his gate, grasping the print-out made from the council website.

He invited me in and spent the next 40 minutes or so telling me about his work, which is quite fabulous. Kuznichenko is an immigrant (from the Ukraine) and, like many immigrants what he loses in diction and grammar, he makes up for in a bubbling sense of humour and a sharp mind.

His landscapes, showing the rolling hills of this part of Sydney - the slope down to the river and the rise on the farther side (in which direction I live) - are reminiscent of early 20th century British modernism.

I thought immediately of Nash. Same dun colours, green and white and tan skies. Whispy clouds. Fragmented foreground running, helter-skelter, downhill into the cubes and triangles of suburbia.

The only quibble I have is that, frankly, it's impossible to walk. Starting, as I did, on the western fringe of the 'art cluster', the car is needed.

Diamando Koutsellis, who was born in Sydney and lived for eight years in Perth, makes lovely cylindrical towers out of thin strips of clay. She then applies glazed pods and slugs to the exterior.

The result is a twisting rendering of a process of becoming. The pods and slugs are stuck close to the clay surface, and they squirm up and down and around the tower, looking for a berth or an exit. She also paints.

Rosedale Street Gallery also participated today. Located on the corner of busy Canterbury Road in Hurlstone Park, the gallery features lots of nice ceramic work that is priced very reasonably.

I then switched tack and headed east, ending up in the vicinity of Addison Road, Marrickville. The abandoned army barracks here is given over to art studios. But before this, I dropped in on the fey ex-storyteller (really, she worked for the Dept of Education) Ffrances Ingram in her Shepherd Street house.

Ffrances - the name is Welsh - makes pokey work (did I get that right?). She buys offcuts of fabric at a nearby recycling centre and applies this, with a long pin, to a hessian base.

Her designs include crocodiles and goannas, but behind the tables these were placed on hung a set of 'primitive' paintings in bright gouache with orange tigers threading their way through the bush. Green, yellow, orange, purple.

Upstairs at the Addison Road Gallery were wonderful, muted landscapes by Natalie McCarthy. McCarthy applies her oils very thinly and, working from photos taken during quick trips to the inland, she puts together architecturally-sound vistas in a broad pallette.

Also on view in the space were paintings by My Le Thi. Thi uses a monochrome composition and scriptural elements (from the Roman alphabet, from Chinese ideograms, and Vietnamese version of Roman script).

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Alan Moorehead's The White Nile (1960) is well-researched and coherent, in a strange way that invokes both Carlyle and Orwell.

It's certainly true that Moorehead is in search of 'great men' to - if not idolise - wonder at. Yet he was trained as a journalist and so it would be odd if he didn't also celebrate difference.

In the period covered by the book - roughly 40 years ending at the turn of the century - we are faced, first with first contact, then with the kind of ad hoc colonialism that also characterised Britain's Indian involvement, then with outright war.

Moorehead takes time to get to know the men as individuals. He judges them not by his own standards, but by their own. This gives the book an ecumenical slant that is refreshing nowadays.

He may disagree with the decision one man makes, but he still takes time to understand, and tell us, why this decision - and not that. And he is not too harsh on London functionaries, although he gives poor Gladstone a fair bit of stick at times.

In the case at hand, the war was against the Islamists. It could be said that the success of development - the opening of the Suez Canal in the late 1860s - led inexorably to conflict. Both sides had something to loose.

If we are very thick we'll miss out comparing the situation faced by men such as Kitchener and Baring and that faced by Bush and Blair a century later.

Nietszche would be appaluding from the sidelines were he alive to see Operation Desert Storm. Because the fundamentalism of the last two decades in the Arab world is nothing new.

One thing is different, however. Or perhaps not. In the 19th century the big 'issue' was the slave trade. This occupation kept many Arabs busy out of Cairo or Zanzibar (a small island off the coast of Tanzania).

Men like Stanley (the brash American) and Livingstone (the quiet Englishman) met with truly horrifying scenes both while planning and preparing for trips to the inland, and during the journeys themselves.

Moorehead provides explicit details of this trade. And in the case of the many Scots and English adventurers, explorers, administrators and soldiers who appear in Moorehead's narrative there was also the religious thing.

As Europe struggled to come to terms with the scientific revolution by educating and refining relentlessly, the triumphalist mode of handling a messy world became just another aspect of one's way of dealing with the 'natives'.

It's too easy to criticise, with hindsight. Many of the men Moorehead treats of also were involved in both the American Civil War and Crimea. They were hands-on individuals with difficult assignments and no radios.

Contact with home was as important as good health: without either, you suffered. Cut off from everything they knew, and surrounded by a landscape they did not understand, these men (and one woman) had to deal with Ugandan potentates and Sudanese fundamentalists as well as sickness, supply, potable water, and funding problems.

The page count reveals Moorehead's main topic: religious fundamentalism. And the most pressing problem was a militant brand born in the Sudan with a man named Mahdi.

Mahdi rose, clad in patched robes, and swept all before him for almost twenty years until a superior force put down his successor at Um Diwaykarat, near Jebel Gedir and Abba Island, this last being the place the Mahdi first arose to note.

So while the book begins in the pure and unadulterated regions of exploration, it ends in the muddy and compromised arena of colonial revolt.

A thoroughly good read.

Monday 21 July 2008

Nowalingu, 2nd wife of Ridgimaril - a warrior and ancestor of Minygululu, who heads the tribe in the first story - is the pin that forms the centre of this interesting film.

Rolf de Heer's DVD pack includes a disc with material not included in the big screen edition, so it's worthwhile buying.

I saw one other de Heer film and remember seeing his Dr Plonk's 'machine' at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra when I visited the capital in January.

With Ten Canoes, de Heer has made a narrative useful for national debates. It uses a mise en abime - a story within a story - and despite the fact that I chose 'All aboriginal language with English subtitles' at the start, it is entertaining and easy enough to follow.

The wallpaper on the selection is (like my head image) Nowalingu. Her story begins with a dilemma faced by the ancestor headman (Minygululu). His younger brother Daynidi is keen on one of Minygululu's wives.

Minygululu tells Dayindi a story over several days while the men of the tribe hunt magpie geese. "They cut the barks off the trees and they talk about women," goes the narrative. "I hear you're keen on my wife," says Minygululu.

He helps Dayindi - a novice - peel the tree bark away from the trunk. He decides to tell Dayindi a story to "help him to live the proper way".

The narrator - a chuckling man with a slow voice - suggests the audience (us) may also benefit from hearing the story, which begins at "a time when the ancestors were just little fish in their waterholes".

This metaphor ties in with the narrator's opening remarks, when he tells how he came to exist, in this land of the Great Water Goanna, Yurlungurr. The 'story-within-a-story' takes place in a scrubby bush.

The low trees stretch out into plains. These are the plains, the narrator says, where Yurlungurr named everything.

Ridgimaril is "a proud warrior" who lives "under the same law as now". The young men live in the young men's camp and the women go digging for swamp nuts when Ridgimaril decides - he's had enough of his wives' arguing - to go hunting.

Banalandju calls the women together when her husband "goes bush". But all is not perfect. When Nowalingu, Ridgimaril's 2nd wife, goes missing, the men prepare for war.

Amid this narrative, we get a lesson in how to build a bark canoe. After peeling it off, they carry it to the water and soak it. The bark slabs are then placed over a fire to make them soft.

They then cool the bark to make it easy to bend. The slab is pincered in the fork of a two-trunked scrubby tree and the ends are sewn together to make the prow and stern.

The film's three 'phases' are efficiently signalled by changes in colour saturation - the present (colour), the time of the ancestors hunting geese (black and white), and the time of the even more ancient ancestors (colour).

This strategy blends into the mellow, dry, flat-toned voice of the narrator.

"I think she ran away," says one of the men. Others agree but Ridgimaril isn't convinced. "She didn't run away," he says. And although life without Nowalingu "became normal", Ridgimaril's "proper soul" seemd to have been taken away.

Yeeralparil cannot go to fight because, as Ridgimaril' brother, he must take his wives if he dies. The danger here, of course, is that Yeeralparil might prefer this outcome: he's keen on Munanjarra, Ridgimaril's 3rd wife.

"You young people like that," says Minygululu as he tells Dayindi about the war party. He tells how the ancestors gathered sticks to make spears, tipped with stones dressed by Birrinbirrin.

This white-haired, fat man is interesting. Not only does he get short of breath, but he also likes honey too much. The women shoo him off when he starts requesting his favourite treat.

When the men walk off with their white-painted bodies and with bundles of sticks slung over their shoulders, the women keen. But they come back. The uncle who told them he had seen Nowalingu in a neighbouring camp had made a mistake.

Then Birrinbirrin hears from some boys sitting in a tree that the 'stranger' had returned. The man is speared by Ridgimaril and things get nasty when the dead man's tribe accuses Birrinbirrin of his murder.

"I did it," says Ridgimaril. So a 'payback' is planned.

Above: Dayindi and Minygululu strip bark.

Above: Ridgimaril.

Above: Dayindi listens to Minygululu.

Above: The single men's camp.

Above: Yeeralparil is "off to see his girl".

Above: Birrinbirrin.

Above: The sorceror.

Above: Ridgimaril beckons the stranger to approach.

Above: The sorceror scouts the camp looking for remnants that might have been left by the stranger.

Above: Punting on the swamp - Dayindi and Minygululu.

Above: Ridgimaril's 1st wife (Banalandju) and 2nd wife (Nowalingu).

Above: While Ridgimaril goes hunting Banalandju assembles the women to go digging for swamp nuts.

Above: Hunting magpie geese.

Above: The fatal event - Nowalingu by a water hole.

Above: The men, returned from the camp of the tribe's neighbours, admit that Nowalingu was not there.

Above: Minygululu tells the story as the men sit on their platforms above the swamp where they are hunting magpie geese.

Above: The stranger's tribe, having found the body of the man speared by Ridgimaril, call them to a 'payback'.

Above: The payback is planned.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Melocco, O'Brien, Wunderlich, Fowler, Metters, Chubbs, and Standard Waygoods are all names familiar to me and, I suspect, to most Sydneysiders. To most Australians, in fact.

Melocco Brothers of Booth Street, Annandale, may not be immediately familiar, but I recall the name from my childhood, being the name of a fellow schoolmate. The others are major Australian brands.

The other thing they have in common is that they were all involved in the construction and decoration of the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board's 1939 Art Deco building.

In a week, the development application exhibition will close. The 1939 building is matched on Bathurst Street (the north side of the block, which falls away down to Wilmot Street - see pic below) by a 1960s building.

The facade of the 1939 building will be retained but the 1969 building will be 'redeveloped'. Which means it will be destroyed. The earlier building was not the first structure on the site.

This honour belongs to the 1893 head office, a "high Italianate" edifice of dubious architectural merit which was designed by "then president of the Water Board", Colonel Thomas Rowe, and built out of Pyrmont sandstone.

The City of Sydney website has PDFs you can download under the 'Development' tab, if you want to read the whole story. The architectural assessment document, which looks at heritage impact, is lengthy, detailed, and sports a raft of sources cited.

In it I learn that Pitt Street was "known first as ‘Pitt’s Row’". It "appears in two illustrations accompanying David Collins’ Account of New South Wales, published in 1798, but most likely drawn in 1795". I thought it was named after William Pitt, Britain's prime minister during the war of the 1790s - 1810s.

I was wrong. The construction marks the end of the Depression and it was opened three months prior to hostilities against Germany started. The architectural practice of H.E. Budden and N.C. Mackey, with input from the Board’s engineers, was given the contract to build something adequately expressing the "importance and dignity" of the Water Board. Howie, Moffat and Co. Pty Ltd won the construction contract.

"With a budget of over £450,000, the 1939 Building was one of the most expensive commercial buildings constructed in the city in the late 1930s," continues the assessor, who judges it "a fine example of a late 1930s Art Deco Style building".

Art Deco architecture had entered Australia in the mid 1920s, largely via the United States of America. The style developed out of the pro-design idiom and represented a break from the architectural styles of the Pre World War I period. It was, in many respects, an expression of modernity, technological advances and of the prevailing hope for a brighter future.

Several better Italianate buildings are still standing in the CBD, especially along Martin Place. There are numerous Deco buildings, too. What's worrying is the evident willingness of the Heritage Foundation to judge the 1960s building, which shares a fair amount of common area with its Deco neighbour, not deserving of preservation.

The construction of large office buildings had ceased in Sydney during the Great Depression. By the time that the building industry revived, around 1936, a number of Australian architects practicing in the Art Deco Style had begun to turn, as did their American counterparts, towards a more restrained and, in some instances, monumental expression of the Art Deco Style. This move was influenced by a number of factors, not the least of which was a growing awareness of European modernism, of contemporary industrial design, and the infiltration of curved and streamlined forms.

The dominant colours of the facing are red (granite "from a quarry in the Oberon (NSW) district"), black ("a Swedish black granite"), and cream ("polychrome brickwork was used to finish the rear walls of the building").

The ornamental steel and bronze work in the pics below were made by H.T. Worrall. The bronze panels of the doors were made by Stanley J. Hammond.

Sculptor Stanley J. Hammond (1913-2000) won a competition for the design of a bronze relief above the main entrance into the building, and his cast bronze panels compliment the windows and hardware throughout the building.

Friday 18 July 2008

Comparative review: Kensington Gardens by Roberto Fresan (2005) and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1997).

The cover quote by DBC Pierre on Fresan's Kensington Gardens seems to endorse the book, but if you think about it a bit ("Extraordinarily surreal"), the bathos surfaces quietly.

Like a hidden innuendo in a suddenly recalled conversation. 'Surreal' is a somewhat tired epithet these days (god knows what people younger than me use) and actually is a word of such common usage (like "... on steroids" - choose your own exemplum) that the endorsement quickly looks like a favour returned.

Interesting in Fresan's book is the connection between J.M. Barrie's childhood and The Beatles. Fresan names two popular tunes of the late 19th century that would reemerge as ditties by the boys from Liverpool.

Fresan's fault lies in his fondness for commonplace tropes. Although there's a lot of energy expended in these pages, there's little light. I failed close to page 50. But in three years I may reopen the covers and give it a big tick.

Who knows?

Fresan is interested in the phasal relationship between the Victorian (so-called) age and the most recent age of protest: the 1960s. But it's a highly Eurocentric lens and it doesn't capture the crystal clarity of childhood imaginings.

The author is too caught up in a kind of prim meditation on Anglo creativity. Unlike Marques, who saturated himself in William Faulkner and morphed the Southern bard's progress into a new genre - magical realism - Fresan is content to throw rocks into a pool and watch the rings dissipate in the fluid.

But Bernhard Schlink's curiosity is tonic.

Schlink is a legal academic and so is saturated in the realities of crime. So who better to throw a blanket on the wretched kow-tow Germany has (twice in one century) been forced to make to the higher orders: the same Anglo Excalibur knights Fresan dreams of joining in a crusade of marzipan soldiers against the terror of a purchasable constabulary.

The Reader tackles two 'issues' in one slender volume: child abuse and the Holocaust. His protagonist Michael Berg enmistresses an illiterate tram conductor and then watches as she is questioned in court for months, sentenced, and imprisoned.

On the day she left town, Hanna had seen him at the pool. In her last extremity, it will again be indifference on the protagonist's part that causes her to crash.

Michael's cruelty is a casual one of the superior to the lesser: the master to the servant.

The knot that binds them, however, is strong. The title derives from his practice of reading to Hanna. First, this occurs while they are still erotically engaged. After her incarceration, he begins to record his voicings and to send cassettes to her at the prison.

Michael is unfortunate because he is unable to take a position in terms of Hanna, who is convicted of - and sentenced to life imprisonment for - allowing a group of prisoners to burn to death in a locked church.

The quote that follows is typical of Schlink's style. It is measured, precise, rational and very delicate. Unlike Fresan, who treats his subject to one gruelling bout after another, Schlink seems afraid of hurting the delicate balance between happiness and despair that surrounds his narrator's persona.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks - understanding and condemation. But it was impossible to do both.

When he finally meets the prison governor, she berates him, blaming him (among others) for what happened, finally, to Hanna. The woman had been respected in the prison community, she said. She had learned to write. She has a life of sorts but, the functionary continues, you cannot imagine how hard life on the outside is, in the first months of freedom.

When I turned around and sat down on the bed, she said, 'She so hoped you would write. You were the only one she got mail from, and when the mail was distributed and she said "No letter for me?" she wasn't talking about the packages the tapes came in. Why did you never write?'
  I still said nothing. I could not have spoken; all I could have done was to stammer and weep.

His reaction is due to the simple fact that he read to Hanna - who enjoyed being read to - for himself as much as for her. Because it reminded him of how they had been together when he was a teenager, and she a young horse (his label for her sturdy presence in his life).

But to write a letter to her would have been to admit some sort of equality, and he was not prepared for that kind of honesty. In the end he will graduate, become a law academic, marry, have children, divorce, and remember. Endlessly remember.

It will be a Holocaust survivor who describes Michael Berg to himself. But from her eye, no tear will fall at the fate of Hanna Schmidt.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Arthur & George (2005), Julian Barnes' fin de siecle historical novel, is an arrow pointing backward to a moment that saw itself - without a doubt - pointing forward.

Set in the final decades of the 19th century around central England (Birmingham, Staffordshire), Arthur & George describes a point of intimacy between a beleaguered lawyer - George Edalji, son of the vicar of Great Wyrley - and opthalmologist-turned-novelist Arthur Conan Doyle.

Barnes threads the stories together in the most concrete fashion: by alternating sections of narrative, one after the other, until the two finally meet.

The meeting Barnes describes is historically significant because it led - due to Doyle's media campaign - to establishing the Court of Appeals.

But Barnes is not content to enjoy only this. In tracing similarities between then - a time of religious confusion, due to the success of science, when peoples' expectations about everything were changing - and now, Barnes brings into focus not only the pressing issue of pre-judgement (racist attitudes) but also the moment when secular gods started to claw out a space for themselves.

In the closing scene, however, Barnes shows that these men (and women) were granted passage to a position of exaltedness. As George scans the Albert Hall, he is witnessing a kind of grotesque baptism. Members of the audience stand and shout "He is here!" as the medium, Mrs Roberts, proclaims the presence of the Doyle's spirit in the crowded house.

A man at the back of the hall stands and shouts the phrase in the same way that lay preachers might do at an open air gathering. The English midlands were a redoubt of the Nonconformists from the Renaissance to this point - second decade of the 20th century.

In a sense, Barnes employs historical fact along with the kind of sensibility the student gains through long exposure to his (or her) subject. You get to a point where not even the utterances of the individual are allowed to carry only their explicit meaning.

As a result, we feel intimate with both George and Arthur. In this privileged environment, we are less likely to 'take sides'. And more likely to infer similarities, where conventional wisdom asks us to agree on specious differences.

This was a very interesting time in the developed world. The 'lower orders' were influenced by the attitudes of people like chief constable Anson - such as that miscegenation was bad because

'An irreconcilable division is set up. Why does human society everywhere abhor the half-caste? Because his soul is torn between the impulse to civilization and the pull of barbarism.'
  'And is it the Scottish or the Parsee blood you hold responsible for barbarism?'

In the absence of religious superiority (this was when comparitive religious studies began to gather impetus), another kind of superiority must be established. Miners' sons and farm hands cannot abide a mixed race boy bettering them in their own schoolroom.

In their own parish; 'parochial' derives from the same root as 'parish'.

Indeed, the crime and its eventual resolution are less interesting than the associated dramas that play out in society. George, who went to gaol for three years, received a pardon, and practiced law happily for three decades (before the seance at the Albert Hall), feels something else, too.

And it's also related to the fact of a globalised world. It's about being watched: the necessary concommittant of globalisation because, now, you are never alone. (Shades of sci-fi movie titles, here: "You are not alone".)

Sitting in the hall, George thinks he is to be singled out by the medium for the sake of his father - dead 12 years - who he starts matching with the spirit Mrs Roberts has identified among the audience.

George starts to panic, wishing and dreading being pointed out. After the panic passes, he reflects on his feelings.

It was most disconcerting to see oneself described not by some provincial penny-a-liner but by the most famous writer of the day. It made him feel like several overlapping people at the same time: a victim seeking redress; a solicitor facing the highest tribunal in the country; and a character in a novel.

Barnes is obviously enjoying his clear advantage given by hindsight. But here we see something quite interesting: the appearance of the notion of the 'persona'.

No longer just oneself but, as Gore Vidal proposed in Myra Breckinridge, a set of disparate (sometimes self-made) 'selves' able to be inhabited at different times, in different places, and with different people.

Perhaps, though, this kind of assumption is what gave George all the trouble in the first place. The Staffordshire constabulary took his personal characteristics - retiring, quiet, unmarried, odd, somewhat dark in pigmentation, unsocial - and moulded these into a convincing portrait.

Enough to convince a jury of twelve, but not enough to convince Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And perhaps this is why we are so comfortable in this peculiar, intimate resort of the mind - which Doyle exploited and help to mould - that is the detective novel.

Indeed, a crisis of confidence caused Doyle to latch onto the Edalji affair in the first place. Just prior - from his qualms about having a lover while his consumptive wife was still alive - he had been on the brink of psychic collapse:

No, he must stop. He knew this spiral too well already, he knew its descending temptations, and exactly where it led: to lethargy, despair and self-contempt. No, he must stick to know facts.

At her wedding, Jean picks out George in the crowd because, she says, without the Edalji case to pursue, Doyle may not have even married her. And she thanks him.

Monday 14 July 2008

Thea Astley's 1982 An Item from The Late News ages well. It is a product of mature talent.

Dating as it does from the early 80s, the book marks a time of transformation, of struggle by the Left globally. Though government here was Left too.

Astley has found her timbre and tempo. A kind of lip-synching on Modernist poetry, but in prose, which is a better method of lip-synching because more reliable. Like her other books, this one is relatively short.

In some ways, it stands as a prompt and counterweight to its more famous coeval: Peter Carey's Bliss, which quickly became a film, with Barry Otto, that is most memorable for the image of a woman in a wooden lighter moving away from a drowned church and holding a metal cross.

In An Item from The Late News the only religion is sport, and the only kind of cross the residents of Allbut carry is an empty censer - good to collect the cash they see coming from the mountain of sapphire they believe Wafer has discovered.

For Allbut is a decaying mining town. What Wafer brings - apart from high hopes of a new strike - is his own character.

This being Astley, Wafer is destined not to fit in. But we are discussing a point in Australia's history that operated as a sort of spiritual transit lounge. The town is caught between the small-town pettiness of Patrick White and the general assertiveness of the last decade of last century.

A sort of cross between Sarsaparilla and Mt Druitt.

Wafer's interest in nuclear fallout shelters was already an anachronism, even then. The actual fallout, however, is of a more dangerous kind. The book illustrates what can happen when there is no separation between capital and the law.

In this sense, Carey's inventions start to look a little too sweet and attractive. The title refers, of course, to the public echo of an event that more nearly fits a Mad Max-type world than the drowsy sameness of outback Australia.

Other things don't fit as well. It's always raining in Allbut, a town that might conceivably be in Queensland. But it's in the end a town we've all visited at one time or another.

The kind of town where the Chinese restaurant still serves chow-mein and the heartwrenching charm of the little grey granite courhouse is betrayed by the faux-settler furniture in main street display windows. The kind of town that warns against domestic violence, yet boasts a motel named The Celtic.

Astley's narrator is not named, but it is her voice we wait to hear while Wafer is decidedly sat upon by the general populace, led by Councillor Brim and Sergeant Cropper.

It's also the kind of town - possibly like Palm Island - where the abos get short shrift in the convenience stakes. Ted Wonga is still with us.

Sunday 13 July 2008

Christina Stead’s Cotter’s England (1967) is a revelation.

Stead takes a long, penetrating look at the British working class through the lens of a single family - the Cotters of Bridgehead (a fictional town in Tyne and Weir, which is the region where the famous city of Newcastle is located).

A complex web of (mainly female) friends orbits about this core. The two strands of the family are those still living in Bridgehead - including the curious Uncle Simon and the half-crazed Peggy (who bears a striking resemblance to Dawlat in Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building) - and those who have ‘moved on’ to the south.

We start in the north, in a riot of voices not unlike the messy beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony: a primeval soup fit to give birth to a new race.

The voices circle and swoop, attacking the owner mercilessly for any stray utterance. Every small pleasure and advantage taken results in a small payment to the rest.

This pigeon-like group behaviour continues, in a more measured strain, in London among the large group of female friends Ellen (Nellie) Cook (nee Cotter) has collected over the years.

A journalist working for five pounds a week for a left-leaning paper, Nellie is something of a hoyden. George Cook, her husband, is a functionary with the International Labour Organization (based in Geneva) who, like Nellie, Uncle Simon, talented Peggy, and dreamy Tom, started life in one of the back-to-back housing strips dotting the industrial North.

What’s fascinating is how Nellie - in particular - operates. Tom, her bright and poetical brother, is also given a fuller treatment than most characters in this 350-page wonderwork.

Due to a single, canonical, event buried deep in the novel (p 298) Cotter’s England can also link thematically with Nabokov’s much-misunderstood Ada: A Family Chronicle (1969).

In fact, there seems to be good reason to think that Nabokov took inspiration for Lucette from Caroline in Stead’s super-intelligent novel of two years earlier.

You could also argue that Stead wrote this ‘about’ the contemporary Labor-voting Australian middle class. In this light, it’s is not only a period piece but, rather, a highly evocative reflection of where we are right now.

A mirror of gentrification in Sydney’s inner suburban belt. Stead, from Rockdale, is not unlike, say, Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Ashfield.

I can see clear images of my parents and of their parents in the novel. Success born from struggle can sometimes seem heartless to outsiders, or even people (like Caroline) who simply get in the way.

Because despite what Nellie says about friendship and suffering and beauties found within these spheres, it is her husband’s love that she, ultimately, prizes above everything. Her fine verbiage counts for little in the end. And her connection with Tom - characterised by a fierce hatred of any woman he finds interesting - is mesmerising. Is it corrupt?

In the passage describing how Nellie reads Caroline’s awkward and barely-intelligible letter after the key event, we see Nellie’s soul bared. It’s not a pretty sight.

Creating moments like these requires pages and pages of preparation. Stead, by this time an experienced novelist, knew exactly the effects she wanted and she does it beautifully.

This book should be compulsory reading in Australian secondary schools.

A marvellous achievement, where even to the very end we are discovering new and important things. And it’s not just those who are adept in the language of power - Tom, Nellie, George - who give us pause for thought.

After Mrs Cotter senior dies all members of the family visit Bridgehead where sister Peggy is now queen of the castle and uncle Simon - who she physically abuses and verbally reviles - continues to function as the lynchpin of the entire clan. His wage, she forgets, kept the family afloat in lean years.

But in the end Peggy wants to write her own story, and it does not include a role for a pensioner bachelor uncle. Just as Nellie wants to write her own story. And in her story, the requirement is that Tom remain faithful only to her.

Alien bodies are expelled with ruthless efficiency. But the speeches in the old house - Peggy resents any success of her brother and sister - contain worlds.

Uncle Simon’s querulousness is wonderfully offset by an earlier passage. First the post-funeral colloquy on p 326:

“She [Nellie] dropped ten pounds a week, he [old Tom Cotter, Nellie’s father] said: and we could have used it in this house; she could have dropped it into me pocket, he said. Aye, it was a terrible blow to him. He was quite crestfallen. It was a sad day for this house, he said. And now,” cried Uncle Simon trembling, “now he’s getting’ mixed up with trades unions and foreigners and such things are not good for people. He’ll end up in jail, George Cook will, that’ll be the end of it: he’ll go to jail.”

But Simon’s no fool, as we had already learned on p 108:

The dog ran into the kitchen and harassed Simon and presently the mother came in, peering and said, “Oh, I thought Mother was here: I’m always doing that.”
  ”No wonder you can’t see, Mother, in the fog and filthy air.”
  ”A large proportion of the soot is the result of incomplete combustion due to inefficient stoking,” said Uncle Simon.
  ”And antiquated methods,” said Tom.

We see the learning and intelligence displayed both by Tom and his uncle - grandson of the steward of “a big southern duke’s estate” (but who “was an educated man”) - equally. Tom is a plant manager and Simon is a retired skilled industrial worker.

Nellie’s verbiage is no less fascinating (George calls her “a prisoner of Bohemia“ - forerunner of today’s ‘latte set‘). But Stead breaks many rules here. Old Mother Cotter (who makes the mistake in the above quote) has dementia. Uncle Simon is a bachelor who is notorious in the family for pleasuring himself in private.

And in Georgiana - daughter of Nellie’s charwoman - we get a glimpse of things that infrequently made it into the pages of novels, even in the sixties:

Georgiana came running in. … She entreated, “Tell me a story about the sparrows.”
  ”Not today, pet.”
  The child began to tell the story about the sparrows herself. “First they all fly in a flock in winter and when spring comes they separate, mm, mm, mm.” She began to play with two loose-legged wooden dolls, one a sailor, one a gypsy girl in whose wooden head Nellie had fixed an old paste buckle. Georgiana danced the dolls and chanted interminably, “Up she goes, down she goes, up she goes, down she goes. One little darling, one little husband. Nellie what is a husband?”
  ”It’s like a father, pet.”
  ”One little sailor, one little princess, sitting in a corner, poor Georgie’s mother doing all the work, poor Georgie’s mother doing all the work, poor Georgie’s mummy doing all the work. Patacake, patacake, patacake what are you doing, what are you doing? Kissing, kissing, kissing, ha-ha-ha! I kissed him on his noseypeg, sailor! I kissed him on his wooden leg, sailor, sailor, sailor!”

In this passage we get several truths, including the one Nellie (who is nearby but not listening) misses. George (who Nellie will later, when he invites her to join him in Geneva, call her “sailor”) has been kissing Georgiana’s mother, Mrs McMahon. The woman is dismissed, having had the idea that George would leave Nellie (who is 40 and not conventionally attractive) and marry her.

The Catholic Mrs McMahon, who is 28 and married to a man earning 10 pounds a week, pines like so many others in this story, when faced with rejection by the up-and-coming generation of Cotter children, a fascinating mixture of idealism and avarice.

We see the change in the weather in Peggy’s constant refrain that her siblings are “selfish”. She has no other system of discourse to analyse and describe them, than the traditional one bequeathed to her generation by the Church and the schools that were based on it.

Nellie, with a radical Left perspective, is better-equipped to describe existence. It is this advantage that enables her, and her husband, to function in an international arena.

The way Randall Jarrell described an earlier Stead novel - “an almost ecstatic pulse of recognition” - applies equally to Cotter’s England. This is without doubt one of the best realist post-industrial novels on the 20th century.

Saturday 12 July 2008

Venero Armanno's Candle Life (2006) is another excellent Australian meditation on the 20th century, and joins others released this century by local nonfiction and fiction writers.

It's also a good exemplum of the new cross-modal writing: half romantic comedy and half suspense thriller. It begins in a rational fantasy that any Australian could 'relate to'.

Nevertheless, the narrator - a young man (fictive index of potential) - has no name.

Names feature in the back-cover blurb. This smart piece of writing leads us to believe we will get a tour of the catacombs. But while the age-old structures are used extensively in the novel, they are never the main event.

Armanno is too clever. What we get for most of the book is a pleasant picture of Paris - city of more than just lights for Australians of all eras - that gains allure from the background hum of death.

Two women die, one by accident the other by brutality. Three women if we count Frau Neumann, who comes alive in the closing pages as an emblem of Europe's malaise. And as in Christos Tsiolkas' 2005 Dead Europe, blame is not so easily laid at one family's door.

In Paris, clubbers' gyrations merge anachronistically with gangs of Brown Shirts pouring onto Berlin streets on Kristallnacht, 1938.

Frau Neumann is Armanno's muse. It is her death at the hands of a teenager with a gun, named Schwab, that strikes a peal for universals.

But to get here we need the past - Yukiko - and the future - Emilie - to surround the small hard core of the book: the potential inherent in the narrator. And while he stumbles about in the catacombs, we remember not only the ultrasound Emilie has planned but also Yukiko's predilection for astral bodies.

Everyone will abandon the narrator, except the dancing kids on the streets of one of the seedier quarters of Paris. Everyone except the author but - and Armanno reminds us in a passage starting on p 328 - the author, too, must eventually abandon us.

How does he do this reminding with such effect? Why do we feel frustrated, toward the end of the book? Is this frustration a method of Armanno's to highlight both the ubiquity of storytelling and the pleasure a good story gives us (takes us "out of ourselves")?

The long backward digression on Sonny Lee's past life is the kernel of the book. The sense of suspense the reader feels at this point is close to one of desperation. Why are we back in Lee's childhood when what we really want is to escape from the catacombs and live life with Emilie?

It was Lee, furthermore, who left the narrator alone in the catacombs. And the stories Armanno gives us here are, what's more, something we've heard before, from Baldwin and, more recently, from Morrison. We don't want this American stuff - we're in Paris!

Why here?

Why does the author do this to us? But on p 331 we know. It's a type of kindness he performs. Armanno is preparing us for the final dissolution: the dissolution of the story.

I want to go back to the surface of the world and live with real people - but, when I try to imagine what my life might be like up there, it makes no sense.

Armanno prepares us in Lee's heartless dismissal of the narrator in the dark, cramped caves he inhabits. We are with him, too - endlessly confused and entrapped - surrounded by mud, disoriented.

I follow him [Schwab], overwhelmed by relief at finally being able to see where I'm going. Now I know what these catacombs are really like. Their complexity says I would never have found a way out.

When I first read this, I thought Armanno had written, instead, "grief". Which would also make some kind of sense.

If Nazi Germany is a pointer to the future, and a way out of the current impasse, then Sonny Lee is the guardian angel. Even though he leaves the narrator in the tunnels alone, the black man Lee is the one who understands him best.

You lost a great love and you're trying to embrace a new one. No. It doesn't work so easily. You forget you're a writer. The good and simple life can never be for you. You want to experience as many stories as possible, don't you, no matter how dark and treacherous? Don't tell me it isn't so.

So the black American leads us into the labyrinth but the ex-Nazi youth leaguer leads us out. Both live on the streets. Both look like bums.

Both have a story and in Armanno's clever hands (the front-cover kicker says he "writes with such intensity, his words detonate off the page"), both will be heard.

Friday 11 July 2008

Norman Girandot's study of James Legge, The Victorian Translation of China (2002), ends - typically for an academic work - where you want it to start.

Girandot's 'Conclusion' brings the book's topic into contemporary focus, comparing (in a book about an early comparitivist) post-Tiananmen China with the way China was understood by 19th century scholars, religionists, diplomats, missionaries, and the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps this is welcome in an age where every new piece of data in the public sphere is immediately appropriated, processed, and made to fit a worldview.

Girandot spends little space on Legge's missionary work. He concentrates on the period after Legge left missionary work, around 1880, and turned into a scholar, taking the first sinology chair at Oxford University.

Legge's missionary work is placed in a position of contrast with his translations of Chinese classics. In fact, after finishing in Hong Kong, he often refused to participare in missionary activities. The bent is clear: he sought other avenues of contact and community.

These debates may seem odd now - why on earh would a liberal and empathetic approach be censured so strongly as to verge on slander? - but then we live in the shadow of the highly irreligious generations that began to operate in the early 20th century.

Although they seem surprisingly familiar, describing a liminal moment similar to ours. A point of contact; the book ends 100 years after Britain's first royal emissary (Macartney) returned from China.

By the 1910s scholars such as Legge had become anachronistic oddities, and he has remained so since. The tough-guy approach taken by Macartney also (his journals were finally published in the 1970s) predominated among religionists tasked with spreading the gospels.

The two camps were the muscular Christianity of the Protestant and Catholic missions, and the 'comparativist' academics and writers such as Max Muller. It seems pretty certain that Muller recruited Legge, a Scottich Nonconformist who would get on with the job of translating and leave front-office work to Muller.

Unlike Muller, Legge never gave up teaching. A "mere translator", he understood the detail that was cogent, and practised daily with commendable results. A touching inclusion is a photo of Legge's 'final blackboard' taken by his students (he had two by this time!).

Words such as these were left mainly to Muller:

There is no specific difference between ourselves and the Brahmins, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, or the Taosze. Our powers of perceiving, of reasoning, and of believing may be more highly developed, but we cannot claim the possession of any verifying power or of any power of belief which they did not possess as well.

This kind of reasoning had led, 80 years earlier, to abolition of the slave trade in England. Muller himself did not subscribe to the idea that the Chinese were "childlike, helpless, poetical" compared with "muscular" Christians. According to Legge, the more

a man possesses the Christian spirit, and is governed by Christian principles, the more anxious will he be to do justice to every other system of religion, and to hold his own without taint or fetter of bigotry.

Girandot spends time, also, looking at the World's Parliament of Religions. This fascinating event was prepared by two American orientalist missionaries.

The ecumenical gathering took place alongside the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and attracted not only Western religionists but also delegates from the two major Asian satellites: China and India.

The driving motivation for the parliament was a version of the liberal form of comparitivism and missionary inclusivism I have been tracing in relation to both Muller and Legge.

Thus writes Girandot. He points particularly to a Chinese delegate, Pung Kwang Yu. Resistance to missions is felt in his animus, channelled through Girandot. Not only did missions "too often fail to respect Chinese customs, particularly the practices of filial piety and ancestral sacrifice", but they were too "zealous". But:

Expressing the elitist perspective of a Ruist scholar-official, Pung adds that missionaries should also 'turn away from the low and vulgar' and by so doing the 'wicked will disappear' and 'those that had in former times avoided the sight of a missionary and had resisted his efforts to the utmost will turn around and vie with one another in inviting him to teach them'.

Which suggests that the Imperial Chinese powers that were (foreign rulers, remember) felt that adopting Christianity would be to admit fraternity with the disenfranchised. It also suggests that early missionaries, despite stepping on the toes of the elites, aimed to address issues of particular importance to society's weakest.

Girandot humorously labels Pung "doll-like, but distressingly clever". As for our tools, Girandot labels "such things as origins, terms, and beliefs" "Western regimes of knowing". Post-colonial studies teams possibly retain this opinion, I'm not sure.

On the other hand, Girandot also flags a point made by Muller that a "fundamental cross-cultural act" is "the creative and transformative juxtaposition of 'this and that' and 'other and it'." In Legge's day, such insight was rarely available. According to Girandot:

What was alarming among conservative missionaries in China about Legge's work on Confucianism - and even worse, his later work on abominations such as Buddhism and Daoism - was the comparitivist's weak liberal tolerance, jellyfish sympathy, limp charity, or effeminate indifferentism that perverted the manly spirit of Christianity bent on conquering the world for Christ.

Sounds alarmingly like Andrew Bolt comparing John Howard and Kevin Rudd on the ABC's new talk show Q and A yesterday.

There's little question that Girandot admires his subject. His book, nevertheless, is not without humour.

It can profitably be read by students not only of China and the history of Western contact, but also by those interested in the movement from a religious mindset in the 19th century, to the 20th century's secular bias.

Legge also had relations in Australia.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Taisho Chic, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Lucy Birmingham Fujii in Tokyo’s Metropolis (25 May 2007) review names the father of the three girls in a striking piece - Sannin no shimai (Shuho Yamakawa, 1936, Three Sisters) - a “political fixer”.

The catalogue Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco tells us that Fusanosuke Kuhara was "detained as a conspirator" following a military coup in 1936.

The elegant automobile - a Packard though not “an exact portrait of the car” (p 40) - does not clash with the tradition embodied in the women's clothes.

The clash comes on pp 82 - 83 in Biwa Concert (Suiha Shibata, c 1930s). Kendall H. Brown of the Dept of Art, California State University Long Beach, asks: “Does this elegant, subtle, and feminine image suggest values antithetical to those of war?”

In the painting the microphone “jars” with the woman - who has a classical Deco-inspired hairstyle - and “the soft cushion, fluid garments, wooden music stand, and the feminine shape of the biwa”.

The biwa is an instrument imported from China in the 7th century (T’ang dynasty) along with much of the Japanese cultural template, including Buddhism. It is time to start writing Japanese history in association with Chinese.

The painting polarises, and Edward M. Gomez in The New York Times (27 January 2002) promotes Kendall’s supposition: “Is the young woman performing or recording the kinds of songs that helped militarize Japanese society?”

Gomez' advantage - six years ago - at the exhibition's opening at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, was hearing the curator of Asian arts unveil the work with a flourish.

“Welcome to modernism!”

The show also went to Chicago (22 April - 20 June 2004), U.C. Berkeley Art Museum (December 2005), and Tokyo (June - July 2007). Michael Dunn covered it for The Japan Times (10 May 2007):

Moga, and the denizens of the cafe society generally, had to defend themselves against frequent charges of not being "properly Japanese," and were held for comparison against the idealized, kimono-wearing, subservient housewife who stood for all that was proper in family life. Popular magazines came out with arguments on all sides, and even the government — with military values in mind — began to eulogize the new, healthy-looking young woman who could swim and play tennis. The traditional woman was therefore gradually remodeled, and the "compound bijin" (beauty) appeared, who was just as comfortable in traditional kimono as in the latest Western fashions.

Koha Morii’s Children fishing (1920 - 30) is, says Kendall, eloquent of the new mood in Japan in the lead-up to WWII. The children - the boy seated holding a fishing rod, the girl standing behind in the act of saying something - “speaks volumes about Japanese culture between the wars”.

The work shows an “absence of any signs of the modern, urban world” and a “physical and cultural space untainted by Western culture”.

Koha Morii, Children fishing detail, 1920-30
Amelia Groom, on Alternative Media Group’s website, offers the feminist view. I like this because among the wonders of this exhibition the best - to my mind - is by Seiyo Kakuchi.

Bijin (1925, pp 78 - 79) is blandly labelled but offers striking variance because of its strange mood. If, indeed, Taisho women had greater independence, more money, and consequently more options, then this painting proves the point.

Not because of the strength of character it depicts but, rather, the uncertainty. A lack of options when there are too many.

Unlike most Japanese bijin (beautiful woman) paintings, Seiyo conceals the subject's neck. And unlike the front-on image - and the prominent band of the traditional obi ‘belt’ - when Yamakawa placed Kaoru Kuhara with dad's Packard, here the obi's complicated back ‘bustle’ dominates.

It’s a detail but in Japanese art - shoe heels partially buried in sand, unpainted ears near a white-primed face - detail is all.

The hair is not the ‘typical’ Deco roll but a simple - though no doubt time-consuming - hairdo that any woman would be pleased to achieve on days when it all seems to get out of hand.

And while her face is made up to be white the typical drama - a visible neck - is absent.

Look at her hands (click on pic for larger image). On both only the forefinger is visible. All the rest are curled and retracted. One forefinger points up, the other down.

This is modernism.

Down is where Seiyo has her bijin looking, too, “as she broke with the florid lyricism of bijinga masters” having followed normative styles in her early years. Kendall says Seiyo “partakes in [a] modern dialogue”.

Even the sasayuri - lilies - in the foreground droop to fit the mood of the contemporary woman, who actually looks like a woman and not an ideal 'type'. There is no other work to compete with it.

Seiyo Kakuichi, Bijin, 1925
While the introduction by Sharon A. Minichiello goes into the detail of the Taisho era - Japan’s time of rapid expansion before its equally rapid fall under the next emperor (Showa) - we are troubled by the domestic elements, such as the fabulous ice cups (pic top, p 143).

While Japanese soldiers were maltreating their colonial populations, starving their wartime enemies, prostituting women from other Asian countries and running amok in Nanking, what were uncle Hiro and aunt Maiko doing back in Yokohama?

Eating ice cream from cut-glass dishes. The purple colour denotes old age. The etched pattern in the purple segments conjures up old native styles while the cut glass in the clear parts suggests Western clarity and resolve.

How Japan finally resolves this conundrum - for the Chinese government will ensure that it does not disappear - is a matter for the coming century.

Friday 4 July 2008

Kylie's OBE show ran on the ABC after everything else because it is the biggest story.

What came before? Complaints about muelsing by PETA, again in Europe. The story ran into a wool design award won by a man with a Chinese name - Shanghai designer Qiu Hao.

After the program break the main item was climate change and Chinese investment in Australian mining.

After Alan Kohler we watched a story about bullying in the NSW Ambulance Service. Next we heard about August medal chances in womens basketball. This was followed by a rugby union piece which focused on a telegenic young man given the job of running line-outs. Australia and France play tonight.

When the Kylie segment came on we got a tantalising glimpse of her sequinned stars, but that's all. When Kevin Rudd visited Buckingham Palace in May, his green-and-gold (the tie, see pic below) stood out.

After this, pictures with green and yellow predominant gathered momentum. The shot, included before Kylie's below, of a Macquarie Street news spot gives an idea.

But Kylie's meeting with the heir to the Australian throne was designed to take attention off her costume, and place it on the prince - bestowing a fragment of grace on a loyal subject.

This is great PR for the royal family. It's also a sign of how dislocated our political process is; the problem being that Elizabeth holds such a strong claim on collective feelings here.

Perhaps with Charles we have a chance - a historic one - of unlocking the bonds of cosanguineity. The kind of PR event we saw today will not help but there are other ways to skin a cat.

Why Australians insist on believing in sovereignty is a puzzle. It just cannot be, under current arrangements. A recent story on the governor-general, Michael Jeffrey, makes plain the fact that this is not a sovereign state.

During his term, Jeffrey told us, he "sent back" numerous items of legislation. "About eleven" was his estimate. If true, what kind of relationship does the GG have with London?

To be, in any form, independent, Jeffrey - and his successor - needs some official privilege. Some information must be available to the GG that the prime minister lacks.

But what? The trouble is listed among Jeffrey's many beefs against the media and modern culture generally. Despite 700,000 hits on the GG website monthly and hundreds of photo opportunities, the media don't get involved.

As a result, there's no opportunity for a message to get out. If we can have fun picking colours out of Kevin Rudd's tie, surely there are places within ceremony for information to pass through the - apparently - hermetic membrane that currently fits between our head of state and the unwashed.

It's time for a rethink. Kylie did her best - stars are also found on the part of the flag not occupied by the Union Jack. Maybe Quentin Bryce can do better?

From the Sydney Morning Herald article (13 June 2008):

The Governor-General says he meets the prime minister about once a month when the elected leader comes around "to have breakfast and a catch-up". He also regularly holds court with ministers who come to present legislation or seek his approval of various appointments.

What data does he capture during interactions with Her Majesty?

"I talk to the Queen about how Australia's going but I find that she's very well informed anyway. She does her homework."

And what about Kylie Minogue?

"It's glitzy celebrity rather than genuine celebrity in terms of substance, and what people have achieved through hard work and skill and compassion and innovation. It's the celebrity based on other things, different sorts of values which I don't see as values at all."

Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles
Kylie Minogue receives OBE from Prince Charles