Friday, July 30, 2010

Books and the Booker

Books and the Booker by Pants

I hate calling it the 'Man' Booker Prize. It's an unwelcome reminder that at least two thirds of all literary prizes are won by men. The Booker, to use my preferred nomenclature, does mix it up a bit, with the occasional woman, non-white man and even non-white woman breaking through. I haven't read all the winning books since the prize's inception in 1969 but I've worked my way through nearly all in the last twenty years and most of the shortlist as well.

There are a few missing from my experience. At the moment I'm reading The Line of Beauty. I first started to read it in 2005. I was a few pages in when the London bombings occurred. I was on the tube, going to work at Wembley Town Hall at the time. All I'd remembered was that Nick's first ever blind date is with a black guy who works for The London Borough of Brent. His ghost would have been located somewhere in my building. I found that mildly amusing, but not enough to keep on with the book. I'm having better luck this time.

These days I don't buy books new as they cost the same as a week's worth of wine and groceries. Luckily for me, there is a charity shop in our nearest big town where someone with both a high disposable income and Booker-related tastes deposits her pre-devoured books with unseemly haste. She must have a spurn-after-reading policy. I assume she's female because women comprise the vast majority of readers of literary fiction. Last week I picked up a copy of Wolf Hall for a precious few of our local dollars. Thank you frivolous benefactor.

My other source is throwing out great hints around birthdays and Christmas. By this method I have acquired several Booker winners and one or two shortlisters. I've assembled all the chosen that could be culled from my bookshelves and photographed while the microwave was reheating last night's leftover gnocchi and char-grilled vegetables. It should be noted that when Barney char grills it usually isn't intentional but I don't like to waste food. I am less precious about sparing Barney's feelings.

I'm fairly sure I've got a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin somewhere. Despite my spending the better part of a day sorting my fiction collection into alphabetical order, it was not there among the 'A's. I secured a copy of The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai on one of my regular assaults on the Ilford Oxfam just before I left England for good in 2008. I was on my way to India and thought it would be a good topical read. I was there for over a month and, fortunately, fell in with a group of readers. We kept swapping books and I ended up with a lovely hardcover first edition of On Chesil Beach.

Sadly, that was a week or so after I'd met Ian McEwan in Jaipur so I wasn't able to get him to sign it. On that occasion, the sainted one said some rather spiteful things about Anne Enright's book The Gathering, which had beaten him out for the Booker a few months earlier. I wouldn't have liked to have had to choose between them. I didn't get to read The Gathering until I arrived in Australia and secured a library card. Then I could see why McEwan was so pissed off. They'd essentially written the same book. Both were stunningly crafted examinations of human frailty. When I feel, as I so often do, that I'm completely ill-equipped for life, a book like The Gathering or On Chesil Beach reminds me that I'm failing at least as well as most people.

By chance, I recently came across an article or blog post which I have now no hope of referencing because it was days ago and there has been much wine under the bridge since then. The substance was that the writer had attended a writing workshop given by Anne Enright in which Ms Enright advised on the writing of dialogue. What she said was that one should hold a page of dialogue at a distance and if the lines looked roughly the same length, then you're doing it right. Arise St. Anne.

I've recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road for the first (and very likely not the last) time. It absolutely obeys the Enright manifesto and is a work of complete perfection. It would, of course, never have been eligible for The Booker Prize which is only open to writers from countries who did not wage war on the British Empire and win. This is going to sound strange but reading that book brimmed me over with hope. McCarthy allows himself a pauper's palette of possibilities yet creates an absolute jewel from almost nothing. Something about that just makes me want to live.

Mostly, I agree with Booker selections. The God of Small Things, A Fraction of the Whole, Vernon God Little, and Booker of Bookers winner Midnight's Children will always have an honoured place among my favourite books. Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole lost out in 2008 to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It seemed a bit unfair. Although I enjoyed The White Tiger I had a lot of trouble getting into step with its rhythm. This week I listened to a recording of it with first-person narrator Balram represented precisely in the clichéd sing-songy voice my instincts were working very hard to reject on ethical grounds. I immediately reviewed the text and found the writer's intent was to infer exactly that voice. Multiculturalism is complicated.

Which brings me to the latest Booker longlist. I've only read one of the books on it, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I've also only read one of the shock omissions, Solar by Ian McEwan. As difficult as it is to leave aside my McEwan bias, all I can say is I wouldn't have minded being a fly on the wall in the McEwan house when the list was announced, especially if he'd read The Slap.

It is the sort of book that induces only despair for the future of literature. It struggles to overcome an extreme hands-off editing strategy which often leaves you wondering if you're reading several drafts of the same sentence. The laboured explanations of cultural and symbolic references are simply baffling. 'Show don't tell' is superseded by 'show and tell to the point of torture'. If, as has been suggested by the local media, The Slap represents life in modern multicultural Australia, then I'm an inter-generational panel beater on the international gelati exchange. Seriously, the only pertinent slap present is to the face of the intelligent reader.

Solar - I know I've been saying I'd write a review for weeks. I just loved it and can't imagine that I could add much to what's already been said about it. It's a familiar journey in excellence. Ma Pants, (who is 80), and I read it at the same time and we had several highly animated discussions on the finer points. Perhaps this isn't much of an advert. Possibly more a kiss of death. I hope it's not the case that Booker judges are presuming to pander to what they imagine is more accessible to young people - i.e. representing the muck and mess of life with mucky and messy writing.

McEwan's infuriatingly successful non-entity Michael Beard and his complexity of work/life intrigues is far more fascinating to me than Tsiolkas's cardboardery of creeps whose inability to resolve their tediously contrived minor personal 'issue' unfolds over an interminable 483pp. After overhearing St. Ian diss St. Anne I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the body of one C. Tsiolkas has been found inexplicably inert in the vicinity of a damaged glass table.

* * * *

Those of you who are parents or owners of expensive hyp0-allergenic designer pets will, I am sure, sympathise with my current position. Barney, as you may know, is a billionaire in his own right but I am still responsible for his conduct. You cannot imagine my horror at being accused of owning a pet who knowingly contributed to the intoxication of a man who has been eligible to get legless for the past three years. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that Daniel Radcliffe's 21st birthday party did, in fact, take place at one of Barney's extensive chain of Goblet of Fire Vodka Bars. You cannot imagine what we had to promise the Daily Mail to suppress Barney's involvement. Suffice to say that his cameo in The Deathly Hallows is probably being excised as I write. I did warn him...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Someone please call 911

Photo from

Yo, what up? Just heard Wyclef Jean is contemplating running for President of Haiti. On the strength of his various charitable foundations' track records, he's well qualified for that post.

It may be slightly tougher to meet the other criteria. According to one's adored Guardian newspaper,

To enter the race, Jean would have to prove he has resided in Haiti for five consecutive years, own property in the country and have never been a citizen of any country other than Haiti.

Owning property is hardly likely to be a problem and, presumably it can be any five years, e.g. from age 0-5, but making US citizenship go away could be a bit tougher.

I don't imagine he'd do any worse a job than any of his predecessors. In Haiti, an elected president with no previous experience in politics is likely to be an advantage, at least for its beleaguered populace. Wyclef could raise the country's GDP just by buying a cup of coffee.

Here in Australia, we are also about to elect a new leader. I mean 'leader' in the
Alexandre Ledru-Rollin sense of the word. He was the one who said, 'there go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader.'

Our choices are not between people who have dueted with Mary J Blige. That would have been a much more interesting contest. Rather, we have a Prime Minister who can not exactly claim to be 'sitting', unless she is having breakfast at the time, and a man about whom the very image of seatedness conjures up rather unseemly thoughts of inappropriately administered Lycra.

The candidates, Muzga Lard and Mezda Rabbit might have been inventions of Beatrix Potter, although I suspect she would have been less than impressed with their recent animations. Last Sunday night, we were treated to 'a debate'. It was notable for its complete lack of any element normally associated with the term 'debate'. As I understand it, a debate is an exercise in which opposing ideas are tested by argument. This was more like a Dadaist Punch'n'Judy Show in which the objective was to remain aloof and avoid any possibility of contact or clarity.

The rolling pins had apparently all been pre-purchased by Masterchef, the finale of which was appearing on the same evening. This situation in itself created an entirely fanciful conceit in which Australians were pilloried world-wide for preferencing a cooking show over serious political 'debate'. I'd have to plummet Heideggarian depths for which I'm ill-equipped to give that choice matrix any credence.

Fortunately, the reality is more explainable. The cooking show had scheduled its finale for Sunday, 25th July at 7.30pm. Not because it's spookily clairvoyant but rather that it has tedious weekly cook-offs where the true sport is to bet on which melts first; the chef's nerve or the butter in his/her pan. The finale, I'm assuming because I don't watch cooking shows - they make you fat - provides relief that someone in the country is able to successfully complete a three-course dinner for six without having to self-immolate in brandy as a face-saving dessert.

The Prime Minister could have called an election any time in the next six months. She popped in to see the Governor General an Saturday, 17th July. They got out their diaries and settled on 21st August as a polling date. I haven't participated in an Australian election since 1980 so I'm not up to speed on tele-debate protocol but I'm guessing the timing of it is not constitutionally enshrined. I gather the tradition is that the 'debate' between leaders normally takes place at 7.30pm on a Sunday night on the national network, sometime before the election.

I'm further guessing that the PR people who scheduled the 'debate' took a look at the TV schedule and concluded that to compete with the finale of Masterchef would be to toss an oven mitt-shaped gauntlet to the people to make a lifestyle and death choice, however pointless a concept that may seem to anyone with a fully functioning brain. Again, we'd need Heidegger to sort out that mess. If that poor man had been faced with the idea of view on demand, his head would have exploded.

Fortunately, we were never placed in the emergency situation of having to Heideggerise our viewing, thanks to thoughtful PR people who are in touch with we ordinary Australians and our love for guava and custard apple snow egg desserts.

So, what will Wyclef do if he's elected President? I'm thinking the road to reconstruction in Haiti is not going to be a simple three-step 'from the hut to the projects to the mansion' thing. I hope he's got something else in mind 'cause there won't be no 911.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gone fisking

Barney's humble beginnings

We are taking a short break to refresh our souls, not to mention our ideas.

Back soon...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blues, all colours

Rhapsody in Blue by Pants

Last year I made a frantic number of digital photographs on the theme of blue. It's taken me a year to get around to looking at all of them as a series. It's a bit that way with me at the moment.

The long-suffering amongst you might recall that I endured a disastrous year at the Larrikin's End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé where I learned only to deeply mistrust anyone within a hundred-mile radius. I am still harrowed at night by the sceptre of the bearded ex-Canadian who screeched at us,

Don't underestimate the waink fuk-tuurrr. The waink fuk-tuurrr. The ferkain waink fuk-turrrr.

The innocence of my artistic youth was virtually raped away that day and my sanity is never likely to be fully restored. But I must do stuff. So I will do stuff.

My inability to calibrate my project cycle with the resources to hand may well be my undoing in the end. I didn't ever get around to 'photoshopping' these pictures while I had access to decent equipment. But it doesn't matter. None of it ever does.

I think of a song I often used to play and sing called All Blues. It's an easy piece. The tune, by Miles Davis, appears for the first time on Kind of Blue. It's one of my favourite records. The modal, 6/8 rhythm is the perfect platform for introspection. Oscar Brown Jnr. wrote mesmerisingly simple lyrics.

A colour, a colour, the blues is more than a colour.

I'm not much of a piano player but, to paraphrase Scarlett O'Hara, I can hold a cross-rhythm if I don't have to shoot too far. You're playing a simple rhythm and singing across it and you can spice it up with rubato. You steal from the rhythm and it steals right back from you because the rules of music dictate that you have to both arrive at the end at the same time.

Many would argue that Miles Davis was the boss of that territory. I might throw in a vote for Thelonious Monk. Growing up listening to Thelonious Monk, or even Miles Davis, is probably not an experience too many Australian kids in the 1960s would have had. I am grateful for it. My road into this music began with the novelties that were standard fare for American jazz musicians wanting to reach the mainstream record-buying audience.

It began for me as I'm sure it did for many others with Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher. My father was brilliant at bringing home batches of second-hand vinyl LPs that contained novelties to keep the kids amused.

And then one day my Dad brought home Rhapsody in Blue. I think I can probably still sing the whole thing in my head. But right now, there are a lot of things my head needs to do other than hum Rhapsody in Blue all day long.

So, I'm going to take a break...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Medieval foodalism

Comfort food by Pants

Few jokes I remember, but this one stuck with me. Three men walk into a bar. The first, a German, says, 'I'm so thirsty, I must have beer!' The second, a French guy, says, 'I'm so thirsty, I must have wine!' The third, a Jewish geezer, says, 'I'm so thirsty, I must have diabetes!'

I don't have diabetes, nor do I intend to get it. Or should that be 'them'. Diabetes. Sounds plural, doesn't it? Regular readers will recall that, although I know nothing whatever about health matters, that's never stopped me weighing in, so to speak. That may well be a medical condition in itself. Let's hope so. I would like, just once, to be injected with the fear of The Supreme Dalek for something remotely resembling a good reason.

The ubiquitous nutrition copeterie has been hounding us for decades about avoiding anything and everything that renders food edible. I dare not raise, yet again, my objection to governmental obsession with 'things that may never happen' while the people who are sick here and now languish on waiting lists for operations that would alleviate real, actual pain.

But, please note dear confidante, that I am thinking about that as I cannibalise my - I'm sorry, I need a moment with the smelling salts before I can type its unspeakableness - unsolicited and absolutely unwanted Government-issue stool testing kit - to refit it for its only decent purpose. And that would be as a piece of art which I will gladly leave in perpetuity in the hope that it might instruct future inhabitants of this planet after we've fucked it over completely.

Years ago, I nominally added diabetes 'type 2' to the interminable list of life-threatening evils I must guard against. I'm not so arrogant that I won't at least listen to a reasonable argument from scientists whose interests are not wholeheartedly vested in proving their own hypotheses. Should such scientists arrive in the Pantosphere, perhaps they'll send a card around to Seat of Pants, so we can receive them with due courtesy.

I do know that if I eat too much chocolate or drink too much wine I will get a headache. That knowledge works for me as a deterrent for over-indulgence in chocolate but has not been quite as effective with wine. I also hear that salt is bad for me. Well, I have low blood pressure. I keep a store of Free Trade dark chocolate very handy. I add salt 'to taste', as they used to say in the old recipe books because I'm prone to cramp.

Which brings me to my point. What I've wanted to say all along is that I have a favourite food item. It probably isn't, strictly speaking, the healthiest food option on the planet. But it only takes a few minutes to make and it contains all natural ingredients.

The potato fritter (above), is a dish my mother passed on to us. My version is spicier than Ma Pants's as I discovered that Spanish paprika tends to awaken the tango tendency in a shredded potato. The specimens above were probably the best I ever made. The potatoes are local baby desirees. Will I ever taste their like again? Please don't arrest me officer. My taste buds know not what they feel.

Sorry, I was waylaid enjoying good health, I completely forgot that I was going to tell you that our Government here in Australian is thinking of introducing one of these wonderful things they like to call a 'scheme' to manage the poor unfortunates who find themselves suffering from diabetes. Our good government proposes to pay a good doctor an 'incentive' in cash money to keep these poor unfortunates 'out of hospital'.

Just a wild, crazy guess, but does anyone else see the sliver of a chance that doctors might read this 'incentive' as a directive to limit hospital admissions? I speak as someone whose elderly mother collapsed on an ambulance concourse after being refused admission to a hospital when she drove herself to emergency because she was having a severe asthma attack.

Fortunately, the Australian Medical Association has done a survey of doctors and they're overwhelmingly against this scheme. It's a relief to have some glint of hope that our medical establishment is not entirely composed of automatons. Perhaps I do get a bit too caught up in the whole you know Who state of the universeness of things.

Oh, right. You want the recipe for those delicious potato fritters?

Pour a glass of wine. Shred three big potatoes or lots of little ones into a large mixing bowl. Wash or peel them beforehand if you can be arsed. Throw in a whisked egg and whatever herbs you have to hand. Spice to taste. As I've said above, a generous pinch of paprika works well for me. I also usually throw in a dessert spoon of powdered bouillon de légumes. Add a couple of tablespoons of self-raising flour and some milk and mix it to pancake consistency. You need to let it sit for about twenty minutes, so drink your wine.

Heat a large flat pan on the big hotplate at about eight o'clock on the dial if you have an old-fashioned cooker like I do. If you don't, you should be reading a different blog. Add a thin layer of olive oil. Pour another glass of wine. Check that the fritter mixture is pancake consistency. Add either milk or self-raising flour to correct. When oil is hot, drop fritter-sized portions into it. You should fit four into a big frying pan at a time. Fry for five minutes on each side. Keep drinking your wine throughout.

They go with everything. And they freeze well. I know, I know. I can't help thinking that we ought to leave something nourishing for the aliens...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Leunig-tic fringe

Leunig by Pants

I've waited ages for an opportunity to publish this photo of Australian cartoonist and official national treasure Michael Leunig. I snapped it on the campus of The University of Queensland sometime in the mid-seventies. I guess that is obvious from the Fair Isle vest he's wearing. History does not record what Pants had on but it could easily have been something of a Fair Isle nature.

The excuse is to link to this exquisite rant in The Age today, to which I can only reply, 'so it's not just me, then'.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spelling Beef

Age of Unenlightenment by Pants

My grandfather was a carpenter. He used to say 'only a poor workman blames his tools.' A British academic has told a conference that the English language is too difficult for young children to learn, according to The Telegraph.

Yes, well it is a bugger, we all know that. The beauty of schooling, however, is that you get about eleven years to master a working knowledge of the language. You're at least sixteen before you're confronted with any forms to fill in that require a binding signature. And in any case, these are almost always written in a language that no one is ever taught and is as far removed from literary English as Tumshuqese.

Granted, there are many irregularities in English that possibly don't make sense if you haven't ever seen home-baked food and therefore expect everything in the world to be explicable only in the context of bureaucratic uniformity.

Fortunately, English has a built-in antidote for difficulty which is called 'degree'. You start out with simple words and progress through to the more complex ones. The irregulars you memorise at the leisurely rate of a few dozen a year. I know we mostly think of memory as a remote function that lives in a thing called Google, but we have a perfectly decent one parked in our heads that is capable of compiling a compendium of essential homophones over time.

Teacher-turned-author, Masha Bell does not share my confidence in our native language's uncanny ability to inveigle itself into our collective consciousness. She suggests that sweeping reforms are needed to the spelling system to improve children’s linguistic skills'. She explains to The Telegraph,

'The antique, inconsistent spelling system of English is probably the main reason why the UK has a far longer tail of educational underachievement than any other European country, why more of our young people are Neets (Not in Education Employment or Training), why many end up in jail, and why improving their chances of re-offending while in prison is much more difficult too.'

Oh gawd, I think we need logic cop. Ms Bell rather neatly skirts the requirement for pesky old empirical evidence here with deft deployment of the word 'probably'. The words 'jumping' and 'shark' might find themselves in the same sentence if it were up to me alone but logic cop is on the case now.

It is true that there is a disproportion of people in jails with low standards of literacy. It is also true that a lot of those people have either a recognisable learning disability or have grown up and been schooled in an environment of multiple disadvantage. It is more true than ever that the poorest areas of Britain in socio-economic terms are where you will find the worst schools. And guess what - they have the lowest attainment levels in English and Maths.

A study by The Dyslexia Institute published in 2005* reviewed the incidence of hidden disabilities within the prison population in Yorkshire and Humberside. The study determined that just over half of the 359 prisoners surveyed had literacy difficulties severe enough to hamper their work and life chances. Around twenty per cent of the sample group had an identifiable literacy disability such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. Half of the male prisoners surveyed had been excluded from school and a third had been regular truants. The research also found that around two-thirds of participants had low levels of numeracy. That's right. More prisoners had problems with Maths than English.

From my days working on educational programmes with under-performing London schools I recall that the attainment stats were very often even lower for Maths than they were for English. So how come the lowest attaining British children do even worse in a subject taught in a universal language? Anyone want to propose bad teaching as a possibility?

Public education is a one-size-fits-all affair. It can't really be done any other way unless the rich people in Britain demean themselves and pay some tax. Why would they? They can afford to send their children to the best of the fee-paying schools.

Most people manage to get through your bog-standard state education provided the teaching is adequate. Even in the prison population, where the incidence of learning disabilities directly affecting literacy is known to be a huge magnification of the occurrence in the general population, the figure is only twenty per cent. Surely it makes more sense to maintain good standards generally and supplement the needs of struggling children with high quality, one-on-one remedial tutoring.

The disaffected minority who are underserved by education now might be a problem but it will be as nothing compared to the anger that could result from a generation of young people who wake up in the near future to discover their access to the wider world has been barred for no good reason. They may discover that most of the interesting things about the world, like spiders and trains and general fiction were prohibited from their experience because their parents and teachers were caught up in some weird paranoiac illness in which they somehow thought that a child's experience should never actually be direct, but rather an extension of the parental or pedagogic imagination. I sure don't want to be around for that tsunami of realisation.

As it happens, this week a suburban couple was reported to Social Services in London for letting their children aged eight and five, ride bicycles to school along a safe route. It was the children's school who dobbed them in. London mayor Boris Johnson has something to say about it in his Telegraph column. I know I've mentioned this before but I can't help it. Every time there is a story about Boris and bikes I just have to relate the time I nearly ran over him in my BMW in Islington. He was doing circles in Liverpool Road. Some might say he was asking for it.

I'm probably not the best person to comment on child protection as I don't have children. When Niece Pants, then aged nine, came to London on her first ever overseas trip, I immediately went outside and grabbed a couple of kids who looked about her age. It's not like they were complete strangers. I'd seen them around. Anyway, I brought them in and introduced them to Niece Pants. From then on they were all out every night playing on the streets and in the parks of Hackney (i.e. the most dangerous place in Britain to live). Niece Pants came in, as instructed, at sundown. It was the middle of summer so that was about 9.30pm. Guess what. No harm came to her.

At that same age (9), Niece Pants's mother Sis Pants, won a place in a class for academically gifted children. The school was way across town from our home. She caught an open-backed double-decker bus into central Sydney and then a train out to her school every morning without escort. The following year, she was getting up even earlier and going to swimming training every morning. I think Dad might have driven her to the pool on his way to work but she would have had to get herself to school on time after training. I don't even remember the detail. That was a kid's life back then. If you wanted extra-curricula activity, you organised it yourself. I personally dragged a 'cello all around Sydney on a bus or train and had to find my own way, from the age of twelve, to the far reaches of the city every Saturday for hockey fixtures.

I've got a bit off the point. But, not entirely. These two ideas are linked by one word 'adventure'. It is abhorrent to me to think that children could ever be prohibited from the experience of discovery. I may not have had kids myself but I have plenty of friends and relatives who have. I remember that three-year-olds can memorise the name of every single dinosaur that ever was, and not because they have to. If there is something wrong with school, it's not to do with the content of the knowledge bank because children will withdraw anything that is available to them. Their minds are made that way.

And before I depart entirely from the subject of growing up in Sydney, immigrant kids would land in our primary school class on a regular basis bewildered and without a word of English. They'd have come from Greece or Italy. Teachers didn't mollycoddle in those days. The newcomers were chucked into the lowest class in their age group. They had to work their way up from there. If they were lucky, someone might mimic the Australian crawl motion to let them know what was happening to them. Their parents were not of an educated class, yet those kids would be speaking fluent English in months, if not weeks.

The article in The Telegraph also throws up this gem,

'According to academics, children in Britain normally take three years to read to a decent standard.

But in Finland – where words are more likely to be pronounced as they look – children can read fluently within three months.'

Which gives Finnish kids plenty of time to learn English, which they do in their multitudes. Around ninety per cent of Finns can speak and read English to a communicative standard. Finns can also speak Swedish and most likely French, German and Italian. Now many people do you know who can speak and/or read Finnish or indeed French, German and Italian?

I count myself very lucky to be a native English speaker. It is already the global language of international travel and business, not to mention blogging. Should English spelling be rationalised? Yes, undoubtedly, but not because some Nanny McAcademic says British kids are too dumb to learn it. What's that saying to the wider world of English speakers who've been able to master it as a second, third or fourth language?

British magazine The Economist has begun a debate about whether or not American English should be adopted as standard. Well, it's only marginally less irregular than Standard English. I think I could probably live without the written distinction between 'check' and 'cheque'. I'd even be prepared to give up 'practise' as a verb. I'd be less comfortable with 'different than' because it doesn't make logical sense but it doesn't matter.

It will not be the Anglophone countries who define English as she is spoke and writ in the future because we're already in the minority. Those whom our ancestors presumed to conquer will have their revenge by colonisining our language. The cohort of English speakers who vastly outnumber we native-tonguers will sort it out, over time. Of course, I would love it if my adoptive god-parent the OED grasped guardianship of the venture in the short term. The new version of the Oxford Dictionary website I cannot praise enough. Now you don't need to know the exact spelling of a word to get it to talk to you. It's like Google but with brains.

My grandfather could read perfectly well even though I doubt his formal education went beyond the age of ten. He taught me the language of music and read to us from comic books. These two things I regard as major pillars in my formal education. I draw on his teachings now, as much as I ever did. Mene kuva - that's 'go figure' in Finnish.

* I've tried to add the link but there is something wrong with it. You can get to it easily enough if you're interested via a key-word search.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A kind of blue

Blue ray by Pants

I seem to have a winter malaise. It's very cold where I am in eastern Victoria, although not as cold as in other parts of the country, or even other parts of Victoria. I've lived in colder places, but not without double glazing and gas-fired central heating. I do have a very efficient combustion stove which heats the whole house. I really can't bear multi-climate dwellings. An even temperature is a minimal comfort requirement for me. I'd rather have it uniformly cold than have to wrap myself around a pathetic little heat source with less commitment potential than Lindsay Lohan.

I don't want to waste wood though so I wait until the sun goes down at 5pm to light up. I then I pull all the blinds and build a fire hot enough to forge steel. It works. The heat quickly travels up the flue. After I've stuffed in more logs than Captain Kirk racks up on a typical Enterprise mission, I close off the damper. While the house is toasty warm, I get around and attend to anything that can't be dealt with in 'the office'.

Although it makes perfect sense to stay in bed all morning, which I do, it doesn't quite seem right. Instead of dragging myself out of bed to face the world, I haul the world into bed with me. The laptop is the radio, TV and all the newspapers rolled into one. It's also the mailbox, the phone and, occasionally, the workstation. Unfortunately, I have not yet trained it to make breakfast.

Actually, I've always been a breakfast-in-bed person. There's nothing I love more than to scramble two of our fine Larrikin's End eggs into which I sprinkle a generous pinch of chives and parsley from the garden and a few strips of clearance Tasmanian smoked salmon. I pounce on it when they mark it down as it freezes exceptionally well and you only need a little bit to imagine you live a life of pampered luxury. I decant a full pot of coffee into a thermos flask and crawl into the double-duvet 'office'.

I can't imagine why I thought there was something wrong with me. This seems like a perfectly sensible way to live now that I think about it. It's the blues Jim, but not as we know them...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

On matters of life and death

Death mask by Pants

I have been thinking about death a lot lately. I'm not in any great hurry mind, but I don't like to think of it being a long, protracted thing. I've never been ill, so I don't have any experience of medication - well not that kind anyway.

These days you virtually need a degree in pharmacology to have a conversation with a doctor. I only know about this from talking to my mother, who has a habit of reporting verbatim the contents of consultations she has with various health professionals. There are a lot of words ending in 'ine' and 'ol' and 'test' that I don't recognise.

Ma Pants was recently in hospital and shared a room with a nice old lady of 99. This lady had a condition that hampered her circulatory system. In times gone by we might have called this 'slowing down' and accepted it as a natural phase in the end-of-life cycle. But no. The nurses would wake this poor dear up in the morning and make her sit in a chair all day which distressed her deeply. All she wanted to do was get back into bed and go to sleep. The nurses wouldn't allow it. What if she died! The horror. Gone at 99. What a waste!

It distressed Ma Pants and it distressed me too. For the old lady's sake. For Ma Pants's sake. For everyone who is ever at the mercy of a hospital policy's sake. Ma Pants worked out quite quickly that the lady wanted to lie down and die peacefully, in her sleep. Surely she'd earned that right. She was apparently clever enough not to state that desire openly. Talk about a red rag to a bull. You never, ever tell a health professional that you've enjoyed your stay on earth but would like to check out now please. They hate suicides almost as much as they hate the senseless, senseless deaths from motoring accidents. We're talking one-way ticket to involuntary life support. It means they'll keep you alive until you contract something statistically insignificant.

I don't normally think about death unless it happens to someone close. You think about it if a friend or relation has just died. That's natural. You're not supposed to be preoccupied by it all the time. But talk of death, or rather the deceiving of it seems unavoidable if you engage with any media at all. You're either supposed to be fighting off whatever viral enemy presumes to deprive you of the term of your natural life or adhering to some food conglomerate interest's version of an appropriate diet regime. I've never bothered with a healthy lifestyle and I've never been sick.

Which is sort of why I'm worried. I figure if I'm ever going to get sick, it's bound to be when I'm old and senile and unable to deal with the harrowing world of 'ines' and 'ols'. By that stage, anyone who does get sick will be in everyone's bad books because we'll have had twenty or so years of indoctrination about how to avoid illness and so it must be our fault if we succumb. About the worst fate I can imagine is to be 99 and not be allowed to just lay down and die.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Remembrance of bad things past

Blast by Pants

Five years ago today I was on my way to work at Wembley Town Hall in North London. I wasn't on my usual route, which might have started out on a No. 30 bus from Hackney Wick. The driver might have been George, a cheerful fellow who had a habit of welcoming passengers. A No. 30 bus was blown up that morning by a terrorist bomb. George was the driver. Happily he survived. Thirteen of the passengers he no doubt welcomed aboard did not.

I was not coming from Hackney Wick that morning. I had spent the night in Watford, where I had been at my cousin's birthday party. While we were making merry, the announcement came through that London's bid for the 2012 Olympics had been successful. I wasn't exactly jumping for joy as my home was right next to the site. My departure would be two-and-a-half years away but I already knew I was going to be selling up.

In the morning I was a bit the worse for whiskey which may explain why I got on the wrong train from Watford. It roared past Wembley Central in express mode to Kensington Olympia where I arrived at about 8.30am. I was annoyed with myself. Even though I was resigned to travelling all the way across London to get to work on a daily basis, I much preferred it before the middle of the rush hour. I would have been at work by now if I hadn't stupidly gotten on the wrong train. There I was, smack in the middle of the worst crowds at the worst time, with almost a whole journey ahead of me.

Even though no bombs had yet gone off on the London Underground, the first route I tried was suspended. I managed to squeeze onto a train to Edgware Road Station, probably about fifteen minutes before a bomb went off there. From Edgware Road I travelled around to Baker Street and then onto the Metropolitan Line for Wembley Park Station, the nearest to work.

The first of the three terrorist bombs was probably going off as my train was pulling away from Baker Street. I had no idea. I was just relieved to be back on a familiar path. I opened my book. I remember very clearly that it was Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. I never finished it. In fact I returned it to the library with only a dozen pages turned. I just didn't feel like it after what happened that day. Incredibly, I borrowed that very same book from our local library on Monday, before I knew I would write this post. I will read it this time.

I got to work just after 9am, my little overnight backpack still strapped on. My colleague Brian gave me that 'and what time do you call this?' look. We were the early birds. We both commuted from Hackney. I explained the Watford express fiasco. He laughed. We moaned about the Olympic win, to get it out of the way before everyone else got in.

We knew something serious had happened when the boss phoned in. I took the call. Owen's suburban train had come into King's Cross. The passengers had all been herded out of the station and onto buses and then off the buses soon after. He and was trying to get a cab and thought he might be a while. Then we got an internal email. Something very serious had happened. Brian and I went downstairs to the staff canteen where they had a big television. These days we would all immediately go online at our separate workstations but five years ago it was different. You wanted television. You wanted the BBC. You wanted company. You needed them.

My mother likes to watch television at night. I didn't want to risk the possibility that she might be confronted with a startling 'all hell breaks loose in London' banner. I went down to the newsagent and bought a phonecard. I dialled the council switchboard and explained that I wanted to call my mother in Australia because she would be worried and gave them my phonecard number. I called her, just like I had every other time there had been a bomb in London. Just like I had when the King's Cross Station fire had happened. Just like I had when we'd had the terrible storm in '87. Just like I did every time I returned from a holiday abroad.

The first hour or so after the bombs was a very controlled version of chaos. There were bombs on trains and buses, nobody knew how many. All public transport was suspended. The word 'suspended' has particular resonance for me because it perfectly describes how my mind responds to these events. I understand the draw of disaster tourism, although I certainly don't approve of it. Closely observed calamities or events in which you may only be peripherally involved pull you into them in a base human way. You're either inexplicably inert in someone else's reality or actively participating in your own dream. And you can't tell which is true. You know you can't immediately help, you don't want to risk being a hindrance and you keep looking at your hands to make sure you're still alive. Armageddon has to happen sometime, right?

I remember thinking as we watched lots of pictures of police vans whizzing about and strap headlines begin to appear below them announcing 'possible terrorist attack', just how very British it all was. We had yet to see the terrible sight of the No. 30 bus with its upper deck blown off. The bus, as we were later to learn, was a mistake. The bus bomber couldn't get onto his planned Underground train. If it weren't for his panicked improvisation, there would have hardly been a visual memory of this horror. Most of it happened deep beneath the city.

Four years previously, on the day that will be forever known as 9/11, I had been working in the bowels of Islington Town Hall in London when two planes struck the World Trade Centre. I had sequestered myself in a silent basement room to assemble a huge batch of consultation papers without fear of interruption. When I emerged mid-afternoon, a colleague said, 'hey, the Twin Towers are on fire. It's terrorists'. I thought he was joking.

I walked across the road and caught a No. 30 bus home. I remember looking out the window and thinking, 'Mark must have been kidding because look at everyone going about their business. Nothing's changed.' I guess I really thought something like that should resound around the world. When I got home, I turned on the TV. The resound was much, much slower then than it would be now, but everything had changed. I had been in New York City almost exactly a year earlier. As I watched into the night the endless replays of the Twin Towers collapsing, I remembered how beautiful New York City is in September.

As is London in July. By the time Owen arrived at work, at about 11.30am, we knew a little more. Everyone called everyone they knew who travelled on the tube. The council's HR team swung into gear. By lunchtime, they'd figured out that people would be stranded as all public transport had been suspended indefinitely. I hadn't thought of that. Brian and I went downstairs to the staff canteen again and met up with the liaison officer who'd been assigned to match people up with lifts.

Just after lunch my closest friend Geoff phoned me. He said, 'don't worry. He isn't hurt, but Tom was driving one of the trains.' I remember that very clearly because, although I had known Tom for around fifteen years, I didn't see him very often. He was Geoff's friend and I only saw him on Geoff-related occasions. It was and is so like Geoff to be thinking about how best to tell me something like that. Tom was driving the Piccadilly Line train. Twenty-six people were killed on his train. The bomb went off in the first carriage, the one directly behind his cabin.

Brian and I got an email at around 3pm to say that Alan from Finance would drive us in his car to Archway. It wouldn't have been the end of the world if no one had given us a lift. Nisha had already kindly offered accommodation at her house which was nearby. Fortunately, Brian had left his car in Islington that day and taken the overground into work. That was very lucky for us. It only took us about 45 minutes to walk from Archway to Canonbury Station, me wearing my overnight backpack. I didn't realise at that stage what an enormous role the backpack had played in the day's events.

I was lucky that day. I didn't lose my life. I didn't lose any friends. I didn't ever seriously run a 'sliding doors' scenario, although it did occur to me that I skidded a good deal closer than I might have if I'd had my act together and scrutinised the departure board at Watford Central more closely.

The next day, most of the public transport system resumed normal operations and I went to work. Fifty-two people had died. Many more had been physically injured or emotionally scared or both. Countless families and friends were still searching the hospitals or awaiting news of someone who hadn't been accounted for.

Two weeks later there was nearly a repeat of the nightmare. On July 21st, four backpack bombs failed to detonate successfully. Three were on the Underground. One was on a Hackney Wick bus, this time the No. 26. I was already at work when the news came through. Alan from Finance again gave us a lift to Archway. The buses were running again by the time we arrived. We got on a bus to Highbury and the driver greeted us with a cheery, 'don't let the bastards grind you down'.

I'm relieved to have avoided being directly involved in these awful events but I am also grateful for the experience of being quite close. People on the fringe of disaster become incredibly calm and throw themselves into admin mode. Things do not fall apart. Of course, London does have that blitz-coping heritage, but I think it must be true of people everywhere. We seem able to deal with whatever confronts us, when it's important.

Tonight I think of that day. I think of Tom. I think of all the other people who are living with the consequences of what happened in London on 7th July, 2005.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

And death shall have no opinion

The dying of the light

The other day I heard a XXGenYer on the radio blithely quip that there would probably be no old age pension by the time she got to retirement age. What age might that be by mid-century - 103? She intended to invest for her retirement, at, like, some point. The words 'as' and 'if' slowly formed on my pursed lips.

Why would anyone think it was acceptable to deny fellow humans the guarantee of dignity and decency no matter what misfortune awaited them? Have we not read our Dickens? Just because we're all such firebrands for risk management these days, don't mean shit don't happen.

I heard about the Depression and the War from my parents. I was always aware that torment on a global scale could be ignited from almost nothing. War and depression have almost happened again so many times in the last sixty years. It's not cleverness that has contained them. It's luck.

The welfare ethic that developed in most western countries after World War 2 was born of an earnestness to alleviate human suffering. The proponents, although victors, had seen far too much of it to feel they could walk away without securing a fundamental change in the way we treat each other.

Is it really possible that this marked advancement in our collective consciousness could be completely dismantled within a generation or two by compulsive shoe shoppers who couldn't be arsed to speak out against the hostile takeover of our common wealth by private interests? Has anyone looked at the American example of health and aged care lately? Why don't people believe in universal welfare anymore?

The idea that you put a percentage of the money you earn into a state-run scheme that will take care of you if you are ill or live beyond your capacity to work for a living is, I suppose, unfashionably Marxist. 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', is how he put it. He didn't include women because women didn't work then. They just starved, along with their children, if their husband died and couldn't provide for them. Or they were all sent to the workhouse.

Australia has a compulsory workers' pension scheme called Superannuation. I don't know anything about it because it came in after I left the country. It seems enormously complex, so I'm quite glad I don't have to learn it. I have gleaned that the Government doesn't run it. It is a profit-generating industry.

Today the Government announced some proposals for improving it. One of them is a directive to Superannuation fund managers that they 'must act in the interests of customers'. Would you trust your decrepitude to someone who needed to be ordered not to fuck you over?

The other proposal is that the Government set up a safe and simple scheme for the large numbers of people who don't understand what is happening with their retirement savings. Let's hope that one gets up. Since no political jurisdiction anywhere in the world has yet demonstrated it has the muscle to knock down the thugs who treat people's life savings like a poker stake, I'd like to see Australia get beyond 'please sir can I have some more' in its negotiations.

I have a British state pension entitlement, which I now won't get until I'm sixty-five but that doesn't matter much because I'm sure I'll have learned to live on thirty pounds, ten shillings and sixpence a year by then. The British National Insurance scheme I understand perfectly well. Every working person contributes a percentage of his or her salary to a national fund which pays for both the National Health Service and the State Pension. The employer pays a contribution as well.

The important thing about this scheme is that it pays for everyone who is sick, no matter how sick they are and it pays for everyone who is old, no matter how old they get. If you never get sick but drop dead at sixty-four, you don't get anything and neither do your descendants. This is the nature of universal welfare. It deals with the basic requirements of the living. The guarantee you have is that if you are ill, someone will try to fix you and if you get old, someone will feed you and wipe your bum. And you will not ever have to worry about how you're going to pay for it. Simple, although perhaps not pleasing to your vile and snivelling grand-nephew.

The inequality of NHS treatment is another matter and any friend of Pants will know that I've had plenty to say on that in the past. Bad administration and poor training are separate and distinct problems. Their existence doesn't dilute the basic soundness of the universal care ideology. If anyone really thinks private industry provides superior medical care, they might like to take a close look at the American model.

People in Britain and elsewhere in Europe where decent social welfare systems are more common than not, accept the fundamental principle. They give 'according to their means' so that the 'needs' of the universal 'each' will be met. An almost unnoticeable subtraction from their monthly pay will not only protect them and their immediate dearests but guarantee that they will not be sideswiped by some unexpected kin calamity - like having to sell their family house to pay for their father's triple bypass surgery. That's why they call it National Insurance.

I believe in it. I believe in paying a portion of whatever I earn to a state-run scheme that prioritises people's needs on the basis of equality. Call me old-fashioned but it seems like the most efficient and cheapest way of looking after everyone. In almost all respects in health and aged care, one size does fit all. One size of comfort, one size of nourishment, one size of compassion, one size of humanity.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Turn and turn a-boat

Still waters by Pants

I'm about to participate in my first Australian election since 1980. Not that I know when yet. I suspect it's coming soon as our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has opened the last and most complex file in her 'fiendishly hard' basket - the vexed question of our national response to the small but very visible number of asylum seekers who take the short but scary journey from the Indonesian island of Java to the Australian territory of Christmas Island by clapped-out boat.

The arrival of boat people was an issue thirty years ago too as I dimly recall. Refugees were still trickling in from the 'fallen' South Vietnam. The general rule of thumb hasn't changed since those days - if you make war on countries, you tend to create a situation where a lot of people want to leave. It remains the case that most people who try to get to Australia have found themselves on the weaker side in a deadly conflict, whether they be Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghan Hazaras or belong to a persecuted religious or ethnic minority in one of the civil warring African nations.

Australians have a long history of invasion anxiety that is quite irrational but is probably an acquired neurosis trailing back to the Second World War and the well-founded threat of attack by Japan which was immediately followed by the far-fetched yet prolonged spectre of the 'yellow peril' during the Cold War. That neither of these scenarios eventuated makes the virulence of the condition even more curious. Australians feel picked-on and some seem to think that the raggle-taggle of wretched asylum seekers who make it here are actually an advance guard for a full-scale seizure in the near future.

The reality is much more prosaic. Flight is a response to crisis which is why there are sometimes lots of people doing it and sometimes hardly any. This is worth remembering because the political orthodoxy in Australia would have it that asylum seeking is a direct result of government policy - i.e. if the government is 'soft' the boats will come. Refugee routes grow organically as a response to a need and use whatever resources are available. Ten years ago persecuted Chinese were fleeing to Britain in the vast lorries used to transfer produce across Europe and displaced Kosovans were concealing themselves in Dover-bound trucks at Calais. Boatloads of men row to the Canary Islands from West Africa. Cubans still make the 90-mile journey across the Caribbean to Florida.

Australia is one of the cheaper destinations for Middle Eastern refugees, which suggests that the operation is a comparatively trouble-free one with an abundance of options. The only way to get here without valid entry papers is to bypass the customs system altogether. That means coming on a boat. For Afghans, say, the process is relatively straightforward. If they make it to neighbouring Pakistan, they will find conveniently bribable officials. They can then fly to another Muslim country, Indonesia without a problem. Christmas Island is less than 200 nautical miles from the Indonesian island of Java. It's not exactly a fun cruise but neither is it a completely crazy endeavour either. Most of the very small number of people who undertake it, make it. Australia isn't being 'targetted' in any kind of ideological sense . It's a question of optimalisation.

But the fear of porous borders persists and has caused election havoc before, most memorably in 2001. The Prime Minister has not yet announced a policy-shift from the current position, which is dangerously stalled in the territory of cluelessness. Currently there is a suspension on the processing of asylum claims from Afghan and Sri Lankan nationals. The Government is under pressure to get down off the fence.

Yesterday, Julia Gillard made a statement in an informal setting clearly calculated to give notice that she is about to do something. In this statement, she appears to validate the idea that there are two clearly defined 'sides'.

"For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant, it certainly doesn't make them a racist, it means that they're expressing a genuine view that they're anxious about border security."

That would appear to be Team A.

"By the same token, people who express concern about children being in detention, that doesn't mean they're soft on border protection, that just means that they're expressing a real human concern."

That would appear to be Team B.

And then she said this,

"People should say what they feel and my view is many in the community should feel anxious when they see asylum seeker boats and obviously, we as a government want to manage our borders."

'Many in the community should feel anxious'? Why should they feel anxious? If the Prime Minister is encouraging 'open debate', as she claims to be, (although what the point of that might be on the eve of a policy announcement is anyone's guess), why would she want to prejudice that 'open debate' by validating what is basically an inexplicable fear?

And where exactly is this 'community' of the many who should feel anxious? If she's talking about the marginal Labor seats where there are concentrations of refugees living whose claims were accepted and who are now no longer asylum seekers but citizens of this country, and I suspect she might be, then aren't we talking about a completely different thing? These hypothetical people who 'should feel anxious' would not be concerned with 'border' protection. They would be concerned with 'culture' protection, surely. Racial tension must be recognised for what it is, not buried under a metaphor.

At times like these the quality of Australian discourse appears to flee from the middle ground faster than you can say, has anyone seen my nuance? When you've been out of the loop for as long as I have, it's all a bit confusing. It's not that I haven't experienced societal division over asylum-seekers before. The British tabloids certainly fretted a lot about Kosovans. It never really reached the level of hand-wringing insolubility that it inevitably does in Australia though and I think isolationism plays a big part in that. I was most relieved to read this finely considered piece in The Sydney Morning Herald by Adele Horin confirming my hopes that the hysteria is indeed an anomaly. She says the national narrative is completely at odds with the national character and I hope she's right.

On the question of 'what should we do about the boat people coming?' I would say nothing, or at the most, nothing much. There is very little worthwhile action the destination country can take when there is such an efficient enabling operation in the transit countries. A senior police officer in London once told me that the police never imagined they would stop drug distribution because there were just too many resilient vested interests in the chain to break it. His focus was on managing the consequences. He was careful to be seen to be doing something though because drug trafficking was, after all, illegal.

And this is what we should do. Expensive crackdowns and confrontations have been a public relations disaster both nationally and internationally. By all means make some threatening noises in the direction of Pakistan and Indonesia and maybe even toss a little money at assisting them in rounding up some of the 'people smugglers' and corrupt officials. It might be useful to concentrate on the seediest ones so that at least the asylum seekers, who will always try to come here if they can't stay where they are, have a better chance of making it in reasonable physical and emotional shape.

But let's not waste billions of dollars on navy patrols and detention centres. This is not money well spent. Once asylum seekers have made the journey, let's get them off the boats, through the immigration system and back into normal lives as quickly as possible. It's the least we can do for people who have risked their lives in pursuit of the highest human goal - to live free.

Where there are tensions between new arrivals and host communities, let's tackle that openly and honestly, and in the context in which it actually belongs. We still haven't had the policy announcement. It won't change the way I vote. I just hope it's not insane. It's my first Australian election for thirty years. I'd like to be able to vote with conviction.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Shelf life

Before by Pants

For the last two years my 'study' has looked like this. It's a study in name only as I never do anything vaguely reminiscent of study in there. In fact I rarely do anything in there except search for things I invariably don't find.

This has partially changed.

After by Pants

I now have one entire wall of bookshelves. I say partly changed because this is really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of book storage requirements. I will need another one of these and some smaller units as well. But it's a start.

The paper mountain is being slowly tamed into box files or archived for the shed. It's not that I'm one of those weird obsessive people who keeps every scrap but one does need to keep tax records for seven years after owning a business.

It took me about three months to save up for these shelves so I've already started to put money aside for the next lot. And the car needs to be serviced as well. I'm just glad the local library discontinued its monthly book sale. I've cleaned out the local charity shops of anything decent so I don't think I'll be acquiring any more books for a while.

When you spend a day sorting novels into alphabetical order, you do begin to see the point of Kindle. I don't objectify books. I don't think of them as particularly beautiful things. I like the practicality of them, especially their resistance to breaking down. I prefer to limit the number of items in my care that can go wrong because there are usually cost implications.

Books require very little in the way of ongoing administration, once the initial housing crisis is solved. When you've settled them onto their shelves you can forget about them. They lend themselves so easily to organisational order as well. If there's one thing I really hate, it's devising filing systems. There are always so many exceptions to bedevil any categorisation you come up with.

There is a certain satisfaction to seeing these books released from their shipping cartons. The prolonged business of settling into Seat of Pants has done nothing whatever for my mental health. I have spent too much time surrounded by cardboard boxes.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Adams bomb

Phillip Adams, ABC

Revered and beloved, (by anyone half-way decent), Australian journalist and broadcaster Phillip Adams announced in his newspaper column today that he won't be renewing his Australian Labor Party membership this year, after fifty years of loyal support.

I knew this was going to happen. In fact, I knew the exact wording by which the blow would be delivered. No, I'm not a spookily word-perfect clairvoyant. Phillip Adams himself sent me a sneak preview over a week ago, on 25th June. It's not that we're best buds or anything. I listen to his radio show every day - in fact it is one of my great pleasures. Occasionally he asks listeners to proffer an opinion on matters arising from important events. I did so by sending him a link to my blog post on the demise of the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, published earlier that day.

As events go in Australia, it doesn't get much more earth-shattering and I'm sure he received hundreds of emails after he first aired his personal views on the routing of Rudd on his radio show, Late Night Live, which goes out at 10pm. I was listening to the next-day replay at 4pm on 25th June and sent off my email a few hours later, at 8.39pm. I received mail back from Phillip at 11.38pm and then the 'sneak preview' a minute later.

I expected to see the contents the following day in Phillip's column in The Weekend Australian. That didn't happen. Instead, it appeared today, over a week later. I'd like to dwell on this a moment because I think it says a lot about the type of open and trusting person Phillip Adams obviously is. As I said, we are in no way best buds. I've never met him and have only emailed him a couple of times before. He doesn't even know my real identity. I am Ms Pants to him, as I am to you reader of indeterminate character of whom I am deeply suspicious - but that's just me.

The first thing I want to say is that the wording of Phillip's piece in The Weekend Australian today differed not one comma from the email he sent to me. He had obviously written it immediately and spontaneously - not an especially astounding feat for a seasoned journalist of his calibre you might surmise. But a lot of unpleasant information about Kevin Rudd emerged during the intervening week. A gaggle of newly unmuzzled underlings have staggered from under the paperwork mountain to debrief about the horror of working for this apparently mild-mannered megalomaniac. Yet, Phillip Adams stuck with his gut assessment of his man, his friend. I'll return to that loyalty later, because I do believe it's something we should never entirely lose.

However, I think Phillip is wrong. We had an email exchange over the contents of the 'sneak preview'. I took issue with this statement,

'The right to dismiss a PM belongs to the electorate at an election, not to a drunken Governor General or factional bullies drunk with power.'

And this is how I responded,

I can't agree with the analogy of 'the dismissal'. GG [Governor General] does not have the authority to remove a PM, which is what Kerr effectively did, albeit through a mechanism within his jurisdiction. Caucus does have that authority and indeed duty to remove a leader whose fitness to lead is in doubt...

... In either case (dismissal or Rudd roll) the electorate was not deprived of its rights. In 75 there was still an election and there was still the opportunity to vote for Gough. It could be argued that Kerr's action significantly influenced the result, but not that he prevented the electorate from exercising its right. Same deal here. There will be an election. Kevin Rudd was PM by virtue of his status as leader of the Labor Party, not the other way around.

I found myself in the unnatural situation of having to resort to nerdy old rules and regulations to make my point. Now I don't feel so bad about it. I have worked in the public sector. I have been in good, earnest teams nearly destroyed by Captain Queegs. I have cowered on policy planes piloted by barnstorming adventurers who could have dispatched me to mortgage hell simply by raising an eyebrow in my direction. I know how all of the people who are now spilling their guts feel.

I'm in awe of Phillip's graciousness in sending me a preview of a statement that might have, and indeed did, make big news in Australia. It has been one of the five picture-box stories on The Australian's website all day. His trust in me was well placed. I forwarded his email to only one person, someone I knew would respect the unrequested embargo. Phillip never asked me not to pass this on and I never asked the one person to whom I did forward it not to splash it all over the internet. I just knew that trusted person wouldn't, just as I didn't.

Maybe Phillip Adams knows more about human nature than I give him credit for. I certainly hope that's true. But he isn't right about how things are at this very moment in time. A capable woman, whom he dismisses as 'Barbie Doll or Boadicea (sic)', seems to have been keeping our government's administrative apparatus from collapsing over the last 'two-and-a-bit' years. We now understand that public servants waited until Kevin Rudd left the country so that they could get routine government business signed off by Julia Gillard, who seemed to understand the rudiments of basic governance, unlike her boss.

One thing I would like to say to you Phillip - in defiance of the Baz Luhrmann worldview, I do try to see things as they are, rather than puzzle my way through a maze of opinion-formers' ought-to-be scenarios. I admire you for putting your faith in people Phillip. I was honoured to be given the opportunity to live up to that faith.

There will be an election soon and, as much as I would love to vote for Julia Gillard, I will not get the chance. The Labor candidate in my Akubra-belt electorate has as much chance of winning as I have of baking a decent scone.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Coal comfort

Mineral Wealth by Pants

John Paul Getty's famous formula for success is, 'rise early, work hard, strike oil'. He's also the wit who quipped, 'the meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights'.

It's always amazed me that a form of theft has been universally sanctioned because none of us, including Pants, likes to be cold. A buccaneering class has been allowed to trample untrammelled over our shared space and snuffle up whatever takes its fancy. Great wealth and respect have accrued to the prospectors who tear up our Earth for profit.

The knock-off guys who used to bring goods from the back of their friends' cousins' lorries to my door when I lived in Hackney enjoyed much the same social standing in my neighbourhood for similar reasons. They delivered what people wanted - cheap and with no questions asked. I never bought anything from them except books. Backdoor guys bringing books just seemed like a brilliant subversion to me.

Today, Australia's new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has 'struck a deal' with the nation's 'miners' to have a percentage of the profits from our mineral wealth returned to the public purse. The details, together with an almost implausible spectrum of views thereon, is available absolutely everywhere and I'm not going to go into any of that here. I can't be fannied to study it properly and, in any case, my intuitive guess about these things has always been a better-than-even-money stab in the dark so I'm sticking with that strategy.

A month or so ago, Kerryn Goldsworthy over at Still Life With Cat published a brilliant post slagging off our lazy media for accommodating the mining barons' self-branding as 'miners', enabling them to credential their billionaire arses as 'working people'. She says,

'Miners are the people that Margaret Thatcher brought to their knees in the 1980s. Miners are the dudes with the pickaxes, the dirty faces, the high mortality rate, the not-high-enough salaries and the really really terrible lungs.'
Kerryn remains the only commentator, as far as I can see, to spot the value disjunct. I was living in Britain during the period of the miners' strike (1984-85). I was in a band and we played at benefits where genuinely impoverished miners in authentically soiled donkey jackets wept real tears as punters who were on the dole themselves put pound notes into plastic buckets. I stayed for a generation so I also know that a lot of the communities destroyed by the pit closures of the 1980s took that long to recover, if they ever did. The spectacle of Australian mining magnates squealing over a possible prosciutto-shaving off their morbidly bloated personal hoards shames us all.

But let's not pretend this isn't how the world works. The deal that has been achieved today is neither here nor there in terms of its capacity to enshrine a fair distribution of national wealth. In any case, I would argue that these days we ought to be thinking more in terms of how we use our mineral resources to equitably benefit the whole of humanity. The words sparing and sharing come to mind. I lived in Europe as dozens of countries were crawling painfully but hopefully towards common economic ground so it's incredible to me to hear Western Australia proclaiming its desire to secede from the rest of the federation purely on the basis that its small population literally controls a commodity bonanza within its pencilled boundary. Fine, but don't come crying to us when your citizens are rioting over their broadband speeds.

In 1984, (and believe me, the irony is not lost), the British Government owned the nation's coal resources. A government that goes to war with its own lowest paid employees in an industry that is both financially and socially profitable is morally and organisationally bankrupt and quite possibly criminally insane to boot. Yet, retrospectively Margaret Thatcher is hailed as an early bell ringer on climate change. If so, she is surely due a Guinness Record in the category of biggest sledgehammer to crack smallest nut with most devastating social consequences. And possibly a Mystic Meg Magic Marker as well. I'm reasonably sure she wasn't thinking of saving the environment as she was fucking over the miners and their families. Is it any wonder that after Thatcher people didn't trust the people to manage the people's resources?

Now, instead we have a much better system. We let half-a-dozen wankers who love helicopters, themselves and whomever they happen to be with when the share prices are announced decide whether the real miners, the people who physically do the digging, will have jobs or not. We also extend to them the invitation to harangue us at every opportunity with the argument that any prosperity we have somehow managed to scratch out for ourselves is, in fact, due to their efforts.

Julia Gillard has created bubble'n'squeak out of the dog's dinner Kevin Rudd left behind. I expect it's the best that could be managed in the circumstances. It was crazy to introduce any kind of new tax in the last few months of a first-term government's tenure. The price is a weaker deal for the Australian people than the one that was originally proposed, for the moment. Breaking the resources oligarchy in this country will be a long and clever game. I don't know if we'll ever have politicians who'll be up to that challenge. I'm still reeling that these vital resources ever got into such a cabal of greasy palms in the first place - that's how retro old Pants is.

What we at least have now is a Prime Minister who is not of the sulky persuasion and who does seem to be capable of thinking outside of her own moment. Let's hope it lasts.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Prize Twat

Jasper Jones, Allen & Unwin

I read this book last week. I wasn't planning on writing a review of it because it's a stiff. It has, however, just been declared the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year.

The 25-year-old's writing has been widely compared to Mark Twain's and his winning novel as the Australian version of To Kill A Mockingbird, according to national broadcaster, the ABC. Really? Not by anyone who's read any Mark Twain or To Kill a Mockingbird I'll venture.

I'm sorry, but this is just embarrassing. This book is devoid of any moral centre, much less purpose - a mandatory attribute for any book being compared with the great Southern traditions of American literature. It's disjointed and almost autistic in its failure to offer an emotional connection of any kind. Instead it profers crude and superficial 'links' to substantial works (like To Kill a Mockingbird) that are no more than name checks. The narrative crawls up its own arse in the first chapter and then spends the interminable remainder trying to find its way out again, with questionable success.

This gushing over clever young things and their vacuous and shallow inventions gives me a frightful attack of the cultural cringes. I was fourteen in 1969 when this book is supposedly set and let me tell you Craig, we had not yet discovered English words like 'bollocks' and we certainly didn't refer to each other as 'tragics'. And it was quite a few years before Vietnamese refugees started to show up, even in cities. Whatever happened to creating a believable world? Ignorant. Lazy.

But then I thought The Slap was excrement and I think Alex Miller is positively unreadable so what would I know from the scribblings of show ponies and the airheads who fawn over them? I suppose I've been spoiled by Tim Winton. I've been conditioned to expect quality prose by a writer who really does know his Mark Twain and who has enough professional skill and respect for readers to paint an authentic picture of Western Australia in any era he chooses to animate.

C Minus poor fella my country - must try harder.