Thursday, September 29, 2005

I Know Where You Live #2

No idea what I'm pissing on about? Click here, you churl. It's time for another action-packed suburb review. This week, let's talk about Olinda.

Are you a pixie, an elf, a fairy? A happy gnome, perhaps, with a jocular pointy cap and a cheekily winsome grin? Or maybe some sort of talking animal of a suitably harmless genus with a predilection for waistcoats? If so, then Olinda is the place for you.

Tucked away on the slopes of Mt Dandenong, Olinda is currently in the running for the most twee town I've ever visited. Excessively pretty and insufferably quaint, the place is all shady trees, upper-middle class villas, hotels catering especially for adulterous yuppies; tea-rooms and antique stores and nurseries. If any establishment opens in Olinda without the words 'Ye Olde' emblazoned on the shop-front, then its owners are generally run out of town within the month.

Upon every corner and up and down each laneway, one can find roast chestnut stands and strawberry jam tables, all staffed by children of the rosy-cheeked variety, whose good-natured innocence makes you want to stuff one of the decorated pinecones they will inevitably try to sell you down their throats. In the afternoons, one can visit local gardens, play croquet, sit amidst the blooming azaleas, nibble on some Devonshire tea, and adamantly wish for a quick death. The ultra-civilized niceness of the place grates in the extreme.

But Olinda harbours a terrible secret: up in the airy valley, down in the rushy glen, one daren't go antiquing for fear of inbred mountain-men. Olinda proper is a bastion of enforced wholesomeness besieged by the rest of the suburb - as buck-toothed, wall-eyed, yawp-jawed a collection of hillbillies as you could hope to find outside of the Ozarks. By local custom, any resident of Mt Dandenong living outside a half-kilometer radius of Olinda's main drag will usually have impregnated or fallen pregnant to at least two members of their own family before the age of twenty, and if possible, at least one family pet as well. The result, many generations of incest down the track, is that wandering outside the town centre after dark may end in a situation where being made to squeal like a pig will be the least of your worries.

That said, some of the scenery is quite lovely, if you like foresty sort of stuff; provided you are suitably equipped with stout hiking boots, a map and compass, waterflask, and some sort of semi-automatic weapon, I highly recommend bushwalking out there.

Olinda: 3.5 out of 5 tea-rooms.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Booker Review: Arthur & George, Julian Barnes

I'm yet to finish Arthur & George, but unless it takes a dive in the final seventy pages, or Zadie Smith's On Beauty turns out to be particularly good, or the judges do something stupid like award the Booker to John Banville, Barnes has got it won. Arthur & George is brilliant, and I'm not just saying that because I can't think of a more original superlative. Other nominees might be flashier, or more politically engaged, or not unfashionably middle-class white males, but Barnes wins (in my mind, at least) by virtue of sheer talent.

The effect of Barnes' quiet genius has been enhanced by the fact that I am currently attempting to write an essay on H.D.'s HERmione, offered up by my university's literature department as a paragon of American modernism, when in fact it is a paragon of excruciating unreadableness. After a day at the coalface of H.D.'s obscurantist prose, it has been nice to open Arthur & George and read something comprehensible, intelligent, and very well written. Call me a philistine if you must, but I like a story, I like characters, I like to be able to read without pausing every few seconds to slap my forehead in pained disbelief. Barnes delivers all this and more, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I appreciate Barnes' subtlety. He knows he's got a top-notch story - briefly, it's an account of Arthur Conan Doyle's involvement in assisting a victim of wrongful imprisonment - and he tells it with assurance and style. But he's not constantly in your face, pointing out how clever he is - and he is clever. For example, the story is mostly told by alternating between the two protagonists. Yet where most authors would employ styles that were either wildly differing or exactly the same for the two narrative strands, Barnes uses the same cool, ironic voice for both, but with a crucial differentiation. George's story is told in the present tense, Arthur's in the past; at a key point, this arrangement is reversed. It sounds simple, and it is, but without this shifting tense, Arthur & George would suffer. If you take a moment to mentally translate a random passage into its opposing tense, you realise how neat this trick is, and what it means for the texture of the novel.

Arthur & George is a very good book by a very good writer. The only Booker nominee to rival it (that I've read), is The People's Act of Love, but James Meek lacks Barnes's polish, and isn't in contention anyway. Barnes has never won a Booker, despite being shortlisted for Flaubert's Parrot and England, England. 2005 might just be his year.

***

Blogging about the Booker longlist has inspired me to begin another reading project that I've been putting off for some time. The plan is to read through Proust's In Search of Lost Time and blog about it as I go. I don't kid myself that it will be of interest to anybody but myself, so I've created another blog for the purpose. If for some reason you are interested in my ill-conceived, undergraduate opinions on this classic novel, you'll find them here.

UPDATE (30/9): Actually you won't find them anywhere. Less than a week in, and I've decided to forgo the blogging aspect of my Proust-reading. I'm still reading it, but I don't have the time to blog about it in the depth I would like. I'm a bit disappointed, but there's only twenty-four hours in the day, so something's got to give.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dinner at Flicky's

Hi guys, welcome to Flicky's! My name is Rachel, I'll be your waitress today. Is it your first time dining with us? Well, let me just give you some background, you know, to enhance the experience. The restaurant you're sitting in started out many years ago as a Sizzler, then became in quick succession a Smorgy's, a Swagman's Sack, a Big Chief Steak 'n' Vittles Emporium, and a Planet Bollywood. Most recently it was part of the highly successful Fiddy's Grits chain, until 50 Cent withdrew his sponsorship. Of course, now it is the jewel in the crown of the Flicky's Restaurant empire. Mr Flick himself often stops by for a meal, or for a quick grope of the more attractive casual staff.

Anyway, enough with the history lesson - let's get some grub down your gullets! Specials today are: tender chicken giblets greased with Flicky's special blend of sauces; crumbed lamb cutlets with asparagus and raspberry ripple; cattle ends dipped in creamed peas; and Flicky's Surprise, which I'd advise you to avoid at all costs. Oh, and I should mention that due to an oversight by one of the bar staff, all drinks currently contain large quantities of alcohol. Kids, if your Coke tastes a little funny, don't fret too much - as part of our special Flicky's Lil Alco meal deal, you get a free vomit bucket to take home!

Ok, so everybody ready to order? Uh-huh. Let me just confirm all this. A World Famous Flicky's Burger with extra gristle for you, sir, a knobcrackle salad for you, ma'am, and a brace of Flicky's nuggets with a side of unwashed carrot tops for the young ones. Sounds good to me! Now I understand one of your party is celebrating their birthday today? And what's your name, sweetie? Jemima-Marie? Sweet chunks of Jesus - how are we going to fit that into Flicky's World Famous Birthday Sing-a-Long?

Ah, here are your meals. Now the knobcrackle salad is an extra large, so if you don't eat all the knobcrackle, ma'am, could I ask you to just set it aside and we can recycle it. It might interest you to learn that your own salad was constructed largely from last night's leftovers. Amazing, isn't it? While you eat, I hope you will take the time to check out some of the artifacts we've got hanging from the walls and ceiling. Mr Flick himself painstakingly collected these from rubbish tips the world over. This wheelbarrow, for example, once served as home for a family of four in the slums of Manila. Anyway, I'll leave you guys to it. Enjoy!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Where Have All the Naked People Gone?

Australia was built not on the back of the sheep, but on displays of public nudity - a heritage to which unfortunately little respect is currently paid. Few nowadays appreciate the fact that pretty much every great Australian has at one time or another thrown both caution and underwear to the wind, and bestrode our noble country with their privates waving in the breeze.

It's common knowledge that after getting the arse from the Bounty, Malcolm Bligh conquered impossible odds by rowing back to the mainland; it is largely forgotten, however, that he fed himself and his fellow officers by making his wedding tackle live up to its name - tying on a hook, he would jump into the water, hang on to the stern of the dinghy as his men rowed, and successfully troll for marlin. Lachlan Macquarie is well remembered for his obsessive interests in both urban planning and naming things after himself, but few recall that the layout of Sydney town is in fact based upon the contours of a large and unsightly birthmark on his posterior, which he would proudly display to all and sundry at city meetings (and garden parties, his youngest child's wedding, once in a courtroom and often to sailors down at the docks). And Mary McKillop, favoured (after the Don) to become our first saint, educator of the nation's poor - how did she get the attention of the kiddies she taught? She flashed them, of course (the last Pope is on record as describing her rack as, "Nearly as good as the Virgin Mary's. 8.5 out of 10").

When Mal Fraser was found pants down in his hotel room, he was merely making a belated play to join a list of Australian luminaries for whom greatness and nudity went hand in hand: heroes such as Nellie Melba, Jack Simpson and his donkey (the latter was in fact a nickname Simpson garnered in the trenches, and did not refer to the animal, which was only introduced in a bowdlerised version of the legend for classrooms), Dorothea Mackellar, Walter Burley Griffin, Pharlap, Menzies and Hotdogs (but significantly, not the Don. A noted wowser, from the age of three onwards Bradman never once took his clothes off) - they all made our country what it is today, and they all did it naked.

But let me get to the point, because I do have one. It is this: in the history war being waged on Australia's proud culture of nuding-up by the forces of prudishness, the major battlegrounds are our cultural institutions.

Being a gentleman of leisure, I often wander through whatever exhibitions are running at the NGV. Recently, I've noticed a tendancy towards priggishness creeping into the layouts and the content of certain displays. The Andy Warhol Boxes exhibit - a collection of objects d'art and objects dull which like its begettor managed to be both a deeply intelligent reflection of the times and the morals of the 60's and 70's, and stultifyingly boring - contained several examples of gay pornography. Andy threw anything and everything that interested him into what, though he thought of them only as storage boxes, are now regarded as a key personal archive; sex interested Andy a lot - was very important to him, especially its commercialisation. However, nearly all the glam-mag photos of gay-boys strutting about (pretty tame in the age of internet porn) were artfully covered up from the waist down by bits and pieces of other stuff.

More recently, the Floating World exhibit - woodblock prints from the last gasps of feudal Japan, both a stunningly beautiful display of technical virtuosity and, again, important from the perspective of cultural history - has done much the same thing. Although well worth visiting, the exhibition was rather marred by the fact that although it showed images popular in contemporary society (actors, merchants, geisha, scenes from famous plays and stories - woodblock prints being very much the movie posters and advertising bills of the day), there was only one very small image displaying any nudity. This would of course be fine, were it not for the fact that pillow-books depicting 'how-to' scenes comprised some 80% of all Japanese woodblock prints; a significant omission from an exhibition which purports itself to be a compleat display of contemporary customs.

Although it may seem so, I'm not trying to make an argument for more smut in the National Gallery, or that they hang a big sign up out the front declaring 'Dirty Pics R Us - All Sleaze, All The Time'. I'm not really that big a pervert - no, really. Artistic and historical institutions can not afford to wallow in self-censorship and prudery, not and still claim to be fostering eduction or preserving our heritage. The task of the historian is to present as accurate a record of the past as possible, warts and all; that of the artist is to push boundaries, discover new modes by which we can perceive ourselves and comment on the existing ones. If more nudity is the conduit by which these ends are achieved, then so be it, and to hell with moral rectitude.

I promise not to enjoy myself too much.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bargains

Markets tend to bore me. The wares are always much the same, wherever the market happens to be - arts and crafts, cheap plastic toys, homemade preserves, and various flavours of hippy junk. Camberwell Market, however, is more like a giant garage sale, with all manner of stuff to examine, and even buy. Best of all, books are plentiful and cheap. We ventured along this morning for the first time in about six months, and while Lady Sterne sorted through so-cheesy-they're-cool knitting patterns, I picked up the following reading matter:

- The Enchanted Wood, Enid Blyton
- Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
- XPD, Len Deighton (market visitors are required to purchase at least one Cold War spy novel)
- More Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, Hugh Greene (ed.)
- Rupert of Hentzau, Anthony Hope (the sequel to the swashbucking classic, The Prisoner of Zenda)
- Lions and Shadows, Christopher Isherwood
- The Book of Nonsense: An Anthology, Paul Jennings (ed.)
- How Late It Was, How Late, James Kelman
- Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose, Michael March (ed.)
- Points of View, W. Somerset Maugham
- Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
- Forty-Seven, Frank Moorhouse
- Bad Land, Jonathan Raban
- Dead Europe, Christian Tsiolkas

And how much did I pay for all this booty? A measly eighteen bucks! That's $1.28 per book! The most expensive book was Dead Europe, but since it was only published a couple of months ago, I thought it was worth the four dollars I paid for it. Ah, I love a bargain!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Better the Devil You Know

There ain't no denying: we here at Sterne are only interested in facts, and the harder the better. Fictions, hyperbole, superstition and supposition, get thee behind me; we spit on all such hateful nonsense and fiddle-faddle (especially hyperbole). And for this reason, we consider it our especial duty to weigh in against the Father of Lies (and no, I don't mean the PM. Hell is too good for some people).

How relevant is a discussion about the existence of the devil in this modern world of ours? Very, given that we have world leaders who insist on bandying about terms like, "the Evil One" and "the Great Satan", that Intellectual Design is threatening to muscle its way into our classrooms, and that fundamentalist values are becoming increasingly and depressingly prevelant throughout society. I myself was recently told by a previously rational friend that I had become the pawn of Lucifer and was destined to spend eternity having demons probe my nether parts with whatever unpleasant tools come to hand, or something. I object to such assertions, not because I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool sinner, but because I refuse to be associated with such an out-moded, credulous concept of evil.

Now, I'm no theologian - hell, even on good days I can barely spell the word Godd - but let's be perfectly clear: the devil does not exist. And, yes, I can prove that. Sorry, all you black metal fans.

To make things fair, let's chuck reason, rationalism, logic and other such pointless concepts out the window, and base this argument on the source of all that is true and sensible, the Bible. The good book is, as we all know, divided into two parts: the psychedelic, fun-filled, roller-coaster thrill ride of the Old Testament, and the repetitious tragedy with the twist ending that is the New. The former, however - compiled from traditional Hebraic lore at around 650 BCE - contains no mention whatsoever of the devil. He's only introduced in the sequel, which was in need of a villain to spice last chapter up a bit. It's only through mistranslation, misinterpretation and popular misconception that the devil gets a mention all.

Satan certainly puts in an early appearance, popping up first in the Book of Job to prove to the titular protagonist that miserable = holy. However, in the original text, his name is ha-satan, which literally means 'blocking agent', or more figuratively, 'prosecuting attourney'. The devil is in fact one of the oldest lawyers in literature, which I'm sure has only served to bloster some people's preconceptions. Satan is the Adversary in the same way that all prosecutors are adversaries, and like all prosecuting attourneys he operates under the aegis of a judge. He is the duly authorised agent of God, and any cruelty he visits is done only on God's instruction.

Other instances of misreading occur in Isaiah, where the prophet waxes lyrical on the fall of Lucifer from Heaven - in fact an allegorical reference to the political fall of Helel ben Shahar, the king of Babylon, also known as the Star of the Morning; and in Kings, in which the prophet Elijah condemns king Ahaziah to die for consulting the priests of Beelzebub - in fact a corruption of Baal Ze'bub, god of the Philistine city of Ekron. Perhaps the most willful example of misinterpretation, though, is the conflation of the serpent in the garden of Eden, in the original text simply "the most subtle of the beasts of the field", with a Satan hell-bent on mankind's destruction. This is an example of a Christian view of the devil being read retrospectively into the older text, which of course begs the question: in the period of over seven centuries culminating in the composition of the New Testament, how did Satan go from being prosecutor to persecutor?

Whilst Judaism refuses to acknowledge any power that might work contrary to a single, perfect God's plan, there is nevertheless a tradition of evil spirits in Hebraic culture. Most peoples have their own boggins and bugbears, and the Jews were no exception: rabbanical lore and the books of Apocrypha are positively littered with angels and 'sons of God' that are up to no good (usually of the "Come here, baby, and let me beget a host upon you" variety). This was the influence of Zoroastrianism making itself felt upon the Maccabean Jews after their time spent in Babylon. Zoroastrianism, unlike Judaism, has always included beings of spiritual evil within its cosmology, which centers on the struggle between two gods, the benevolent Ahura Mazda and the rascally Ahriman. It's in from latter figure that a good part of the modern Satanic tradition was born.

There were of course other cultural influences along the way - for example the increasing confusion of evil spirits with benignant or neutral daemons - the beings of air which came out of Apuleius' Golden Ass (that sentence reads rather oddly, but never mind) - and the rise in popularity of the Book of Jubilees, with its decidedly naughty Mastema and Beliar. It is the sum effect of these influences on the lawyerly ha-satan that created the New Testament's devil, whose apparent autonomy from God is as radical a paradigm shift in monotheistic Judaism as the incarnation of Christ.

After that it's all just a matter of filling in the back-story, a task belonging to a rather exciteable collection of Christians: St John the Divine decided that one in three of the angels fell with Lucifer during a war in Heaven (and because the Church became a natural home for the maniacally obsessive, it comes as no surprise that a 13th century cleric claimed to have calculated the exact number of the fallen to be 133, 306, 668). St Paul made it clear that Satan (who in subsequent corruptions of Pauline lore became Jesus' quarrelsome younger brother, envious of Daddy's favourite and out to steal the souls belonging to his sibling) was the enemy of Christ; If you weren't with Christ, you were against him, in league with Satan, and soon to take a dirt nap if Paul had anything to say on the matter. St Augustine elaborated further on the the devil's reasons for being a bounder, claiming that he fell for the sin of pride, refusing to kneel to the new teacher's pet, Adam; it was Augustine who had Satan slither into Eden. And of course there's Milton who, as Shelley put it, was the devil's greatest champion. Milton's Satan is a resoundingly sexy figure, full of creativity, anger and pathos, hating the God who created him simply so He could have someone to punish. Cumulative misconceptions may have created the devil, but Milton made him fun. Without Milton, we would have no heavy metal, and what a sad world that would be.

It may seem that I'm coming down a little hard on the precepts of Christianity, but I think it can stand it (and I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, anyway). At any rate, I'm not denying the existence of a God or the prescence of evil in the world (no, these are circuitous, long winded arguments for another day). Belief in something better than oneself - whether it be God, or Science, or Justice, whatever - is in potential a noble thing, and it is a poor man who believes in nothing. It is a poorer person still, however, who wallows in ignorance. Belief in the existance of Satan is nothing more than a crutch for the credulous and the intolerant, such people as insist on a bogeyman to justify frightening themselves into submission or persecuting others for their differences. This is the reasoning of twenty centuries ago, robbed of the excuse of barbarism. If you want to adhere to a religion, that's fine by me, but for God's sake know your religion inside out: its history, its development, and its anachronisms; what's worth believing in, and what's not. Unquestioning acceptance serves no-one, least of all your chosen deity, who presumably wants what's best for the world, or why is He worth worshipping? Doubtless He gave you a brain. Use it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Political Cheese Platter

Modern political debate is preoccupied with, and as a result stifled by, the left/right division. This bifurcation drastically simplifies the complexities inherent in political systems, debate and ideology. It can also be frustrating on a personal level as, whatever one's actual beliefs, one tends to get lumped in with everybody else on that side of the divide. I for one am tired of being accused of Marxism by association, but until my "Aristocratic anarchist and proud" t-shirt arrives, this appears to be my lot.

Clearly we require labels better able to capture the diversity of the political spectrum. Existing terminology can be confusing - I mean, what exactly are anarcho-syndicalists, and do they give change for parking? Luckily, I have come up with a system that evokes the beliefs, textures, and even smells of most modern ideologies. I call it the Political Cheese Platter, and it looks something like this:

To the political scientist, this platter is an information-rich snapshot of the present-day political spectrum. I understand, however, that many of Sterne's readers are afflicted with learning disabilities and as a consequence may struggle to decode the platter. Here, then, is a brief run through of the most important cheeseologies represented:

Cheddar: Tasteless and bland, cheddars are conservative through apathy rather than conviction. As with the cheese, political cheddars can be both soft and hard, prone to shifting opinions depending on their emotional connection to an issue. John Howard's lower and middle-class support base are, in the main, cheddars, often of the pre-sliced variety.

Feta: Nominally of the left, fetas are mercurial, often crumbling under the slightest pressure. Kim Beazley, for example, is a feta par excellence, although his increasing complicity in the government's campaign against basic civil rights indicates that he is more in the style of an Australian, rather than Greek, feta: that is, he is milder and creamier, and more amenable to being sliced.

Polkolbin: Modern-day "aristocratic anarchists", polkolbins are generally wealthy and influential, part of the fabric of society (i.e. square in shape), but with distinctly counter-conservative values, or, as the jargon has it, "with a sticky, wrinkled rind".

Blue Vein: Pungent social conservatives, blue veins are characterised by their smooth, persuasive political style, and the green-blue veins of mould that run through their beliefs.

Tasmania Highland Chevre Log: Loggies, as analysts call them with not a little irony, are roughly analogous to "greenies". Bob Brown is a particularly good example of a loggie. Moist, lemony, and made of goat's milk, Brown works well in parliament (he is, as we say, a good "table cheese"), but can also rough it as an activist ("good for grilling").

Obviously this list barely peels the rind, so to speak, of the Political Cheese Platter. Research is slow, largely due to the amount of red wine that must be consumed to achieve the best results, but also because certain ideologies or movements - anarcho-syndicalism, for example - are difficult to pin down as fermented milk by-products. Once completed, however, the Political Cheese Platter promises to revolutionise the way we characterise our beliefs, and make politics a more engaging, sophisticated, and better-tasting enterprise for the entire community.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Things I Have Learned

Human history, said H.G Wells (inventor of time travel, morlocks), becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. Damn right, replied Jon (exceedingly lazy bloggist, who intends to warp a meaningful comment into an excuse not to write anything purposeful). To that end, please pay attention as I relate, for your edification, a few nuggets of knowledge garnered from personal experience over the past week. Your life may depend on knowing these actual factual things (disclaimer: it will not depend on it, probably).

1. If you're eating in a Chinese restaurant, and you see something on the menu called Funny Taste Chicken, do not enthusiastically order it without asking what it actually is. They are not lying about the Funny Taste.

2. Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour does not make doing your tax return any easier.

3. I am not given to exaggeration, but year 10 boys - all of them - are worse that Hitler. A more odious form of life than the 16 year old male does not exist.

4. When you drink an entire bottle of gin, do not act all surprised when your mouth tastes like cat wee in the morning. If your mouth tastes like that without imbibing fermented juniper berries, take your cat to the vet.

5. Any shop assistant that calls you 'darl', 'love', 'sweetie', any diminutive really, is in fact daring you to stab them with whatever is closest to hand. In these situations, it's best not to disappoint.

6. Dancing the tango properly requires many months of diligent practice; falling over in front of a crowd of people whilst attempting to dance the tango merely requires alcohol.

7. Gravity might well be described as either a. curvature exacted upon the fabric of spacetime by mass, b. vibrations across the universal membrane originating in an hypothesised eleventh dimension, or perhaps more accurately as c. a bastard.

8. Bands named after any element of the digestive process are usually not going to be worth the cover charge.

9. Taking your girlfriend to see a Johnny Depp movie may result in unfavourable comparisons.

10. Writing spurious little lists instead of a proper post tends to make one feel somewhat guilty. But not very.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Lily White and the One Dwarf

This ain't no fairytale. Nonetheless, gather round your old Uncle Jon, kiddies (you there, the pretty girl, you can sit on my knee if you like. There's a good girl), and prepare your little ears for a tale off far of and damn strange times, I can tell you.

I have commented before on the curious correlation that exists between regular usage of Melbourne's peerless public transport system and a high incidence of highly disgusting incidents. Everyone's had something unfavourable happen to them whilst riding the rails; due to bad karma (I ate kittens for both fun and profit in a past life), my own experiences on planes, trains and automotive vehicles are ten times more fantastical than anything you can imagine, even taking into account such an appallingly diseased mind as yours. I believe I mentioned in my earlier post that the events recorded therein were only the second strangest to have occurred happened during my career as a commuter. This was the strangest:

Picture, if you will, a young gent about town: dapper, well-heeled, a real toff. Maybe he has had a few beverages in the company of friends; maybe he is me. Maybe. The place is Flinder's Street Station and the time is half past midnight on a Friday morning. 'What the hell did you think you were doing, catching the last train back east at 12.30 - don't you know that they're jam-packed with punks and jerks and crazies, you ninnyhammer?' do I hear you ask? Well where were you when I could have used that advice, hmm? And less of the Victorian insults, thank you very much.

This was around the arse end of the year, and exam time for highschools had just finished. It therefore came as no surprise when a confused ball of arms and legs that slowly resolved itself into a group of teenage boys came tumbling at speed down the escalator. What was a mild surprise was that they were all of them deaf. And they were all of them extremely drunk, so much so that they were slurring their signs.

Each wore a white shirt covered in texta'd scrawl - the usual school-leavers messages of goodwill, and crud like that. They bowled up to me and my party, and said (and here you must imagine me doing a highly offensive impersonation of a deaf person's diction), "Hey! Sign our shirts!" I turned to my companions, grinned in an irritatingly knowing fashion, and wrote on one deafy's back: The Dwarfs Are Coming To Get You.

Now, the obligatory qualifier: I have nothing against little people. I mean, they're human beings too, despite what the Church says. A long time's passed since the Great Midget Uprising of 1893, and though the stumpy bastards gnawed the knees off of many a brave man, including my great-grandfather, we're All Friends Now and it's Water Under The Bridge. Some of my best friends are dwarfs, or would be if I still had friends. What I wrote on the deaf kid's shirt was just the most silly thing I could think of - something to confuse him when he got over the hangover in the morning. He certainly appeared to find it amusing at the time.

However, it turned out to be a poor choice of words. Five minutes later, a second group of deaf teens joined the first. And one of them was a dwarf. And if the other kids were drunk, he was well and truly slaughtered. I turned to my companions, grinned in a worried sort of fashion; they agreed that I was a moron, but that we should sit up the other end of the carriage when the train pulled up to avoid poential righteous indignation from Stunty and the Deaf Boys.

It was about halfway to home when one of my friends nudged me, and said, "Something weird's going on. Look." Down the carriage, one of the deaf kids was hitting the dwarf's leg with a certain degree of vigour. Thwack! Thwack! "Don't worry," I replied, condescendingly, "They're pissed and they're kids. You don't get a much more potent recipe for stupidity. Just ignore them." But the dwarf's leg continued to get pounded with astonishing ferocity: Thwack!

The thing was, though, that the dwarf wasn't responding to the beating, wasn't moving even a hair. "Um..." I said, articulate as ever. And it was then that the dwarf, slowly at first, but with the ever increasing speed and force and above all inevitability of a tsunami, started to keel sideways. His friend hadn't been trying to hurt him, he'd been trying to rouse him from a semi-comatose state. But it was too late... shortarse had caught his head on the edge of the seat on the opposite aisle with a decisively final sounding crack.

Now for some maths: occupants of last train home = fatigue + inebriation + usual background stupidity x one drunk, deaf, now possibly dead dwarf = chaos. Half the carriage and all the deaf kids were on their feet yelling at the top of their lungs. Someone started shaking the mini-man by his collar; someone else shouted, "Hold on, I'll stick me fist down his throat. That'll stop 'im choking!"; someone else realised, "Oh, shit...I'm the most sober person on a packed carriage full of well-meaning idiots and a what may well be a teeny, tiny corpse. Fuck." That last someone was me.

Here's a tip for if ever you're in trouble - don't ever bother to press the Connex emergency intercom system. It may work for ficticious anthropomorphic eggs, but no-one else. Even when he hears a panicked voice on the other end saying, "Hi sorry to interrupt you but there's a deaf dwarf back here and he's hit his head badly and he's unconscious and could you please stop the train at the next station and alert some medical professionals?", the driver will just respond with a bored, "Pff. Yep?" and keep right on going. I mean, incredulity I could understand, but apathy? Unimpressed, I abandoned the intercom, and pushed aside a handful of curious charlies to get to the supine midget, just in time to stop a flannel-bedecked trucker putting deed to word and inserting his fist in the dwarf's mouth.

Shorty had a pulse and was breathing (if fitfully), symptoms which rarely occur in corpses. Whilst I was thankful, I was now surrounded by drunk and wailing deaf teenagers, an enthusiastic but unhelpful trucker (later I found out that he'd just been released from prison, but that's another story entirely), and a small crowd of amused/worried onlookers - all of whom now assumed I, a man who once managed to set his own hair on fire without realising, was some kind of medical expert. I panicked inwardly, but finally managed to remember how to effect the coma position and clear an airway of obstructions - thank you Ms Tricotta, who taught me that in year 9 PE; I take back anything bad I ever said about you, except the bit about you being a man, which was clearly true.

So. That was all well and good, the dwarf was breathing properly, wasn't going to roll about banging into things. But he was still unconscious with his eyes rolled back in his head, the train wasn't stopping, and everyone was still yelling. What was I going to do now, I wondered? "Give him mouth-to-mouth!" the trucker noisily encouraged. Now kiddies, I am no fucking Florence Nightingale, but, well... what else could I do?

Slowly, reluctantly, I puckered up. Ever so, ever so hesitantly, I edged closer to the recumbent dwarf. He had a hairy neck. He had snot crusted around one nostril. "Oh, gods", I thought, "The things we do for our fellow man. Half-man. Whatever." My lips quivered, inches away from my pint-sized patient's, his hot, bourbon soaked breath washing over my face. I sighed, and prepared to lock lips with the hairy, smelly dwarf.

Suddenly, with no warning, his eyes snapped forward, and he shook his head. A cheer went up from the crowd, and a prayer of thanks went up from me, as the dwarf lifted himself off the floor and sat down on a seat... and then began - and I swear I'm not making this up - began to bark like a dog. Slapped his thighs, and began to growl and bark like a dog. And was still doing that when I got off the train twenty minutes later.

Now, here's how you know that this ain't no fairytale. The protagonist in a fairytale is customarily rewarded; traditionally, helping a dwarf in distress gets you three magic wishes. Me? I got barked at. Oh, sure, the other deaf kids thanked me for helping out, but what's gratitude compared with wishes? So: dwarfs can fuck off, so far as I'm concerned (not that I've anything against dwarfs, etc.). What? You were expecting a more meaningful moral? Who do I look like, Aesop? You can bugger off, the lot of you. No, wait, not you dear; you just stay there on old Uncle Jon's knee...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Booker Review: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

The worst I can say about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is that it is not as good as The Remains of the Day. It is, however, an excellent novel that may well take home the prize, although my money is still with Julian Barnes.

Technically, Never Let Me Go is very similar to Remains, utilising the same kind of semi-reliable narrator to recount a superficially fairly innocent story, the nuances of which ultimately add up to something quite sinister and disturbing. The less said about the story the better for any potential readers out there, but suffice to say it is related using a sophisticated structure of anecdote and reflection, the slow burning revelation that, again, Ishiguro perfected in his most famous novel.

Never Let Me Go doesn't absorb and intrigue with the same intensity as Remains, but it is still a good book in its own right. Ishiguro's plain, unadorned prose is a pleasure to read, but what makes him great is his ability to play with big themes in an understated way that actually increases their impact. It is a shame that certain people continually denigrate modern fiction when there are authors like Ishiguro at work.

Suicide Pact

Honey, you know I love you, and you know I want us to hold one another while we asphyxiate in the back of your Fairlane, but honestly it's not working out the way I'd hoped. When we first met, I thought you were the one. Good looking, smart, funny - and determined to bid farewell to this world of pain. Remember all those nights we spent talking for hours about means and methods? I favoured pills and booze, but you finally talked me around to asphyxiation, in the process teaching me the value of compromise. God, how I loved the way you looked that day in the hardware store, running your hands over the length of piping that would one day - or so we allowed ourselves to dream! - carry the carbon monoxide from the car's exhaust to our eagerly waiting lungs.

Then, about a month ago, I began having doubts. Your ex started letting you see your kids, you got a promotion, your acne began clearing up. You became a different person, a happy person, and we began to grow apart. When we first started seeing one another, we'd spend almost every night curled up on the floor in the fetal position, weeping. Lately, I'm lucky to get one night of reinforcing pity from you. It's like my suicidal tendencies mean nothing to you anymore. Without the mutual desire to end it all, what hope is there for the future?

So I'm leaving you, my love. Leaving you to your happiness, your optimism - your life. I'd die for you, but not with you, and it's the latter that really matters. But if you change your mind one day, look me up. If I'm still kicking, I'll be more than happy to join you in a reciprocal downward spiral of misery and anger. Know that the option is there, should you need it. For now, though, goodbye.

Couples experiencing problems with their suicide pact should call the Suicide Pact Advice Line on 1400 767.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I Know Where You Live

What is Sterne all about, you ask? We are all about fostering community spirit, and how dare you doubt it.

Melbourne town is a sprawling old place, once you get away from the CBD, and if you haven't ventured too far outside your own area, well who can blame you? I can, that's who. How dare you sit and stagnate in your own little pit of a suburb, you lazy fuck, when there's a vast city to explore, tens of different districts - each positively oozing with unique charm (and occasionally raw sewage), each full of interestingly disgusting human people whom you've never met. How, how!? are we supposed to build a society when its various components - and yes, I'm looking hard at you - refuse to get up off their chunky, parochial arses and make an attempt to learn about the rest of Melbourne. Here's how: Sterne will do it for you. In what should be, barring boredom or forgetfulness, a weekly series, I will venture boldly into the hinterlands of the state capital, and present a frank but fair assessment of a variety of different suburbs.

In other words, I intend to heap shit on a bunch of places. Today, I begin with an old friend/enemy: Frankston.

Who was Frank, and why? About 50 years ago, Frankston was a sleepy sea-side resort town, which the good people of inner Melbourne would make the long journey to for their Christmas holidays. There were a few little huts on the beach painted in bright, primary colours; a couple of cheap hotels, each run by a relentlessly friendly being of apparently indeterminate gender, named Doris. And that was it - dull, but, well...dull. These days, the first thing one sees upon entering Frankston - now well and truly part of the greater Melbourne area - is a large sign, declaring "Brothel For Sale - fantastic opportunity for first time buyer". This is modern Frankston in a nutshell: class.

In Frankston, everyone spits. Everyone. Everywhere. A bylaw was passed sometime in the early 80's, I think. Teens spit. Children spit. Respectable businessmen, old ladies - they spit. Even vicars spit. Usually on the old ladies. The main thoroughfare positively reeks of freshly expectorated phlegm, and traversing it requires the use of a sturdy pair of wellingtons, just in case one breaches the crust of hardened mucus that serves as a footpath and sinks into the swamp of saliva beneath.

Due, I'm told by those in the know, to the boom in high-density low-cost housing in the area, Frankston is home to a significant population of crazy people, junkies, and crazy junkies. Every second person you see there will either ask you for any spare methadone you might have about you, or ask you if you are a tree. In both cases, they person in question will call you Jimmy. Bonus points if this is actually your name.

Central Frankston appears to consist largely of vomitously decorated shopping malls and adult entertainment venues, although there is a large, well-kept library on the outskirs of town. If you are a highly literate capitalist pervert, Frankston may be the place for you.

Climbing the hill that Frankston squats beneath like a malignant toad gives you a genuinely pleasant view out over the bay, and if you don't mind the strong wind, it's a nice spot to sit for a while. From up there, you can see a certain slow-motion friction in action: Frankston proper is still very much attached to its roots as a country town, and as such is full of red-necks and oiks; however, as one travels from the centre - towards the beachfront - the houses quickly change from being packed together like small, salty, tinned fish into large, multi-storied, yuppified affairs. There is a cold war betwixt up-market, upper-class new Frankston, and sleazy, grubby, spit-filled old Frankston. And I'm not entirely sure yet which is going to elbow the other aside.

Whilst I was sitting up on the hill above the beach, watching the sun set over the suburb and comtemplating this post, a well-heeled young couple approached me. One, tugging self-importantly at the lapel of his sports coat, said, "Excuse me, but did you realise you're on private property?" Embarassed, I could only reply, "Oy, Jimmy - have ya got 'ny spare change? The government's in me head." Would that I were always so eloquent.

Frankston: one-and-a-half loogies out of five.

What shithole will I visit next week? Will I insult your home town? Stay tuned, find out! Try not to wet yourself with excitement.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Sorrows of Young Liberal

Dear Jacqueline,

There has been much speculation about the relationship reforms I proposed last week, that is to say, the fact that I asked you out. Much of this comes from persons with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo - specifically Ken, who practically dribbles with lust every time you walk into the room, and who once described me as a "pompous wanker". Then there are those whose negative stance is influenced less by rational analysis than ideological prejudice. Scott, that daft Stalinist, falls into this catagory. In short, you are being given misleading advice by your so-called "friends", so I have decided to present you with the facts in the hope that you will come around.

MYTH: I'm only after sex.

FACT: I am not only after sex. In fact, if you examine the figures, you will see that sex constitutes only forty-nine percent of my expectations. Due consideration is also given to such key facets of our (potential) relationship as: holding hands in public, curling up in front of McLeod's Daughters, and talking about our feelings. Sex is a factor, but let me assure you that I am an advocate of mutual obligation in the bedroom. Put it this way: you serve up the pie, I'll eat it. You can't ask fairer than that.

MYTH: I am a sexist pig.

FACT: This is nothing but a vicious calmuny put about by those who seek to discredit me. I have five sisters, three aunts, one mother and at least half a grandmother (her condition varies depending on the humidity), and I can honestly say I have never once subjugated them to my chauvinist will, not even accidentally. Yes, I do think that a woman's role, in addition to some light vacuuming, is to raise children, and if this marks me out as sexist then I suppose I am sexist. But I don't think I am, and neither do any of my mates down at the gentleman's club.

MYTH: I am a crypto-fascist imperialist.

FACT: Ideological hatred rears its ugly head. Scott (that cretinous collectivist) deployed the f-word in response to certain of my views put forth at a barbecue last year, and ever since I've had to put up with people who should know better calling out "Zeig Heil!" as I wander around campus. This is absurd. I merely suggested that we would be better off invading the entire Middle East and putting all insurgents to the sword - or the most efficient modern equivalent - before installing obedient puppet regimes. If that's crypto-fascist imperialism, I'll eat my new Patriotic Aryan Youth League of Australia hat!

MYTH: I am a dud root.

FACT: This chestnut is courtesy of Mandy who has been preoccupied with defaming my sexual prowess ever since I shagged her senseless during O-week and refused to buy her dinner afterwards. She claims I couldn't get it up and, as a result, was about as much fun as, I quote, "fucking a plate of lukewarm canneloni". Clearly this is a lie, as my athleticism between the sheets has been well documented by such libidinous luminaries as Catherine, Jess, Claudia, and either May-Na or Wing-Nu - I'm not sure which one I shagged, all those Asian chicks look the same to me. The data supplied by these sources - which roughly breaks down to ninety percent moaning, five percent panting, three percent calling-my-name-in-ecstacy, and two percent squirting of vaginal fluids - indicates that, should you consent to my penis entering your vagina and/or other orifices (this last to be negotiated on an orifice-by-orifice basis), a good time is all but guaranteed.

I trust this letter has put to rest any reservations you might have entertained about my proposal. To conclude, let me say that I envison a lengthy, mutually-satisfying relationship between us, as long as you give up those silly gender studies classes. You don't need them: we can easily study gender in the back seat of my Cortina, and you won't even need to take notes. I sincerely hope this letter has convinced you of my rectitude and suitability. I remain, always and forever,

Jason P. Crisp
President, Young Liberal Pig Shooting Social Club (Victoria)

Monday, September 12, 2005

Ulysses

Since in recent times the burden of raising Sterne's intellectual content has had to rest entirely on Tim's shoulders with his Booker reviews (and how does he read all these books so quickly, you may ask? Do not be fooled: he bathes in the blood of forty librarians, nightly), I thought I should make a small contribution with this review of a minor classic that I've re-read three or four times now, and still enjoy when I'm in the mood for something relaxing.

Those of you paying attention (and if you're not, why not? This is grade A blogging - you should be taking notes) will have realised from the subject line that I speak of none other than James Joyce's Ulysses, a saucy little page-turner, full of twists and turns: a non-stop rollercoaster thrill ride of a novel. Apparently, many have found it hard to get to grips with Joyce's prose style, but I fail to see how this can be so; the plot is as crammed full of excitement as a constipated bowel.

The story, as I'm sure you're well aware, centers on embittered former detective Stephen Daedalus, thrown off the force on trumped-up corruption charges - and just as well. Unconstrained by the fetters of the law, he's free to hunt down the evil illuminati of the Bilderberg Brotherhood - who, it transpires, are not only responsible for ending his career but are attempting to crack the code to harness the ancient powers of the blarney stone and thereby achieve world domination. Stephen is a hard-drinking, hard-fightin' sonofabitch, it's true, but here the resemblance to the cut-out antiheroes popularised in the current glut of thriller-manques which the likes of Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum perpetrate, ends. Joyce's Daedalus bears a subtle complexity missing from these latter 'writers'; those looking for contemporary parallels need look no further than the achingly conflicted shysters and flatfoots who sidle about the pages of Elmore Leonard's (in whom Joyce's influence has often been noted) ouevre. Witness the single tear Daedalus weeps at his mother's grave, just before he engages in the (rightly) famous whirlwind battle with an entire ninja clan; his rescue of the orphan's pet kitten during the brief but memorable knife fight with the pirate captain.

Joyce's other great strength, of course, has always been his ability to write about believeable women. No male writer since Henry James has been able to produce a female character so convincing as Molly Bloom, and frankly none of James' heroines can kick butt like she can (except maybe Catherine Sloper). Molly is five-foot-seven of tommy-gun toting sexual energy with a heart of gold and heels to die for - like Jane Eyre but with ten times the sass-mouth. If anyone can not only win the hard-bitten Daedalus' heart but help him foil the Brotherhood, it's Molly. It's a pity today's authors are unable to write women with such verisimilitude, and instead resort to creating saccharine girls who've never held a gun, let alone shot a man in the eye at a hundred paces.

But plot, character, pace in Ulysses - all are dictated by the soaring rythms and convolutions of the revolutionary prose forms which made Joyce justifiably famous. To the first-time reader, the apparent stream of conciousness - belying, as it does, a deeply nuanced exploration of the links between linguistics and the human psyche - can seem intimidating; one can hope they persevere. As both examplar of Joyce's genius and enticement to new readers, I can do no better than quote here a small portion from one of my favourite scenes:

Stephen Daedalus threw a brave fist first flying slammed smackwobble into the sewer-mutant's shitstink gob. Hardpressed and roaring, the beast, all tooth-frenzy, all achemouth fury, launches a counterattack mad flailing smell rage at the hero's last stand. Bite claw putrescence versus clean cut vengeance and man but he needed a tall whiskey then. It had his holy head in it's vile clobber claws now, Stephen saw, and all was nigh on death - but wait! Here's Molly, bazooka shoulder-mounted, and a cheeky grin mouthwise, she explodes the shitbeast with a quick trigger pull! Heart hard a-pounding, Stephen wiped mutant chunks from his jacket, and knew it was love.

Beautiful, intelligent, haunting: if you haven't made up your mind to purchase a copy of Joyce's blockbuster after reading that, then there's no hope for you. Go and wallow in a Bryce Courtenay somewhere, I want nothing more to do with you.

Next week: I review Pride and Prejudice 2: Darcy's Revenge.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Booker Shortlist

The 2005 Man Booker Prize Shortlist:

John Banville, The Sea
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Ali Smith, The Accidental
Zadie Smith, On Beauty

The big surprise is of course the exclusion of Ian McEwan. I would have preferred to see James Meek there instead of John Banville, but otherwise it's a pretty solid list.

I'll be reading Ishiguro, Barnes and Z. Smith as soon as possible, then that'll be it for Booker reading this year. I didn't get around to William Wall's This Is The Country, and Rachel Cusk's In the Fold and Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown are not even published in Australia until October. Honestly, I can't be bothered reading these three novels just for the sake of completing the now-irrelevant longlist.

The winner of the Prize is announced on October 10.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Who Wears Short Shorts?

At last, a meme that actually requires a modicum of creativity! The idea is to write a story in fifty-five words or less. I believe it is called "micro-fiction" or "short shorts", although it sounds more like one of those competitions where you have to explain in under fifty words why Weet-Bix is your family's favourite breakfast cereal. What you end up with are fragments, but it's better than doing actual work, so I had a quick go.

(i)

Dust obscured the man's robes as he went down on hands and knees. The king approached and paused, placing one foot on the abject man's back. Don't they know who I am? thought the man, clenching his fists in the sand. The king smiled, stepped up onto his horse. They knew precisely who he was.

(ii)

He ordered a loaf, watched as she slipped it into a bag, twisting the top with a wrench of her wrist. He imagined her shifting in his arms. Their eyes met as she handed him the change: coins released from chubby white fingers, porcelein dusted with flour. Then she moved on to the next customer.

(iii)

The criminal mastermind eyed his captive. "Doubtless you expect elaborate torture," he said, "during which I, out of hubris, will reveal my nefarious plans, thus sealing my doom when you inevitably escape." He raised his gun and fired, twice. "I can't say I'm sorry to disappoint you."

(iv)

Mingus plucks the lazy line of notes, the last of which rises to meet the downward shifting piano, which in turn merges in motion with the wandering trumpet. At a nod of his head the band kicks in, and Mingus joins the congregation as they shout to heaven: "Oh yeah!"

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Booker Review: Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee

Retired photographer Paul Rayment is cycling near his Adelaide home when he is struck by a car. One of his legs has to be amputated above the knee, but he is otherwise uninjured. His first weeks as an amputee are not easy, but things pick up when he falls in love with Marijana, his home assistance nurse. The seasoned J.M. Coetzee reader will be feeling right at home as this story unfolds. Paul and Marijana are briskly sketched, their relationship used to examine various philosophical and moral questions. In short, Slow Man shapes up like another excellent entry in the Coetzee canon. Then, about eighty pages in, something strange happens: Coetzee gets playful.

Novelist Elizabeth Costello turns up at Rayment's door. She ingratiates herself into his life, about which she knows more than she should, or even could. Her relationship with Paul is fraught. He believes she is gathering material for a new book. The reader might suspect something rather more metafictional: that Paul is already a character in a Costello novel, a novel that we are in fact in the process of reading.

It's all very Italo Calvino, not a mode that suits Coetzee. The book's tone becomes increasingly light, even farcical at times, as Paul attempts to fend off Costello's interference while simultaneously working through his feelings for Marijana. If nothing else, the reader comes to empathise with Paul's distaste for "the Costello woman". The novel disintegrates every time she appears, and the whole blurring of art and life schtick becomes irritating in the extreme.

I admire Coetzee but I'm afraid he has delivered a dud in Slow Man. The introduction of Costello completely derails the novel. It ends up feeling hamfisted and wrong. Disappointing.

***

UPDATE: The Booker shortlist is announced tomorrow. For the record, my prediction is as follows:

Barnes, McEwan, A. Smith, Ishiguro, Meek, & Z. Smith or Lewycka - I'm going to hedge my bets on the final spot.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Man To Sue Government For Causing Impotence

In a press conference late last night, retiree Richard Bandicroft announced his intention to sue the federal government of Australia for relieving him of his capacity for erection. The dismayingly frank Bandicroft, a keen observer of the nation's political scene and an habitual writer of letters to the editor, related his dilemma to a horrified media thusly: "It was on a Thursday that it happened. I was relaxing in front of an action-packed edition of Question Time, when in walks the wife, all gussied up for a bit of rumpo. 'Twice in one month?' I thought, 'Phwor!' But just as we were getting down to bumping giblets, they crossed with a wide tracking shot to the House of Rep's. And that was it: the sight of Howard and company left me old feller as limp as a foreign affairs minister's wrist."

Since that fateful night, Bandicroft claims to have be unable to sustain any normal sexual activity, or indeed think about any further 'giblet-bumping' without having visions of senior Liberal ministers leering seductively at him. "The one with Tony Abbott is particularly disturbing," he confided to Sterne in an interview after the conference, "I keep thinking of him asking me to fondle his ears while telling him he's a bad boy. The wife suggested I try thinking about someone a bit sexier, but then I nearly turned gay after Vandstone popped into my head."

Unsurprisingly, Bandicroft's testimony appears set to open up a floodgate of similar claims. Already, many among the Canberra press corps have added their voices to his - they especially have been victims of long-term exposure to the debilitating ugliness of the government, and sexual disfunction has become the norm. "Nothing makes a de-facto eunuch faster than watching Kim Beazley guzzling a quick hot-dog in the lunch room," admitted one insider.

While one might expect nothing but strict denial from the PM about the epidemic of soft cocks in Parliament House, staffers from John Howard's office have already begun to put a positive spin on the problem, and have chosen - Pele style - to hang a lantern on it (or at least hang a lantern where one might have been hung, had it not become flaccid). One source comments, "The Prime Minister used to suffer from a comparable affliction. Time was when mirrors were banned from Kiribilli House, and even having Jeanette dress up as the Queen Mum didn't do it for him. But he regained his potency soon enough, simply by picturing himself fucking our great nation up the arse."

Unfortunately, the vast majority of us do not have a country to bugger so resoundingly as Mr Howard, and medical professionals are warning against the dangers of watching any form of political broadcast or reportage. Meanwhile, however, the Catholic church has taken advantage of Bandicroft's discovery; a series of pictures featuring Phil Ruddock in a leather teddy are to be used as the centerpiece in their new abstinence campaign.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Booker Review: Saturday, Ian McEwan

Saturday is an elegant, absorbing novel that does not deserve to win the Booker. Since it is probably the most reviewed novel on the longlist, and since I am at present suffering from some malicious flu-thing that refuses to go away, I'll keep my comments brief.

Good points first. Ian McEwan's prose is elegant and understated. He is brilliant at describing things and places. I love the way he uses music, as both theme and texture. He excels at evoking the peculiar rhythms of everyday life, the sights and sounds and smells of the city. I like the capaciousness of the book, the fact that there is just so much going on, and I like that the central character, successful London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, is both observant and complex enough to bear the weight of so much detail.

Yet for all this Saturday just didn't do it for me. The explicit politics are distracting, and not particularly interesting. Perowne aside, the characters are flat, predictable. The plot is neat, which is not a criticism in itself, but the way McEwan ties it all up is, frankly, silly. The book simply doesn't gel. It's full of interesting things, but McEwan can't make it work.

Despite these reservations, Saturday remains an engaging, often entertaining read. McEwan has at least tried something bold and different, and what is more he has partially succeeded, which is more than can be said for some.

Postscript: Reviewing Saturday in the New York Review of Books, your hero and mine John Banville describes it as "dismayingly bad". The review is not available online, but there is a fantastic riposte to it here that is also an astute review in itself.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Let's Not Do The Timewarp Again. No, Not Ever.

The enlightened among you can hardly fail to acknowledge that we are living in perilous times. Sinister forces are at work to undermine Western society - the values we live by, our inalienable human rights, are under dire threat. These forces will stop at nothing, and will use any means they deem necessary to secure their goals. They target the young and the infirm of purpose, hoping to sway their minds, turn them against parents, teachers, symbols of authority. They are, and I must be blunt here, fundamentally different from us - not just in obvious ways, like their dress and cultural habits, weird though they be; they think differently, too. They operate under laws and morality systems alien to the likes of you or I.

By now, it should be apparent who and what I'm talking about. What? Terrorism? Oh, fuck off, do. Don't be so cliche. No, the force I'm talking about makes your average jihadist look like a babe in arms. I am of course referring to the greatest threat our society has faced since Hitler decided to stop making bad art and start making corpses. Yes, that's right. I'm talking about eighties nostalgia.

What - and I'm enquiring as politely as I can, mark you - what in the name of bloody fucking buggery is going on, people? Let's be clear about this. The 1980's were a period when fashion sense, taste, creativity, all took a distinct dive towards the baroque (i.e. sodding awful). Sure, sure, it's very chic to have a post-modern or ironic appreciation for the ouevre of Billy Idol (or whom-have-you), and I have no problems with that. But increasingly, irony is ceasing to be the lens through which we view that decade of gauchest.

Everywhere I go these days, I see escalating signs that the eighties are returning, rising like from the crypt like a vampire with bedazzler-studded shoulderpads. Tight-jeans; spikey, coloured hair; flouncy, Lauper-esque skirts; vomitous novelty songs featuring either electric drum machines or Alvin of The Chipmunks fame. And ug boots, ug boots...why? Why?! It doesn't just look bad, it looks ridiculously bad.

And I haven't even mentioned the tupping mullets yet. Now, the mullet has had a proud history: it was the official haircut of the citizenry during the French Revolution, after all; and more recently it's been the badge of that fierce and noble breed, the Western suburbs bogan. And it was an ugly but honest coiffure. But now the trendies and the Chapel Street parasites are all sporting designer versions of said follicular travesty. Even the women! Has everyone taken leave of their senses?

The most perplexing thing is that most of these assaults on good taste are perpetrated by 'people' who weren't even alive during the eighties. Why can't they just thank their lucky stars and get on with what might otherwise be a bright future? The next fourteen year old girl I see sporting a pony tail on the side of her head and a pleated, flaired denim mini-skirt circa Molly Ringwald over her tights is going to regret a. the day she was born, b. the day I was born, c. the day my shares in Thumbscrews-R-Us began to pay dividends.

It's high time the government wised up to this disturbing trend and introduced some decent, heavy-handed legislation. They've got that nice big Senate majority that they keep waving in our faces (in much the same manner as that incident on Big Brother), after all. Forget terrorism, and the fundamentalist dogma of break-away religious sects - the growing popularity of eighties nostalia is a threat that needs to be addressed. Stendhal gave us the delightfully uppity maxim, ''Bad taste leads to crime"; if Monsieur Howard and Co. would care to pay more attention to what's being thrust under their noses (Big Brother again) instead of looking for towel-heads under the beds, Australia would surely be a far safer, not to mention less tacky, place.

And we could all get back to being nostalgic about the fifties: the true golden age.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Booker Review: Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel

Beth and Gayla both enjoyed Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, but I'm afraid it did nothing for me. So little feeling did it inspire that I have spent fifteen minutes getting to this point in the review. I just don't know what to say. I am crippled by indifference. I can't even be bothered telling you what the book is about. Oh, all right then, it's about a stage medium (you know, a psychic) who is plagued by the dead, or, as the blurb has it, "They infiltrate her house, her body and her soul; the more she tries to be rid of them, the stronger and nastier they become." So there you go.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Well, it is, at first. There's no doubt Mantel can string a sentence together. Of course, this is the Booker longlist and (in my mind, at least) you need more than a pleasant prose style to justify your inclusion. But still, at least she can write. Mantel also does a good job fleshing out her protagonists and depicting the desolate estates where they ply their trade.

The problem is, having assembled all the elements of an entertaining novel, Mantel fails to write one. Beyond Black is loose and episodic where it needs to be tense and driven. I quickly became bored, and only stuck with it as long as I did because I knew I was going to review it. I still gave up halfway. It's a 450 page book, and frankly that was too much of a not-so-good thing. As painstaking as Mantel is with her characters, I couldn't bring myself to care one way or the other about them. As for Mantel's much-vaunted wit, it went right over (or under, but certainly not through) my head.

In conclusion, there's no technical reason for me not liking Beyond Black. I suspect it is simply a case of the wrong book in the wrong reader's hands. I wish I could love it or hate it; instead, I'm just glad I don't have to think about it anymore.

Booker Review: All For Love, Dan Jacobson

What kind of publisher allows a novel to go on sale with the feeble, Bryan Adams-evoking title All For Love? The same kind of publisher that allows said book to go on sale sporting a front cover like this:


I'm not one to throw around phrases like "appalling and hopelessly misguided", but that cover, and that title, are appalling and hopelessly misguided. Of course, one would be a fool to judge a book by its cover, or any other element of a publisher's marketing apparatus. Content is king. What a shame that the content of Dan Jacobson's All For Love turns out to be almost as lacklustre as its packaging.

All For Love is a historical novel with a distinctly postmodern bent. It reads like a strange kind of non-fiction, the narrator very much to the fore, discussing character's motives, offering opinions, even going so far as to provide footnotes for sources. The story concerns the relationship between a minor Hapsburg princess and an unmoneyed hussar in the late-nineteenth century. It is told with detached irony, the narrator knowing, even cynical. At first I found it all rather interesting, but unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much point to Jacobson's intellectual posturing. Doubtless he is making a sly comment about history writing, historical fiction, even historical knowledge itself. And that's all fine and good, but smart-arse wankery does not a good novel make.

The main problem is with Jacobson's choice of subject. His protagonists are dull and unappealing, their illicit affair about as erotic as waking up next to Clive James. With a cast of scheming bureaucrats, jealous princes and rabid anti-semites, the story should tell itself. Jacobson, however, likes to do the telling, plumping always for the least interesting aspects of the tale. For example, there are about fifty pages in the middle somewhere that are entirely concerned with the lovers' financial imbroglios, related by Jacobson with all the vim of a pedantic tax accountant working his way along a paper trail. It was at this point I began to wish I was reading something, anything, else. Even Marlon Brando's pirate novel sounds like more fun than All For Love.

***

Eight down, nine to go. Here's my rankings so far:

On the shortlist: James Meek

Strong contenders: Ali Smith, Sebastian Barry

Nice try: John Banville, Marina Lewycka, Tash Aw

Landfill: Harry Thompson, Dan Jacobson