Monday, February 27, 2006

Harry Potter And The MA Rating

In keeping with the trend that has seen the big screen versions of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise growing steadily darker and more adult, if not better acted, Warner Bros. Studios announced over the weekend that Paul Verhoeven, the legendary director/pervert behind Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Invisible Man will be directing the next instalment. As has become customary, the rabid legions of pre-pubescents and chunky, aging, single librarians who comprise Rowling’s fan base have expressed concerns over the choice, just as they did when Alfonso Cuaron (whose Y Tu Mama Tambien opened with a youth’s experiments with his ‘magic wand’ resulting in his jizzing in a swimming pool) was chosen to helm a previous chapter in the series. In response, the studio has decided to reassure the fans that Verhoeven does not mean to bend the franchise over, make it grasp its ankles and think of England by releasing a snippet of the screenplay onto the internet. For your edification, Sterne presents a copy below; in all honesty, it’s a pretty straightforward, pedestrian adaptation, and may in fact be too faithful to Rowling’s text to hold audience interest – but I’ll leave you to decide that for yourselves.

Act 2, Scene 5.

Midnight. All is shadowy, ill-lit by the occasional smoky candle. Harry and Ron are scampering back down the Hogwarts corridors after the merry jape involving Farmer Emerich’s wytch-cows. They are chuckling and nudging each other, as bosom pals are wont to.

Ron: I bet Malfoy wets himself when he sees wha…

Harry comes to a sudden halt by an ominous wooden door.

Ron: What is it, Harry?
Harry: Shhh, listen!

Ron’s eyes goggle as he listens.

Ron: What? There’s nuffin’ there.
Harry: Didn’t you hear it? It sounded like a dark, slimy beast forcing its way out into this world from some hideous nether region. And what’s that weird, sulphourous smell? We’ve got to investigate!
Ron (eyes goggling): I d-d-don’t know about this H-Harry.

A terrible moaning is heard from behind the ominous door. Ron’s eyes goggle still further (NB: if this proves physically impossible for actor, insert CG graphic here).

Ron: Eeep! (Ron scarpers).
Harry: Ron, wait!

Harry steels himself visibly, then placing his hands upon its portentous carvings, he pushes on the ominous door, which opens with an ill-omened creak. The camera pans into the room beyond, following Harry’s line of sight, and we observe Dumbledore and Snape within, engaged in an arcane ritual.

Dumbledore: Harry! What are you doing here! Back to your dorm at once! This magic is too powerful for you!
Snape: Go Potter, before I turn you into a maggot and feed you to a toad. And then step on the toad.
Harry: No! I came here to Hogwarts to learn to defend myself against evil wizards and their black arts, and to master the hidden secrets of the universe. Power and magic are my birthrights, and whatever is going on here, I deserve to be part of it. I’m ready!
Dumbledore (brow furrowed in consternation): Very well, Harry. I believe you are. Come.

Dumbledore lifts up the sheets under which he and Snape are lying, shifts over, and pats the mattress invitingly.

Dumbledore: Snape, do you have the laxatives and the Glad-wrap? Good. Harry my boy, you are about to be inducted into the Ancient and Secret Order of the Cleveland Steamer…

Scene ends with the look of fascinated horror/curiosity on Harry's face.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Review: Cell

Owing to certain personal anxieties (impending birth of child, loss of employment, chronic gigantism of the penis), I am presently having trouble finishing books. (Not to mention writing blog posts: this is my first in two and a half weeks.) Starting books is easy; on a good day I can start up to four or five books. Finishing them is a different story, as my concentration span shrinks, my interest wanes, and the books end up being added to the teetering bedside pile, each with a bookmark a hundred pages or so in, before ultimately being returned to the shelves or library unfinished. This time last year I had read nineteen books. The 2006 tally stands at seven, and although that figure comes with some pretty good excuses attached, it still feels a little pathetic.

Desperate to actually finish reading an eighth book before the month is out, I picked up Stephen King's new novel, Cell, at my local library. I hadn't read King since I was a teenager, and even then I wasn't a huge fan, but Cell looked like just the thing to chase away my reading blues. For one thing, it is about zombies, and zombies are always cool. It's even dedicated to Richard Matheson and George A. Romero. Also, I hoped that by reading King I might be inflicting some kind of cosmic misery on Harold Bloom. But mostly I just wanted something undemanding and fun, trashy but not crap-trashy, with no pretentions attached, and if that doesn't describe Stephen King's oeuvre then I don't know what does. (Although I suppose "juvenile horseshit" might be a valid alternative.)

Cell lived up to its promise - sort of. Unlike most King stories, this one doesn't require several hundred pages of creeping dread before the horror is unleashed. (Why is horror always "unleashed"? And why is dread always "creeping"?) Cell gets right down to tin tacks, if by tin tacks you mean everybody using a mobile phone suddenly getting their brains rewired and becoming savage, unstoppable zombie-things. One minute the hero, Clay Riddell, is minding his own business in a Boston street, the next all hell has broken loose (as all hell is wont to do) and senseless violence has become this year's black. Naturally, Clay hooks up with a motley crew of fellow survivors (Cell is full of playful/obvious nods to zombie genre convention) and sets about making his way home to see if his estranged wife and son have gone all undead and shit.

Now, at sentence level, King is not a very good writer. He improves at paragraph level, gets a bit shaky at chapter level, but at part-and/or-other-subdivision level he is not too shabby at all. By which nonsense I mean that for all the sloppiness of his prose (which admittedly is less distractingly energetic than it used to be; somebody has obviously had a word to him about all those ITALIC CAPS), King is very good at keeping you turning the pages. So although the story and characters are straight out of the manual, the dialogue terrible and the constant attempts at humour disastrous, Cell starts out exactly as I had hoped - fast, violent and engaging.

Of course, about one hundred pages in, King fucks up. Incredibly, for an author who is feted as a master in the "craft" of popular fiction, King squanders his own set-up by bogging the story down with all manner of pointless sub-adventures and idiotic conversations whose sole purpose is to draw out the books "deep themes", which are about as deep as the gene pool in the average royal family. By the time the fellowship of the King shack up at a New England private school - complete with a dignified old English master whose vocabulary just happens to include phrases like "murderous motherfuckers" - I was utterly fed up with Cell. It will be returned to the library post haste, leaving me to ponder the question: if I can't even finish a Stephen King, what the hell can I finish?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bad Hair Life

There are many things which, to all practical purposes, are impossible - viewing the edge of the universe, deriving Euclid's fifth postulate from the other four, making Madonna realise it's time to give up leotards, to name but a few. In this big ol' world, impossibilities aboud; but if it was possible to quantify levels of impossibility, the absolute most impossible thing ever would be for me to receive a good haircut.

Scintillatingly vile haircuts have been a problem dogging me my entire life. I'm not entirely sure why... although I'm sure my mother's weird predeliction for walking under ladders while holding a black cat in one hand, smashing mirrors with the other and all the while yelling abuse at old gyspy ladies when she was pregnant with me probably didn't help matters much. Whatever the reason, the International Cabal of Barbers - the shadowy society of men who cut the hair of the men who secretly run the world - has obviously taken some time out from practising unnatural and obscene acts upon one another and decided that whenever I might happen to walk into a salon, that they must do their utmost to fuck my hair up something shocking.

This really wasn't such a problem back when I was a kid. Getting an ugly short-back-and-sides was de rigueur for boys in those days. But when I started paying attention to current fashions and asked a barber to style my locks into something appropriately cool (a Billy Idol style spike, for instance. Hey, don't look at me like that. It was the eighties, I was an impressionable lad, and Mr Idol was widely considered to be the acme of sex and danger, or at least sex and danger as understood by the pre-pubescent mind), I would end up with a mullet. Not a stylish, chic mullet that are (supposedly) all the rage among the hip kids these days. A full-on bogan coif.

Although this was not the only factor (my increasing paranoia about castration, symbolic or otherwise, played a large part), a the never-ending series of disastrous styles was the deciding one when I made up my ape-like mind not to have any more haircuts. And I lasted a full eight happy years before I returned to a barber's comfortably padded torture chair, my hair growing ridiculously long and unkempt. But when I eventually tired of looking like a greasy caveman and grew weary of having to pull my split-ends away from my mouth in order to eat, and in the foolish hope that the curse would have worn off and that the Barber's Cabal had forgotten me, I went for a quick trim. Nothing fancy. Just a few inches off and a bit of a tidy up.

I walked away with a bowl cut. Not just any bowl cut, mark you. The bowl cut of Doom. It was a good month before I was able to leave the house again.

Since then, I have been making half-yearly visits to the hair butchers, and am yet to be satisfied with the results. Nothing as bad as the bowl cut has happened again, but I've been forced to sport such repugnant follicle fashions as the surfies' bouffant ("Now you look gnarly, dude!" said the barber) and yet more mullets ("It's sooo in right now!"). I hate the hairdresser's with a passion I otherwise reserve only for teenagers and foreign ministers.

And, of course, the reason I am boring y'all with this now is that I'm off to the barber's this afternoon, and would solicit your prayers, benedictions and any spare pennies you might be able to afford, for to purchase a handgun to hold to the head of whatever effete boy-band look-alike or mousse-brained ditz might hold a pair of shears to mine. One more bad haircut is like as not to send me over the edge; so gentle readers, either look for me in the fashion pages tomorrow, or in police line-up.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Review: The Meaning Of Recognition

There are two Clive Jameses, and no, this isn’t leading into a fat joke. Reading through this latest selection of essays, speeches and general musings one is confronted by two authors: the first a man whose hand I would like to tremblingly shake, a critic of style and wit with a breadth of knowledge and depth of insight that can only instil admiration; the other a complacent, self-centred git at whom one can’t help yelling, “Shut up Clive James. Shut up!”

Let us deal with the latter Clive first. Ostensibly, The Meaning of Recognition covers a fairly wide range of subjects - the products of high and low culture, politics, fame, history - but at base James has only three real topics, of which all else are mere facets: art, contemporary society, and himself. Unfortunately that list is in ascending order of importance to the author.

James would no doubt insist differently – does so regularly, in fact. We are either told or it is implied to us time and again that art and its creators are paramount, and to be fair, their significance to him is beyond doubt. Artists are, for James, colossal, Promethean figures, whose place in the universal taxonomy is undeniably higher than the common man. Such hierarchies are frequent: James implicitly places literature highest among the humanities, and poetry highest among the literary arts. As a result, James the poet stands shoulder to shoulder with past and present geniuses, whose talent and worthiness James the critic is able to judge. Which is of course a load of cock vomit.

Clive James is not a good poet. He is often an exceptional critic, but equally often an execrable bard. And the blind spot to this lack of talent caused by his own ego can sometimes be detrimental to his criticism. Genius, he seems to feel, is drawn from a single wellspring, a font which he has no doubt that he shares in. Moreover he insists that genius, like murder, will always out, and therefore one only needs a close reading of the work of art in question to plumb the depth of its meaning. There is a lot to be said for this method, and indeed, returning to the work is a trope that is happily making a comeback in modern criticism. It can, however, be limiting; to use one of James’ own examples, one doesn’t need to know about Maud Gonne to understand Yeats… yes, but it damn well helps. Sure, it’s easy to fall prey to the biographic fallacy, but it’s also far too simplistic to say that the author of the work operates in a creative vacuum, and attribute everything in his work to the products of genius. And how are we to approach the likes of Eliot and co. without examining things like intertextuality? Using the work as a primary resource is one thing, using it as the sole resource is another, and yet James repeatedly insists that this is the only method of criticism that counts. It’s all very romantic, and perhaps a little pathetic. He is in love with art, and in love with his own contributions to the world of art, and tends to be blinded by this adoration.

The James-as-genius complex creates other problems, too. Practitioners and initiates into the mysteries of art are treated with due respect, but other critics are often not. The word ‘intelligensia’ frequently pops up in The Meaning of Recognition, and there is ever a tangible sneer attached to the word, especially when used in connection to the term 'left-wing'. This never more true when talking about Australian cultural commentators (and in fact, the word ‘Australian’ is never really free of the sneer-factor, either). James will, of course, always qualify this, and say that he is a pundit, an intellectual, a member of the left-wing, an Australian – and the insinuation is always there that everyone else in the same category could therefore be doing much better. They’re not Clive James yet, after all.

These dogged assertions that he adheres to left-wing liberalism run contrary to the temperament of his essays on terrorism and the current political climate. James rightly deplores the activities at Abu Ghraib, and condemns Rumsfeld for his part in them, but applauds Bush’s just war in Iraq, which is free of ulterior motives and self-serving agendas. Terrorists really are just opportunistic religious zealots, just plain old-fashioned evil guys. Anyone who suggests that their motivation may be driven by what they at least see as just causes is at best a panderer or at worst a sympathiser (and here the liberal left-wing Australian intelligentsia are treated to the full lip curl). In many ways it appears James is slipping into a conservative, fuddy-duddy sort of mentality in his old age. One can only hope he doesn’t slip the whole way into outright craziness (cough Germain Greer cough).

I’ve listed at length what I didn’t like about The Meaning of Recognition, proving that it’s easier to write a negative review than a positive. I have been graceless, perhaps, if not downright unfair. There are, to be sure, plenty of positive reviews in this book, and if they were harder to write, it surely doesn’t show: James is an excellent essayist, and he makes the task seem simple. He has an easy familiarity with words and charming, exciting turns of phrase. For all that I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, I admire the way he says it, I am in awe of the scope of his knowledge, and I can not fail to appreciate his incisive, bitter-as-coffee wit and cruel humour. While not his best work, this is an intelligent, entertaining read: worthy of the argument you're sure to have with it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Half-Mangled Banner

Sit up straight; pay attention! Sterne is back, and you can consider your holiday from this bastion of taste and good sense officially over. Yes, we at Team Sterne have been taking it a touch easy on the blog front for little while now - but we had reasons, dammit. Well, Tim does anyway: he is busy making ready for the spawn of his loins to burst forth into a hideously unprepared world; I have merely been tuckered out from yet another sporadic period of barge totin’ and bale liftin’ for The Man (I swear, I am not given to hyperbole, but it’s just like the Confederate South ’round my workplace. Whippings, slave fights, mint juleps - the works). But! I, at least, am back now, and Tim will be returning to blog land in the not too distant future. And you poor saps thought you were free…

One thing that has not been diminished by my recent stint of exploitative labour (unlike the ability to walk, my will to live, etc, etc) is my patriotic fervour. I love this goddam stinking day-old-turd of a country with a passion that is unseemly, to say the least. This Australia Day past, I went through no less than three changes of underwear and an entire box of Kleenex, so amorous were my feelings for this great nation. But I will be the first to admit that my affection for all things Australian falls short of our flag. The Union Jack and Star of Federation are the anachronistic icons of fading imperialism and historical unimportance; the Southern Cross just plain boring. Let’s face it: ours is not a flag that inspires, that causes the eye to mist over with tears of elation at the mere sight of it. Yes, yes, I know men have fought and died for it in several wars and at least one police action, but wouldn’t they have enjoyed the killing and the dying more if they could have done it for a pennant that was a wee mite more…well, interesting? This is an age where all the cools kids are into making public displays of jingoism, and therefore are wont to wear flags emblazoned on their under-garments, tattooed on their bodies and wrapped around themselves as they journey to their local race riots. Don’t we want them to be able to wear something that the representatives of other nations can instantly recognise, be shocked and awed by, without having to check a ‘Flags of the World’ chart? Something chic, something bold, something a little less dull.

Which is why I whole-heartedly applauded the recent invitation by the Sydney Morning Herald for readers to send in flags of their own design as possible replacements for the embarrassment currently waving atop our flagpoles. As you can expect, there were some wonderfully well thought out and creatively designed suggestions, and while you should certainly check out the rest of the gallery, let me share my two favourites here:

This example comes from a fellow who, without a trace of irony, thought it would be sensible if Australia wore its gang colours openly and declared itself the 51st state of America.

And this, from a person happy to advertise their complete lack of aesthetic values.

Delightful as the SMH responses may be, and as seriously as I take them, I was recently struck by a certain lack of forethought and originality uncharacteristic in submissions to a newspaper. Why stop at a single flag? Even the US changes its coat of arms according to its current level of belligerence: the head of the Eagle of Democracy faces the talon which clutches a sheaf of arrows when the nation is at war, the talon with the olive branch when it doesn't. Why on earth can’t we go one better? Why not a series of national flags, a different one to be flown as the situation dictates? I’m sure that even now parliament is deliberating over which of the SMH entries to adopt as an every-day sort of a flag, but let me be the first to here submit a few of my own designs for flags for special occasions:

This, I feel, would be a suitable banner to raise when entering diplomatic summits and trade negotiations. Now the rest of the world can see just how far we’re prepared to go to reach that agreement, sign that treaty.

Should Australia, heaven forfend, go to war (as opposed to keeping the peace, with bullets), what we need is a flag that will scare the bejezus out of Johnny Foreigner. A standard which bore the dynamic duo you see below could not fail to achieve this end. Sure, it would mean coercing Mr T to become an Australian citizen, but if we can fork out the ducats to purchase gold medal wining Canadian skiers, I’m sure we can afford to import a retired TV star. One glance at this bad boy, and the enemy’d know that we were gonna fuck them up real nice.

And, of course, once we lost it would be necessary to sue for peace.

There now, people – aren’t your hearts and pants just swelling with pride at the thought of these beauties fluttering o'erhead? If not, you can consider your deportation orders in the mail and your passport stamped. Australia and Sterne have no need for the likes of you.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Miss Hathaway Pads Up

Dinner at Lord Buckingham's was raucous as a matter of routine, and that particular night in September 18-- was perhaps more raucous than the mean owing to the presence of one Kate Hathaway, a young Australian toilet paper heiress whose original turn of mind and intriguingly blocked sinuses had charmed the finest salons of Europe before being brought to bear on those of London where she was to spend the season before "buggering off", as she put it in her pleasing antipodean vernacular, to warmer climates. As dessert was being served by Lord Buckingham's excellent staff, Miss Hathaway was completing an anecdote that had the assembled guests struggling to maintain their composure, so concentrated and unique was its wit, and indeed the host himself was so enthused as to attempt a witticism of his own by declaring that "Miss Hathaway certainly 'hathaway' with words!"

The subject of this quip flashed Lord Buckingham a look that may have indicated the onset of inner passion or may have simply been the main course repeating on her. "I have another story," she said, abruptly, and her eyes took on the hue and hardness of prison-house bluestone as outside, beyond the heavy curtains, a storm announced its arrival with a crash of thunder and a primitive dance through the normally genteel willows that Lord Buckingham had had planted in honour of his dead marmot, Phillip.

"My dear," said Lord Buckingham, holding Miss Hathaway's gaze with his own, "we should be delighted to hear more."

"I must warn you that it may be considered inappropriate by our present company." Miss Hathaway looked at each of her dinner companions in turn, before returning her stare to Lord Buckingham, who smiled thinly and said:

"We are all adults here, Miss Hathaway, and I dare say that those of us who served in the Transvaal would have witnessed worse atrocities on our morning visits to the latrine than could issue from the mouth of one as lovely and innocent as yourself."

"Very well," said Miss Hathaway, her voice trilling with restrained emotion. "I will tell all, and d---- the consequences!" The candles guttered, as they often do in Jamesian framing devices like this, and Miss Hathaway raised herself in her chair, cleared her throat, and proceeded to speak:

Five years ago, although it feels a good deal longer, I ran away from home. It was a foolish thing to do, but I was a foolish girl at the time, and I had my reasons, however misguided. Cut off from my family's support, I attained work as a salesgirl at a suburban pet store. It was hard, back-breaking work, and my employer, a Mr Berns, was a bitter, damaged man, with eyes only for his profits. The other staff were variously unpleasant, although one young man, Tom was his name, exhibited a kindness and warmth - not to mention a corset-wettening sense of humour - that set him apart from the others. We became firm friends, a relationship that was cut tragically short when he was arrested for impersonating the Prime Minister's tailor.

Every day degradation piled upon degradation, yet still I persisted in turning up for work, so certain was I that my chosen path was correct, although I concede it may have been pride that drove me on. Mr Berns was not unkind, as such, but certainly uncaring, and in the course of my duties I was forced into many unpleasant situations, most of them involving dried pig ears. I mourned constantly for Tom, who had been sentenced to twenty years hard labour at Movie World on the Goldcoast. Finally, something happened that caused me to leave Mr Berns's employ and return to my family, cap in hand, on my knees, with my lips pre-puckered in anticipation of a lengthy episode of arse-kissing.

It was a Tuesday, and I had just finished my usual morning task of removing the accumulated lumps of dried kangaroo meat from the floor of the back room. A customer entered and I went into the shop proper to run once more through the routine of serving. Most customers come and go without impressing themselves at all upon one's mind, but some one will remember, I am sure, until the day one dies. This particular customer falls into the latter category, and the reasons why I shall remember him thus it is now my intention to relate.

For one thing, this young man - whose hairy, unkempt visage reminded one of the heathen barbarians one learned about in school, Attila and so on - this young man was stoned out of his mind. No, Captain Paisley, I do not mean he had some kind of basalt formation in place of his brain, but that he had been smoking "the green stuff", and not only that but inhaling it as well. This is virtually unknown in England, of course, but in Australia it is quite common amongst the lower classes, most of whom are direct descendents of either convicts or Jamaican dub musicians, and in a few unfortunate cases both. The drug caused him to be slow-witted and not a little irritating, but it was not this that I took exception to: rather, it was his dog.

Ah yes, his dog. It was an Australian Bulldog, akin to an English Bulldog but with an insatiable appetite for bad lager and bunyip meat. This particular specimen was large enough and ugly enough to have sent any of its English cousins crying for Queen Victoria. I approached it warily and it sniffed me with equal caution, before apparently declaring me fit to live and getting on with the business of trying to shoplift as much edible and semi-edible stock as possible.

Ever the professional, I asked the customer in what way I could be of assistance. He replied that his dog, which laboured under the sobriquet "Francesca", was leaking. I told him it was natural for bulldogs to salivate excessively, but this wasn't at all what he meant.

"Nah," he said, his blood-shot eyes almost inverting to stare deep into his empty skull as he spoke, "nah, she's got fuckin' blood and shit comin' out of her cunt!"

You must pardon my language, which I use only for the purposes of narrative verisimilitude. My first inclination, as you might imagine, was to ask this young man to leave. However, Mr Berns would not look kindly upon such an action as it would deprive him of the profits, present and future, of this particular customer. So I was forced to carry on as though I shared my customer's easy familiarity with the f-, s- and c-words.

I asked him to clarify his statement, and he, pausing to rest his over-heated brain every few seconds, invited me to examine the creature's nether regions myself. Warily, I moved to the rear of the dog, and saw that the beast's swollen pudenda were indeed emitting certain viscid fluids, mostly on to that area of the shop's floor where I had just mopped that morning. Luckily, I had an easy answer.

"Sir," I said, "as unlikely as it sounds we do happen to have in stock a range of sanitary undergarments for menstruating dogs. Each undergarment comes with a specially-designed insert or "pad" that can be replaced when its work is done. I believe our new range of pads have a core of sphagnum for extra absorption and come in a range of colours to suit your dog's individual personality."

The customer reflected upon this for a moment, scratched his beard, then his testicles, before replying:

"Ah,, but what about...uh...the thing is...can you fit her for them? The, ah, the pants I mean."

Well, what could one do? With Mr Berns making himself conspicuous and other customers beginning to take an interest in the bleeding animal, I had to oblige his request. I removed a pair of sanitary undergarments from the shelf (we were normally obliged to attempt to up-sell canine corsets and brassieres to customers of this particular product, but I could not face fitting more than one item of intimate canine apparel), and approached the dog.

"I'll pat her, um, head while you deal with the other end," offered the customer, scratching his own other end with nicotine-stained fingers. I grunted assent (most unladylike, I know, but justified under the circumstances) and moved towards the beast's hind-quarters.

I own that what confronted me there was nothing more nor less than my worst nightmare become real. I have never been comfortable with my own private parts, let alone those of other species, and although I felt some sort of empathy for this suffering female, I struggled to keep my bile from rising.

(Incidentally, I dread to think what would have happened had my co-worker, Gilda, encountered this customer instead of myself. Gilda is a member of a strict religious sect that proscribes, amongst other things, the eating of stone fruit on Thursdays, the performance of fellatio on men named Trevor after two p.m., and the fitting of canine sanitary equipment at any time without the written permission of an ordained minister.)

In fairness, Francesca was as well-behaved as any sentient creature that is not only suffering the curse but is having to put up with a stranger rummaging around its privates can possibly be expected to be. The process of fitting the sanitary undergarment was long and involved, and required one to put one's hand - indeed one's face - where one's hand - and indeed one's face - should really never go. Eventually I got the device strapped on, and with the insert or "pad" busy soaking up Francesca's discarded ovum I returned my attention to the customer.

"It's,'s good," he said, squeezing his eyes closed and shaking his head. "The only thing is, right, I haven't got know...uh?"

"Money?" My heart sank as I uttered the word.

"Yeah! That's it dude - money!" He licked his lips in a most ungentlemanly fashion. "I haven't got any. Money."

"So," I said, getting to my feet, away from the nuzzling dog, "you won't actually be purchasing the sanitary undergarments I have just spent a particularly uncomfortable half an hour fitting, and that are as we speak being soiled with the menstrual blood of your ill-bred mutt, meaning that if you don't purchase them now they will have to be discarded and the shortfall - that is, the wholesale price of the item - will be deducted from my salary, thus leaving me short for the week and unable to feed myself?"


"Then may I suggest that you, sir, get the--"

Of course I cannot go on. What I said that day was unbecoming for a lady, and oughtn't be repeated amongst such distinguished company. But on that very day I handed my notice to Mr Berns, who made a great show of capitalist martyrdom by complaining for several hours about my leaving him in the lurch, before returning to my family, and thence to the world of society of which you, my friends, are yourselves the crowning members.

Outside the thunder continued its ineffectual atmospheric bullying, and the rain hammered into the croquet lawn, but inside there was only silence as the dinner guests absorbed Miss Hathaway's tale between mouthfuls of graham pudding. Only Mrs Kirkby, who was ninety-seven and deaf, remained unaffected, and sat smiling as though the story just related had been a harmless children's tale rather than one of unremitting horror. Finally, apparently feeling it his duty as host, Lord Buckingham spoke.

"Miss Hathaway, I suspect I speak for everybody present when I say that that was truly a disgusting story. True, yes, I don't doubt it. Well-told, certainly, and I don't begrudge you your skill with narrative. But disgusting also, and in this aspect overwhelming of all others, and therefore precisely what I desire from a dinner guest."

Miss Hathaway executed a small seated bow, and smiled at the peer.

"I hadn't expected such a reaction," she said. "In fact, I rather thought I would be endangering my future in this country by telling it."

"Nonsense," said Lord Buckingham. "If there is nothing else we British enjoy it is a good animal-menstruation story. Why General Rigid here has a dozen of the things, don't you Ridgy? Of course you do! Now, let's all regurgitate dinner and then we fellows will remove to the drawing room for cigars. I've got an excellent tale about a lactating squirrel I'm just dying to tell!"

And so the evening, rather than ending, was actually just beginning, and Kate Hathaway found that she could relax for the first time since arriving in England, knowing that her popularity was assured for ever more.

For Kate, who has been there, done that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thumb Of Destiny

The dame came out of nowhere and threw herself down next to me; from the first instant I could smell the crazy coming off her. “I’m a psychic!” she told me. Yeah, it figures. I should be used to it by now, but I still don’t got a clue why they always pick me: the deranged, the drunks, the desperate; freaks, nerds and weirdoes; zealots, midgets, psychos, and crack-addled celebrities – I’m like a magnet to them. It’s getting so’s I can’t walk down the street without being accosted by some mook who needs to raise a quick five bucks to ransom his brother back from the Pope.

It was early in the evening, but I was already at a cheap bar, nursing a friendly whiskey or three and trying to make time with a girl. But the psychic, jewellery a’jangle and bleached hair flicking in my face would have none of that. “I just saw you and I knew I had to come and read you!” she said, apparently unaware that my increasingly hostile body language currently read like the non-verbal equivalent of A Suitable Boy. “Quick, show me your thumb. I need to see your thumb.” Oh yeah, this was going to be a good one.

Folks throughout history have put in a deal of work coming up with scientific explanations for psychic and paranormal phenomena: looking for ESP in brainwaves, charting the path of stars and phases of the moon, examining the photographic spectrum for traces of auras. Crap like that. But I never heard tell where a man’s future was laid out plain on his thumb for the world to see. My interest piqued and my glass nearly empty, I offered her a digit, although not the one I usually favour.

"Oh my god!" she said, as she stroked my thumb in a manner that usually would have required me to leave money on the nightstand. "See how your thumb is so stiff, so unbending. Your personality is just like that. You have a will of iron." Damn straight, honey, I thought. Except... I demonstrated how, contrary to her opinion, a couple hundred thousand years of evolution had afforded me the luxury of being able to bend the offending finger. But the clairvoyant brushed the matter aside. "Put your hand on my thigh," she instructed in a burst of prophetic enthusiasm. My girl snorted quietly into her gin cocktail, and arched an eyebrow in amused disgust; but I was unwilling to bring the gypsy's curse down on my head, and I complied.

"Now, this is your head line," the psychic explained as she tickled my palm, "and this is your heart line. And this is... Oh my god!" She swore, and warded of the evil eye with a tipsy gesture. "You have no life line!" Yeah? And what of it, sister? Reluctantly, I explained that I had a blog, and the light of understanding began to dawn behind her vacant eyes.

There followed an extended analysis of my personality and future, all of it based on the usual sweeping generalisations, and all of it wrong. Moreover, she failed to explain why lately I keep writing as though I'm a character in a poor Raymond Chandler rip-off. So enough of that. There's a strange phenomena I've observed, though: that 99% of the people I've met who genuinely believe themselves to be psychic - and there've been a lot more than I've really had the patience for - are aged between 35 and 60. I don't pretend to know what it is that drives them to believe in this sort of claptrap (and claptrap it is, to put it politely. A load of arse is what I'd say were I rather less polite. I am a rational man, and as such I’ll be the first to admit that there’re more things in heaven and earth and what-not; that said, I refuse to believe that the deep and terrible mysteries of time and the universe can be found precis'd in the contours of one's palm or by the elipses of chunks of space debris). A more cynical man (if such a being is possible) might think it was a mid-life cry for attention from those who feel they need to empower themselves in some way, or who can't afford a sports car or attract a teenage lover. There's nothing most other people find more fascinating than having their characters described to them, after all.

Which is why I advise all you amateur fakirs, psychics, clairvoyants and haruspices out there to take up blogging. It's a far more healthy way to air your self-obsession, and allows you to relate your pointless anecdotes and half-baked social commentary as though you were the narrator in a cheap noir flick. Which is a definite plus, toots.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cartoon Conniption

With embassies burning, catchy anti-West slogans being chanted, and innocent cheeses being burnt in the street, secular democracies must stand firm and defend our right to publish what we want, when we want, and in whatever format we like - yes, even in a chapbook or engraved onto a grain of rice. And if newspapers will not reprint the "offending" cartoons it is up to bloggers to spread the message, which is not one of hate or bigotry, but in fact the opposite. It is an assertion of freedom, of tolerance, of the very values upon which our civilisation is based. We at Sterne are not political bloggers, per se, but we recognise that it is time to take a stand. We may not agree with the content of the cartoons in question, but we defend to the death the right of the cartoonists to draw them.

Australia is still a free country. We wish to exercise that freedom and we ask you, dear reader and fellow lover of freedom, to view these cartoons and judge for yourself:

By publishing these cartoons we mean no offense, however we recognise the right of all people to violently over-react. Death threats and other considered responses may be sent to the usual address.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Two Films

King Kong is awful. Somewhere in this three hour exercise in cinematic masturbation is a lean, scary, touching ninety-minute crowd-pleaser. After Oscar rewarded him for the tedium of The Return of the King (which went for what, five hours?), Peter Jackson seems to be stuck in epic mode. But unlike LOTR there is not enough in the King Kong story to justify such an extended running time, with the result that the film is mostly padding. The hour-long chase sequence on Skull Island is just idiotic. Apart from Kong's fight with the three T-Rexes, it's just one unconvincing and often confusing scene after another. And what's with the shitty bluescreen effects?

It doesn't help that we know exactly what is going to happen at the climax. But again it drags on, like we need twenty minutes of Kong atop the Empire State Building to realise how clever Jackson is. The tragic ending, although expected, is at least something different to your typical blockbuster, but frankly by that point I wouldn't have cared if the good people of New York had proceded to have themselves a monkey barbecue in Times Square.

Walk the Line follows a familiar biopic story arc (struggle, success, struggle-with-success, redemption), and is another case where the direction doesn't really do justice to the subject, or, in this case, the performances and the music. Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Johnny Cash, and having Phoenix and the rest of the cast perform their own vocals was an inspired move. I loved the way he developed Cash's voice over the course of the film, from hesitant drawl to the rich, deep vocal we all know from Cash's recordings. Also, for the first time since, well, ever I realised that Reese Witherspoon can actually act. Best of all, you are only ever one scene away from some great music (assuming, that is, you enjoy early rock 'n' roll), but again director James Mangold often seems to be working against his own film. The film's best moment comes when Cash takes the stage at Folsom Prison, there to cut his immortal live album. It perfectly captures Cash's toughness and his kindness, his bravado and his self-doubt, yet Mangold cuts it short, eager to get back to explaining Cash through formulaic drama. Still, although it errs on the side of convention, and its reading of Cash's psychology is at best superficial, Walk the Line is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

PM Bridges Racial Divide: "You're All White, Now!"

Asked by an enthusiastic but confused electorate to clarify last weeks remarks regarding his stalwart victory in the deadly culture wars, Prime Minster Howard today briefly outlined his position and its implications for his trembling subjects.

"Quite simply," declared the chisel-featured PM, "I said that all Australians should be equal. However, it has been brought to my attention that a few citizens of our great nation are being mistreated due to the fact that, through no fault of their own, they are ethnically challenged. Obviously, this has to stop. We need to be able, as a society, to share a common bond. And so, while we will always be duly grateful to other cultures for enhancing our diversity, we need to reassert the cultural paradigms of the greater majority - or at least of the majority of the people that vote for me: an Anglo-Saxon heritage, a British legal system, and Judeo-Christian moral values. Therefore, it is with great pride I can announce that, as of today, all Australian citizens are now to be considered officially white."

"That's right - no matter which dog-eating, flyspeck stink-land that you all come from, no matter what the colour of your skin, be it brown, yellow, or that weird bluish-black that some of your really ethnic types have, you're now all as white as I am - pretty damn lily! A great man and sometime genocidal poof once said that by being white, you win the lottery of life. Congratulations, darkies!" the elated PM beamed. "Whites, being the acme of civilisation, naturally do not disadvantage or mistreat other whites. In one stroke, I have solved all our cultural ills."

"Obviously, our brave new nation shall require a brave new history, something we can teach our kids to bolster our brave new mindset - a history that encourages national pride. No more schoolkids hearing 'we lost this war', 'we stole that generation', 'apologies for whatever'. Obviously, I'll be writing this history myself. I mean, it's not something one can really leave to teachers - if they were any good at what they did, we'd be paying them a proper wage."

When Sterne asked Mr Howard how his new Whiter Australia policy would affect the indigenous population, having previously had to contend with serious disadvantages in health, education and living conditions, the Prime Minister responded, "It's true, Aboriginal Australians have suffered. But we're all white now. Although some of us are still whiter than others. But with help, a little bit of effort and a dose of good Aussie family values, they'll be as white as the next man in the dole queue."

Sterne congratulates our noble leader on his forethought, compassion and tolerance of racial difference. Even now, we're dying our black armbands white.