Sunday, 29 July 2007

A post in praise of post

This post isn't about much at all, except post. Sorry.

I know it's unwise to begin with an apology, but on this occasion it needs to be said. You need to be aware, in case you're expecting something else. This way, when you get to the end---if you get to the end---and say, "All you've written about is post," then I can say: "Yeah, told you so."

009It's just a celebration, that's all.

I love receiving post. All post. Even bills, if there's nothing else. I don't discriminate too much. But especially parcels. Parcels are best.

A childish delight, which I feel no need to leave behind.

The arrival of a parcel is the thing I anticipate most when ordering books, DVDs, whatever, through the mail. I could easily become a mail-order junkie.

And Friday was a bumper day. One of the biggest hits in yonks. Better even than the lead-up to Christmas or a birthday. No letters, but three sizeable packages waiting to be opened.

The first was a book of course (and I'm now beginning to think I don't mind it so much when a bookshop can't supply a book and I've got to order it online, even Justice_birdthough I'm forking out the postage): In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes. Will start this in a week or so, because I'm engrossed in Jon Haylett's Cry of the Justice Bird at the moment. Am half-way through Justice Bird and loving it. It's hard to put the book down---fast-paced, action-packed, great descriptions, and so 'visual' I reckon it'd make a tremendous film---but I'm having to limit myself or I'll have no eyes left because I've got a few books on the go at work at the moment (Scott Anderson's excellent Triage, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex).

The second parcel was a package of trees to replace a couple I had to take down recently: another olive, a lime, a pomegranate. I spent yesterday planting them out. They might take, they might not. Some do, some don't. We're close to the sea and our soil isn't flash. It's a matter of trial and error.

The third parcel was a box of cabernet merlot from Margaret River---a wonderful wine and cheese producing area in Western Australia. But then all Australian wine is good. (Aside: I'm hoping that someone important from the Australian tourism industry or wine-making industry might read this post and offer to make me the 'Face of Australian Wine'. Not because I look like a wino, but because I say good things about Australian wine. As part of the deal, they'd send me a box of wine every week or so ... through the post, of course ... for as long as I remained coherent and said good things about our very excellent wine without growing to look too much like a wino.)

Talking of winos and post, finished reading Charles Bukowski's Post Office. The closing sentences of this book are some of the best closing lines in the history of fiction, I believe. I know it's a big claim, but I've been going around chanting them for a fortnight, enjoying the rhythm of the words and haven't got sick of them yet. Was going to quote them here, but thought that might be a spoiler, not that they give too much away in the sense of knowing who dies in Harry Potter and who doesn't, but Bukowski obviously wanted to wrap his novel up with those fine, final words and I'm not going to subvert that. As Gary pointed out in a comment to an earlier post, if you like Hunter S.Thompson, the chances are you'll like Post Office.

For three years I worked in the Post Office. In London and Cardiff. Maybe I worked there because of my early addiction to receiving post, the same way a junkie might aspire to becoming a chemist. Maybe I thought working amongst all that mail would be like receiving heaps and heaps of parcels everyday. It wasn't. But I'm not allowed to say anymore about working for The Royal Mail because when I quit I had to sign the Official Secrets Act (yes, really, no kidding), promising not to divulge any information I'd learnt whilst in its employ ... like the price of a first class stamp, I suppose. Stuff like that. So Mailboxmy lips are sealed; I don't want to be charged with treason.

Ssh. Maybe I've said too much already. Don't relish sewing mailbags.

Hope the postie doesn't get sick. Hope my mailbox doesn't stop working. Reckon I'd cold turkey after three days without post. Hmm, post. Told you so.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Harry Potter? Bah! Humbug!

It may not be as big as Christmas or New Year, but there’s no doubt about it---love it or hate it---it’s BIG.

Yes, it’s H.P. day ... and it’s global.

I wasn’t planning on posting about it, but it’s even infected me. And I say that because I reckon I’m immune (or resistant) to hype generally, and to dear old Harry in particular. I read the first book and may have started the second, and have enjoyed the films’ special effects well enough, but I’m no fan of the writing style J.K.R has adopted here for the same reason I never enjoyed most of Enid Blyton’s writing either (although definitely a fan of the Noddy books, which managed to scare and thrill me whenever Noddy's misadventures took him into the forest at night). All the same, I’ve got to admit I’m a fan of the J.K.Rowling/Harry Potter phenomenon. Love it.

Although many people look at me askance and some have even taken a step sideways when I’ve admitted I don’t like H.P. (as if they might be accused of associating with a heretic, as if I’ve denied the existence of god or, god forbid, declared myself a vegetarian), I relish the fact that here’s a book published for both children and adults, that people are ready to queue for, to spend decent money on, to jump into freezing lakes for, and that, beyond all else, has made reading a cool activity for one and all. All this.

My twenty-three year old daughter, home for a few days, had one question for me before she brought her train ticket: “Dad, do you think I’ll be able to get hold of a copy of Harry Potter?” And the first thing she did this morning was head into town to our tiny bookshop. There was no advertising on the window, no placard on the pavement inviting Potter fans to step inside, no copies of Deathly Hallows on the shelves, and she had to ask the owner if he had any to sell.

The hysteria surrounding the security of the book, the contracts demanding that none are released prematurely, makes itself felt in different ways I guess.

Our local bookseller mumbled something, reached under the counter and brought out a copy in a brown paper bag. He also slipped her a piece of folded paper. It had more the feel of a drug deal than a book purchase, but regardless of this she got the goods and is now ploughing through it. Has made page 190 as I post this. (And the piece of folded paper? A 20% discount off her next purchase. Good on him.)

In Canberra, where the temperature recently has hovered around 2 degrees, a man was so distraught when his Deathly Hallows reservation receipt blew into Lake Burley Griffin that he jumped in after it. Way to go! Unfortunately, when he was fished out, he’d failed to retrieve his receipt and was suffering from hypothermia and acute distress. To help him calm down apparently, a hospital doctor rang the bookshop to make sure they’d honour his lost receipt.

This all begs one question: What’s going to happen in the future? We might slightly change the way we celebrate Christmas or New Year from one year to the next, but we know they’ll come round again, sure as eggs is eggs. And as sure as golden eggs are golden eggs, isn’t it likely that someone somewhere will be desperately looking to repeat the phenomenon and introduce us soon to the next J.K.Rowling, the next Harry Potter? I hope so. I really do. Despite the hype. Because, whatever the genre, whatever the style, I love the fact that the publication of a book can create such a stir, and that someone will jump into a lake for the sake of a book. Good on you, J.K.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Hi-ho, hi-ho...

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's back to work I go.

After a fortnight's winter break, I've got to set the alarm again, pack a cut lunch, stop swearing so frequently, and get use to cramming all my writing, reading, messing about, etc, etc, into the late evenings and weekends.  Hi-ho, ho-hum.

*bites knuckles.  stifles sob*

Oh well, look at the positives: food on the table, wine in the glass, money to buy books ... and I enjoy the people I work with (staff and students)---perhaps because we operate on a similar frequency of insanity.  Can't be too bad, eh?

Anyway, just to help with getting over those back-to-work blues (*fades in strumming 12 bar blues on trusty air guitar*), thought I might post a couple of funnies that have been shared with me recently.

The first from my brother, who tolerated my ranting about conceptual art recently, about which he knows a world more than me.  (In the name of nepotism, click here to access his website!)  Although I'm no Luddite and regard my PC as one of my favourite toys, and have always managed most books quite well, I love this sketch and am still wondering why I identify so strongly with the idiot!  Click to view 'Introducing the Book'.

Secondly, because there's little like a witty insult to evoke a wry smile (unless you're the recipient), thought I'd list the following, which a friend e-mailed to me a couple of weeks back (thanks, Martin):

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."  (Winston Churchill)

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."  (Clarence Darrow)

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." (William Faulkner about Ernest Hemingway)

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."  (Groucho Marx)

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."  (Mark Twain)

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." (Oscar Wilde)

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend ... if you have one."  (George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill; followed by:)

"Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one." (Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw)

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."  (Stephen Bishop)

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."  (John Bright)

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."  (Irvin S. Cobb)

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others."  (Samuel Johnson)

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."  (Paul Keating)

"He had delusions of adequacy."  (Walter Kerr)

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?"  (Mark Twain)

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."  (Mae West)

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."  (Oscar Wilde)
Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

On the shelf (or thereabouts)

Recently finished Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and Baber's Apple by Michael Marr.  I don't often laugh out loud when I'm reading, but Baber's Apple caught me out (deliciously) a number of times.  Loved the unique Babers_apple_and_running_with_sciss voice of Beulah, Baber's alter-ego, and the opportunities this device provided for getting into his head in an often hilarious way.  Baber completes a number of journeys, apart from his whacky adventure around Kazakhstan, and it was one of those books I didn't particularly want to end---to draw out the pleasure a bit longer---but became keen to see how everything would be resolved.  The book's moving around the family at the moment, and I reckon it's going to look pretty dog-eared by the end of its own journey, which is always a good sign.

Wasn't so keen on Running with Scissors, and only persevered with it because I'd been asked to read it.  Not because I found it too confronting, but because I found it too deliberately confronting ... to the extent that I got bored (or possibly desensitised) with each new excess.  I don't often read memoir and might've made the mistake of expecting there to be a similar exploration of character growth/insight through the experiences described that I'd look for in most novels.  The intention might have been to let each scene speak for itself, but I was left feeling that I didn't really know the young Augusten Burroughs any better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning---but didn't care either.

Books_on_estuarySometimes I find myself reading a few books at the same time and at the moment I've got three on the go: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson, Post Office by Charles Bukowski and A Blues for Shindig by Mo Foster.  (Yeah, yeah, I'm working my way through all the PaperBooks titles, and why not?)   Am almost at the end of The Angel Makers; close enough to say I've thoroughly enjoyed it, that I've found it compelling, and that the character of Sari is very hard not to sympathise with, if not empathise with.  When Siân read it---she grabbed it first---she was visibly tense at times, as she moved from one page to the next!  There's engagement!

Burning_bright_001 Have got Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright on the to-be-read pile.  Enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring, and have heard mixed reviews about Burning Bright, but I'm a fan of William Blake who features in this novel, so am looking forward to getting into it and making up my own mind.

And lastly, one of my prize acquisitions recently has been a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.  Every once in a while I discover a reference book that I make excuses for buying and enjoy placing on my bookshelf, and this is the latest additon.  It's got a wonderful collection of information---too much to describe here---and even covers 'First lines in fiction', with over 150 first lines cited.  Here, and in honour of everyone who finds sentences in nineteenth century novels a little unwieldy at times, is the first sentence from The Brewers_phrase_fable_001Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas:

'On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cuppolas are reflected, -- the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.'


To finish with, found my way to Harriet Devine's blog the other day.  Was particularly interested by her comments on Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, Good Wives) because one of my students has been researching Rose in Bloom recently, but then I got well and truly caught up in her other literary adventures.  A blog well worth a visit.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Encounter in a suspended room

Just had a few days in Melbourne, catching up.  Catching up with sleep, with a couple of exhibitions, with some restaurants we've heard raved about, a bit of retail therapy ... that sort of thing.

The restaurants were great (one Indian, and one a blend of Chinese, Malaysian and Vietnamese).  Decor-wise, they were basic to say the least (paper on tables, no heating, gritty utility rather than fancy-pants aesthetics), and because one was full we were led past the kitchen and up rough stairs crowded with crates and baby-chairs and the behind-the-scenes accoutrements of a restaurant, to what felt like a spare room, but the food was delicious---absolutely---some of the best---and incredibly inexpensive.  Wonderful curries and naan bread in one, and excellent laksa in the other.

Got hold of a copy of Charles Bukowski's Post Office (a Gary Davison recommendation) from Borders, watched Pirates of the Caribbean at the Casino multiplex, and did all the other stuff people do when they live a fair distance from the city and want to make the most of a few days amongst the hustle and bustle of its commerce and culture.

One of the reasons we went this weekend though was to catch a couple of exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria.  An exhibition highlighting the Guggenheim_001work of 'Australian Impressionists'/Heidelberg School (McCubbin, Streeton, Roberts et al) only had a few days to run and we didn't want to miss out, and another exhibition featuring work from the Guggenheim collection just opened, so we thought we'd catch both.  Propitious timing.  Two exhibitions covering one hundred years of art, from the sentimental and occasionally twee to the self-indulgent and often pretentious, but with many stunning gems between.

So here we are, standing in a gallery where a cliché stencilled across a wall is declared to be a sculpture in the medium of language, and a slashed canvas explores the fourth dimension of art---the space behind the canvas---and a randomly heaped pile of liquorice lollies subverts elements of Minimalism amongst numerous other things, and I'm thinking ... well, this is when I notice the Pollocks opposite and also realise that the area of tiled floor I'm standing on is, in fact, an exhibit that invites me to directly interact with it as if it's a tiled floor, which of course it is and which of course I do.

I'm all for philosophical discussions about the nature of art and for playful exercises which challenge our perception of perception, the ways in which we see things, but find it difficult to accept that such exercises are art forms in themselves simply because they're questioning the nature of art.  It all seems to have little to do with artistic skill and more to do with a 'pseudo-intellectualisation of art' on the one hand and 'art as an investment commodity' on the other, and makes me wonder, as far as Conceptual Art is concerned, whether lunatics haven't ended up running its particular asylum.  So it's with a mixture of relief and trepidation that I step away from my interaction with the tiled floor and step over the threshold into a plywood 'room' suspended by four cables from the ceiling (so that it's held several centimetres from the ground).  Maybe by escaping into this sanctuary for a few minutes, I can better suspend my disbelief.

In the room stands a man, and for one moment I'm unsure whether he's part of the installation or not.  But he looks at us, then scans the room as if he's looking for something, and then looks at us again and laughs.  There's a note of uncertainty in his laughter, but he can't hold it in any longer it seems.

"Perhaps I'm not meant to laugh," he says, but is unable to help himself now.

We look at the four bare walls and the ceiling of bare plywood and begin laughing too.  The three of us are standing in a box laughing.

"I'm sorry," he says, holding his sides.

"Laughter's honest," I suggest, wiping my eyes.

"I think we're supposed to believe the room's floating," he says, and begins laughing again before stepping out.

And we step out a few seconds later, but he's gone.

And it's an interesting thing that, despite seeing some great paintings and prints further on in the gallery, it's this man's honesty I enjoyed most about our trip round the Guggenheim collection.  It's the image I want to remember above all others.  Whilst kids were told not to touch various exhibits (except the liquorice lollies, which they're allowed to interact with), and everyone was probably mindful of the millions of dollars spent on the collection, and some people 'oohed' and 'aahed' and some looked quietly baffled, here was someone who more or less said: "The Emperor's got no clothes on.  How bizarre."

And for my money, he was right.  It was refreshing to hear it said.  It was refreshing to leave the exhibition for Victoria Street and to find our way to an unpretentious restaurant that served great food at a price almost everybody could afford.