Musings and photographs from a man in a little house by a river, on a little island at the bottom of the world.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Pencil Pine Creek and Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

The Blue Room's Top Albums 2012

  1. Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
  2. Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
  3. Paul Kelly – Spring and Fall
  4. Archie Roach – Into the Bloodstream
  5. Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls
  6. Catherine Britt – Always Never Enough
  7. Justin Townes Earl – Nothings Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
  8. Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge
  9. Clare Bowditch – The Winter I Chose Happiness
  10. Mark Knopfler – Privateering

HMs  - Various – Chimes of Freedom, the Songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas, Kenny Chesney – Welcome to the Fishbowl, Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson – Wreck and Ruin, Willie Nelson – Heroes, Cat Power – Sun, Alan Jackson – Thirty Miles West, Andrew Bird – Break it Yourself, Shaun Colvin – All Fall Down, Mumford and Sons – Babel

BTD’s (Beautiful Talented Daughter) Top Albums 2012
  1. Museum – Ball Park Music
  2. Take The Crown – Robbie Williams
  3. Babel – Mumford and Sons
  4. Bringing In the Darlings – Josh Ritter
  5. The Sound of the Life of the Mind – Ben Folds Five
  6. Spirit Bird – Xavier Rudd
  7. The Winter I Chose Happiness – Clare Bowditch
  8. The Best Imitation Of Myself – Ben Folds
  9. Born and Raised – John Mayer
  10. Love Interruption – Jack White
Michael Kiwanuka's Web Site =

The Gorge - Launceston Tasmania

A Blue Room Review - Gerard Woodward – Nourishment

Vertiginous’ – what a fine word – a word to add to the lexicon, or was it ‘verdigris’? One means to induce dizziness, the other the poisonous green rust found on brass and copper. Why didn’t I earmark the page since the word was to be the starting point of my reflection back over this excellent novel from English writer Gerard Woodward. But I suppose I didn’t know that then. The word stuck in my memory, but then as happens with age one’s mind addles. No matter, they both could be to do with where the author’s heroine of sorts, Tory, ‘serves out time’- in an underground London comfort station, a toilet where the one of the above confused words is used in description several times. It all bought to mind another place filled with the vertiginous verdigris of my youth.

Set during the years of last century’s second great conflict, and the immediate post war period, as so often happens to me on reading a novel these days, ‘Nourishment’ induced some of my own post war memories to return from a hazy half-forgotten past. It was the toilet imagery that caused me to recall another underground collection of vestibules – an excellent v word too – far away from the blitzified streets of Tory’s world.

The immense struggle between nations of the 1940s had only nibbled at the edges of Australia’s own home front, in the form of some Japanese bombing of the north. For my island, the sighting of a few submarines and a solitary spotter plane was all. But Woodward’s novel refreshed some of my earliest memories of my own post war world – one that contained another sulphuriously pungent orifice under a street in my Tasmanian coastal town of birth. Aligned was a recollection of a sootily sinister (to me) character who paraded on that street, and a few of the thoroughfare’s other childhood attractions.

I’d only been down into the bowels of that below street fetid ablutions room a few times when really, really desperate. Such were the stories told of the happenings in there, and the foul stink that emanated up from the place, it really petrified me. I preferred to ‘hang on’ as my home was only a few blocks away up a hill, but on a couple of occasions I didn’t make it. I fell short. When I did succumb to urgent bodily callings I became so vertiginous from the odure of that hole in the road that I rushed through my business and rushed out.

It did, to my infantile mind, seem to be home to at least one denizen whose features appeared to be entirely subterranean. He was always around that loo, and I encountered him frequently on my trail home from my school further up the street. He never touched me, and I cannot recall him ever uttering a word to me. Yet he gave me the heebie geebies – he was the stuff of nightmares. He was scrawny and he walked with a pronounced limp. He seemed very old to me then, but looking back, may only have been thirty or forty. His oily hair was in the short back and sides style still in evidence for some at the time. His plaid shirt, voluminous trousers and tight fitting suit jacket were covered in a greasy sheen, as seemed to be his skin. My most vivid recollection of him is of his teeth. They looked tinged with verdigris, and were in rodent formation with thick yellow detritus where they hit the gum. They were, plainly put, vile – and so was he. He was almost as foul a creation as one of the author’s in the form of the woeful, woebegone ex-POW afflicted on Tory as her husband.

This street of bad dreams, conversely, had its attractions. In close proximity to the underground latrines was a lolly shop. With our current obsession with a germ free existence it beggars the mind the thought of a journey into that sweet shop from having done one’s ones and twos, of clutching in unwashed fingers a penny to purchase from the temptations offered there, then popping with the same fingers into one’s mouth one’s purchase for delightful mastication. It is lucky that any of my generation made it through. Enclosing the confectioners on all sides was the town’s cavernous picture theatre. On a Saturday afternoon it was the place to be; filled with fitful lads, cuddling couples and a fug of cigarette smoke. Ushers paraded up and down with torchlight directed at perceived inappropriateness, and missiles purchased from the candy stall would be hurtling trough the smog. There were shops such as RR Rex and Sons, ships’ chandlers, and Genders, nut and bolts merchandisers, along the street where my father seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time searching out just the right bits for a current project, me in tow. At the roadway’s bottom corner was the Club Hotel, still an icon of the district, from whence happily inebriated drinkers hoppily emerged as we left our afternoons of cowboy serials and B-grade horror. To me all this didn’t seem too different to Tory’s 1950s environs.

This book was a cheapie from a big bin of remaindered tomes in Shiploads, a Hobartian discount store. It was largely full, it seemed, of Scandinavian translations that had not sold in the wake of ‘The Millennium Trilogy’ and ‘Wallander’, but this book was a much different affair judging by its back cover blurb and glowing accolades from UK printed media. As it turned out, it is a black hued gem!

Woodward’s imagining starts out in the bleakest of ways with Tory, and her mum, on a quest for meat. The product of this sets the tone for often bizarre events to follow. Later came an affair with her rich wartime boss, resulting in an addition to the family awaiting his ‘father’s’ return from incarceration in Germany. It is a novel of the power of letters and the power of pornography at a time when the latter wasn’t overloading the ether. It is an account of the damage fathers can inflict on their progeny. Donald, like my imagining of the loo-loiterer, is a truly odious being; self absorbed, a rat with an eye to the main chance. Like in the case of so many others, the war created a monster. He was a constant hindrance to Tory’s efforts to keep the family together in parlous times, as well as to keeping a handle on her own sanity.

Mount Street in Burnie probably had only a little of the austerity of Tory’s starveacre high streets, but compared to contemporary consumer overkill, the same blandness seemed to dominate. But the novel itself is anything but bland. Peopled by characters ranging from the poignant (son Tom particularly), to the downright odd, there is even a hint of a lesbian relationship for Tory with antipodean Grace. Mum also has her own secrets. Despite its often raw subject matter, which occasionally borders on the absurd, Woodward’s prose sparkles in its deftness for carrying a sustained tone of grimness – and if that reads as oxymoronic, it is a further testament to the writer’s craft.

My underground toilet is long gone, as are the movie house, the lolly shop and the other mentioned businesses. The Club Hotel still stands augustly on its corner, but now houses a pizza franchise. My home locale has a bit of struggle town about it, but it survives and its folk are, like many in Woodward’s book, resilient and adaptable. There are still too many ‘Torys’ there trying to keep it all together, often standing between booze/drug addicted fathers and their children - so nothing much changes. What Tory shows at the end of her journey is what it can take to render change in one’s own circumstances, but she was a woman of resolve. For many there is no way out.

An interview with Gerard Woodward =

Friday, 28 December 2012

Winter Sunset, Somerset Beach, North West Tasmania

A Fairy Tale Not Of New York

The Imagining

His guts had stopped sourly roiling, but one sensation had been replaced by another – he now felt hollow in the chest - empty, spent. But he’d done it. She’d warned him what would happen, and followed through, but not before she’d let him have it – with both barrels. A ‘fire cracker’ one of his mates had called her a few years back, after he’d witnessed a similar explosion over one of his indiscretions – this time after he’d had a few pints too many. After that shaming, he had vowed to change, and had cut back on the grog. He was proud of himself for doing so, in fact up to the eve of this morning he’d been feeling much better about himself all round.

In his youth he had gone to that big school on the hill, at the southern fringe of his industrial coastal town. In fairness, though, he hadn’t been much chop at his studies, although he had tried. The only subject he’d remotely developed some affinity for was manual arts, but even then his projects never seemed to turn out quite right. He only lasted half a year at the big college after Year 10. When the offer of a position came up, working for a small family painting firm, he’d jumped at the chance. He didn’t much enjoy the constant scraping at walls the job entailed, but he sure enjoyed spending his pay packet at the weekend

He met her at Siroccos, the town’s only late night venue, now long gone. In truth she wasn’t much to look at, but had a comfortable enough figure, and, after a few more fizzy drinks, he lost his virginity to her in a damp bedroom of a house he shared with mates. He continued on seeing her off and on over the course of the next year or so – they were ‘friends with benefits’ – a term he hated, but it seemed apt. Then she fell pregnant. He ‘stood by her’. They had a desultory little ceremony and became man and wife. He knew she didn’t love him, and she was certainly less than he had hoped for. With his tendency to meatiness, a balding pate of gingerish hair and pallid complexion, he couldn’t really expect much more than Merryl, who really stacked it on in the months leading up to the birth of their daughter. She showed no inclination to lose it in the months thereafter. By this stage the painting job had gone, with the firm going belly-up, and he was on the dole. For a time they lived with her mother, a habitual smoker, whose favourite opening gambit was, ‘It’s none of my beeswax, but…….’

It was the smoking around the baby he loathed, so he was relieved when the Housing finally allocated them a dismal little flat in a big, but ageing, block down by the foreshore. The best part of his day was his ‘escape’; his afternoon walk along the boardwalk into the shops, pushing the stroller before him. The mother had soon taken to visiting most days and, although his wife never smoked, she seemed impervious to her mother’s addiction as they sat around the table in the fug, ‘bitchin’, as he put it, happily. She had continued to expand, living largely on the junk food that made her fatter and fatter. And, as jobs around the town dried up, so their debt became, well, also fatter and fatter.

He’d picked up, over time, a few bits and pieces in terms of employment, but nothing seemed to stick. Each time he’d arrive home, with the news of another laying off, the ‘fire cracker’ in her would re-emerge. After giving him a tongue lashing, off she’d storm to her mother’s, Shayla in tow. He didn’t care much about her; it was the effect on his daughter that would cut him up. After a few hours or a few days she would return, calmer, and they’d sit down and try and work out where they could cut back to make ends meet. They’d talk of perhaps moving south to the island’s capital, or even across to the mines in the West. In reality, though, he knew she’d never leave to forge a new life elsewhere. She was conjoined at the hips to her mother.

And on it went as Shayla started school and worked her way up through her primary years. She was nothing like either of them. She was tall for her age, ‘willowy’ one of her teachers had called her a few years back, at a parent-teacher evening. They both enjoyed attending these for Shayla thrived at school and, bright and vibrant, she was doing well. At the most recent one Miss Perkins had talked of ‘an excellent academic future’. Even university had been mentioned. They left the school feeling much better about the world. This had been enhanced by the digs they’d been successful in applying for – a new independent unit in a hillside suburb. It wasn’t the best address in town, but their new abode was roomy and, apart from a bit of hooning and marital disturbance, the street was relatively quiet.

He’d almost given up on regular work when, half way through 2011, his job provider called saying there was a position for him at the little city’s largest employer, on the nightshift. The company produced some of the giant machines that fed the mineral boom on the mainland, and he knew this was make or break. Merryl had warned him that, unless he found work soon, she’d leave him, taking Shayla. She was sick of subsisting on his dole and her meagre returns as a cleaner, and coping with ever increasing debt.

He found nightshift to his liking, the melding together giant steel plates as part of a team rewarding. The other guys were all personable; the shift supervisors fair. His WPAs (Workplace Assessments) were reasonable. There were always some dot points to improve on, but they seemed to indicate he was making a worthy contribution. He knew he was slow on the uptake, it had often to be explained to him a few times before he’d ‘get it’, and he had majorly stuffed up on a couple of occasions. Still he felt he had turned a corner. At weekends he had taken to working out at a gym. He’d hoped that would be contagious and that Merryl would join him, but she was too busy ‘bitchin’ with her mother in the smoke haze. It was Shayla who’d accompany him more often than not. She’d taken up with Little Athletics too. He enjoyed transporting her to her meets during the warmer months, and comparing notes with the other proud parents. The fact that he slept during the day, waking to welcome Shayla from school, and to cook her an evening meal while Merryl was cleaning, suited him. His sex life, as a result, was non-existent as he would see his wife for only a few moments as she arrived home, and he left for his work, just before midnight. He didn’t mind that too much and knew his wife would far prefer a Big Mac to fifteen minutes of ‘nookie’. Night shift paid well, and their debt was becoming more manageable. He was even starting to feel the distinct possibility of happiness, of inner peace.

As 2012 progressed a shadow started to hang over his life. There were rumours of retrenchments as the Chinese economy, on which the mining boom relied, had started to flatline. A sister company in Thailand had come on-stream, and it seemed, although nothing official was ever said, that orders were down. Would their workplace go the same way as so many others and be moved off-shore? Being a contractor, with less than excellent WPAs, he knew if any of that eventuated, he would be in the gun.

 It was the final shift before the Christmas break and he had actually started to feel safe. If anything were to occur, surely it wouldn’t be just before their week off for the festivities. He was wrong; he knew that as soon as he arrived to the news that a meeting had been called. His heart sank. The management men told them officially that it was all looking pretty crook – that there were to be layoffs now, and more than likely further pain in the new year. Night shift was to cease. They were all to go to their work stations and they would be individually informed of their reallocations, if that were to be the case, or the other. He knew which it would be for him, and sure enough, all too soon Management Man came along, tapped him on the shoulder, apologised and told him he’d be clearing his locker at the end of the shift.

He had just wanted to get out of the place, to get home and face what was coming to him as soon as possible. His mates, though, convinced him to stay on for a while and have a few ‘coldies’ at the barbecue the same management had put on to celebrate the final working night for the year. In truth it was less a celebration than a wake. Soon word would get out and the town would find out they had yet more families to support in the name of maintaining the profit margin. He just needed to tell her and be done with it.

After doing the deed he just sat for a while, wondering if indeed she was gone for good or would it follow the usual pattern. Of course it was all mainly about Shayla. For the first time in years they had had the dough to give her the top present on her wish list, and he badly needed to see that. Then he made a move to do the mowing he’d promised her he’d do in the morning the night before – the night when he still felt like a man.

The Reality

‘I don’t give a flying fuck about the mowing. Fancy coming home and telling me what’s happened, that you’ve done it again, and then start rabbiting on about bloody mowing. You are a poor excuse for a man, a bloody hopeless father to boot – a friggin’ no-hoper, that’s what you are! And you’re pissed as well, rat arsed! You don’t give a fuck do you? What are we going to do now - and right on Christmas? What’s that to be like for our Shayla, you stupid, stupid man? Well, you were warned, you bloody drongo. I’m fuckin’ well outta here. C’mon Shayla, let’s go!’

And that’s what greeted me from just across the road. I’d just come around to my mother’s to let her know of my Christmas Day plans and that was being yelled out for all the world to hear. Soon a door slammed shut and a small, dumpy, obese woman wobbled – that was the only way to describe it – out of her front door and scurried up the driveway to a garage. She was closely followed by a tall, lithe girl, sobbing her heart out and clutching a book under her wing. As I rang the doorbell a car charged off down the street.

In fact I’d just left my son’s abode and all wasn’t well with him either. He was flat when I’d expected him to be happy as larry he was on his break. At first I’d thought he’d been laid off. He had relayed to me the rumours that had been circulating in his work place, but he thought it had all picked up in recent times. He’d had good WPAs in any case and hoped he’d be okay if there had to be terminations – and that proved to be the case. He was ‘down’ because many of his mates were told that they were parting ways, that his lucrative night gig had ceased to be and he had been moved to evening shift, and because they’d been all told there may be more bad news to come. Still he had survived the first cull and he knew I was very proud of him for that, and the fact that he was a good worker, a ‘self starter’; one who was adaptable and picked up new skills with relative ease. I knew his always generous heart was feeling for others and it would cast a pall over his Christmas.

As I left my mother’s home a short time later, on the lawn opposite, a man was mowing, wearing the same hi-viz work clothes as had been my son a hour or so beforehand.

In the district’s largest McMansion, on a hill overlooking the sea, my island’s richest man was presumably in residence. I’d wonder if he would have sleepless nights for the family Christmases he’d ruined, for the town he’d let down.

The Song

Snow has been forecast for Christmas Day in New York City. Already a chill wind from the north was blowing down the avenues as the Irish pubs all over the city came alive to the city’s working citizens on the completion of their final shifts for the year. Twenty five years on from its conception, all knew that sometime in the next few hours the song would be sung. The craic would cease as the opening bars of this paen to another pre-Yuletide squabble, not so different to the one played out on a far away isle, came on sound systems in every Celtic bar in NYC. Gradually the punters would join in on the lyrics of this greatest of all anti-carols, tankards of the ‘black stuff’ would be raised as, with relish, ‘You scumbag, you maggot. You cheap lousy faggot,’ would be belted out by wannabe Shane MacGowan’s, minus the rotting teeth, and wannabe Kirsty MacColl’s, minus the rotten fate. As the song’s siren call came, ‘And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day’, fists would be pumping, Guinness would be guzzled.

On the North West Coast of my island there would be no ‘bells ringing out
for Christmas Day’ as Burnie had taken another hit. The little city had had a few of these in recent times, but was resilient and her people would bounce back. I was not one of them these days, having made that move south, but many I loved still were, and it made me sad that such a thing could be done right on the cusp of a special time.

The Fairy Tale

On a bright, sunny antipodean 25th of December, from a window of a little home in a maligned suburb on an island in the southern seas, a couple watched as a young lass rode her new bike up and down the street below, a smile as radiant as an Uluru sunset plastered on her face. The man reached his hand out to the woman. She took it.

From the Blue Room, may all your fairy tales come to pass in 2013.

A YouTube  of  The Song =

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

By the Lake, Canberra

The Blue Room’s Best Reads and Movies 2012

The Reads

Vulpi, by Kate Gordon, is my best read of 2012, but the runners-up were:-

1.      Tom McNeal – To Be Sung Underwater
2.      Josh Ritter – Bright’s Passage
3.      William McInnes/Sarah Watt – Worst Things Happen at Sea
4.      Edward Hogan – Hunger Trace
5.      James Boyce – 1835
6.      Paul D Carter – Eleven Weeks
7.      Laura Buzo – Holier than Thou
8.      Lily Brett – Lola Bensky
9.      John Green - The Fault in Our Stars
10.  Lili Wilkinson – Pink

HMs – Susan Johnson – My Hundred Lovers, Peter Rix – Water Under Water, Kirsten Tranter – A Common Loss, Danny Katz – SCUM, Laura Buzo – Good Oil, Lili Wilkinson – Love Shy, Bill Bryson – At Home, Mardie McConnochie – The Voyagers, Joanna Trollope – The Soldier’s Wife, Carrie Tiffany – Mateship with Birds, TC Boyle – The Women, Nick Earles – Welcome to Normal.

The Movies

1.      The Descendants
2.      The Sessions
3.      Love is All You Need
4.      Paul Kelly Stories of Me
5.      Declaration of War
6.      My Week with Marilyn
7.      The Skin I Live In
8.      The Way
9.      Women of the Sixth Floor
10.  Vincent Goes to Sea

HMs – Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Angels’ Share, Chinese Takeaway, Delicacy, A Happy Event, Ides of March, Intouchables, Love is in the Air, Margin Call, The Sapphires, Young Adult, Your Sister’s Sister, Ruby Sparkes, Where Do We Go Now, Paris Manhattan.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Grounds of the National Gallery, Canberra

2012 - Twelve Months in the Year of Wonder Weeks

Month 1 – Bravery, courage – call it what you will and hackneyed words they may be, but the world, in the past few days, saw it in spades with the brave female teachers in a little Connecticut school who ran towards a crazed gunman, instead of away from, to protect the lives of those in their care. War, of course, epitomises valour, whether it be ‘going over the top’ into a bee swarm of machine gun bullets, or slogging your way up a New Guinea track, wondering if the next soggy step will be your last, and, after all this time, we’re still at it, killing fellow humans. Sport sees ‘heroism’ overused to buggery, but that is what it takes to run back with the flight of the Sherrin, knowingly, into the thump of an oncoming pack. Is it courage or madness to kit up again and face the music after your jaw has been shattered by a Bob Willis bouncer in pre-helmet days? It takes guts to have a baby after the horrendous injuries of an Indonesian air craft crash, just as it does to confront a misogynist thug beating up on his girlfriend, even if once upon a time you were a footy legend. This year we have seen quieter kinds of courage. There was Bryce Courtney toiling against the ultimate deadline to produce another opus, and veteran actress Helen Hunt prepared to bare all so starkly, unflinchingly because she believed a film project mattered. And I saw quiet bravery in my world in 2012. Battling a pregnancy that simply would not conform to normal, what should have been a time of joy and expectation became a test of will and determination for my beautiful daughter. For reasons she could not control, she daily batted away incredible discomfort, which all too often morphed into pain, to give the tiny person growing in her womb the best possible chance for a safe entry into the world. She had to contend with the mental anguish of the possibility that at any time her fortitude would result in despair, but on she went, day after day of labour, in the real sense. Assisted by professionals who gave and kept on giving, and a loving man who wanted to but could not absorb some of it for her, she made it through, and as a result we have Tessa Tiger, in her own way as courageous and brave as her mother. Over the ensuing months this little mite has progressed from humidicrib to a vibrant, healthy six-month old, passing through those amazing wonder weeks and having her daily antics recorded for the world in the blog of her devoted, delighted mother. Thank you Kate for the wonder that is Tessa.

Month 2 – And then came Little Ford Man, the Boy of the Wonder Weeks, who peers out of our computer screen at me each morning with those eyes that sparkle with the joy of it all; eyes that bear tidings of the impishness to come. He will be raised in a bucolic world amongst the teachings of nature, surrounded by ferrets, goats, shed cats and ‘look at me’ dogs. He’ll receive devoted love from a mum and dad building a mini paradise for him under the flanks of Mount Roland. He will have a vivacious and ever generous grandmother to adore, who will in turn adore him, as is her nature. Thank you Ilsa for the wonder that is Brynner.

Month 3 – I have now, finally, all I could wish for, sharing a house, complete with sunny nook and blue room, with that most caring and loving grandmother, and perfect life partner to boot.

Month 4 – My son has a heart that is as generous as the Himalayas are high and 2012 saw him with a new partner. I am sensing quietude about him these days, an even deeper loveliness of character. As we oldsters know from experience, as men approach thirty there comes a realisation that life is for living and not attacking apace, as is the case of more tender years when limits are to be tested. I hope Richard will always attack a challenge for he is not the type who will sit still ‘and smell the roses’ like his dad, and with this lovely, striking young woman by his side the best is yet to come. He has made my own heart zing so often.

Month 5 – In all years mothers loom large. My own, at something past eighty, keeps on keeping on, tending to her ever increasing brood, refusing to allow the years to diminish in any way what she is prepared to do for those she has immense pride in. Mothers make incredible sacrifices for their broods, and there is one temporarily in Melbourne giving all for her two vibrant boys who have both needed new hearts. Jenni also has that immense courage I wrote of earlier – she is beautiful, amazing and my friend.

Month 6 – I am blessed with other friends, both long standing and newish, some on my island, some over the water. These cherished people enhance my life in so many ways through wit, humour, manly deeds, encouragement and the sharing of good tucker as well as drinks that fizz.

Month 7 – A black man was re-elected in the world’s most powerful country. Will he give us hope that little children will never have to live in fear of being slaughtered in their places of schooling? He is a good man – I know he’ll do his best.

Month 8 – And still they came this year – gorgeous books, films and music CDs to continue to light up my life.

Month 9 – That the Rolling Stones have creaked out once more gives hope for all of us of a certain age.

Month 10 – In 2012 we gave thanks that Jimmy Little lived amongst us for so long, and that Archie Roach still does.

Month 11 – This year my football team almost made it, but they will surge again in 2013. Go Hawks!

Month 12 – I am still here after all these years, still loved despite my faults, failings and foibles. And I am still blissfully relishing a wonderful life on a little, exquisitely beautiful island in the southern seas.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

By The Yarra

Lili Wilkinson – Pink - A Blue Room Book Review

‘Here you go Dad, you’ll enjoy this then. It’s her best book.’

I had been relating to my BTD (Beautiful Talented Daughter) how much I had savoured another recent borrowing, Lili Wilkinson’s ‘Love-shy’ – and then BTD handed me it, placing it in my hands. I recoiled somewhat – I hope she didn’t notice – and muttered some thanks. Once I recovered from my shock I thought – ‘I may possibly enjoy what is inside this, but how do I get over the cover!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am not sure what percentage of the male population are confirmed readers, but I would guarantee that very few would not have had the same reaction as I did. I reckon every last one of them would avoid this like the plague. The male reader was obviously not the demographic Ms Wilkinson was aiming at – for you see the cover was entirely – PINK!!!!!!!!!!!

I adore reading BTD’s recommended YA excellence, and have perused quite a few overtly designed for the fairer gender – but this was going beyond the pail – a wholly pink cover. How could I be seen out in public with this! And I love reading out in the wider world – in my favourite watering holes, coffee houses etc. I know it’s only a colour, but what would people think!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What is it with the colour pink and males? To find the answer I took to Wikipedia and found it did have a very interesting history. At one stage, and not so long ago, it was considered to be the tinge for baby boys, rather than that prissy blue which was relegated as the chosen hue for mere new born girls. Pink was considered more robust, manlier. Well that made me feel better – perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all!

So, pretending not to notice the offending cover, I eventually retreated to my sunny nook and delved in. What a page turner it turned out to be – I was immediately hooked and remained so throughout, devouring it over the course of a few long, sunshiny sittings. No need to concern myself with public outings at all. As a writer, Ms W sure knows her onions.

Essentially her offering is about Ava wanting to find her sexual identity. Her current squeeze is Chloe, a spiky gay teen, but Ava longs to be ‘normal’, or at least investigate the possibility of being so. To do this she feels it is essential to change schools, from the rambunctious public system to the more academically challenging, but hip, Billy Hughes High – and this is where the history nerd in me kicked in.

Did Ms W, in choosing the name for her fictional place of learning, simply randomly select from a list of our PMs, or was there something more to it than that. For you see our seventh leader, and our longest ever serving parliamentarian, was a pretty interesting guy. To my knowledge there are no real schools with his appellation, and Google seems to verify that – and there is a reason for that. Although beloved by our serving men in the Great War as the ‘Little Digger’, he was nonetheless a pretty divisive gentleman and the ultimate Labor ‘rat’. He kept changing political ‘hues’, seemingly trying to find the most comfortable fit for the winds of politics at the time. Imagine, if you like Julia, swapping to the Greens, and then joining Tony Abbott on the opposition benches because the polls were against her – that’s a bit like our Billy. And this is basically what Ava was doing – changing sides. Did she like girls, boys or both? Possibly, then, this fine author didn’t choose her PM without some thought of correlation.

Ava enters BH High with an overstated notion of her own abilities, but is quickly cut down to size. She soon meets with Josie – at this institution of instruction, being so utterly cool, students are required to address their teachers by their first names. Josie is her ‘integration architect’, babbling ‘eduspeak’, which Ava struggles to make head or tail of, in the first of many LOL moments in the novel. But she does gather she gets to write her own report! At first our heroine links up with the ‘Pastels’, a wonderful name for the ‘in-crowd’ – and who are definitely ‘straight’. But after a disastrous audition for the school musical, she finds some commonality with the motley SCREWS, responsible for props and lighting, a more ambiguous lot sexually. But this is nothing like the execrable ‘Glee’; this saga has substance. For a while Ava attempts to straddle both student worlds, but it all comes undone big time. She tries to do ‘the business’ with a student god – of the male persuasion - and screws around with the love lives of the SCREWS, both to her cost. It is no spoiler to say she does, after a fashion, find her place, and the final chapter is a wondrously pinkified delight.

This is a charmingly witty, and in places, genuinely moving book. Ava’s parents are a joy, and Ms W has the clique-athon, that school life in the digital age is, down pat. There is the rapacious bitchiness of a certain type of mid-teens female – and, speaking from more than forty years experience in the game, a fright to behaviorally manage when compared to the usually thick, clueless male bully. But all this author’s teensters are good kids at their core, with even the most outwardly sophisticated and worldly-wise having secrets, often of the humiliating variety, insecurities and need for comfort. The SCREWS, though, complete with their puerile repartee, but being the ultimate in humanity, come out the winners in terms of attractiveness.

As for sexual identity, this was bought home to this now retired teacher when, in his final year, he found two Year 8 girls in deep vice-like entanglement of passion behind some shelves in the school library. In discussing the incident with his worldly, vivacious assistant Julie, my expressed opinion was that, at their ages, these girls couldn’t possibly know which side of the sexual ledger they fell. Jules wasn’t so sure. She reckoned it was pretty much in place by the time they entered high school – they knew if they weren’t ‘normal’, to use Ava’s term, by then. After reading ‘Pink’, I am still not sure whether either of us are correct, but the novel was a lovely journey to go on to discover (spoiler alert) Ava isn’t sure either.

Almost the last word in all this should go to the female doyen of guiding lights for women everywhere in modern times who, as quoted in ‘Pink’, exhorted those of that gender to, ‘Be strong, believe in freedom, love yourself, understand your sexuality, have a sense of humour, masturbate, don’t judge people by their religion, colour or sexual habits, love life and your family.’ I won’t quote Ava’s pithy rejoinder to that mush, but why does it, Madonna, only apply for women?

Lili Wilkinson is a gem of a writer. There is lightness to her work, a seamless readability, that many of her more highly gonged colleagues in the YA field lack. This book is just so accessible. I would like to think that all over Oz savvy school library workers would quietly be handing this over to young people discerned to be struggling with their sexuality. I know my Julie would.

And yes, my darling BTD, your dad does think of himself at times as an anachronistic throwback, but he is trying very hard to overcome his fear of pink. This helped.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Coventry Street South Melbourne

Peter Rix – Water Under Water - A Book Review

I carried her down from the mountain. As mountains go, Mount Montgomery in the Dial Ranges, near where I taught on my island’s North West Coast, was no Matterhorn. There was no blizzard, no ice and snow. Still it was an effort, she was heavy, and it was the only way.

I was bringing up the rear of the group of school children, shepherding the throng, ensuring none fell behind. I was responsible for all their safety, something that I never took lightly. This mountain, as tame as it may be by mountaineering standards, was still a challenge to many students, and that was the point – meeting the challenges of life. Bonding was involved too. After the climb we regrouped at the summit, had a spell and commenced the descent, again with myself the last to leave the top. A short distance on I found her, sitting on a log. She was done for, or so she claimed. She wasn’t going anywhere. No amount of quiet cajoling could coax her to budge under her own steam. And time was pressing, we had to be back at school around threeish or alarm bells would start to ring. There was only one solution if she would take it – and she did. She consented to be ‘piggy-backed’ down off the mountain. It was a struggle, testing my already dodgy levels of fitness, but I did it, welcomed back with some appreciative clapping by an audience no doubt as wary of the time factor as I was.

Daniel would have been there that day; he wouldn’t have missed out on something like that for quids. He and the young lady were in the same grade cohort and were both Down syndrome. It was Daniel’s face that appeared constantly to me in my mind’s eye as I worked my way through Peter Rix’s very fine novel.

Daniel was, for the years he was in my world, the school mascot if you like. One of my reasons for staying on for so long at my rural tenure was the fact that students could remain with us right through from kinder to Grade 10, and Daniel was, by the time he left, one of these few special ones. He was special in so many other ways too. He was a ‘character’, you knew he was about. We worked a curriculum around his needs; the fact it was a farm school was always useful, and Daniel had some responsibilities in that regard. I was part of his daily routine. As soon as he was off the bus he would be in to me, sitting at my computer in the school’s library. He was most interested to find out what I had repasted on over the last twenty-four hours and to gather my thoughts on how my beloved Hawks would go at the weekend, or debrief about their last match. I would receive pats on the back if they lost, high fives if they were victorious. He developed special bonds with some of the school’s personnel – my vivacious library assistant for instance, and he adored our groundsman, a larger than life figure for many who needed positive male role models in their lives. Daniel was ebullient, for the most part just so happy with life. When he was affronted though, we knew it. He’d have a face like thunder. I have no recollection of him being bullied, for generally our intake was of good country stock who would ‘look out for him’. The biggest cheer at any athletic carnival was not for the winning house or the champions, but for Daniel finishing a race – and he would milk it for all it was worth. As he burst through the tape, always replaced for him, his arms would be raised, his fists pumping.

Later in my career at Yolla School Daniel returned to us as a man, becoming an assistant to and mentored by the same adored groundsman. Special that.

And Peter Rix’s Tom is much like Daniel. You know this novel comes from the heart as the author is father to a Down syndrome daughter. But if it was only heart that was involved we’d all be writing novels of this class. This is Rix’s first fiction, but I suspect it would be greatly based on experience. Tom is a remarkable creation as he is word painted so realistically. The thought processes of Tom, in first person, are so akin to what I perceived as Daniel’s that it is remarkable. Relating such in an unwaveringly consistent way would have not been easy, but Rix has the writing chops to master the difficulty in a manner that keeps the reader entranced. The novel brings to mind Robin Klein’s thin volume ‘Boss of the Pool’; a book that certainly had an impact on me, and many others, when released decades ago. It opened up our hearts to something many Australians to that point would have had little experience of due to the practices in place at that time. Rix’s effort is of course more fleshed out, and its path is less original these days, but it is no less worthy for that. It also bought to mind the lovely German movie of earlier this year, ‘Vincent Goes to Sea’, as in both the role of the father is pivotal and go on a similar journey. In this narrative Tom embarks on a similar bonding exercise to the climbing of that North West mountain – travelling to his challenge of white water rafting on an unpredictable river. Father Jim is also on a journey. His is more spiritual. It is one of trying to see his ‘number two’ son in the same light as his wife Fran, of trying to re-establish relationships that have gone sour, as well as connecting with Tom to share his adventure. Thrown into this mix are a bevy of First Australians, their knowledge of land and water crucial to the narrative’s outcome.

There is humour and pathos to be had as well, together with liberal amounts of ‘watery’ symbolism, of both the salty and fresh kind. I felt the denouement, after the climatic events on the river a tad ‘Hollywoodish’, and was disappointed at the author’s low regard for human nature on page 247. ‘Water Under Water’ still remains a most praiseworthy effort, a highlight of my year’s reading.

The Toms/Daniels of this world, like the rest of us, all have their foibles. They, though, do wear their emotions on their sleeves, reward kindnesses given with so much love in return, and their openness brings out the best in humanity. In the discussion points after the conclusion it is alluded to, for comment, that the practices of the past should still be followed today in regard to those with Down syndrome, as well as those with other disabilities. I feel that would be a pity. As someone who has worked closely with these incredible, wonderful human beings I have had my life enhanced as a result. And I think the reverse applies as well. We enhance theirs. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Dawn Over the Yarra

The World Changed at Six O’Clock

Sometime after the 28th February, 1959 the world changed for me. I can picture it now, all these years hence. I was lying on the floor in the family home in a Tasmanian provincial town in the days before local television had commenced, and the signal was coming flukily in from Melbourne. It was six o’clock on a Saturday evening, and on the grainy black and white screen of our then state of the art Healing TV, an indistinct image of a clock appeared, and then a garbled excited introduction was made. A shiny-suited fellow appeared on a stage in front of a group of teenagers; the lads with Brylcreemed quiffs, the girls in flouncy dresses. He wasn’t a big man and he certainly wasn’t an attractive man. He put his head back, closed his eyes and opened his mouth – and my world changed forever. Something came out of that mouth that was primal, guttural, kind of rebelliously naughty, and I was hooked. On that stage there were also four other young men who joined in with the central figure on parts of the song, and did some dinky dance steps. The teens out front were doing some crazy dancing themselves involving the lads twirling their womenfolk, and swinging them all over the floor. A close-up of the central performer’s face showed it was deeply scarred, and he was sweating a great deal. I later discovered his back-up boys were known as the Delltones, the disfigurements were from an accident that almost took the nervously jerking singer’s life, and the sweating, well that could have equally been from the television lights, or his numerous addictions, or both. As for his song, I had never heard anything like it, so different from my father’s yodelling cowboys and my mother’s stage show tunes. A man called Bing was the only singer I readily could identify, but this was something else entirely. This apparition, it seemed, was known as the ‘Wild One’, or simply by his initials, JOK – he was Johnny O’Keefe. The song, I cannot recall, but possibly it was something like ‘Shout’ or ‘She’s My Baby’ – I discovered he had quite a repertoire.  JOK was taking the American invention of rock ‘n’ roll music, in its nascent form, to the Australian masses – it was something raw and terribly exciting - and I’ve been in its thrall ever since.

Later on Col Joye would join Brian Henderson on ‘Bandstand’, giving competition to ‘Six O’Clock Rock’, and, as the sixties rolled on, ‘Turps’ (Ian Turpie) would front ‘The Go Show’, that is, when he wasn’t dating his ‘squeeze’, an angel named Olivia Newton John. Across on another channel, ‘Kommotion’ actually had go-go girls. The Seekers, Easybeats and Bee Gees (way pre-disco) took Aussie music overseas, and for the first time, musically, we matched it with the UK and US – at least in our eyes. But it turned out to be a group called the Loved Ones, with the charismatic Gerry Humphries out front, that I became most drawn to. I had soon purchased my first vinyl recording - an EP (two songs on the A side, two on B). It featured a cherubic Johnny Young and his two massive hits, ‘Carolyn’ and ‘Step Back’. An LP of a mop-topped British band was my first LP, but I soon had a treasured ‘Magic Box’ (Loved Ones) in my possession. I wore its grooves out, as I sang along, comb in hand, in front of the mirror. If only I could be like Gerry Humphries when I was old enough to shave!!!! Gerry is now long gone, but still graces YouTube, where I go to relive so much that has passed.

So I was around almost at the start, and grew up and old along with my nation’s popular music industry. The crude and basic sound that marked the first days of rock is something so sophisticated and savvy these days, but at its best still retains the spirit of those early pioneers, both at home and aboard. Those black shiny LP albums now seem so retro in this the digital age, but I loved every facet of them. As well as the obvious, there was glorious cover art, usually with lyrics on back or in the sleeve, and I can still ‘smell’ them, even in 2012! Many still reckon that in their tracks lay authenticity. CDs to an extent destroyed all that, but didn’t destroy my ardour, and as for digital music – I know I am a throwback, but where is there tactility in music from the ether?
I rediscovered the following list and, showing my age, even though I know I compiled it for a reason not so long ago, I have no idea now what its purpose was (help me Kate!). But, along with my superlative daughter, I love compiling lists. I do know that. Through that wonderful woman I also know that the young people producing today’s music are just as talented and as committed as those of the distant and not so distant past. I sometimes wonder if a sixty year old man should be buying the music of today’s bright young things, but I like so much of it. My Katie has seen to that. Hopefully, some of you reading this may relate back to me lists of your own.

My top pick may seem a little conservative to some, but when it came out ‘A Little Further North’, its signature song, seemed to reflect how I wanted my life to be. I no longer yearn for a life lived in a warm Mangoland somewhere – back then was another time, I was in another space and, although the song no longer encapsulates where I wish to end my days, the whole album still delights me – I nearly wrote ‘speaks to me’, but that’s so naff! For some time the Mangolands of my imaginings were the dreams that formed the fulcrum that my world, like the LPs of my younger days, revolved on. It is now by a river in more southerly climes that I see my life playing out, accompanied by wonderful music all the way.

Some of the listees I have come to late, like Nick Cave and the Go-Betweens, and it saddens me that one of the driving forces of the latter is no longer around. I trust Archie Roach will be forever, providing the conscience of our land. Now that Jimmy has gone, he carries the flame. And so my humble list goes on. Enjoy and maybe listen to those you do not know, for, like that clock from so long ago –‘from little things, big things grow.’

1.  Graeme Connors - North
2.  Go-Betweens - 16 Lovers' Lane
3.  Archie Roach - Charcoal Lane
4.  Paul Kelly - Songs From the South 
5.  Loved Ones - Magic Box
6.  Nick Cave - Boatman's Call
7.  Various/Easybeats - Easy Fever
8.  Various/Cold Chisel - Stamding on the Outside
9.  Hunters and Collectors - Under One Roof
10.Richard Clapton - Best Years of Our Lives
11.Stephen Cummings -Close Ups
12.Archie Roach - Jammu Dreaming
13.Various - She Will Have Her Way - the Songs of Crowded House
14.Shane Howard - Retrospect
15.Kasey Chambers - Barricades and Brick Walls
16.Cruel Sea - Most
17.Clare Bowditch - What Was Left
18.Jimmy Little - Life's What You Make It
19.Church - Blurred Crusade
20.Sarah Blasko - As Day Follows Night
21.Mick Thomas - Anythings, Sure Things and Other Things
22.Little Birdy - Big Big Love
23.Graeme Connors - This is Life
24.Augie March - Moo You Bloody Cow
25.Bob Evans - Suburban Songbook
26. Gurrumul - Rrakala
27.Panics - Cruel Guards
28.Mark Seymour - Westgate
29.Shane Nicholson - Familiar Ghosts
30 Pete Murray - Feeler

Johnny O'Keefe and Six O"Clock Rock =

Gerry Humphries and the Loved Ones =

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Colourful Building, Docklands, Melbourne

The Shame! The Shame!

With our DLPs (Darling Loving Partners) in the back seat, the good hearted manly man from next door, driving his very manly SUV, and your correspondent beside him in the front, we set off to our appointed barbecue at a beachside suburb McMansion. En route we were due to pick up Barb, mother of Jane, the manly neighbour’s wife. It transpired that she lived in a cute little cottage, hidden from its North Hobart street by a very long, narrow driveway. As manly men are able to do, Noel guided his 4WD into the narrow confines of the drive, with only a gnat’s wing of distance between his Mitsuibishi Challenger and the brickwork/paling fence on either side.

Now true manly men have little trouble coming to terms with the spatial awareness required in manoeuvering large moveable objects in confined spaces, and most can even do so in reverse. Some truly awesome species of the same can astoundingly reverse with unwieldy attachments appended - such as trailers, boats and caravans. Manly neighbour, once having picked up mother-in-law, actually backed out with greater speed along the driveway than he went in with. I was hugely impressed, but Jane piped up chastising him for ‘showing off’. I related the difficulties I had with the skill in driving backwards. And my DLP concurred with – ‘I can sure vouch for that. Have I a story to tell you!’
And so she then proceeded to relate to our friends the night of my greatest shame. I did not mind. She always did so in the most affectionate way, and, of course, Noel and Jane were by no means the first to hear it – but I think it is essential that I put in some background in first before it is transcribed to you, dear reader.

I have always had a rather uneasy relationship with cars. Sure, in my callow youth I had been excited by the freedom promised by the ownership of one, and I had passed my drivers’ ‘test’ with flying colours. The accompanying plod suggested we drive around the block to test my mettle. ‘Slow down, you’re going too fast down this hill,’ he nervously instructed at one stage, followed by a funny inhalation of breath as I almost removed a cyclist from his bike. At the end of it all he, rather shakily, uttered, ‘You’ll do,’ before handing over the desired for bit of official paper. See, back in those pre-seat belt days there was no inducement to fail would be drivers as a means of raising sorely needed governmental revenue! Why, mate Keith gained ‘his permission to drive a vehicle’ without even having to do a ‘blockie’. The local copper had seen him practicing in a Natone paddock, and that was near enough

My love affair with cars, as a means for getting from A to B, soon withered as a result of the prangs I endured in those first few years in the aftermath of achieving my licence. They ranged from driving a cherished sedan of my father’s into a herd of startled cattle in a farmer’s field somewhere in the backblocks north of Launceston, to crossing two lanes of city traffic in Hobs to plough into a sleek Volvo driven by my island’s chief magistrate. Needless to say the prospect of explaining to my father the damage to his car as the result of the former incident filled me with sickening dread. He was a lovely about it and there was very little blood involved. With the latter, it goes without saying that I lost the ensuing court case.

After a while I gradually became more proficient, with only the occasional banging into poles at supermarket carparks, and the removing of copious duco after altercations with other stolid obstacles to forward or backward propulsion, to show for my ineptness. I still, however, cannot get my present zippy little Mazda anywhere near a kerb in the city unless at least two parking spaces are available to me, but the most serious skill deficiency is my inability to reverse in anything remotely resembling a straight line. I find it somewhat amazing that beloved DLP will actually sit in a car with me, let alone allow me to move it at all – but she does so with the same sanguine patience that has allowed her to teach many others the rudiments of car handling. Several roundabouts/intersections in Hobart scare the bejesus out of me, and on more than a few occasions it has only been DLP’s startled, shrill instructions from the opposite seat that have saved us from destruction. She is a gem in that regard – so it was with some relish she proceeded to relate the story of my greatest driving shame to the other occupants of my neighbour’s wheeled behemoth on the day in question

It goes something like this:-

It was a dark and stormy night, and apologies to Edward Bulmer-Lytton for borrowing his immortal words, but it was, it truly was! It was a real beast, winter at its pluvial best. The rain was pelting and a scything wind was coming in from the west, rattling the eaves. And I had to brave it all to retrieve my beautiful daughter from her late shift at the local supermarket. Little did I know it then, as I passed out into the tempest, that I was within minutes of becoming humiliated by my very worst driving clanger – one that occurred before I had even left the property!

As I sat myself down in my old orange Ford Escort, that had truly seen better days, I was already in trepidation for, worsening the atrocious conditions, the gale had dropped allowing a sea mist to come in, shrouding all in a watery veil, making visibility substantially limited. But for manly men this would be just of trifling nuisance value, right? So bravely I commenced my mission. In reality the weather was the least of my troubles – the topography of our path for conveyance down to the street below was far more of an issue. After a flat bit, which I could handle with relative ease, it then dipped sharply down till it connected with the roadway. To make matters worse, whereas a paling fence was in place for the topmost stage to aid in navigation, by the bottom half it was replaced by a very low cement divide, impossible to see from my strained sitting position in my ancient jalopy, even in clear broad daylight. On that night I was perhaps doomed from the start.

Dear reader, can you picture it as I edged my car over the lip into that steep decline backwards? Can you foretell what was about to befall your hapless relater. Yes, you guessed it; I ‘parked’ my poor old bus on the dividing ledge. I somehow drove my unsuspecting mode of transportation onto that wall, and it quickly became evident I was stuck fast. No amount of frenzied acceleration of the forward kind would cause it to become unadhered. What a pickle! And almost at the same instant the great controller in the sky caused the storm to abate. But what to do, what to do!

I shamefully scurried back inside to inform my DLP of my ineptitude. Incredulity passed over her face, but to her credit she calmly took control of the situation, arranged for alternate means of ferrying home for gorgeous daughter and called RACT Man, who would surely know what to do. Buy the time he arrived a small group assorted helpful adults and whooping children had gathered, no doubt roused from their television by all the commotion, caused at first by loud scraping noises, and then the hoon-like revs as I had attempted to rectify matters. Even Big Dave from several doors down had put in an appearance, complete with ubiquitous blue singlet and stubby shorts, worn on all occasions without any concession to chilly air. With copious chest and armpit hair bristling, he was a known manly man, possessing intricate knowledge of matters automotive, and with much scratching of heads, he and RACT Man worked out a plan. I played no part in it – I remained in the shadows with lowered head. Their remedy involved pulleys, much stout rope, a gnarled gum tree, and much use of the Aussie vernacular – and, eventually, it worked. To the cheers of the gathered mini-throng, little orange Escort became a free car.

But I would not be let off so easily!

Shortly after, at a house not far away, my DLP’s bestie was relaxing in front of her tele, when she discerned a rap on her door. Opening up, she found her mate, RACT Man, on the doorstep, looking somewhat dishevelled and worse for wear. ‘Got time for a cuppa love? I’ve had a bugger of a go. I’ve met some dipsticks in my time, but you’ll never guess what some dickhead did with his car tonight……

Well, dear reader, you know who that dickhead was. My shame was complete!

My DLP loves me despite my failings in manly manliness, as do my offspring, one of whom has inherited his grandfather’s DIY gene. The big hearted, best neighbour in the world is ready to assist in manly deeds at a moment’s notice, and my wonderful DLP is no slouch in the practicality department either.  So, with all bases covered, I can turn my mind to other not so manly pursuits, and passing tools when called upon – that is, if I know their names!