Sunday, 7 November 2010


Here is an interesting fact: polyglot derives from the Greek words for many and tongue. Many-tongue. Ew. People use this word in polite company, on the train, in front of police officers and grannies. You might as well saunter up to Constable Widget and ask him whether his uvula’s still swollen. “How’s your uvula, Constable? Still murder on the labio-dentals? Oh, by the way, we’re having a polyglot night down at the Hellfire Club. You should swing by.”

As it happens, every polyglot I’ve ever met has been a charming person, but many of us lack the time, wit, educational opportunities, or lairy audacity necessary for committed polyglottism. In tourism-induced episodes of cross-cultural encounter, we confirmed one-tongues generally have to fall back on what linguists call a lexical “smattering” – of French, Spanish, Urdu – to which more advanced crypto-monoglots add the pertinent accent, which accent can be perfected by listening carefully to Peter Sellers on youtube. To give you some indication of what this sounds like in the field, here’s a pre-recording of a practised monoglot working her magic in a Parisian hair salon: “Bonjour, garçon. Ah would lahk un caffé avec soy milk and lots of – ‘ow you say? – chocolate sprinkles.” This is the same person in Frankfurt: “Vow! Vould you look at that amazink Dachshund! He hast schtollen the Bratwurst and he ist running away! Schnell, little Dachshund! Schnell!” And in Auckland: “Usn’t thet neat, broo? You cen guv fush to the pingwuns!” The friendly and undiscerning natives are down at the pub buying Bratwurst smoothies for these champion monoglots in no time flat. When this occurs, the wise one-tongue feigns a swollen uvula.

There’s no reason to be ashamed of good old-fashioned monoglottism, but now and again every Honest John wants to deceive his friends and co-workers regarding his core competencies, and for this purpose, we advise that he learn a couple of handy Anglicised foreign words (loanwords), and deploy them liberally, ideally while being as ridiculously pedantic about their pronunciation and grammatical insertion into the English sentence as he can.

Buttered snails are an infallible social lubricant, as we all know, so I suggest that Honest John begins with loanwords from French. French affords English a frisky little selection of bons mots, including lingerie, croissant, champagne, faux pas, abattoir, cinematheque, and cul-de-sac. These words should be used regularly. If you’re having trouble fitting them into the conversation, change the subject. Your co-workers will love it when you interrupt their discussion about the payroll dispute and propose a ménage à trois with rissoles and lorgnettes. “Why, John,” your managing director will pant, “you’re such a polyglot.” The trick, of course, is to completely, completely Frankify your pronunciation of these key terms. Do not pronounce “lingerie” lonjeray, the way lesser monoglots do. Remember that you are pretending to be able to speak the language that is traditionally spoken only through a mouthful of buttered-snail soufflé (true). That is to say: lan-zjherree.

Accomplished crypto-monoglots have a variety of additional strategies. Try pausing in the middle of your meeting, furrowing your brow and muttering, “How do they say this word in the English? Oh. Ah. Dear me. [Sotto voce
] Merde! Errm. Oh, yes,” and here you must handle the familiar English term as if your mouth were a pair of barbeque tongs, “water jug. Would you be so kind as to pass the ‘water jug’, please.”

Of course, the risk with all this is that the secret workplace polyglot will uncloset herself there and then and ask you en Français whether you’d prefer the water jug or the bottle of sparkling dog’s urine she has in her briefcase. In this case, “Je ne croissant pas” may not be a suitable answer. Feign a swollen uvula.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Nyah, nyah, Summer

The Bureau of Meteorology (and what a fine bureau it is) predicted a sweltering top of 21ºC for Melburnium today. This 21º peak would have been the Bourne's first encounter since the 10th of May with the far side of 20º. I will confirm everything you ever thought about me (i.e., nerd! number obsessive! weather-zoid!) when I tell you that I have been keeping a hawkly climatographic eye on these statistics, and quietly rejoicing in Melbourne's 136 consecutive days of under-20º-ness. And I'll confirm it all over again by waxing ecstatical at today's triumph over the Bureau's haruspications, a triumph which tips 136 consecutive days below 20 to 137 days below 20. Nice work, Smelbourne.

NEWS FLASH! Two days later now and it's 20.2 degrees in the City of Melba! Winter is offishly over.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

You can say that again

There are two kinds of tautologies: rhetorical tautologies, which are tautologies in rhetoric, and logical tautologies, which are tautologies in logic.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Reasons why I love my job immoderately

Things I have learnt or remembered today, in the honest plying of my trade:

1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire. Ottery, I tell you. How he managed to spend the rest of his life in bouts of intermittent misery I can't begin to fathom.

2. Wikipedia (bless its vaguely disreputable but otherwise excellent socks) has a page on the etymology of countries' names, and it turns out that the Isle of Man* is named for Manannán mac Lir, the Brythonic and Gaelic equivalent to the god Poseidon. Way to intimidate the opposition in the America's Cup, no? Or the 100m fly at the Olympic Games?

3. English doesn't just have the word "zoomorphism" (ascription of animal characteristics to a non-animal); it's also got "theriomorphism", ascription of the characteristics of a wild beast to a non-wild-beast. I guess this is the difference between calling your colleague a pussy-cat and a tiger. Not that you should do either. There's no call for metaphor in the modern workplace.

* Isle of Man: (a) not actually a country, (b) birthplace of one of my numerous great grandparents, or something (I don't always pay attention), and (c) associated by reputation with those cats without the tails, who are no relation to my great grandparent, despite what you might infer from this Beatrice impostor.

Friday, 13 August 2010


I recently came into possession of Pauline Hanson's Untamed & Unashamed: The Autobiography.* Lest Hanson's subsequent flamenco routines on Dancing with the Stars and Who Wants to Migrate to the Motherland? have blurred your memory of what she was, in 1997, to an Australia that still talked about multiculturalism like it might be a bit of all right, allow me to quote from the preface she wrote (or "wrote") to her autobiography (or "autobiography") in August 2006:

Another reason why I wrote this book was the frustration of being castigated as a racist by the media and major political parties after my inaugural speech. Yet the very same policies I advocated back then are now almost populist policy, being advocated today by the federal government. For instance, proposing that immigrants should be able to speak and understand English before being allowed into Australia, taking action to stop the illegal refugee situation that was rife at my time in parliament, and a call for immigrants to be sent home if they will not live by our laws, is to name only a few of the beliefs that I made in my inaugural speech. Back then they were 'racist' statements; today the government is advocating the same.

- Pauline Hanson, Untamed & Unashamed: The Autobiography (Docklands, Vic: JoJo Publishing, 2007)

This is where I would have gone if, in some weird parallel universe, I had found myself in Mark Latham's position yesterday, asking Tony "Stop the Boats" Abbott what his role was in gaoling Pauline. I might have suggested that Abbott and the Liberal Party he rode in on wanted Hanson out of the way because they didn't want her attracting the Liberal Party's voters with the Liberal Party's Hansonian policies, that the Liberal Party of the past thirteen years had distinguished itself with its indistinguishability from far-right human-rights-denyin' idiocy. And so forth.

* It was the [ahem] lucky door prize at Poetic Justice on Tuesday night. Far be it from me to look a raffle horse in the mouth, but really. Pauline Hanson's autobiography? Fancy a gold-plated replica of Robert Menzies' toenail while you're at it? Actually, I could have chosen the money box instead. It was pink, cross between a small plastic lady and a skittle. Or Michael Phelps' biography, about Michael Phelps's life, swimming etc. I chose the Hanson. For the same reasons I would have reached for Mein Kampf, morbid curiosity and such.

Nerd alert

There's a brand-spanking-new, baby-powder-blue edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, hitting the shelves (and the webs) by the end of this month. My inner citationologist is a-quiver from footnote to header. Word on the street is that the CMS is encrusted with jewels no less coruscating than this, for the quoters-of-blogs: "There is no need to add pseud. after an apparently fictitious name of a commenter; if known, the identity can be given in the text or in the citation (in square brackets)."

MLA and Harvard, eat my shorts.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Two Cauliflowers

There are two types of cauliflower in Coles: organic cauliflowers, which come wrapped in plastic, and cauliflowers that do not come wrapped in plastic and are inorganic.

What would Jesus do?

The Stately Pleasure Dome that is my working life

There's nothing like writing a lecture on English literature in the wake of the French Revolution to put a person in mind of:

a) literature in English in the wake of 9/11
b) croissants

Can't say I am extremely 'xpert in literature in English in the wake of 9/11 (though while we're here, Simon Armitage's poem, Out of the Blue, is one of those change-your-life sorts of poems, and Rufus Sewell used to be my boyfriend, so you should probably bunker down somewhere with a hanky and a cat and click on that link), though here's a theory, for which I'm not going to advance any evidence, because I am lazy and otherwise engaged and possibly because there isn't any. The theory is this: (1) the post 9/11 West (or if "West" is too homogenised for your tastes, the Axis of We're Not Evil Like Them) has perceived itself to be a sort of frontier, last bastion, yadda yadda, threatened by barbarians* from abroad who are disconcertingly indistinguishable from some of the West's home-grown citizenry; (2) the post 9/11 West, if it thinks about these things at all, thinks that perhaps it is in something like the position of the Ancien Régime just before, during, and after the 1789 foofaraw; (3) this has produced an inordinate interest in 1780s and 90s France and a sympathy for aristocratic layabouts; (4) and textual incarnations of the inordinate interest and sympathy, as in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, the latter springing to mind because I read it a month ago and it is still on my desk.

That was unconvincing, wasn't it? Let us discourse instead on the subject of croissants. In 1987, I was enlisted by my grade 3 teacher to join my colleagues, Jackie B and Katherine H, in preparing a class presentation on France. Other members of the class were likewise preparing presentations on Spain, Japan, Wales, etc. We were designated class time to repair in our small group of three and think up information about France (as far as I can recall, "research" for this project entailed pooling our collective 9-year-old foreign affairs knowledge). One day - how many days did we spend fecklessly discussing berets and the Eiffel Tower? - Jackie B brought in a croissant, with the intention of exhibiting it in our presentation. I ate it, naked and cold.

The croissant was naked and cold, that is, not me. I was wearing my school uniform. I am ashamed to confess that I have never been a very sophisticated croissantophile. Until about the age of 15 I preferred my croissants with tomato sauce. Indeed, I preferred most things with tomato sauce. One of the sad side effects of becoming a vegetarian at that age was being deprived of the approved opportunities for eating tomato sauce (i.e., with the hind quarters of cows). With tomato sauce, croissants are sweet, salty and tangy; without tomato sauce, you can't fail to notice that what you are eating is 97% butter.

A couple of months ago, my lady's companion and I went on a three-day, ninety-kilometre tromp from Wangaratta to Bright, mostly for the purpose of wearing tweed and carrying sticks and addressing impromptu doggerel to farm animals. The first leg of the third morning was from the pub, where we'd slept (when you're on a tromp, rather than a hike, you stay in pubs), to the bakery, where we had breakfast. My companion asked for a croissant, and then he asked for jam with his croissant, and then he asked for his croissant with jam to be toasted.

Which act of toasting caused the croissant to be shmooshed into a sandwich toaster, whence it emerged as a kind of pancake-oid agglomeration of butter, flour and jam. If the shmooshed croissant had been available to Europe's intelligentsia in the 1790s, I'm sure they could have spilt a lot less ink trying to represent the condition of France.

* N.B. Barbarianism is a projection from the mind of the person/society that feels itself beleaguered onto those whom it believes itself to be beleaguered by. Noone is actually a barbarian.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Wherein your author gets to the point

I was seventeen when Kaz Cooke first told me that a breast could look like a ferret's nose and be nonetheless a perfectly sensible breast. Given that ferrets' noses are exactly what my breasts looked like - whiskers and everything - I figured at this point that Kaz Cooke was my own personal oracle. I read Real Gorgeous front to back, pausing only to plait my armpit hair, and when she scored her column in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, I took to writing out her name with TimTam crumbs on our kitchen table.

But over time, as the pong of a person who refuses to use deodorant on the grounds that its aluminium content might cause Alzheimer's doth dissipate in a field of violets, so too did my devotion. Thing was, those columns in the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald weren't even dogs' breakfasts. Dogs' breakfasts, in my experience, consist of only one or two ingredients, or where there are several ingredients, they're reconstituted in roughly equisized and monochromatic pellets. Kaz's articles were more like my breakfasts - fifteen different constituents before you even boil the kettle. There she'd begin, with an amusing anecdote about abseiling in cheerleader gear, and before you knew it she'd be ending on a recipe for Baked Alaska. Or she'd kick off with something punchy about workplace harassment, then meander her way to the pressing matter of basset hound grooming. It was like being invited to the beach, only to find yourself eating dim sims in the bus shelter.

But that's life, really, isn't it? Your day doesn't tend to unfold according to neatly taxonomised thematic principles. You don't generally remember only things starting with the letter Q, and few of us arise from writing 800 words about the criminal justice system in Bolivia without having squandered a thought or two on the itchy spot just west of our left nostril. Well might you reply that the difference between what's going on in your mind as you're writing 800 words about the criminal justice system in Bolivia and what ends up on the page is a good solid edit, either of the as-you-go school or the retrospective, and to that I would say: yes. Indeed. Too right. Strewth. But I might also say, that just for a change, in the privacy of our own homes, maybe just on Sundays, a bit of an unstructured pootle down the avenues of thought can be a pleasantish thing. I said that my devotion to Kaz waned, but I didn't stop reading her column. She said funny things. In no apparent order, true, but still - funny, and sometimes wise.

Here is a picture of a spooky cactus:

Saturday, 31 July 2010


Those of you who follow my cohabitator's blog will know that there's been some pretty lyrical regurgitation on the Harlot Heights feline front. The great cat spew of 2010 seems to have done its worst, thank Dog. The pertinent household appurtenances have been soaked almost to the point of disintegration in Napisan, and Harriet and Beatrice are now so frisky that if it weren't for the garbage bin full of vomit-sodden rags I'd be wondering if I dreamed poor Harriet's nine up-chucks in six hours or Beatrice's spectacular stomach-to-modem bile jettison.

Now that we're over the worst, and lest we give the impression that the cats are nothing but trouble, fur-balls, and pre-masticated kibble, I want to state in public the immense contribution Harriet and Beatrice make to the common weal.

For instance, you're trying to write an essay on Mr Darwin's Beagle diary?

Beatrice has got it covered.

You're trying to sew a shirt?

Harriet's right onto it.

You're trying to work out how to turn the rug that's drying on the clothes-horse because you had to wash it after Harriet vomited on it into a cat hammock?


My wonderful ma emailed my sisters and me today to point out that it'd only take three votes to bring wee Bea up to a grand total of TWO HUNDRED VOTES in the Who Wants to Be a Ten-Thousand-Dollar-aire? Whiskas catfood competition. Beatrice currently lags behind her chief competitor, Theodora, by 11312 votes, and the election ends tonight, but I have no doubt , no doubt what-so-ever, that with our electorial powers combined we can catapult Bea into first position. Metaphorically catapult her, that is, as opposed to the literal catapulting that's been going on in the catly oesophagus lately. No, actually, that was metaphorical catapulting too.

P.S. Speaking of elections: I hope the Geej gets herself elected, especially given the alternative, but it was pretty darn disappointing hearing her raise the ol "People Smugglers are Evil People" line on Sunday night. Surely she doesn't think so? Is it the helping to save persecuted people's lives that's supposed to be evil, or the being paid for it? So if - when - Gillard does win the election, my joy will not be unalloyed. It'll be so not unalloyed that I'm not even certain it'll be joy. If Beatrice, on the other hand, wins the election, my joy will be 100% pure joy containing nothing but joy. And disbelief. And thoughts of a new rug.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Vowel-free five-letter-word appears in dictionary, delights scrabble players

I got the new Macquarie Dictionary yesterday. Fifth edition and all. It turns out that "grrl" is now an Official Word. Also "grrrl". I got rhythm! I got syzygy! I got my grrrl, who could ask for anything more!

Milk Poem, the sensible

Finding God in coffee cups
brewed by stovetop percolator
so that the burnt coffee edges of God fill the house
and if one were pregnant, one would heave at the stench, I see:

that God leaves a brown ring at the base of the mug,
the stained china, bone china,
the molten ash of the bones of the ox
or where oxen are short, the bones of brown cow Bess.
We pour Bess's milk into Bess's old bones,
and bugger her baby, pardon my French.

Bone china and jelly and marshmallows the pink of cherry blossom,
all these are brewed from the bones of cows.

Reading the tea leaves, when they're not made of tea,
but dried-out beans from the dark-roast jar,
and their smutch on the mug is a fine dark line,
I study the Lord and wonder when.

Milk Poem, the silly

The milk of human kindness
Comes in many different forms:
like not teasing colour blindness
with strange chromatic storms,
or playing on your bagpipes
outside the boarders' dorms,
or other such impertinences -
for which, refer to common senses.
The milk of human kindness,
Like other dairy things,
Comes curdled, cooled, homogenised,
Whipped and drizzled on fruit pies.
The wise will know the wheys and whys
The lactic roundabouts and swings.
The milk of human kindness
Is the very sort of treat
To please the sort of person
Who likes a kindly teat,
The very sort of person
Who digs the sweetest dugs,
Prefers a nipply sympathy
To flowers, words or hugs.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


Wunna my all-time fave internetians (mine, and anyone's who digs Texan tacophile on-line feminism) has been embarking on a one-brain-campaign to illustrate the rhetorical limitations of the first person singular nominative pronoun, which pronoun is the great columnar phallogothingy, I. Around this phallogothingy, on this blog, have clustered divers and interesting claims. Such as:

1. that "I" is redundant, that putting an idea (e.g., X) under a name on a blog proclaims X to be the belief and the opinion and yea, the very synapse-spawn of the writer, regardless of whether or not the writer prefaces her claim, "X", with, "I asseverate that...". Also sprach mine high school English teacher, steering his feckless charges into the faux-objectivist rhetorical quagmires of agentless passive verbs, polysyllabic Greco-Latinate nouns, and nary a first - or second - person pronoun across the entire barren tundra of our Thomas Hardy essays. From this quagmire the emergence of the trusty Alexis is yet to transpire (to give you a fairly representative, if horrific, example of the sort of construction my high school English teacher encouraged);

2. that an "I think etc" disarms the idea, implies a subjective claim, when the author actually means an objective one: and therefore either weakens the claim or - and this is what makes "I think" rhetorical genius, imho - disables objections. Whereas you might be the world's most cogent authority on why X is untrue, there's no arguing with the claim I think X;

3. that personal narrative enjoys a long and illustrious history alongside such feminist activities as outing the oppressor and asking one's Sister to pass the muffins. This is whether the oppressor is one's boss, close relation, next-door neighbour, bus-driver, or local aluminium-based vaginal deodorant merchant. And also regardless of the moral status of the muffins.

Anyway, someone should tell all this to Apple. iMac was one thing; iBook, on the other hand (no, the same hand), was another. iPod sounded so cute - in a cetacean, beany sort of way - that I was beyond protest; iPad, meanwhile, so gloriously naive to the suggestion of menstrual equipage I almost want to buy a gross of them. But come the day that Apple manufactures its first wireless hominid central nervous system, it's going down in a welter of controversy. iI? I mean, really.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Vote 1 Beatrice

So, word on the cat front: Harriet has embarked on an exciting career as an experimental physicist (take one glass of water, observe, enact deliberate sideways swipe of paw, measure resultant hydrocity, remain scientifically skeptical of so-called law of gravity and repeat experiment when opportunity presents). Beatrice, meanwhile, has been non-consensually entered into a Perhaps - Certainly from the Tuna's Point of View - Pretty Darn Sinister Cat Food Sponsored beauty contest. For which beauty contest, N.B., victory is assured, especially if this blog's intrepid band of readers - yes, all four of you - contribute your electoral goodwill. That's right, all Bea needs to win $10,000 and her rightful place on the marketing material for Whiskas' Oh So Gelatinous! is the help of four ordinary, decent voters, four voters prepared to cast a hundred votes from a hundred IP addresses every day for ten consecutive days. If that sounds like your cup of lactose-reduced, go hence. One of the world's two loveliest kittens thanks you, or would, had she actually agreed to the latest installment in my regime of catsploitation.

In other catly news, Ben Pobjie - of the soon-to-be tragically moldering New Matilda - penned the following pome in exchange for fifty (50) dollars ($), that is, AU$50, a mere half of a hundred dollars, which actually pretty negligible sum (buys a lot of lentils, sure, but not many movie tickets), is going towards his campaign to get himself a berth at the 2011 Melbourne Comedy Festival, which I understand takes a great many lentils indeed. Here is his poem. I'm not sure about the closing couplet (Bea & Harry are both committed egalitarians), but I think the bit about the korma rivals P. B. Shelley at his least vegetarian.

Take it away, Pobjie:

Two sisters
Both alike in dignity
Except for one, who is small and weedy
But the big one is definitely alike in dignity
If you get my drift

Two sisters
Both alike in fur
Fur of different colours, but similar consistency
Like a plate of butter chicken, sitting next to a plate of goat korma
Different to look at, but similar to rub on your face
Also different to taste

Two sisters
Different to taste
Do not try to eat them
You will
Regret it
They will scratch your throat out

They have done it before
One time Harriet was at the vet
And the vet performed certain actions
And lo, it was proved, the truth of that ancient aphorism writ large on the papyrus of history:
One man’s routine medical procedure is another man’s unprovoked sexual battery
Especially, as Diogenes said, if one man is a female cat
Which was probably more common in ancient Greece than it is now
And so Harriet took back the night

Because cats are all about rebellion
It was cats who built civilisation
When in Egypt of old they raised the pyramids and manipulated the pharaohs
When monuments and ornaments were built for their glory
And they basked every day in fish and milk
When even the very reeds of the Nile trembled at their approach
And did their bidding
Not that having reeds do your bidding is of that much use
Reeds have poor musculature
And no limbs
So the range of tasks they are suited for is minimal

But other did their bidding also
The cats were rulers
And still they rule

Two sisters
Harriet, bestriding the world like titans of old, facing dogs, rats, and hoses alike
With calm equanimity
And regal grace
Beatrice, tiptoeing modestly through the corridors of life, self-effacing
And yet proud as legend’s faerie queens
Even when biting your arm

Two sisters
They flatter us with their existence
And they bless us with their favour
Which is to be found in the litter tray

Thank you, Sisters
We, your slaves, await your order.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Fungi and friends

There's a yeast-based beverage for anyone who can tell me what this fungus is called. Its proper mycological name, that is, though I could probably see my way to a beer for anyone who tells me it's Queen Ann's Bloomers and perfect in your risotto al funghi deluxe.

The Preston Heights ménage (two humans, two cats) visited Chateau de Mum (two humans, one dog, three chooks) last week, and rather than taking responsibility for the inter-species consequences (chooks-dog-cats, like rock-paper-scissors, except that cats seem to beat everyone else, especially if everyone else is the world's most chivalrous beagle and a trio of sensible bantams), I trotted off to take photos of fungi and other mycobiontical delights. Mum lives in front of a pine plantation, which means there are enough fly agarics to build an entire fairy Manhattan

Also this ramalina farinacea, the beardy lichen:

and this parmotrema something-or-other, which I wish I could grow across the walls of my living room. The trees look liver-spotted (who came up with that word, liver-spot? to say nothing of senile wart?). There's something about lichen that suggests the sturdy and eternal, even if itself it grows and spores and dies and grows. And p.s., for all you, who, like me, are enthralled by and grossly underinformed about matters micro/biological, lichens come about through symbiotic relations between fungi and algae or similar bacteria. How cool is that? THIS cool.

Friday, 7 May 2010


Now this, ladeez and gennilmen, is what I call a Home Theatre System.

I use it to watch The Big Bang Theory and The Mentalist on Monday night, Monday night being telly night. I watch The Mentalist even though The Mentalist's plot goes like this: camera pans across decolletage of conventionally gorgeous young woman found mangled in clearly felonious circumstances; camera cuts to decolletage of conventionally-gorgeous-young-woman of a crime scene investigator who advances a theory as to nature and perpetrator of felony; Patrick Jane, aka the Mentalist, a sort of blond Byron-on-a-stick waltzes in and advances alternative theory; alternative theory proves to be correct. This, you would think, is hardly edifying fodder for a Baron about Town such as myself. Indeed, I would say in reply, but where were you when I needed three litres of intravenous chocolate after my four consecutive hours of Monday afternoon teaching?

It has come to my attention that my home theatre system may shortly cease to work on accounta not having an enigmatic piece of hardware known as a Set Top Box. I'm guessing that if I had the inclination I could procure myself a Set Top Box, but I'm not convinced it would go with my decor. I.e., do set top boxes come in spraypaint gold? If not, shame on them.

Recent sightings of other people's home theatre systems in various stages of al fresco decay (scroll down...)

Home Theatre Systems in various stages of al fresco decay, photographed on my route to work

lead me to believe that the horrors of set top box purchase and possibly the sexual politics of channel 9 programming have caused the entire Australian population to chuck their tellies out onto the nature strip and take up more wholesome Monday night pursuits, like intravenous chocolate.

Here is my question to you, gentle reader, if you still exist: what do you do plan to do on Monday nights after your Home Theatre System ceases to function? And can I come too?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The whiskeriest loser

You subscribe to your vet clinic's monthly newsletter, and whaddayaget?

From the veterinarians who brought you "Buy one neutering, get one free", comes the "PetFit weight loss program". I mean, omidog, Slimmer of the Year? Anxiousness, much? I've never been prouder of Harriet for biting Dr Rob's hand.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


My first year classes are finding their way this week into Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. It's a dankly Gothic – and of course – this is Margaret Atwood – a ravishing, unsettling tease of a novel. Its Grace might have murdered her master and his housekeeper in cold blood, whatever cold blood is, but she might have been an amnesiac, might have been under the thrall of a psychotic alter ego, might have been the scared-witless witness to a murder, and after five hundred pages or so we still don't know. Which is maddening, and pleasing too.

Yesterday afternoon, we stumbled across the place where Grace learns that her master has made his housekeeper, Nancy, pregnant. Grace remembers instantly her best friend, who bled to death beside her after an abortion. She thinks about Nancy who stands a chance of survival, who might marry the master, and she thinks about her friend Mary who bled, and she feels a righteous rage. Of course, it's a perverse kind of justice, where if one person is wronged, it seems right that other, similar, people, should be wronged too. But it occurred to me that trauma, or – let's not use that word, because people use it for what happens when you spill your carrot soup – the sorts of emotional experience that discomfort your intuitions about how the world should be, tend to de-stabilise your sense of justice too. One of your reference points is moved, and your whole network of beliefs shifts three degrees north-east.

The week that Dad died, I didn't have to look for snakes as I waded through the grass along Darebin Creek. I didn't have to check for the cars that surge round the corner just near my house. I waited for my green man, and I walked. I made a point of not checking for those stray cars. It seemed impossible to me, unjust and therefore impossible, that my mother might lose a child and her husband in the same week.

I found myself yesterday afternoon saying this to my students. "I remember the week when my father died," I began, pretending that what I was remembering wasn't eight weeks ago, but safe and far away. There was a sort of hush that fell on the room. I hadn't expected empathy – I hadn't expected anything, I guess, since talking about Dad certainly wasn't part of my lesson plan – but it felt like the class could see through "I remember the week" and "Here I am telling you an anecdote to illustrate how sadness can derange our sense of justice" to "I am sad".

The first year course is meant to be a welcome-to-literary-studies-and-its-key-concepts thing. We felt that the best way to introduce literary studies and some of its key concepts would be through overtly intertextual pairs - Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Sylvia Plath's Ariel and Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, and Alias Grace, which is itself an assemblage of different texts. It's not a particularly original organising principle, but it does the trick. Rolling out the course for the first time last year, I realised that the secret thematic link between the texts was the mentally ill woman: Ophelia in Hamlet and R&G, Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Grace in Alias Grace, Sylvia Plath. Which was good. My inner 70s feminist has a lot to say about mental illness and women. But we started the course again this year with Hamlet, and I realised for the first time that he has lost his father. And Jane Eyre is an orphan. And Antoinette/Bertha Mason loses her father, her mother, her step-father. And Grace's mother drowns at sea. And Sylvia Plath rages for and against her dead Daddy. The secret thematic link is the death of a parent.

I could tell them this, to illustrate how the reader's lived experience interferes with her reading, but I have such mixed feelings about the pedagogical value of the teacher's, i.e., my autobiographical detours. I had a favourite English teacher at school, and our ears would prick up like dogs' whenever he pulled a story out of his own annals. He'd grown up with a white family in Kenya, been there during the violence of decolonisation, gone to a boarding school in England where he slept in Thackeray's old bed. It helped us pay attention to the other stuff, not that the other stuff (Under Milkwood, John Keats, Margaret Atwood again, with The Handmaid's Tale) wasn't interesting enough. But when it's my life and times: it's not that I'm short on stories, but I know that there's something self-serving about my telling, to this captive audience, who have to laugh on cue, or look engaged, lest I gnash my terrible course coordinator's teeth, or set them three thousand pages of Freud on the joke for homework. I'm worried, I suppose, about turning into the David Brent of the classroom.

So I said that thing about the week that Dad died. It was just an anecdote - three sentences - to help explain a point about trauma and magical thinking - but they looked at me, and I don't think I mistook the compassion in their faces. I can be steely and resolute, until someone offers sympathy, and then I collapse into myself, or into them, into their sympathy. Here it was my class, of mostly eighteen-year-olds, and I had to turn to the whiteboard and collect myself.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Pasta la vista, baby.

Just sent off a 17 page study leave application and now need to fall into a giant bowl of spaghetti or I will DIE of malnutrition (17 page study leave application, you understand, doing some serious sapping of the energies).

P.S. if my application is not successful, I will consider quitting my job and taking up as a professional spaghetti taster. You read it here first, comrades.

P.P.S. Dear Job, if you're reading this - not really. I'd never leave you. Even for spaghetti.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

With cat-like tread

It's been Official Week of the Manky-Brained Harlot round here. The Sidekick and I left the bathroom window open on Sunday night, to facilitate the immildewification of said bathroom, and thereby instead facilitated the escapades of Intrepid Harriet. Out the bathroom window she slunk, down the neighbour's prickly conifer she clomb, into the neighbour's enclosed backyard she plunked, round the neighbour's chicken coop she sniffed, whereupon she realised she was verily stuck. Actually, that's my reconstruction. This is how it really went: at 10.30 we closed the bathroom window which had been opened for the immildewification of said bathroom and retired to the recumbent reading room safe in the knowledge that Harriet and Beatrice were hiding under their hard furnishings of preference; by 11.00, Beatrice was pillowing her head on my ankle, but Harriet hadn't emerged from under her hard furnishing; I searched the baronial premises; no Harriet. We remembered the bathroom window. We shuffled outside in slippers and jammies. "Oh, Harriet!" I stage-whispered into the night, so as not to antagonise the neighbours. "Why, Harriet!" Still no Harriet. And then I saw Leonard, perched atop Apartment 7's recycling bin and staring hard over next door's fence. I listened. Tinkle-jing. Harriet's collar. Sidekick, who's got the advantage of an extra 8 inches, looked over the fence, where sat Harriet, staring up at him, relief in her eyes.

"Oh, Harriet," said Sidekick. "It's you! Good girl! Thank God!" (We were worried, see, 'cause it's a rough neighbourhood, what with four lanes of traffic just around the corner, to say nothing of the menaces of Fat Cat, who lives a couple of houses down the street, and is all "I wuv you, I wuv you so much, I wuuuuuuuvvvvvvvv you, purr, purr", until he sees Hazza or Bea, whereupon he lets out a godawful air-raid-siren of a meow and squares himself up like a Staffordshire Terrier whose bone you've just admired.)

Anyway: "Meow!" said Harriet (truly - that's exactly what she said - two syllables and everything).

"Jump up here," said Sidekick.

"My good man, if you think I can jump 1.85 metres straight into the air without serious inducement - and might I here suggest Tasmanian smoked salmon with King Island clotted cream and organic caper berries - you are sorely deluded," replied Harriet.

"I see," said Sidekick. "Well, perhaps you could follow me along the obverse of this fence and I will lead you to the neighbour's padlocked gate, under which you should be able to squeeze yourself, whereupon I will scoop you up and escort you personally back into your nice warm home."

"That's all very well," said Harriet. "But I cannot understand a word you are saying, and I wish you'd come up with a plan to get me out of this garden rather than blathering on."

And so Sidekick and I told Harriet she was a fine, fine cat, and suggested she try climbing back up the tree that leads to our bathroom window, which we promised her we would keep open, and then went back to the recumbent reading facility, where we lay awake for the next hour and a half, hoping, hoping, hoping that Harriet wasn't being molested by Fat Cat. Actually, we knew she wasn't, because she had set herself up in the corner of nextdoor's garden closest to the edge of our apartment block and was gazing longingly up at our window. Beatrice, meanwhile, lay on the window sill, gazing longingly down at Harriet.

At 2.30, we heard a scrabble and a thump. It was Harriet, figuring out how to climb back up the conifer. We cracked open the Iams cat biscuits, threw a bit of a party, and then went back to bed.

That, I submit, is the main cause of my manky-brainedness for the rest of the week. I managed to lose my phone recharger, forget - in the middle of a lecture - the name of the bloke who wrote Rousseau's autobiography, and leave my wallet and keys on my office desk on Wednesday evening, so that when halfway through my walk home I found myself with a pile of olives, peas, bread and toilet paper at the Coles checkout, it turned out that I was completely without funds. I spent the next hour and a half ambling through my neighbouring suburbs, plucking the ripe figs that dangled over people's fences. I was still home half an hour before anyone who could let me inside, so I checked the letterbox, and by the light of the silvery halogen streetlamp, read Medecins sans Frontiers' letter about tuberculosis so many times I was ready to give them my entire life-savings immediately - only my credit card was sitting in my wallet locked inside my office four kilometres away.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why a more sensible me would have invested in a fly-screen for her bathroom window three months ago, but all's well that ends well, blah blah.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Wherein I wish Gerard Henderson would go away

I've always understood a "think tank" as something similar to a "fish tank" - with Gerard Henderson paddling about, losing his memory every thirty seconds - but it's just occurred to me that the "tank" bit might be as in "armoured combat vehicle blindly trundling across the tundra".

Thursday, 11 March 2010


Silence always means something, and round here it's meant that a week after I got myself officially with sidekick, my beautiful, boisterous, noisy, joyful father, one of my very best friends in the world, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. For two weeks after the diagnostic surgery, Dad was desperate to go home, longing for more time, exhausted by hospital and being prodded awake and reminded to breathe properly and catheters and thrush and nothing to eat but ice-cream and diabetic jelly and milk. He was saying every day how much he loved each of his kids, loved Mum, loved Mum more than anything, but after two weeks of that he stopped breathing.

We don't have proper rituals of mourning, not ones that I know of, so I've been bumbling around, giving lectures, keeping my office door closed, eating the sidekick's biscuits, crying every day for the last five weeks – mostly when someone asks me how I am, or I re-read Hamlet, or try to phone my oh-so-splendid mother and be brave for her. Brave for her. God knows, I knew it would be sad when it happened – but even when he had cancer ten years ago, and we joked about the stories we'd tell at his funeral – it never seemed possible that someone so stouthearted and loud and solid could die. My Dad, who spent the last sixty-five years of his life making up for WWII cream rationing, who in 2003 walked up to a riot squad cop outside Philip Ruddock's house and demanded, demanded in the name of Australia (go, Dad!), that the cop stop pulling a protester by her hair, who divided his toast equally with the dog. He said he and Mum had four children before they worked out what was causing us. He would cry in ghostly tones from the far end of the house, "Coffee for your poor father". He pronounced vegetables with four syllables for fun. He'd get cranky with the tv when ever anyone said "vunrable" instead of "vulnerable". He quoted bits of poems at apparently irrelevant moments – "Butting down the channel in the mad, March days", "Young Lochinvar has come out of the West", "Margaret, are you grieving?", "But if we fail, we fail", "Water, water everywhere", "Under the spreading chestnut tree". He only ever wore grey socks, except when he had on his fawn shorts and then he'd wear fawn socks, and as long as I can remember, he's worn white underpants and a white singlet. He'd eat pizza with abandon, saying, "Have you ever seen a dead Italian?" Sometimes he'd eat Chinese take-away with abandon, saying, "Have you ever seen a dead Chinaman?" He'd encourage me to take a piece of beef, saying, "The cow's completely vegetarian." Or "This is the poor man's lettuce." He called the radio the wireless, and spoke lovingly of crystal sets, and relief maps. He planted trees. He sexed potatoes. For about two years, he worked his way through each of the recipes in the Charmaine Solomon curry cookbook.

When I was a kid, I spent most Saturday afternoons at the beach with my father. There was always an ice-cream ("If your mother asks, you must tell her the truth, but no need to say anything about ice-cream if she doesn't"), and usually a trip to the nursery, and a great sprawling chat in the 45 minute drive home from the sea. When I was fourteen, writing a short story about apocalypse-by-laser-gun, Dad drove me to the Sydney University physics library so I could read up on electromagnetic radiation (I spent six hours working out the cataloguing system). He'd always offer to test me before Latin exams. "Hic haec hoc," he'd say, infuriatingly. "What does that mean?" He'd similarly test my sisters, who could do dizzying things with maths: "What are five sevens? Two plus two?" He'd drive me to music rehearsals, sit outside for two hours, drive me home again, and the talks we had were glorious: God, communism, eating animals. I didn't ever ask him if the lifts were a trouble, I don't think; it was understood that he'd enjoy ferrying me around.

I'm writing this because my mother told me last weekend that she wanted me to keep putting stuff here, but before I can put stuff here, darling Mum, I have to say something about the hole in our world. You know how much Dad loved you, and I hope with all my heart that he is somewhere now, surrounded by Devonshire teas and scruffy stout dogs, loving you still.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Wherein I announce my sidekick

I'm not good with disclosing myself. It's not that I won't tell you all about my intestinal parasites, the oscillations of my uterus, and the three day beetroot diet of '99 (good times), it's just that when it comes to Matters of the Heart I am discretion with a capital D, discretion in the Masonic vault guarded by three-headed sabre-toothed Swiss bankers sense of discretion. I am a veritable clam. I am an encrypted stone buried three kilometres beneath Mt Kilimanjaro in a lead-lined sea-chest. That's right, I am the opening chapter of a Dan Brown novel.

All that's by way of not getting to the point, which point is that I am now exhuming my inner life to announce that through processes mysterious and wonderful, I have contracted an alliance with the dearest boy in the world (I refer to critically-acclaimed globally-renowned internetian of letters, TimT), and we are, as I speak, in the process of merging our empires. Or not quite as I speak, because he is presently at work, and I am about to go out for dumplings with friends, but nowish. I.e., I have been living amongst his books (6000 or so) but not his bookshelves; his soap is now here, but not his shower recess, etc. Life is messy and kind of glorious, a bit like my hair, which I trimmed last week in an ill-conceived attempt to look like a rambutan, and despite which this extraordinary person still seems to love me. Sigh.

Awright, I won't go on. You can safely infer about 70,000% more happiness than the above paragraph indicates.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Put this in your pipe and produce an exothermic chemical reaction with it.

"I may here speak of some attempts by myself, made hitherto in too desultory a way, to obtain materials for a 'Beauty-Map' of the British Isles. Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, 'good, medium, bad,' I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross With a long leg. I use its upper end for 'good,' the cross-arm for 'medium,' the lower end for 'bad.' The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written On the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest."

- Francis Galton, Memories of My Life, 1908.

Ah, Francis, Francis, Francis. And there was I thinking that you eugenicists were just nice chaps who'd fallen in with the wrong crowd. I've got a whole quiverful of envenomed projectiles aimed in the general direction of this paragraph, but let's leave the one labeled "Prick-Holes - Freudian Much?" and instead fire off "There Is No Such Thing As Attractiveness".

Where to begin? Well, firstly, there is no such thing as a beautiful thing. But what about alps?, you might well interject. And indeed, when I behold an alp, my heart pronks, my knees tremble within my veganware Lederhosen, and I yearn to gambol with the goatlings between the jagged death-dealing outcrops of granite as I clutch at my heaving bosom on account of the high altitude pulmonary edema. But alp worship - I have it on good authority - is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before circa 1750, put an alp before your average Jo and she'd aim her pricker at the "repellent" end of the page. "Alps?" she'd burl, in her exaggerated Wessex yokel accent. "How you going to grow a nice cabbage on an alp, eh? Answer me that." Which is to say, one man's fish is another man's poisson. Notions of what's beautiful, like notions of what's good to eat (tomatoes, fungus, dogs), what sounds nice (Chinese opera, heavy metal, nightingales), and how best to cut a length of demin (poo-catcher, high-waisted, flares) owe - as the entire world knows, or, erm, "knows" - quite a bit to culture.

This much has been orthodoxy for the last half a century. Beauty is not truth; it's just truthy. And as my year 8 personal development instructress observed, "While the current fashion, ladies, might be for bosoms that look like badgers' snouts, only a hundred years ago it was all in the bustle. So don't you worry if it's your behind that looks like a badger's snout. Posterior whiskers will be on the What's Hot list before you can say 'Claudia Schiffer in a boiler suit'."

So it's wrong to say that luxuriantly dimpled thighs are beautiful. What you should say, if you must, is "I have a penchant for luxuriantly dimpled thighs". But there's something about the word "attractive" that makes that nuance nigh on grammatically impossible. Even if you try to install yourself - the observer with the penchant - as an agent in the operations of attractiveness, i.e., I am attracted, the real agent emerges in the by his moustaches, or by her badgers' snouts, or by the way her boiler suit glimmers in the moonlight. The observer is absolved of his (her) response. Q.* is attractive; Q. attracts; of course I am attracted by Q.. Of course. How could I not be? And so whatever actions my attractedness manifests in, they aren't my responsibility, because I was attracted by Q.

And here I conclude, by saying this: Francis, old pal, "purely individual estimate", my Aberdeenian granny.

* Like you wouldn't believe.