Friday, December 31, 2010

Counting down

In just under three weeks time my wife, daughter and I will be heading to France for four weeks. After our visit nearly three years ago we are keen to get back.

We must be keen: the weather looks like being absolutely arctic. On the plus side, the dollar is more than pulling its weight against the euro. And January-February is not exactly peak tourist season. So museum and gallery queues are unlikely to have us standing out in the sleet for an hour or two. But accommodation is cheap - especially compared to what you pay in Australia. We've booked apartments through the excellent Homelidays website. We've stocked up on thermal clothing, gloves, scarves, hats and boots. For coats we are hoping to pick up something in the soldes. And I am hoping to do a little of this.
What else should we do? Is there anything on the *avoid* list?

Ca glisse à l'Hôtel de Ville
Uploaded by mairiedeparis. - More professional, college and classic sports videos.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Say it with pictures

The New York Times recently ran a story about the sharp decline of picture book sales in the United States. There are many reasons why this could be so, not least is the nearly 10% unemployment and declines in library services through years of tax cuts. What the situation is in Australia sales-wise I couldn't say. 

But there are many reasons what sales might decline. Children of course are introduced to what is called (somewhat euphemistically I think) screen culture at an early age. So they become very dexterous with their thumbs, less so perhaps with their vocabulary.

I also wonder to what extent parents are keen to demonstrate their child's reading skills. What better way than to kick away the ladder that pictures provide.  Since reading has become one of those fought over issues, does this also feed our anxiety? And why are we so concerned with measurement and less troubled by questions about the transmission of cultures, the sharing and propagation of stories?

In regard to the prospect of children being rushed onto chapter books, I wonder to what extent parents are anxious to show how well their children are reading? Do they know what they are missing? And being able to decode a word should not be confused with understanding or even enjoying a story. Many books have gone back on to the shelf that simply have not arrived at the right time. The Tale of Despereaux is one that waited on the shelf perhaps twelve months before going on to become a firm, enduring favourite. Some schools impose the policy that students in free-reading time must read 'to their literacy level'. I often wonder how they measure a child's imagination. 

Of course, reading independently also absolves parents of reading aloud at bedtime and at other times. Last week a picture book exhibition opened, which I had the privilege to curate. Reading with my daughter was an immense influence on the stories and pictures selected. Put it this way: I would not have understood these books in the way that I do, as stories and images connected to a real child's life, her imagination, her growing and changing, without seeing the stories through my daughter's eyes. 

Picture books give such immense pleasure. Lauren Child's early books were powerful shapers of her worldview: the word play, the sideways view of the people close to us, the sense of quiet mischief and seriousness in the pursuit of the things we hold dear. These are powerful and important values, yet strange how the resonate in that humble medium. 

Today as we came up the path I remarked on how beautiful our neighbour's trees are. Our neighbour is old and frail and may not have another summer left in her in that hot, little house. And then what of her trees? "I'll being chaining myself to them", said my daughter. Said it in a way that reminded me of the Lauren Child book, What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? about eco-warriors who camped in a tree, turned the family upside down and got themselves on the television news. 

All of this was long ago, before she really took notice of the news or wondered about global warming or the floods in Pakistan. And yet somewhere in their the imprint was made. A way of looking at the world. Whether we chain ourselves to the trees is another matter entirely. But in a book, we learned about what was important in the world.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Everything old

At Moonee Valley racetrack last Saturday, Daryl Braithwaite was whipping the crowd up with his 1991 hit Horses. No finer music critic than Drew Morphett observed that ’20 years ago Darryl seemed gone for all money, and yet here he is, the crowd in the palm of his hand’.

Later that night Ricki Lee Jones, the writer of Horses, was doing similar at the Myer Music Bowl, lacking only Darryl’s equine anthem. Ms Jones joined Sinead O’Connor and John Cale, others whom we might say did their best work in another generation, or two, or three. An appearance from Archie Roach was cancelled due to his suffering a stroke a week prior. Only the indigenous quartet - Dan Sultan, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Ursula Yovich and Leah Flanagan - could be said to be of more recent or current times. The occasion was the closing night of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

(Dan Sultan, delivering the goods.)

The theme of this geezer jamboree was transcendence. A topic those of us greying at the temples, thin of pate and/or thick of waist, might easily turn to. The artists’ brief was simple: select and perform seven songs ‘to leave behind’. Which is, I guess, an elaborate version of the parlour game: ‘what song would you have played at your funeral?’ Each performer also chose a Leonard Cohen song. (Had Leonard been in attendance the average performer age would have risen by at least a decade.)

John Cale, who could make a case for popularising Cohen’s anthem Hallelujah, evaded time's tidemark with a bent version of Heartbreak Hotel. This stratagem seemed like the novelist dabbling in historical fiction, a neat sidestep around more current concerns.

Like Moonee Valley, the Myer Music Bowl was packed, even if those on the lawn could be forgiven if they huddled for warmth. But given the audience paid around $110 each to be here, this gig was as much about their involvement with transcendence. What songs you would leave behind; what songs you would take with you? Perhaps such questions are the luxury and privilege of middle-age. Surely twenty-somethings are too busy living, than to sit on a freezing hillside contemplating their eternal soundtrack.

A slightly different version of this post appeared on the Wheeler Centre website.
(Thanks to George Dunford.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Yep, time for a change. Recently I resigned from my job after nearly nine years. I have been unemployed in the past - and I don't much like it. So volunteering for the cause wasn't something that I was planning for.

The State Library of Victoria and the Centre for Youth Literature are wonderful places to work, but last month I reached a point when I filed notice. I am working up until Christmas, will have a holiday, and re-load in the new year. Nine years is personal best by some margin, so on that score I'm satisfied, but also know that I need new challenges.

Youth literature is a fantastic field to work in. There are a lot of smart, passionate, creative people: writers, editors, publishing people, booksellers... YA fiction remains wide open to innovation and change, the boundaries are ever being tested. (Just like it is with teenagers.) And I liked the sense that we were working for teenagers, to support and to challenge them.

More recently I have been working on exhibition of recent Australian picture book illustration, which opens on 3 December, my wife's birthday. I am enjoying working with the exhibition team at the State Library of Victoria; they are like watchmakers, every fine tooth of every cog in its perfect place. There is some wonderful artwork in the show and I hope that people young and once young will get a lot out of the show.

When I was offered the job at the Centre for Youth Literature I remember being a bit speechless. I honestly did not expect to be offered it. All things considered it has been a wonderful experience for me. But I don't believe in hanging on for the sake of it.

Whatever comes next I hope that it won't be far from the world of books and young people.

But, who knows?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Superhero guide to New York

Earlier this year my wife went to New York with her mother. Mother was keen to take in the nightlife of the city that never sleeps. And since their apartment was next door to nightclub things pretty well lived up to billing.

But in the daylight hours she was on the trail of New York's superheroes and comic book culture.

You can read the account of her New York experience here, published today in The Age.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

This time last week

We were hovering around the television awaiting details of booth counts in outer-western Sydney electorates...and whether Green preferences would be enough to carry the day in Boothby, an electorate in South Australia. Melbourne had already fallen to the Greens as predicted and, also as predicted, the Liberals were carving their way through marginal seats in south-east Queensland.

Oh, it was a night of thrills and spills. Spills for the red team mostly. Damn.

Now, well, we are none the wiser. Indeed we await the calling of three wise men of the north as to which side - red or blue - they are prepared to shack up with to form stable government. That being the key phrase of the year. One of the three who holds the balance of power is Bob Katter (above), who I think of as like the mad uncle at Christmas time. For ten minutes he is hilariously inappropriate but then the afternoon sets in. And sets in. And sets in.

So a week later and we still don't have a government. Stable or otherwise. The only person happy in all of this is the ABC's election analyst Antony Green, a genius with a spreadsheet and savant of psephology. Normally his appearances are limited to one night every three years, when he can strut his numerical stuff. Now it seems we can't get enough of him.

We can, but it will take some delicate arm-twisting in Canberra to get Antony Green back in his box.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It must be winter

It must be winter. People are saying this is the first real winter we have had since 1996. Which was the year that I moved to Melbourne.

It's true that the thermometer has stayed consisting low, rarely rising past 14C for the past six or eight weeks. Last night I succeeded in scalding my leg on a hot water bottle. Ouch! Of course 14C is not particularly cold, a fact I remind myself of whenever I think about going to France next January.

The weather has been cold and even a little bit wet. The rainfall is nearer the long term average - but still way, way down over the past decade. The past couple of winters have been disturbingly erratic, one recently saw spring arrive sometime around June as trees kept their leaves and around June flowers burst into bud.

This week I have moved to part-time work, due to a combination of fatigue and demands at home. Today was the first day of office-free, guilt-free living. It's about giving more to the family and a little about more time for myself.

On the way back from the city I stopped in and put a deposit on a bicycle for my wife. The bicycle is a long overdue birthday present that became a long overdue Christmas present. As she not a terribly sporty lass, and one who moved house/town/country pretty frequently as a child she didn't do a lot of biking. So we will see if riding a bike is something you never forget. We pick it up on Saturday. Look out for us all on a pavement near you.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Down time

Lately I have had a few things on. But today I found myself at home with nothing I absolutely had to do. Weather too damp for laundry, shopping for the weekend done, my wife and daughter out looking for a 40th birthday present for sister/aunt.

So, a good moment to kick back and dig in to the record collection and establish some ambiance for the afternoon.
For some reason I have always had a soft spot for this solo record by David Johansen. He of the New York Dolls and later, improbably, one Buster Poindexter. All of these clips are songs from David Johansen's first solo album, filmed, I think, in Germany around 1978 or '79. The audience is torpid to put it politely but nobody on stage seems to give a damn: Johansen is all swagger and the guitars rip and roar.

There are a lot of spin offs and connections for Johansen: after all, he has been in the business for nigh on 40 years. But I just love this record. It's full speed ahead from the get-go. Cool Metro is the first track. The band don't do anything ground-breaking but have all the moves and there's none of the desperate-to-get-noticed drag act nonsense of the New York Dolls. It's not particularly punk but god it's loaded with energy and excitement.

I would have been happy if Johansen went on to make ten more records like this, but I suspect he finds a straight line hard to follow. As for later New York rockers The Strokes, I am afraid I wouldn't know them if they bit me on the ankle. There was something a bit Spinal Tap about that album cover that made it impossible for me to listen to them. So my education on New York style begins and ends here.
Has it really been 30 years?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Duke

Richard Hinds in The Age takes time out from the World Cup build-up to interview Mark Viduka, aka The Duke. Viduka, the pride of St Albans, is back in Melbourne and comfortably in retirement.
The previous evening, Viduka took his oldest son Joseph, 7, to soccer practice at the local club. He shakes his head about how quickly he has grown. It makes him appreciate the time he spends with his family now that his weekends are no longer a blur of hotels, coach trips and games.
''That's been my life since I was a little kid. My life has been associated with football,'' he says. ''When you see the build-up to the World Cup, you get excited. But realistically I don't think I had that hunger I needed to play in another one.''

I love the big guy. Maybe he didn't score as many goals as he could or should have for Australia - but the joy of his playing was something to see. He played from the heart.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Warming up to The Chills

When The Chills last toured Australia I missed them - twice. So the prospect of seeing the Dunedin band live - a mere 18 years later was not to be sniffed at. Since the early 1990s, The Chills fortunes have declined while their reputation has grown. But in their day, the Flying Nun label was as much a rallying flag as the Postcard label was for Glasgow or Factory Records for Manchester.

The Chills play a sort of surf music, if you were to surf the cold, dark green and turbid waters that surround New Zealand's south island. But it is music of surprising depth and beauty, too.

Four songs into the set last night Martin Phillips, the mainstay of the band, had the misfortune to have his amplifier blow up. And so they set about repairing it. Several minutes later Phillips told the audience, " I don't whether it's more professional that we were able to fix it, or more amateur that we didn't have a bunch of roadies up here to do the job for us". The 400 bodies crammed into the East didn't seem to mind.

The set was entirely old stuff. But jesus, what a catalogue. Highlights were Pink Frost, a thunderous Love My Leather Jacket, Rolling Moon, Part Past Part Fiction and Wet Blanket. A two-song encore ended with Phillips pleading the need to save his voice for the gig in Sydney tonight.

Along with the guitars - sometimes driving, sometimes chiming - The Chills run on a precise metronomic rhythm and Phillips' words. He is a master of the simple declarative statement that, delivered in his awkward tenor voice, hits straight at the heart.

You could see these guys were doing it tough. They were pioneers in the days before this internet thing, heading off from the south of New Zealand to conquer England. Were they successful? Taking the two albums Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb as evidence, the answer is an emphatic yes. Neither of these mighty documents are in print today, though there is talk of re-issues and re-masters.

When we were in Christchurch earlier this year a guy in the big secondhand record shop made a good case for the Chills and other Flying Nun bands as a vital but neglected part of the cultural heritage. "The number of times I have been asked for their stuff - it kills me that we have nothing", he said.

A year ago today the Guardian newspaper ran this long feature on Flying Nun and the bands it championed.

I can only imagine that Phillips left the stage last night with a mixture of humility, pride and a burning desire to be back. And not to leave it another 18 years.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Welcome to Angouleme**

Richard Thompson in 1000 Years of Popular Music tells a joke that goes like this.

Imagine heaven as a restaurant. The the welcome is by the Italians; the catering is done by the French; the organisation is by the Germans - and the English provide the entertainment.
In hell, however, it goes like this. The welcome is from the French; the Italians do the organising; the English the cooking. And the Germans provide the entertainment.

I was reminded of this little gag today when I first tried to book accommodation in Angouleme, south-west France. We are heading there in January for the international comics festival. Not wanting to appear over-eager, I thought I would wait until we were within nine months of the event before attempting to secure accommodation. You know, you don't want to fire off too early. You book, you pay, you think it's all good - and then you turn up and they have never heard of you or your booking.

But it seems that every, yes every bed, in every hotel and every bed-and-breakfast of Angouleme, is taken by someone else. Nine months ahead of the ruddy festival.

The tourism office advises to wait until November when the office will release the "chambres chez l'habitant". People who live in Angouleme and nearby rent their rooms or their apartments for the Festival. Am I being just a bit suspicious thinking that "les chambres chez 'habitant" looks like a nice little earner for the locals? Or is it an opportunity for a more authentic experience? 


** Update: I rang the Tourist Information Office in Angouleme last night. I asked Nathalie if she could speak English. "A little," she replied. In a way that suggested she wasn't about to try it out on me. So I did what I am trained to do: spoke slowly and carefully and as simply as possible in French.
We agreed that no, the office would not supply me with a list of alternative accommodation. I could, like everyone else, wait until novembre. "Quand en novembre? Une? Quinze? Vignt?"
"En debut."
Okay. The beginning of novembre.
J'attends, j'attends...
Cette sera interresant.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A quiet week

It's been a quiet week in Brunswick and it's about to get quieter. My wife is going to New York at the end of the month.

She lived in Manhattan for about a year in 1980; her father is an academic and was doing post-graduate work there. The recent book Newberry Award winning book When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, is set in the same time and much the same neighbourhood.

So when my wife's mother mentioned that she was hoping to go to New York a plan was hatched: guide books consulted, Google maps gleaned, novels and histories digested.

My mother-in-law loves music and is probably the world's biggest Leonard Cohen fan. She was in the front row of this concert and we reckon was in Lenny's eyeline when he sang I'm Your Man. So a lot of research is going into scanning the gig guides.

 One of the things she will be doing is dropping in for the Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show at the Town Hall in New York. It's a uniquely American experience, one that couldn't be replicated.

Back in the days before the internet I went to Edinburgh for the Fringe. Where I discovered, since it wasn't in the brochure that I sent away for and which arrived in the mail, that Garrison Keillor was appearing at the Book Festival. Oh frabjus day! Callum! Callay! / He chortled in his joy! I had read Lake Wobegone Days and listened to the radio show avidly...Norwegian bachelor farmers, tomato growing as a competitive sport, the Side Track Tap, Lutheran Church. What a wonderful place the world was, that one of my favourite writers should fall into my path like this.

And so I arrived on the day at the appointed hour.

Not. A. Chance.

...Ah, the internet.

So enjoy Garrison, dear. And think of me. I will listen to the show, eventually. At home. On the radio.

There won't be too many other distractions.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Save the Cliffe

Everybody knows that Perth, Western Australia is the home of ugly architecture. And the wealthier the place gets, the uglier the buildings. So please, sign the petition and save the Cliffe.

The what? The Cliffe. It's a timber bungalow perched high on a bend in the Swan River. Number 25 Bindaring Place, to be exact. It was also home to the young David and Robert McComb. The nesting place of young Triffids.

Cultural heritage rates pretty low in a place so devoted to making money and right now developers are hovering. Triffid-like, you might say.

But a campaign to preserve the house is firmly afoot. The local council is taking this seriously, but the pressure needs to stay on. And a petition will actually help. The plan is not to turn the place into a shrine to all things McComb, but preservation of the house will help towards some permanent memorial.

The last time my wife and I were in Perth we drove along the river front to see the McComb house. My various gods. What a sea of hideous architectural pomp. But there sits the Cliffe, over a hundred years old. A little care and concern, and your name on a petition, and who knows, in a hundred years more, it may still be there.

David McComb wrote the book for Western Australian rock music. And many of his best songs are rooted in this particular patch of ground. 

Maybe this plays to my Village Green Preservation Society leanings, but even saving one building is worthwhile protest against vile greed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Four seasons in one day

After I was woken up by the neighbours at 5am by a 30 minute sonata of slamming doors, I picked the newspaper up from the lawn. Tinges of orange sky. By 9am, not a clous in the sky.By midday, I was glas I took a hat. At 3pm, I I was woken by a sound something like a herd of cattle thumping across the roof. The very timbers were a-shivering. Great chunks of hail smashing on the skylight. And then some.

Welcome to Melbourne. Neil Finn knew of what he wrote when he sung Four Seasons in One Day.

No casualties thank Jehovah. Some great pics at The Age.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Missing in action

On Monday night my wife came back after four days in Adelaide. She was ashen faced. Tense. Crest-fallen. Searching for words.

Four days in Adelaide can do that to a person.

What was wrong?

"I left your laptop in a taxi."


In a taxi!!!!!!!!??????????

Yes, a taxi. In Melbourne. Small, white Macbook in dowdy but functional carry-bag. After tearing around the Adelaide Festival for days, my wife had fallen asleep on the way into Melbourne. When she was woken and bundled out of the taxi, the laptop and its bag stayed behind. About 90 minutes later, and no doubt several passengers later, the penny dropped.

Twenty four hours of gnawing anxiety followed.

This morning, she had a call from the St Kilda Road police station. The computer had been handed in. Before my wife headed off last Friday morning I had put a business card inside the bag. Just on the off-chance that she and the computer became separated. Just in case.

The taxi driver was a Sikh man. She caught a cab home with another Sikh driver and poured out her story. He promised to put the word around. There are not that many Sikh drivers in Melbourne, he said.

My wife rang him this afternoon and offered him a cash reward. He flatly refused. She is still counting her blessings and thinking of ways to repay the good karma that has come her way. Taxi drivers get a bad press. But this is evidence that there is certainly another side.

Me, I just am happy to be reunited. To be honest, I was glad it was only a lost computer. And glad that my wife is back from Adelaide, too.

(My daughter is also happy. "I am glad you have the computer back. It effects me, too.")

Monday, February 8, 2010

Je m'appelle Mike

The new year clanks into life and that can only mean one thing: back to school. In my case, that means French classes on Saturday morning.

This is, I think, the fifth year that I have been learning. Seems like forever, which is strange because I hardly command the language. In fact, I'm still at lower high school level. Get through this and I could enrol at VCE level. No thanks, I have quite enough stress already.

Back in the class on Saturday with some familiar faces and some new ones, I felt the anxiety levels rise instantly. I kind of stage fright takes over.

But I can't imagine not studying. I am this stage of beginning to read reasonably. Not reasonably well, but I can read for sense. Which is progress on a year or two. I lapse into franglais at moments of doubt and it's my aim this year to do away that habit as much as possible. If that fails, well, there is always large hand gestures. But I still have a long way to go.

I spent the summer revising and going back to absolute basics. A really useful podcast that I stumbled upon (actually, my daughter found it) is the Verbcast. It's designed as pilot program for high school students in the UK and uses relaxation and visualisation techniques. So effective are these methods that the first three times I tried I fell asleep. Something about the offer to imagine a isolated beach in the south of France, waves lapping the ankles. Breathe in through the mouth, and out through the nose. Shut everything else out of your mind. Zzzzzz.

Verbcast uses a simple and consistent method to introduce conjugations of the most common verbs. Very effective it has been. Overcoming a feeling of anxiety is for me one of the most important steps in learning and this one helps - a lot. You can download Verbcast for free at iTunes.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Vale Eric Rohmer

Soon after I moved to Melbourne in 1996 my girlfriend, now wife, and I went to see A Summer's Tale (Conte de ete) by Eric Rohmer. The film was showing at the now defunct Carlton Movie House, or the bughouse as it was affectionately known. All cinemas were called 'the bughouse' once upon a time, but this one truly earned its title. Maybe the title.

Inside, the cinema wasn't merely dark, it was gloomy and disheveled. The foyer was tiny, the box office truly poky. But the films!

One of the projects of this blog has been to write about the films of Eric Rohmer, which over the past 20 years, have given me more pleasure than the work of any other director. I recently started on the Tales of the Four Seasons, though I have seen these films in the cinema.

A Summer's Tale is the story of Gaspard, a young man on holiday at the beach in Brittany. His girlfriend Lena has more or less blown him off; she is on holiday elsewhere and without explanation, delays her arrival. So Gaspard walks the wide empty beaches, or sits at home practicing his guitar and writing songs. At a cafe, Gaspard meets Margot, a pretty, slightly boyish waitress who more or less takes him under her wing.

But Gaspard remains diffident. Lena finally arrives, and proves to be real ball-breaker, but in the meantime Gaspard has become interested in Solene, a willowy teenager looking for some holiday action. As Gaspard bounces between Lena and Solene it is Margot who remains constant. But even she has an alibi of sorts, a reason not to become involved. Margot's boyfriend is in the Pacific, an anthopologist who frequently abroad. One gets the feeling though that were Gaspard to make a decision Margot would not be disappointed.

But Gaspard dithers, and doubts and delays. But all too soon summer's lease must expire and the holidays end. Indeed the ending of the film is as finely balanced in its sweet sadness as any of Rohmer's movies. It's not the neatly folded ending of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Here is a brief, piercing moment about the missed oppotunities, perhaps that sadness lies more in the things we don't do than in the things we do. Life is all about Gaspard and he, watching it spin and turn, loses the things most worth catching.

Of course Gaspard has the usual litany of reasons for his evasiveness: some to do with commitment, some to do with a lack of belief in others. Rohmers delicately holds these notions up to the cool Brittany sunlight and finds them terrribly wanting.

A Summer's Tale is full of typically rapid exchanges (thank god for subtitles) as Gaspard and his girls walk the wide beaches at low tide. Many of these scenes were shot drawing a camera on a large trolley (or 'dolly' as I believe film-folk like to call them), some of the scenes stretching over hundreds of metres at a time. The space allows scenes to play out with minimal editing and is one reason why the performances achieve such naturalness. (Another is the delightful Amanda Langlet, who brought the magic to Pauline a la plage.)

There is some improvisation in the dialogue. Rohmer's ability to match his methods with his means was one of his great strengths. There appears to be so little artifice in his films. Very little lighting; almost never any music in post-production, and actors like Langlet who seemed to do their best work in his films. It amazes me that the young heroines of his films didn't all go on to great careers.

Rohmer made his own kind of film. You see the influence in films like The Summer Hours and even a little in The French Kissers. (Although he would surely disdain the gross-out aspects of the boys.) He is even referred to directly in I've Loved Yo So Long. But none of this quite equals the calm, watchful, steady gaze of Rohmer's camera. Or the exquisite, understated comedy. Or the tenderness of emotion that his seemingly endless gallery of young actors brought to the screen.

Eric Rohmer died on 11 January, 2010, aged 89.