Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hands full

Got back to Melbourne this morning. (No more red-eyes! Never again!) I'll try to have fuller descriptions of things for you tomorrow, but for now here are two pictures I have handy. Indeed, they're both of hands! The first is my own hand, full of shells from the beach of the Timor Sea at Darwin, most of them tiny sand dollars! They're so small I wanted to call them Sandpfennige - remember the tiny little one-Pfennig coins in Germany before conversion to the Euro? I didn't know there were sand dollars beyond the Pacific... Finding a sand dollar on our beach in Del Mar was always a thrill; it's been a long time since I've found one intact, and only once can I remember finding several. Finding all of these adorable little ones and the other shells (the photo doesn't really show the luminous blue of the shell at top left) took the sting out of not being able to swim: the water is full of killer box jellyfish until about this time of year and I wasn't taking chances, though I did wade.

These are the hands of Vincent Forrester (Muntjani), an Arrernte man whose talk about medicinal plants at the Alice Springs Desert Center opened into an account of tjukurpa (dreamtime, ancestral law) stories. I'd read many of the stories (not the secret ones of course) told about this landscape, and also knew that the tellings are often accompanied by drawings in the sand. But I had never seen it or, I realized, felt it. One of the essays I have students read discusses these tjukurpa tellings, and notes that (unlike other ritual events) they can open up in the middle of a conversation, by a mere smoothing out of the sand by the teller's hand; if there's an interruption, the sand is smoothed clean again, and the story resumed when there's time again.

That's what it was like! And the effect is stunning. You get a sense that the stories exist in the earth, that they are constantly telling and retelling themselves like subterranean rivers which only occasionally surface, safeguarding the shape of the world whose formation they describe. Tjukurpa isn't about a dream world, and it's not about a bygone age of creation, but involves what one scholar calls "abiding events," creative events which are continuous and constantly new, creating and sustaining us and the world, even as our retellings help sustain them.

Vincent was telling us about the Seven Sisters, a constellation about which almost all Aboriginal peoples tell stories. The Sisters move through the land with two young boys, pursued by a magician who goes to lengths even Zeus didn't dare to try to seduce the women (without success, by the sound of it). In their wake emerges the landscape of mountain ranges, networks of water holes, etc. Vincent traced all sorts of shapes with his fingers, coiled and wavy lines, patterns of dots ... At one point drawing the outline of Australia around the whole.

One day the boys of the Seven Sisters, playing in a muddy waterhole and making mudpies, lose track of time. Before they know it, they've made a big pile, which turns to stone: it's Uluru. Our guide told us a version of this story as we saw the little pond next to the great monolith, but it seemed merely silly. Here, now, as Vincent's fingers raised mountains and hollowed out billabongs in the red sand, it was like being there as it actually happened. "You really need to be here to understand these stories," said a woman from Sydney gratefully. But I was at Uluru and didn't understand. Not until the living fingers of this extraordinary Alice Springs-born university-educated Vietnam veteran drew living songlines in (or is it from?!) the living land.

Can I tell you how exciting it is to be finally understanding (if even a little) things I've read about for years, and to feel the pulse (if only faintly) of a land I've sensed since the start has a continuing life beneath the shiny surface of its cities and the sprawl of its suburbs?

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Well, just back from a three-day outback tour to Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Uluru (Ayers Rock) I have too much to say and haven't had time to figure out how to say it, so here, at least, are a few photos. The first is a reflection in the water of a the Garden of Eden, a lush little oasis in the heart of the Kings Canyon landscape of sandstone cliffs and beehive-domes - the colors should be going as far as a steel-blue.

The second is the famous Rock, showing its famous color-shifting proclivities - without sun it's dull brown, with sun it can shine through oranges to red, and when it gets wet in rain (apparently) it turns charcoal grey; the color of the stone before oxidization is in fact grey. That picture's also a sop for those of you who complain there are no pictures of your truly in this blog. Satisfied? (I thought I was posing to look like I was resting on the Rock as a cushion but the photographer thought better. Enough about this view of the Rock already!

The third photo is part of the surface of this otherworldly thing. It's the fantastic by turns Gaudiesque, Daliesque and Tingueleyesque networks of caves and cavities which most surprised me, and made the Rock's view from the distance seem uninteresting by comparison. I've never seen anything like it. It's like something from outer space, or deep within the earth. Twentieth century western (mainly Catalan) artistic analogies aside, the patterns are sui generis, like hieroglyphics in an indecipherable language.

The following risks being indecipherable, too, but here are at least reminders of some of what I've been up to since last posting.

On Tuesday I took the Overland, the train from Melbourne to Adelaide. The landscape was mostly flat, occasionally distended by hills, but everywhere a lush green from the autumn rains. We even went through some rain - amazing how precious those little splinters of water on the window seem in a drought!

In Adelaide I had dinner with my brother in law (in town as his company works on extending a tram line), who was missing his family terribly, and had an early-morning stroll through the wonderful Botanical Garden (most of it dew-dappled) before catching the Ghan just after noon, for the 25 hours to Alice Springs. Oh, I also nipped into Tandanya, an Aboriginal museum, where I found two books I read on the way up to the Alice. One, Sojourn on another planet by Nancy Sheppard, was a memoir of a (white) teacher on the mission in Ernabella in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The other, The undying by Mudrooroo, was an Aboriginal gothic horror novel, a surprisingly gripping combination.

In Alice I met a friend of the partner of a friend in Melbourne, a linguist who's lived in Alice Springs for ten years. My sister had been trying to connect me to a woman one of her friends in Shepparton knew without success - no need: it was the same person! She took me up to the old telegraph station, where the town was born, and told me lots about this very recent European settlement and the populations of Aborigines who congregate around it. It's a thriving little town of twenty-thousand, although the indigenous communities of the Centre are still nomadic part of the year so their population swells and shrinks. Some exciting things happening within the Aboriginal town, but it sounds like there's little connection between the two populations. Later I happened into a poetry reading at an Aboriginal Arts Centre, and heard unremarkable readings by a famous piranpa (white) and maru (black) novelist from Adelaide and North Queensland, respectively, and lots of some poetry by residents of the Alice, both piranpa and maru. [The maru novelist was Alexis Wright, not perhaps an exciting reader but, I finally learned this year, an amazing writer. - 12/2011]

The next morning it was off at the crack of dawn - before dawn, in fact, at six - for my three-day Mulgas tour with twenty other hardy souls (from England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, South Africa and the US) and a good-natured guide originally from Perth. I was probably the oldest person there, but the generation gap didn't matter much. Three days isn't that long, anyway, but it was long enough for me to wish that some of these people had been along for my India trip - more seasoned travelers, more intellectual curiosity... I suppose we were a more college educated (or still at college) group than my Intrepid pals.

We spent both nights in swags under the stars, the first night very clear and verrrrry cold. The moon (as you know) is only half-full but while out illuminated everything on the ground in its gentle light. I don't think I've every slept under the open sky before, and certainly not in a place so flat the the whole dome of the sky is there around you. Is the Milky Way longer here than in the northern hemisphere - it seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other, and to slowly move as if the ends were attached - or is it just the absence of familiar constellations? In any case, it was a fantastic experience. It'd be hard not to feel connected to the Milky Way and the animal life which comes to life at night if this were your experience every night, just as it would be hard not to feel a profound bond with the land if you were walking on it in bare feet (which we weren't). No surprise that Aborigenes were not interested in houses; the very thought of a room seems unbearably confining, and unnecessarily so - if you're safe out under the sky, why would you want to cut yourself off from its care?

I'll try to find some wise or at least non-babbling words about Uluru for tomorrow. In the meantime, I have to say that I have found the great Melbourne (or Victoria) novel, no thanks to my friends. It's Peter Carey's Illywhacker and, half-way through at page 300, I'm inclined to call it a masterpiece. Fan. Tas. Tic.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


I found a better railway map after all. This may be the last post until June first, but you have my itinerary, and can imagine me inching my way northwest then north the 3807 km from Melbourne to Darwin!

Samsara is nirvana

This past weekend saw the 12th annual Buddha's Day and Multicultural Festival in Melbourne, sponsored by the Taiwan-based Fu Guang Shan, a Mahayana school of "humanistic Buddhism." Not everyone in Melbourne (like the folks waiting for a tram above) noticed that Fed Square had been transformed into a vast temple, with lines of people making offerings of flowers and incense. (Click photo to enlarge.) On the other hand, how many Buddhists realized that the smile of the Buddha on the big screen may have been in response to the amateur cancan dancers on the stage below?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Across the land!

Have I mentioned that I'm about to go on another trip? Yes indeedy, and this is the big one: the Ghan, the Red Centre, Uluru (once known as Ayers Rock), and right on up to Darwin! You've seen this little map before, from when I took the Indian Pacific (the blue line) from Adelaide to Perth. Starting Tuesday it's the turn of the Overland (the green line, 828 km) and the Ghan (the red one, 2979 km). (For a better map.)

This will be my first trip to "the Centre," a place to which I'm finding many Melburnians have never been! France feels close, but "the Alice" might as well be on another continent. The Ghan (shortened from Afghan Express, named after the Afghan-led camel trains brought in by the Brits in the 19th century) is a thing of legend. The Alice Springs-Darwin section only opened a few years ago. My itinerary:

Tue 22 May
Overland to Adelaide

Wed-Th 23-24 May
Ghan to Alice Springs

Fri-Sun 25-27 May
tour to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon
Mon-Tue 28-29 May
Ghan to Darwin

Wed-Thu 30-31 May
Litchfield and/or Kakadu National Park

Fri 1 June
fly back (a red-eye, so I'm back in Melbourne by 7am!)

Why've I left this so late, you may ask? Because the centre is not just red but red hot most of the year, temps getting up to 40 C by mid-morning most days. Should be milder this time of year, though it's still desert. Not sure what the temps at night will be, but I'll be sleeping in a swag (sleeping bag) under the stars while this weekend, and expect to see stars like I've never seen before in my life. The only thing which can compare with that, I'm told, is seeing Uluru at sunset or sunrise - both which I'll be doing, too. Wish me good weather!

(The picture of Uluru is from here; I should have plenty of my own to show you soon!)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Across the seas

À propos France in Melbourne, look what I found in the (very impressive) European collection at the National Gallery of Victoria Int'l - a Poussin! ("Parting of the Red Sea," c. 1634, acquired with funds from the Felton Bequest in 1948 - I wonder who was selling in 1948 and why?) Poussin was one of the passions of Louis Marin, an old family friend in whose apartment I stayed in Paris; his book on Poussin and Caravaggio, To Destroy Painting, changed the way I see art. Caravaggio's realism is stunning, but how much is lost when art is no longer supposed to require the kind of rhetorical analysis texts are still thought to demand! Louis traveled all over to see the master's works. I wonder if he made it down here to see this one?

There are lots of other wonders in this collection, including a Tiepolo from the Hermitage snatched from the hands of the National Gallery in London as the Soviets unloaded it to raise cash. And a charming 15th century anonymous Flemish triptych on one of whose outside doors appears the Rest on the Flight to Egypt at right - can you make out the angels helping Joseph pull a palm tree down so he can get the fruit? I've never seen a halo (arbor, bower?!) quite like it!

Two of their recent major acquisitions were quite striking, a Ribera, and, in the contemporary art section, Canadian Jeff Wall's large back-lit photograph "Untangling." Its rumored million-dollar pricetag raised some eyebrows, but the curator responsible for the purchase predicts that it will be seen as an epoch-making masterpiece. It is a peculiarly satisfying work. And since it's staged in every detail, maybe it "destroys photography," opening the way back to
the world of Poussin! It's not yet on the NGV website so I take the image from The Age. The actual colors are luminous.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Here's another of my Melbourne friends, indeed the original Melbourne friend: K, who so generously put me up my first few weeks here, introduced me to lots of wonderful people, and taught me how to find the half-hidden secret life of Melbourne.

Appropriately enough, since we met in Paris, this picture's taken in the very French Café au Soleil. (No soleil yesterday but nobody's complaining - we've now had two days of desperately needed rain!) The chap in the suspenders is half of the nice French couple who own this place, and he's recently figured out how to get radio direct from France (Nos-tal-gie). The café's in a tributary to the Royal Arcade (Melbourne's oldest) which people usually overlook - but of course that only makes it more of a find!

You can't quite tell from this photo, but this particular arcade - it was just a laneway until glassed over in the 1930s - really feels like one the oldest of the Parisian passages. Each glass-fronted shop is two-storeyed with a tightly coiled spiral staircase, and only a few meters deep. Opposite the Café au Soleil is a cobbler who's been fixing shoes in this spot for forty years, and has the old signs and furnishings to prove it. Sometimes Melbourne really feels like an Old World city!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


The gum (eucalyptus) trees near my sister's new place seem to be different from those back in Shepparton - the colors are deeper - but one thing they have in common is a tendency to let their bark peel off, occasionally making for surprising sights like this one!

Hanging Rock mystery solved!

You may know the 1975 Peter Weir film "Picnic at Hanging Rock," the first Australian film to enjoy international acclaim. It's based on a novel based on a true story from 1900, when a group of girls from a nearby boarding school came for a picnic. Four went missing in the strange landscape of this ancient volcanic cone; one was found, but she'd lost her mind.
Hanging Rock is just fifteen minutes from my sister's new home, and she, the boys and I went for a look yesterday. It is a spooky place, the weird rocks sheltering silences tense like a held breath.

Quite unintentionally we may have solved the mystery of what happened to Miranda and the other girls who vanished: they met a four-year old. Ironically I figured this out trying to tell the story to a four-year old!

This is a famous place. A long time ago a class of girls came here for a picnic. - Why did they? - Because it’s a nice place for a picnic. - Why is it a nice place for a picnic? - I don’t know, I suppose the trees are nice and the rocks are pretty neat. - And then what happened? - Four of the girls went up into the rocks and were never seen again. - Why weren’t they? - Well, one of them was found later but the others never came back. - Where did the other ones go to? - Nobody knows. - Don’t you know? - No, nobody knows. - Why don't you know? - (beat) - How do you know they went away? - The other girls at the picnic told everyone. - Where did they go? - Back to Melbourne, I suppose. - What were their names? - I don't know. But one of the girls who disappeared was named Miranda. - Where is Miranda now? - We don’t know, maybe she's still up there in the rocks with the others. - Did they go into a cave? - Maybe; you saw, there are lots of caves and it would be easy to get lost. - Which cave did they go into? - Well, if we knew that we’d know where they were. - So where are they? - I told you: nobody knows. It’s a mystery. - What’s a 'mystery'? - Something nobody knows. - Why is it a 'mystery'? - Because nobody knows what happened to those girls. - Don’t you know? - No, why should I know? - Didn’t they call you? - Who? - Miranda and those other girls. - It happened a very long time ago. - How long ago was it? - A hundred years: that’s before any of us were born. - Even before Patrick and Alex were born? - I imagine so; how old are they? - Patrick is six and Alex is five. - Yes, long before even they were born. - But how do you know it happened? - It was in the newspaper. - Who put it in the newspaper? - The girls who came home. - But what happened to those other three girls? - I don't know. - Why don't you? ... repeat with variations ad infinitum.

If this conversation hadn't happened in the car on the way home, we'd still be there.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thar she blows

Maybe I should introduce some of the friends I've made in Melbourne. This is E, waiting for brunch at a hippyish veggie place called Lentil as Anything (a pun I don't get) in part of the old Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood. But you can call him Ishmael.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Learning from old china

Haven't told you much about our Pitjantjarjara group - mainly because we just crawl along, but also because two women from Ernabella visited our class last week and it was so awkward and embarrassing: we hardly dared say anything, couldn't understand what they said, and ended up taking refuge in a song for three-year olds. There's really only so far you can go without a proper teacher or textbook and, until a few weeks ago, anyone who even knows how the language is used and supposed to sound!

But that doesn't mean I haven't been learning Australian language! Rosemary, who convenes the group in her office at the Trades Hall, center of the union movement in Victoria, has been teaching me rhyming slang, something Australia inherited from the Cockney. Instead of saying a commonly used word you use a phrase which rhymes with it - extra points if you can leave off the final word or syllable of the phrase. You don't take a look but a Captain Cook. You don't tell a story but a grim and gory. You don't get the the phone but the dog and bone. You dress up not in your best suit but a bag of fruit. You don't have tomato sauce with your meat pie but dead horse (it rhymes, somehow!) with your dog's eye. Now you try:

I really needed a kitchen sink and a forgive and forget, so I headed down to the near and far with some old china. After a couple of young and friskies it was time to hit the frog and toad or face Dalai Lamas with the trouble and strife and the billy lids. But I forgot my titfer at the rubbity and had one more pig's arse of Germaine Greer with a visiting septic tank.

[I really needed a drink and a cigarette so I headed down to the bar with some mates (old china plates). After a couple of whiskys it was time to hit the road or face dramas with the wife and kids. But I forgot my hat (tit for tat) at the pub (rubbity dub) and had one more glass of beer with a visiting American (Yank).]

Isn't it funny how the feminist writer Germaine Greer, who left Australia for England decades ago and seems never to have a good thing to say about anything Australian (she called Steve Irwin a circus performer, for instance), is still remembered back home! (This less than flattering picture of Greer is from a review of one of her books in the Australian Review of Books in 1999.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More history, more boys

I want to qualify my endorsement of the film of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," which I saw last week. The film stars the original cast, but so much has been cut that I'm not sure you wouldn't be better off just reading the script (or reading it first). And it is consummately a piece of theater, weakened rather than enlarged by the possibilities of film. The film makes it about a few characters rather than the world made by all the characters and the ways it makes them.

I make bold to say this because two happy coincidences have left me very well informed - and even more enthusiastic - about the play! First, a friend of mine lent me Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, which includes an account of the genesis of "The History Boys." And then I got to see the justly celebrated Melbourne Theatre Company production of the play!I checked Halftix at 12:40 yesterday and found they had tickets (they haven't had tickets for this show before) - but for the matinee which started in twenty minutes! I grabbed one and ran down Swanston Street and across the Yarra to the Arts Centre, cursing at the crowds, and found a play engaging and moving and profound in ways I could hardly have guessed from the film. (Well that can't be true, I wouldn't have gone to these lengths had it not piqued my interest and convinced me it was even more interesting as theater!)

This production was fantastic. And it was very interesting indeed to see the characters played by different actors so soon after the film; most were good, some were very good and several (notably the headmaster, and the object of everyone's desires Dakin, who in this production looked like a singer from Duran Duran, perfect for 1983!) were even better than the original cast. The characters are richer and more complicated, and Irwin turns out to be dangerously nihilistic. But the main thing was seeing it work as theater, and learning just how much had been cut for the movie.

Besides lots of poetry it seems to me the very heart of the argument of the piece is lost in the translation to film: that there's something analogous to Henry VIII's decommissioning of the monasteries going on in results-oriented modern education. (It's mentioned in the film, but not enough for you to see it structuring the whole; I suppose the audience for a Hollywood film couldn't be expected know what was being referred to.) And that there's a connection between this utilitarian understanding of learning and history and the cynical and nihilistic politics of Thatcherism (and Neoliberalism more generally).

Abbreviated beyond recognition also is the viewpoint (centrally important to Bennett, methinks) characterized by Wittgensteinian reticence and the perspective of those who don't make history, and represented by Mrs. Lintott, the only woman in the play; but the lines where she claims Wittgenstein for the woman's view ("didn't he ride on the other bus?") have been dropped. Gone also is the idea that the precious thing that art and poetry and a sense of the past give us (if we're lucky enough to have a teacher like Hector) is similar in some powerful way to the consolations of religion.

I can see now why people said this was the best play they'd seen in years. Go see the MTC show if you can (it closes Saturday). Otherwise, read the play. And then - only then - watch the film and fill in the gaps.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lorraine Connelly-Northey

Lorraine Connelly-Northey, a contemporary Aboriginal artist whose work I discovered a few months ago, has a new exhibition in Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi on Flinders Lane. Should you find yourself in the vicinity, check it out. Here are photos of two recent works from the gallery website - Possum Skin Cloak (above, 135 x 196) and Narrbong (string bag, 42 x 10) - but if you can see these things in real life, it's worth a journey. If not, at least click on the pics (especially the one above), and look at the other works on the website.

Connelly-Northey's work makes traditional Aboriginal objects out of found metal, the detritus of the society which introduced fences to this land. Besides being very beautiful (there's a lovely glass case of her narrbongs in the Indigenous Galleries at the NGV, first thing on the left as you come in) it is somehow very profound. These bags and purses are useless for holding things or keeping you warm, but she's saying more than that traditional forms of life are hard if not impossible to maintain anymore. The way she makes them from materials she gathers evokes her ancestors' making them of grasses and animal pelts; it keeps the traditions alive without pretending the world hasn't changed. With their resourcefulness and imagination, wisdom and resilience, one might be able to find and make beauty and meaning even in the post-industrial wasteland of the present.

Australian Impressionism

Just went to the big exhibition of Australian Impressionism at the National Gallery of Victoria, a major retrospective of the work of five important artists' work between 1883 and 1897. (Calling it impressionism rather than "Heidelberg School" is an attempt to claim a place in a global history of art, one in which French impressionism isn't the only one: this one was inspired by Whistler and Bastien LePage and the move to paint directly on your canvas on site which one Australian learned about in Spain from someone who'd studied in Paris.) Tom Roberts is terrific, Frederick McCubbin's bush scenes lovely, Charles Conder's inspired and Jane Sutherland's evocative, but the one who took my breath away was Arthur Streeton. "Golden Summer, Eaglemont" (1889), the painting above, came down from Canberra for this exhibit... lucky me! You really can't tell from this reproduction but this big broad canvas is bold and coarse, the colors are exactly those of a late afternoon north of here, and it draws you in in into the folds of the landscape, closer and closer to the ground with the nearly horizontal rays of the setting sun. The only thing better, well different, was Streeton's sketch for it, which was included in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition - this movement's Secession. With the brilliant idea of offering paintings only (or mainly) in the 9 by 5 format (many were painted on cigar box lids), painted quickly, mostly en plein air and shown in broad unornamented red gum frames, the show was a sensation! (Some critics sneered - just what they wanted!) More of the 9 by 5 paintings have been reunited for this show than any time since 1889, and it's worth going just to feel their vitality and adventurousness. The whole exhibition is deeply satisfying, and fills in a gap in my (pretty thin) sense of the history of Australian art. The great painters of the 20th century must have known these paintings... at times I felt the seeds being sown for later works, especially, surprisingly, Fred Williams!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Parity of parodies?

Just learned about the Christian right's response to youtube. It's called, with the slogan "BROADCAST HIM," and has got me all excited again about my course "Cultures of the Religious Right" (which I'll be teaching again next Spring). The article I read about it was endlessly amused by this video about the wisdom in God's design of the banana; it seems to just invite a smug Darwinian response about monkeys.

A friend nearly persuaded me that this so deftly invites the Darwinian response because it's a parody - if so like the things it parodies that some of the godtube viewers think it's the real thing! (But wait - a little internet snooping confirms that it is the real thing, a Kiwi named Ray Comfort who's been based - where else - in Southern California since 1989. There is, in fact, a fair amount of parody posted on godtube by self-described atheists, but nothing an compete with unconscious self-parody like this! What was he thinking?)

But parody goes both ways. Consider this ingenious take-off on the Apple/ PC TV ads you've probably seen. (There are others; this is the best.)

I think it's pitch-perfect, showing it "gets" the somewhat nerdy humor of the Apple spots but also that there are more important things in life than computers. If you're cool enough to get this ad, you may be cool enough to be Christian. I can see this parody playing a part in winning someone over. (The idea that you can win someone over through a spirited and spiritual parody of their culture isn't new; Bruce Zuckerman has argued that the Song of Songs may have found its way into the Biblical canon as a parody of a cultural form too powerful - and attractive - to ignore. We not only "get" this cultural form, it says, but are able to raise it to new heights because of our faith - and show its true object.)

The difference between these two video parodies (assuming the first one is a parody!) is that, if you're of the party being parodied, the first one makes you feel stupid while the second might make you feel, well, appreciated. The first one makes you feel hated or ridiculed, the second might make you feel understood and even - well - loved. Satire is generally negative but parody can go both ways, demonstrating a deep understanding motivated by more than condescension or fear. (Of course, if you are converted, the thing may turn around, as analogies do in Aquinas, and you come to see the original secular thing as an unwitting parody - an anticipation - of the religious original!)

Might be fun to let parody (and satire and imitation and cooptation) be a theme for "Cultures of the Religious Right" this next time 'round - not to mention conscious and unconscious self-parody!

Ho, ho, hahaha

I'm willing to try most things once, so this morning I went to an event called "Laugh for Leukaemia." It was a gathering of the jolly members of the Laughter Clubs of Victoria on Fed Square, and for a good forty minutes we did structured laughing exercises - no jokes, indeed no words at all, just laughingly interacting with other people - and sent out good vibes for leukemia research. (We also made financial donations.) It was a hoot!

, ho, hahaha, with clapping, was the transition from one laugh to another, say from the credit card laugh (where you imagine opening your credit card bill, then look at someone else's) to the happy feet laugh (where you waddle around like a penguin laughing at others) or the rain laugh (where you imagine puddles and splash each other with the water).

Apparently there are chapters all over Australia (even one in Macedon!). It's part of an international laughter movement which originated in India. (In the photo above you see founder Dr Madan Kataria with one of the Victoria laughers who was there this morning.) It's based in yoga. Here's some of the rather serious stuff they say about themselves:

The idea of laughter clubs is to gain the benefits of laughter by laughing for no reason. This is important - it's not necessary to tell jokes, or to be in a good mood or to be a humorous person or to feel like laughing. At a laughter club we practice laughing until it becomes more natural. We fake it until we make it.

In the course of practicing you will gain all the benefits of laughter and you will find laughter coming more easily to you throughout the rest of your life. When you begin it may not feel like genuine laughter but many participants report that it comes to feel more genuine and comes to you more easily the more you practice. It's just like a muscle - use it and you'll build it up - ignore it and it will wither.

Public laughter clubs are led by a trained leader and based on Hasya Yoga. The leader will take you through: A series of 'laughs'. Some have been invented by the movements founder Madan Kataria, others are contributed by members. Some gentle breathing and stretching exercises. Rhythmic clapping The whole session takes approximately 30 minutes. Often people go and have a coffee afterwards.

You don't have to give your name, pledge to come again, buy Tupperware, promise to be kind to strangers, swear off alcohol, give up smoking or talk to anyone. And you certainly don't need to be in a good mood (or a bad one). Come as you are and you will be welcomed.

I think it's a good idea - positive, countercultural, embodied, social, and maybe even world-changing - though it left me hoarse!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Literature breeds distress

Went to a dinner party last night in Fitzroy in a gorgeous dark dining room - it felt quite Edwardian. The food was tasty, discussion often lofty, the company always witty, and there was even an outburst of song - four of the people present had grown up with the boisterous singing of an anthem called "The Holy City" at home. (The two of us who hadn't sat very still and smiled uncertainly, confident that this too should pass.) The evening's highlight was a collective reading and reciting of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses for Children, stories with which several present had grown up, and which are in their way as grim as Struwwelpeter but somehow less sadistic (if only slightly!). I'd heard of Matilda, who "told such dreadful lies, It made one gasp and stretch one's eyes" (and burns to death) but not of "Jim, Who Ran Away From His Nurse, And Was Eaten By A Lion" or "Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably," crushed by a marble bust. Particularly pleasing to our highly literate gathering was this sobering story. (Do not resist the temptation to read it out loud!)

Sarah Byng, Who Could Not Read
And Was Tossed Into A Thorny Hedge By A Bull

Some years ago you heard me sing
My doubts on Alexander Byng.
His sister Sarah now inspires
My jaded Muse, my failing fires.
Of Sarah Byng the tale is told
How when the child was twelve years old
She could not read or write a line.
Her sister Jane, though barely nine,
Could spout the Catechism through
And parts of Matthew Arnold too,
While little Bill who came between
Was quite unnaturally keen
On 'Athalie', by Jean Racine.
But not so Sarah! Not so Sal!
She was a most uncultured girl
Who didn't care a pinch of snuff
For any literary stuff
And gave the classics all a miss.
Observe the consequence of this!
As she was walking home one day,
Upon the fields across her way
A gate, securely padlocked, stood,
And by its side a piece of wood
On which was painted plain and full,
Alas! The young illiterate
Went blindly forward to her fate,
And ignorantly climbed the gate!
Now happily the Bull that day
Was rather in the mood for play
Than goring people through and through
As Bulls so very often do;
He tossed her lightly with his horns
Into a prickly hedge of thorns,
And stood by laughing while she strode
And pushed and struggled to the road.
The lesson was not lost upon
The child, who since has always gone
A long way round to keep away
From signs, whatever they may say,
And leaves a padlocked gate alone.
Moreover she has wisely grown
Confirmed in her instinctive guess
That literature breeds distress.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Visions of the future, and the past

Melbourne University has recently kicked off the "Melbourne Model," a major innovation in Australian higher education. I'd tittered at the slogan "The Evolution Starts Here" on a banner across an entrance to campus, but had no idea just how madly ambitious the plan is. Check this out:

There are other ads on televisions and movie screens throughout Victoria, with the same swelling theme and messianic promise. You can see them at youtube or in their original letterbox format at their website: when the pictures start orbiting the earth click the one with the clouds on it.

I saw this ad (more like was engulfed in it) on a huge screen at my local cinema, the NOVA, where I saw "The History Boys" last night (opening night in Australia). The National Theatre production of the play by Alan Bennett was a sensation when it came to New York last year (two years ago?) and immediately sold out. I've been waiting eagerly for the film version (with the NT cast) ever since.

It's very enjoyable. The script is terrific, the acting (except for the overacting headmaster) great. It raises familiar questions about the purpose of education, and very interesting and new questions about history - and poetry too. It's also very much more a gay story than I gathered from the reviews - by which I mean not so much that some of the characters are gay (and a strangely anachronistic treatment of troubling teacher- student issues) as the sorts of issues raised, about memory and loneliness and the cycling of generations.

I also wasn't prepared for the fact that it takes place in 1983, which makes the characters preparing for the Oxford entrance exams my exact contemporaries - matriculated 1984. I sat that entrance exam! And now I know why I got in. The History Boys students are coached to take unconventional points of view in their essays - and mine were nothing if not unconventional, though not because I was coached: I was annoyed that I had to sit the exam while the rest of my classmates got to sleep in! I figured I stood the chance of a snowflake in hell of getting in so I thought I might as least have fun. And so I cantankerously argued that small wasn't beautiful, that opinion polls destroy democracy, that France caused WW1 and - the coup de grâce, I thought - that Britain was responsible for the American Civil War!

(Funny that I can still remember four of those topics! I can remember only three of the scores of essays I wrote in the three ensuing years at Oxford: one asserting that there must be something wrong with logic if the ontological argument doesn't work, one praising Willi Brandt's Ostpolitik, and one rejecting Rawls' "original position" argument for not considering the possibility of reincarnation.)

If you have a chance, go see "The History Boys." But you won't find a place for the film's somewhat melancholy wisdom about education in the futuristic and apparently American-inspired Melbourne Model. The MM promises to "reveal the past" - but is it not the past that reveals us?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Weather or not


Vic - 13:15 EST - Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Melbourne. Severe storms may produce hail greater than 2cm, winds stronger than 90km/h & flash flooding

Vic - 12:39 EST - Severe Thunderstorm warning (damaging winds and large hailstones) for all districts except Mallee.

Vic - 11:04 EST - Severe Weather Warning for Damaging Winds for the Western, Central, West and Sout Gippsland and Alpine.

Vic - 10:54 EST - Gale Warning for Port Phillip and Western Port

Actually we did have some rain this morning, just as the radio news reported that Melbourne's reservoirs are at a forty-year low. Since then, it's been cold enough for a wool sweater and a fleece, then sunny and warm enough to peel them both off - and the day's only half-way through! As I came down to the library around 1 o'clock, deep blue clouds were massing on the horizon. Maybe we'll get some real weather at last! It is the merry month of November after all, I mean, er, May.

I didn't bring my umbrella, or course. (You'd think I'd have learned about "four seasons in one day" Melbourne weather by now.) Not that my little collapsible would be much help against 2 cm hailstones!


Discovered a wonderful space today. fortyfivedownstairs is a gallery in the basement of an old factory building on Flinders Lane. Or so it seems, for it has a basement, too, and both are full of natural light! The factory builder must have dug his courtyard deep into the ground.
I went to see a play being performed in the lower downstairs space, "Ginger Mick in Gallipoli," an adaptation of a story in verse by C. J. Dennis apparently carried by many of the Australian Anzacs in WW1, telling of a Melbourne ne'er-do-well who comes into his own in war: Ev'ry feller is a gold mine if yeh take an work 'im right. (He falls at Gallipoli of course.) It was brilliantly performed, by turns hilarious and very moving, and gets me a lot closer to understanding "the Anzac spirit."

I had also read about an exhibition at fortyfivedownstairs: big drawings by Peter Daverington called The Dervish Series, inspired by the Sufi whirlers. Fine, I guess - I'm not sure I get Sufism.

But the big discovery was a second exhibit, large watercolors by an artist named Elisabeth Bodey, an attempt to respond to the Aboriginal sense of place she encountered in Central Australia. (The above, 121 x 140cm, wasn't in the show - though it's in the mini-catalog I bought - but it's the only one of which there is an image online.) I fell in love with several of the large watercolors, always with a blue border like a rug and an interior teeming with oranges and whites, swirls and loops all outlined in liquid watercolor lines. Very fine. A rare vision of Australia as a whole, blue cities on the edge of an energetic red center. I'd buy one (though not the one above) if I had the budget!