Monthly Archives: May 2009

Of artistry and benchmarks

Should  Melbourne University should be known as “The White Knight for Struggling Arts/Music Institutions” or as  “The Institution That Ate Its Competitors”?   The  Victorian College of the Arts amalgamated with Melbourne University as the “Faculty of VCA and music”, and last year the Australian National Academy of Music, based at the South Melbourne Town Hall,  also fell under the auspices of the University of Melbourne when the Federal Government withdrew its funding. So much for choice.

Enter the new Dean, Professor Sharman Pretty.  Employed as a “change agent”, she is charged with restructuring the VCA’s six schools into three, shaving $11 million dollars from the budget and fitting the schools’ offerings into the Melbourne Model.   And so we see the music theatre course, which started this year with 32 students accepted from 370 applicants, suspended from 2010-  but “Professor Pretty says it will return if it can be made to fit the model“.   Yes, that’s the way- fit the course to the curriculum model- not to the students, not to the work environment, not to the demands of the genre itself.

I’ve done my time observing the nursery of music theatre from the outside:  the tap-dance lessons,  the end of year dancing school concerts,  the examinations,  the auditions, the hair rollers, the tap-shoes, the false eyelashes.  Consider the mainstay of musical theatre today, the franchised musical, shipped into a capital city for a financially-lucrative, solidly-marketed period with its authorized sets and carefully mandated cookie-cutter characters.  Is this really post-graduate study???

But Professor Pretty knows how to play the market game.

Our benchmark partners are institutions such as the Sydney Conservatorium and WAAPA and there is no reason we can’t compete with them to produce internationally competitive graduates.

Benchmarks??  Internationally competitive?? Sheesh. I don’t really understand what drives the artistic character, but I strongly suspect that it has nothing to do with academic excellence, grade point averages and assessment tasks, and an awful lot to do with dreams, drive and ambition.  I wonder if we can “benchmark” them?

When I rule the world…

I will mandate that car horns be modified to the highest standards of emotional intelligence.  There will be a friendly little toot for “Hey, the red light’s changed!” or “I’m here- don’t back your car into me!”.

There’ll be a happy little wave for “Hello! Haven’t seen you for ages!” and a cheery call of “Hey, I’m here in the driveway waiting for you!” when you pick someone up from their house.

There’ll be a slightly more impatient “Come ON, I can’t wait all day!” and a derisive “Get off your mobile phone, you wanker!”.

And of course, there’ll still be the loud, strident “IDIOT!!!!!!”

‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail


2008, 199 p.

To be honest, I’m not absolutely sure that I ‘got’ this book.  I am wary with Murray Bail- the first time I read ‘Eucalyptus’ I found it pleasant enough though underwhelming, but on a second reading wondered why I hadn’t picked up on the brilliance of its structure the first time.   Does ‘The Pages’ have another level as well?  But should you have to read a book twice in order to understand it?

In many ways ‘The Pages’  reads as if it is a complement to ‘Eucalyptus’.  Where in ‘Eucalyptus’ we had an antipodean Scheherazade weaving stories from the landscape, in ‘The Pages’ we have an antipodean Wittgenstein who travels the world and returns to immure himself in the solitude  of his  shearing shed to write his philosophy of the emotions.  In ‘Eucalyptus’ we have stories hanging like leaves, evoked by the names and appearances of eucalyptus trees ; in ‘The Pages’ we are left with sheets of paper, largely empty except for single, aphoristic thoughts.

The plot, such that it is, operates at two levels.  Erica, a competent, articulate academic philosopher, has been engaged to assess and edit for publication an archive of papers left by Wesley Anthill,  a peripatetic and largely self-taught philosopher who returned from travelling Europe to his family pastoral property, where he locked himself away to write a philosophy of the emotions.  Erica travels out to the outback homestead to examine the materials, accompanied by her psychoanalyst friend Sophie who is recovering from yet another failed relationship, this time with a married man.   While there, Erica sinks into the quiet rhythms of the pastoral lifestyle shared by Wesley’s brother Roger and sister Lindsay, who indulged  and supported their eccentric brother’s writing.  Erica comes to appreciate and love Roger’s  earthy, grounded ‘philosophy of the hand’ which is such a contrast to the laboured and hard-wrung philosophy that Wesley had grappled with, alone in his woolshed and now nothing more than sheaves of paper, expungable with the simple act of spilling a cup of coffee.

The second plot involves Wesley’s own gradual quest for knowledge, stepping tentatively from autodidactism into formal academia, then moving around Europe in the footsteps of other philosophers.  Although he fled Australia because he felt it unreceptive to philosophy, he returned there, after tragedy, to find and write his own, original philosophy.  An essentially solitary man, he seems ill-fitted to write a philsophy of the emotions.

The pacing of this book is unusual.  It unspools slowly, like a laconic country story, and when I was approaching the end of the book, I wondered how Bail was going to finish it in so few pages. It ends with a string of disconnected thoughts that just hang there.     It’s a big book: themes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, words, Europeanness, Australianness ; and yet not much happens in the book.  It’s complex but simple.

If this sounds ambivalent and contradictory, it’s probably because that’s how I found the book.  I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or banal- which is very much the way I felt about ‘Eucalyptus’.   Miles Franklin winner? Well, ‘Eucalyptus’ won the Miles Franklin a few years back- so obviously many people detected at first what I took two readings to find.  Perhaps ‘The Pages’ is like that also, but I tend to think that put up against novels with a stronger story, ‘The Pages’ will be seen as too elusive, too strange.

‘A Fraction of the Whole’ by Steve Toltz


2008, 709 p.

Am I getting old?  I think I must be.  The younger people in my life, whose reading tastes I trust, really enjoyed this book.   So, obviously, did many other reviewers and long-listers for literary prizes.  But I don’t know- I just found it rather wearing.

It’s a long book- over 700 pages, which is a hefty commitment in anyone’s language . The book has large, implausible plot swings, and stories nest within other stories, each as sprawling as the one that preceded it.  It’s loud, it’s exuberant, it’s confident, it’s young.  The voice  is that of an educated, self-conscious, ironic young male, and while I found it mildly amusing, I couldn’t say that I laughed out loud.

I just felt as if it had been done before.  It’s not the first book to have stories within stories, nor will it be the last.  It didn’t have the sustained, carefully constructed tone of Barth’s The Sotweed Factor or the intricacy and humour of Sterne’s  The Life of Tristam Shandy.  I can see the similarities with both Dickens and John Irving mentioned in the blurbs on the back cover, in terms of larger-than-life characters and riotous plots.  All of these books are long and convoluted- no doubt one of the pleasures and perils of the genre.

I’m glad that it was short-listed for the Booker and long-listed for the Miles Franklin, but I don’t think that it deserves to win either award.  It’s a swaggering, raucous book, and I wonder how (if?) he’ll follow it with a second novel.  Good on him.  But I think I’ll turn the volume down, pull up my knee-rug and read something a little more polished and restrained.

Of time and the city


We saw the documentary “Of Time and the City” last weekend.  It is down to one showing a day at the Nova, which is a fairly good indication that it’s about to disappear soon.

It is a strange film about the changes wrought in Liverpool since the 1940s-50s.  It is narrated by its director Terence Davies, who speaks in fruity, world weary and  very-English tones.  To my shame, I am not familiar enough with 20th century English poetry to recognize when he was quoting, and when it was his own sardonic, wistful, elegaic commentary.  Whether they were his own words or others’, what came through was a mixture of regret and a shuddering distaste for what had passed away,  bitterness over the struggle between his Catholicism and his homosexuality,  and a deep ambivalence over what has replaced the Liverpool of his childhood.

In the same way that the voice-over is a mash-up, so too are the visuals.  Much of it has been taken from documentaries and photographs in the past, and you find yourself wondering WHY film was ever taken of an older child fitting socks over a sibling’s cold hands while standing under deserted play equipment in a bleak and snowy playground.  Why were street scenes taken, from a car, of row after row of terraces with a door and single window facing out onto a street?

What struck me from the footage from the 1950s was the sheer number of children, and the stultifying boredom of such poverty.  Mothers sat in the weak sunshine on their front steps, chatting with neighbours, while children would play in prams or run on the street.  And so many people- streaming off a steamboat to lie on the beach like corpses in a row; crowded into the shallows splashing and laughing; stacked into the football grounds with bobbing heads and flags, wreathed in cigarette smoke and gloom.  And the rain, the dirty snow, the puddles,  the washing hanging cold and clammy.

Davies admits that the excitement of the Beatles and the 1960s escaped him completely and he immersed himself in Mahler and other more lofty pursuits.  There’s footage of the Cavern Club (and my claustrophobia mounted as I gazed on that curved, tunnel-like roof and the clouds of cigarette smoke and fug) overdubbed with a soundtrack  of  the Hippy Hippy Shake performed not by the Beatles, but the  Swinging Blue Jeans.  I wonder if it was a matter of cost in getting access to a Beatles soundtrack, or whether Davies particularly wanted to portray the Beatles obliquely by showing a band that was not the Beatles, and featuring a song linked with Beatles, but not performed by them.  At times the music chosen jarred: film reel of young English soldiers going off to fight in Korea in the 1950s- ( and what a distant and  truly pointless war  that must have seemed to a nation still suffering from World War II damage) –  was accompanied by The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” from 1969.

There were many visual juxtapositions: the wealth and arrogance of the Liverpool city fathers in constructing such grand public buildings, contrasted with the meanness of the terraced streets;  the beachside scenes contrasted with the gloom of misty rain;  the teeming crowds disembarking from ferries on the river compared with a small knot of children walking along a deserted, pock-marked area after the demolition of the neighbourhood.

And yet some images were more familiar than I would have anticipated.  Melbourne has its slum images as well, but somehow the light is different and you don’t get the same sense of settling, bone-deep damp.   I was amazed to see exactly the same high-rise buildings erected after slum clearance as our own Housing Commission towers.

liverpool hirise

Above:  Liverpool hi-rise


Collingwood, Melbourne hi-rise

Then, gradually, we emerge out into Liverpool of today.  There are children in prams, but this time well-fed, indulged children in huge engineered contraptions, hovered over by parents and with the handles of the pram festooned with shopping bags.  People eating, people buying – so much consumption compared with the hungry-looking footage of the 1940s and 50s.

There’s no plot at all to Of Time and the City.  It’s a bit like being behind someone else’s eyes, watching and observing, and someone else is telling you what you see- someone who both loves and hates what he is viewing, who wants to mock but wants to grieve as well.  An unsettling experience.

Happy early Mothers Day to me

My daughter was appalled at the state of my feet.  “They’re all horny, Mum!!”  Really?  I thought that everybody had callouses on their heels with very painful cracks that the dirt tends to get into.  Does not everybody go to sleep in their socks with the Eulactol Heel Balm when it all gets too sore?  Is it not normal to snag one’s  rough heels on the sheets when one rolls over in bed?

Obviously not.  “I’m getting you a pedicure for Mother’s Day, Mum.  We’ll go together”.

That’s why I ended up in a salon  with my feet soaking in a footbath, gazing out at the shoppers walking past who very kindly averted their eyes from my discomfiture.  Lots of posters of rainforests, or pictures of beautiful thin young women advertising products I cannot pronounce.  On a shelf in the corner behind the cash register,  like a little shrine, there was a gold good-luck cat statue, raising its arm rapidly and methodically  in a Heil Hitler salute.


How curious.  I sat on a hyperactive chair that quivered and poked behind me: I’d no sooner think ” Mmmm, that’s rather nice” than it would go into malicious mode and start drilling into my shoulder blades, or squeezing my head.  How relaxed I must have looked,  my glasses jiggling up and down on my nose, with my neck thrust forward as some unseen monster mugged me from behind.

The young gel pulled up a little stool and sat beside the water bath. Ah, how good to see that our immigration and vocational training systems have worked together to  overcome the desperate shortage of people to do one’s feet.  And so well trained too- a wall covered in Diplomas! Your garden-variety brain surgeon surely could not be more credentialled.

Her inscrutable features barely moved as she pruned off the toenails, dug away in places I’ve never been able to reach with a small pick and then- ye gods!- pulled out a razor blade that she inserted into one of those lemon-zester grater things.


You know those chocolate curls you have on top of birthday cakes?  Well…..

What sort of scrub did I want? Berry and vanilla?  Lime?  Mango? Mint?  Decisions, decisions. Think I’ll go the berry and vanilla.  That will taste nice.  And then they put my feet into plastic bags with hot squishy liquid in them, that solidified around my feet.  “Now don’t move. Don’t go anywhere” she said.  As if.

So here I am, safely home, with lovely smooth feet that smell of berry and vanilla.  Actually, I think I might go again, next summer, when the beach and thongs are doing their worst and  the callous-crevices open up again.  Thank you, daughter.  A whole new world of indulgence has opened up for me.

Reading and place

At the moment I’m reading Davidoff and Hall’s book Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. You may wonder what the connection is with Port Phillip of the 1840s, but I’m interested in the values and mental baggage that this largely immigrant population brought with them from England.   The attitudes, fashions and values of British society ‘back home’ was reinforced with the arrival of each ship, spilling forth people who had recently departed England, Ireland or Scotland and the letters from family members they carried with them.  Events and feature articles would be lifted direct from the newspapers from Britain, America and other British colonies and republished in the local press, constituting almost a quarter of the newspaper.

Hence, this book.  I started reading it in January, down by the beach, sheltering under the trees to escape the oppressive heat.  It was high summer, but before the bushfires.  I put it aside for some months, but have picked it up again over the last few weeks. And here I am still  reading it in May,  the frost burnt off my now-green lawn by the weak autumn sun, with the heater purring away in the background.  But mentally, I will always be reading this book by the beach.

Which started me thinking about the way that particular books are linked in my memory with where I read them.  For example, Lord of the Rings will always be associated with lying on the grass in my parents’ very small backyard in summer in the 1970s after finishing VCE.  Crime and Punishment evokes a wintry afternoon, listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and thinking about the funeral of a 16 year old classmate that morning- he had been killed by his younger brother in a fit of rage with a billiard cue in their rumpus room.  Sue Miller’s The Good Mother will always be entwined with memories of an autumn by the Murray River, lying on a rug with a glass of wine as the sun slipped behind the trees.

I notice that most of these books were important to me, and heaven knows that there are hundreds (indeed thousands? I wonder?)  that I’ve read with no clear memory of ever having read them.    Do you have particular associations of a book with a specific place and time?