On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.

The Elusive Australian Film Festival

The Palace Cinemas recently hosted a German Film Festival at their locations around Australia. The full program consisted of a staggering amount of films, almost fifty, all of which were produced within the last few years and demonstrated a vast range of genre and narrative. While I expected to be impressed I was nevertheless genuinely surprised at the quality and diversity of the films on offer, featuring remarkable performances, tight scripts, and exceptional production quality.

These days it’s difficult to have a conversation about national cultural capital without reference to native screen productions. And while Germany has never lost the glory of its musical, artistic, dramatic and literary legacy, it is now firmly establishing a platform on the world film stage as well.

who_am_i1Each film on offer was unique and seemed to revel in Germanic culture of the present and the past, representing national roots in subtle yet distinct threads without the usual pedantry or self-consciousness that one associates with non-Hollywood movies. Even the references to Hitler and the holocaust were charmingly unaffected: they seem to be able to acknowledge the best and worst of their identity without attaching any unnecessary gloating or guilt. In other words, these films made me feel that perhaps Germany is one of the most self-aware, successful, advanced, and emotionally secure nations of the modern age.

Naturally this got me to thinking about the Australian film industry and what kind of festival we would produce in similar circumstances. I was interested to discover that while the Palace’s German Film Festival is in it’s fourteenth year, the Australian Film Festival began in 2012, just three years ago. And while the GFF screened in eight locations around Australia, the AFF is only available to those privileged enough to live in Sydney.

Germany has a population of roughly 80 million, about four times that of Australia, which while significant is not as vast a difference as that between our respective artistic outputs. Yes, Germany has an impressive cultural history stretching back centuries at least, and including some of the most notable advances in Art music, visual arts, theatre and literature, but considering the impact the two world wars had on their economy and industry they are producing a remarkable amount of viable artistic product. Researching further I found this rather detailed description of the German arts funding model, which demonstrates the immense value they place on local cultural institutions.

While Australia has a fairly respectable artistic scene in terms of music and theatre, our film culture, like our literature, is still trying to free itself from a strange sort of identity crisis. Ask one of your friends to name just ten good Australian films made in the last three years. Chances are they can’t. That’s not because ten great films don’t exist, but mainly because no one has seen them. They aren’t promoted in film festivals. They aren’t screened four times a day in your local cinema. They are barely advertised at all.

Now ask your friend to name ten movies set in the Marvel Universe. Exactly. That might be a somewhat vulgar comparison but at the very least it demonstrates the shockingly low value we place on our own screen industry.

australia_nicole_kidmanAnd if you find someone who can name ten good Australian movies, I guarantee almost all of them take place in the outback or deal with an aspect of bogan culture or some gory true-crime event. Or star Hugo Weaving. I saw only three German films and was immersed in three completely different yet symbiotic representations of German culture: a cyber-thriller complete with native trance music and Europol agents; a period drama featuring stunning landscapes and historical literary figures; and a schoolyard comedy with ironic references to youth culture and modern generational identities.

There are plenty of great Australian directors, screenwriters and artists making compelling and authentic narrative statements. But they should be more accessible and they should be better funded. Our film students should be encouraged to make modern crime thrillers as well as deep psychological portraits of the Australian bush. We should be able to investigate our own colonial history beyond just The Man from Snowy River. We should be able to represent all aspects of Australian life without drawing on the usual cringe-worthy stereotypes of outback hardship, beer-drinking ute drivers, crocodile hunters or chain-smoking teenage mothers.

Until our government finds some kind of artistic soul and makes the connection between cultural identity and actual funding, the survival of Australian films is really up to the Australian public. We need to make a choice to spend money and time on local talent instead of re-watching Captain America for the third time, and then maybe one day we’ll actually have a film industry that can afford to make huge studio blockbusters.

Try having your own Australian Film Festival one weekend. The local DVD store probably doesn’t stock anything beyond The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding, so you might even have to fork out and buy the movies (you’re not going to find them on Netflix or Apple TV). Try some new releases like Theses Final Hours, The Babadook, or The Rover. Then there’s Animal Kingdom, Red Dog, Felony, Paper Planes or The Proposition, and this great list of films from the 00’s.

Of course you’ll notice the afore-mentioned propensity toward bogans, horror, and the outback. If you do manage to find a modern thriller, urban drama, or even a comedy that doesn’t major on awkward Aussie stereotypes or self-satisfied quirkiness, please let me know. That would be a film miracle. In this age of ‘diversity’-mongering our narrow-minded oeuvre seems embarrassingly parochial.

It’s no Palace International Film Festival. But at least it’s a start.

 

Elise Janes

Sir P Speaks: Public enemies number one

Dear Sir Partridge

Why are cyclists the way they are? Why are they so scrawny? Lycra seems like a miracle material if you dislike chafing but why can’t it have a proper use? I mean, cyclists aren’t exactly criminals (or are they?) but can’t something be done? Perhaps you should write a book on this urgent issue.

Yours
Nogbert Frump

vintage-cyclist

Hello Nogbert

Firstly, let me congratulate you for making so little effort to disguise the fact that you’re actually me. As a pathological narcissist, it’s a constant relief that since starting this valuable column I have thus far not had to offer advice to anyone but myself.

As it happens I am indeed tempted to write a novel that deals with cycling and the danger it poses. It would be a dystopian vision of life beyond peak oil when bicycles are the only form of transport, and even they are at a premium. Only the rich can afford them and so find it relatively easy to escape the zombies. Fortunately, there emerges from the pedestrian under-herd a visionary quasi-superhero called Partridge Man who leads a successful rebellion against the cyclist overlords. But then here’s the twist, see – he and his fellow non-cycling humans avoid the zombies need to outrun the zombies. How do they do this? Why, cycling of course. Quickly Partridge Man and his minions are scooting about on their Malvern Stars as smugly and vigorously as the very people they overthrew. How ironic! How original! And an original plot requires an original title. Animal Velodrome?

Anyway, the point is that the above plot raises one of the key problems with hating cyclists: that on paper at least cycling is a wonderful thing – it’s good for you (until you fall off) and it’s good for the environment (yawn). So any serious attempt to ban cycling has to find some way to skirt these issues.

The reason it is necessary to take such a harsh line at all is the deep ideological divide that separates cyclists from normal people. This is most evident on so-called shared walkway/cycle-paths, which provide cyclists with countless opportunities to close in on their stealth vehicles of death, whip past you with half an inch to spare and abuse you roundly for using your legs in a manner inconsistent with their world view.

So, the only way for sanity to prevail is for one to yield to the other. This can be achieved through a grand exercise in reverse psychology. Things need to be made mandatory. In effect, a system needs to be introduced in which anyone who does not embrace cycling and all it represents would be purged. All forms of non-cycling transport, including walking, would be banned. Wearing any clothing apart from lycra bib-and-brace onesies with Goretex over-panties would see you straight up against the wall. Dissent along the lines of ‘Christ, my bum and quadriceps are sore’ or ‘Why do these bloody things keep getting punctures?’ or ‘I have nicely developed calf muscles but the rest of me is emaciated’ will result in you being sent to a re-education camp in Coober Pedy.

It is only when we experience the true horror of a state in which the tedious good sense of cycling is taken to its logical extreme that the scales will fall from the eyes of all but the most ardent admirer of that two-wheeled instrument of torture and woe.

And what obese quasi-superhero would lead the people as they rise up against the state and restore civilisation to the utopia it is today? Well, I think we all know the answer to that one.

Gormley

 

Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge Gormley’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

Writing Seasons

No this will not be a discourse on the figurative seasons of a writer’s life. There are plenty of those oozing around the web and many more hidden in forgotten spiral notebooks on your study shelves.

Right now I’m focused on a much more literal literary problem. I’m interested in the craft of writing seasons.

Weather plays a pivotal role in narrative. Beyond the objective way it motivates plot and action, climate affects mood and tone in both monumental sweeps and incredibly subtle nuance. Seasons define culture, customs, language, symbols and associations in ways that few other narrative features can. It is inevitably a major player in any creative work.

walden_pondImagine, for example, that Thoreau had secluded himself on a Florida beach instead of the woods of New England. Walden would be an altogether different experience (with a different title) and we never would have had such an enlightened discourse on the transformative power of Spring:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

Consider the brooding danger of To Kill a Mockingbird without the backdrop of a long Southern summer. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights without the crystalising Icelandic cold. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori without the Japanese fall of winter sakura blossoms. The English Patient without the hot, sandy North African war. A Tale of Two Cities without rainy London streets. The White Tiger without the steaming slums of Delhi. Love in a Time of Cholera without the tropical heat of the Caribbean coastline.

In fact climate does more than simply play a part in a single story: its manipulation in one work forms part of a dense cultural mesh through which all associated narratives are viewed. That is, the way authors and storytellers interact with seasons defines the social discourse of the places they write about and the cultures they inhabit.

As an Australian I am aware of a niggling responsibility to try and build on the sparse cultural mesh of our young, small and (let’s be honest) insecure narrative landscape.

When I was just a little book nerd reading my Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter I would often find myself wondering where my parents hid those great piles of red leaves in which to jump (preferably with yellow galoshes). I would wait in my backyard hoping to spot a phantom squirrel nibbling an acorn. I would gaze out over green parks trying to imagine where all the spring bunny rabbits were hiding. I would search around our living room in hopes of finding a crackling fireplace, the one I was meant to curl up in front of while snow fell outside.

In short my imagination was genuinely confused by the disparity between the seasonal landscapes of my picture books and the reality that surrounded me.

DPSAnd thanks to narratives like The Groves of Academe, The Secret History, Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society I find it easier to picture a school year beginning amidst chilly autumn leaves than in a hot, clapboard classroom under a sadly rotating ceiling fan. Apparently we are supposed to camp in immaculate pine forests in the summer instead of at the beach. And overseas vacations should be at the Caribbean or the South of France instead of Fiji.

This phenomenon of seasonal currency also translates directly into the invented worlds of speculative fiction, finding its way into a variety of speculative genres but most obviously into epic fantasy where Northern Hemispherical climates dictate the law of imagined geographies. Middle Earth is modeled on the seasonal terrain of Tolkien’s native England, as is Lewis’s Narnia. American landscape features throughout Jordan’s Wheel of Time and is particularly apparent in the Western flavor of King’s Dark Tower series.

In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire narrative weather is a major player on a number of levels. It not only creates atmosphere, tone, obstacles, opportunities and cultures, it literally defines the identities of the warring families of Westeros and Essos, and thus the entire backbone of the series.

The_Wall

I’ve dreamed of the day when I would read (or write) an epic narrative where the climatic world was turned on its head. In my version of A Song of Ice and Fire the Wall would be in the south and Dorne would be in the north. The Iron Islands would be the Sandy Islands, and winter would never be coming.

In my world, pumpkins don’t grow at Halloween. Snow doesn’t fall on Christmas Eve. Beaches are never cold, windy places with wooden piers and taffy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter. Heading west means deserts, not prairies, and north the Equator, not the Arctic Circle. There is never a real reason light a wood fire, or rake leaves, or shovel the sidewalk. We steal mangos not blackberries, and bake pavlova instead of pie. Family picnics are BBQs at the beach, not sandwiches in green meadows.

This is the world I know. This should form the landscape of my imagination and therefore of my imagined worlds. It’s a strange thing to have to work against a preconceived cultural notion of tone and place because the culture, while dominant, is not your own. Yet it is part of my responsibility as an emerging creative voice, and a challenge I submit to all those in the same position: to add to this global lens in our own language and rhythm, and make our own experiences, and that of our Southern-land compatriots, a greater part of the world’s narrative imagery.

 

Elise Janes

ANZAC Day after 100 years

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

Tomorrow morning many of us will wake in the dark to early alarms and make the devoted trek to a Dawn Service at one of countless events held in parks and amphitheaters around the country.

We will stand in the chilly pre-dawn air bearing poppies and wreathes. We will sing the Anthem and recite the Ode. We will listen to the Last Post and maintain a minute’s silence with a shiver on our skin.

1024px-Anzac-square-night-brisbane-may2012 - Karen Nielsen

The Eternal Flame in Anzac Square, Brisbane. Photo: Karen Nielsen.

Australians are devoted to the ANZAC legend. It is a source of national pride, a symbol of our gratitude and a demonstration of our deep enduring respect for the men and women who won us our lucky freedom.

Far from a celebration of victory, like other wartime anniversaries such as Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day pays tribute to the beginning of a long and bloody campaign waged on the Turkish Peninsula that ultimately failed in its objective. It’s not a celebration, it is a commemoration: a moment to consider what it really means to be an Australian.

Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

Australian War Memorial

This ANZAC tradition is not one we take lightly. Almost every Australian town, no matter how bijou, will have an ANZAC Park with a memorial dedicated to the men who lost their lives on that day, or who fought in some war at some point in the history of our small but wiry nation. It represents for us not only the integrity of Australian mate-ship but more importantly what we, a small and relatively insignificant nation, are capable of when we band together and put our shoulder to the wheel.

Like most Australians I am fiercely proud of our ANZAC history. Even though I’m several generations removed from the First World War I am immensely moved by the ceremony and what it represents.

My grandfather was a naval engineer in the Second World War. ANZAC Day attendance was an annual requirement in my formative years, a meaningful day for our family, blurred in my child’s eyes by the mystery of time and the greatness of the past. As I grew to understand the true scope of the event it only became more significant and more incredible to me. It’s something that was part of the fabric of my life and the life of my family.

And yet on this, the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, I am led to ponder the nature of the cultural tributes we pay to our wartime history. Most Australians will have seen the movie Gallipoli at some point in their lives, a beautifully understated and shockingly realistic depiction of the journey young men faced when they left their hometown for the battlefront. Yet the most recent retelling of the event, a well-produced mini-series that aired on Channel Nine, struggled to compete in ratings with inane reality TV shows.

Gallipoli

What’s wrong with us? Some commentators believe that the more removed we become from the experiences of war, the less new generations care for remembrances such as ANZAC Day. I disagree, having taught in many schools where students are intensely aware of the significance of the occasion. And yet if society is somehow losing perspective on ANZAC Day, isn’t that our fault? As Australians it’s our responsibility to keep our remarkable heritage alive in the social and cultural consciousness of our own nation.

Unlike many nations around the world, our military history is actually something to be proud of. We have never initiated a conflict with another nation and yet we have always come to the aid of our allies when fighting for peace and the civil rights of cultures and nations far removed from ours.

Our soldiers are renowned for their strength, resilience, loyalty and commitment. Despite being such a small nation, in many ways we have a greater fighting spirit than countries far larger and more powerful than us.

And yet what are we doing with this incredible part of our identity? Many Australians are more familiar with the conflicts of the USA or Europe than that of their own homeland. Simply because of the amount of cultural currency we attribute to the exploits of other nations compared to that of our own.

I have no doubt this is largely because of long-entrenched national identity problems such as the ubiquitous Cultural Cringe, somehow wrapped up in our ridiculous obsession with self-deprecation and achievement-avoidance known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

In reality, we are now better known around the world for these two insecurity issues than we are for the actual reality of our nation’s history and achievements. How absurd.

In fact, how shamefully embarrassing. Do we have such a low opinion of ourselves that this is the legacy we have created? Or do we just care so little about anything that we simply can’t be bothered?

As I think about it now I find it utterly dumbfounding. I’m frustrated by the lack of understanding we have about our own significance and our own cultural strength. I’m angered by the subsequent lack of understanding that this generates in the eyes of the world. Why don’t we celebrate our history? Why don’t we make it part of our identity? Why don’t we think it’s even worth the value of artistic effort?

In truth there’s a vast disconnect between our world stance and our true national identity. And it’s our fault. What are we going to do about it?

We owe it to ourselves to retell the stories that shaped our identity as a nation, to learn how to celebrate our achievements instead of hiding them behind false modesty. Really, we owe it to the world to stand up and own our history, to reverse the negative legacy we have built for ourselves.

But most of all we owe it to the men and women who made possible the freedom we enjoy today, and upon whose sacrifice our identity is built.

 

Elise Janes

On “Gimme Shelter”

It’s 1969, and the Beatles perform together for the last time on the roof of Apple headquarters in London as the US military begins a clandestine bombing campaign in Cambodia. It’s four years since the US officially entered Vietnam, and President Richard Nixon vows to begin withdrawing ground troops by September. Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon. Members of the Manson Family murder Sharon Tate and friends at the Benedict Canyon mansion she shares with husband Roman Polanski, as the US National Guard contains anti-war demonstrators with rubber bullets and skin stinging spray following the arrest of the Chicago Eight. Moratorium marches erupt across the US. Journalist Seymour Hersh publishes details of the My Lai massacre and the Rolling Stones record Gimme Shelter with Meryl Clayton singing a last-minute backing track that lifts the song through the roof.

gimmeshelter 1 imagesMick Jagger called Gimme Shelter an end of days song, a bleak and foreboding mirror to the insanity of the Vietnam War, race riots, anti-war riots, activists and anarchists and revolutionaries of all persuasions clashing with police from Chicago to Paris to New York. It’s a slow build, with Keith Richards picking a careful path through the overture before Meryl Clayton’s haunted vocal sweeps in like a fog, a mist, a darkening of something, a brewing, the helicopters in that scene from Apocalypse Now backlit by the sunrise, the moment before a scare, an explosion, a gunshot, the sound cranked out of old Triumph speakers to give it a bit more grunge, like something put together on the fly, the run, fleeing from something with good reason because they’re coming and they’re coming for you! Then Charlie Watts steps in with two snap reports on the tom and away we go.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away

 

MansonAltamontKeith Richards, who actually wrote the song, doesn’t recall being infused with the same social outrage or conscience as Jagger, but it’s sure as hell infused with something. Gimme Shelter packs all the heft of an anti-war song, but unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday or Edwin Starr’s War, it’s rarely pulled out by filmmakers to soundtrack peace rallies or brand a sentiment. There’s something about Gimme Shelter, a menace, that lends itself equally to a helicopter gunship flying low over the Mekong Delta or the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the post-war diaspora of Vietnamese refugees that literally took to the sea. Seeking shelter. And many of those refuges travelled south down the Indonesian archipelago to Australia, where they were resettled without being interned in detention camps or issued with Temporary Protection Visas. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in March 2015. At his funeral, members of the Vietnamese community attended to pay their respects carrying banners and placards applauding him as a champion of humanity. Their appeal for shelter has not been answered in the same way since.

AltamontGimme Shelter appeared on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. On December 6 of that year, during a promotional tour of the US, the Rolling Stones held a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The local chapter of the Hells Angels was asked to provide security. They were reportedly paid in beer. In a documentary of the event, aptly named Gimme Shelter, Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old arts student from Berkeley, is seen lunging towards the stage with what appears to be a gun. He is stopped by members of the Hells Angels armed with weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains, then beaten to the ground, and stabbed five times in the upper back. Meredith Hunter died at the scene. He was one of four to die that day at Altamont, an event promoters tried to sell as an alternative Woodstock but is now viewed by many as the symbolic end of an era. The Sixties. However the Sixties is seen, lost and remote to some, remembered by others as the most colourful, violent, ground-breaking decade of the century, it was the first time in history where the universe seemed to align in such a way as to create a space for thousands of people across the globe to stand up and in one voice say: What binds us is stronger and more valuable than what divides us. The anti-war movement. Feminism. Civil Rights. Gay Pride. In some ways, the anti-establishment movements of today have their roots in the Sixties. And behind every banner, every charge at the barricades, every Molotov cocktail and upturned car, what motivates the anger and passion and theatre and violence can be found in the last refrain of Gimme Shelter sung loud from the rooftops and pavements of Chicago, Paris, New York.

I said love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away

It’s just a kiss away….

Sean Macgillicuddy

Sir P Speaks: That vain stab at immortality

Dear Sir Partridge

My husband and I have 10 children. Should we have another one so we can field a complete cricket team? Or should we get a pet? If so, which species and breed? Seven of my children want a border collie; two want a cheetah; one wants a meerkat to feed to the cheetah.

Yours in desporation (desperation and adoration)

Beatrice S

vintage family

It’s funny you should mention this, Beatrice, because of late my legion devotees have been hounding me to breed (usually with them). “Do it for the sake of humanity!” they wail. But I refuse. Here’s why: my cleaning lady told me she once walked into her bathroom to find her two-year-old ‘cleaning’ his teeth with the toilet brush. She took this incident in her stride; I have entirely failed to do so.

Yes, having children passes the baton of your title and/or surname to another generation in the great spiralling relay race our DNA makes us run. But in exchange there is much to be endured. One analogy is that children are hugely demanding, wildly expensive pets it takes years to house train. Another is that they are helpless, fickle, merciless, deranged masters who are as unwilling to pay you as they are unable.

Kiddy-winks are diametrically opposite to how they should be. These are the phases a child, in an ideal world, would pass through:

  • 0–12 months: lounging about in their cot, sleeping more or less constantly and making charming gurgling sounds when required
  • 1–5 years: impeccably behaved, self-vaccinating creatures of delight who excel in all sporting and quasi-academic endeavours, putting all your friends’ kids to shame
  • 6–12: perfectly capable of managing your tax and other financial affairs, mixing you a decent cocktail, and capable of and inclined to cook and clean without any expectation of payment
  • 13–18: never surly, sullen or in any way inclined to interact with the wrong type of boy/girl or express any interest in becoming an actor, dancer, poet, artist, writer etc.

There is also a need to interrogate your ancestry and ask yourself what it really has to offer. I am the eldest of the Gormley mass spawning and neither I nor my six siblings are terrific advertisements for passing on our genome. They are all in varying degrees deranged, profligate and perverted:

  • Pemmican – buffoon, male palm-reader, thinks he’s a hipster
  • Petunia – the brains of the outfit but a bit dry and tiresome, truth be told
  • Puddock – amateur mortician and professional taxidermist (or possibly the other way round), Internet troll and general shit
  • Plenitude – psychopath and femme fatale (sorry, Plenny dear, but it’s true)
  • Prunella – lady drunkard; cockatiel-fancier; psoriasis-sufferer
  • Picaroon – diminutive gigolo and all-round Queenslander

So, my dear, ditch the Beatrice XI idea and opt for a pet. Forget the border collie though. Offer your kids either a stick insect or an orang-utan. If they plump for the former, your troubles are over. If they select the latter, don’t be dismayed. These excellent apes are fantastic animal companions for two reasons: a) they make cheap, if mediocre, butlers, and b) when the time comes, their pelts make exceptional throw rugs.

Luv-dubs,

Gormley

Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge Gormley’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

Most Likely to Succeed

Available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmpnguy/92214672/in/photolist-4FEYZg-pp7ZLZ-5D2XpQ-4LDBaz-6vNYCx-Bb3Uq-gd2au-44nXcJ-dXEM6y-BMLyo-8429eX-9i9QUS-oz3Zdn-aDPyCo-5T858V-4QF4ch-dERcri-99Cd9-wR4xs-aiJ5PJ-8nrw9Z-5u1nze-9oMJNH-nG7jq4-7fDYu-6aRWKr-3eLdT1-b8ocdz-Bb42i-3AiLhe-ci85c9-bPaTap-nGRnr1-6zBHbi-jQv8h-7BQD1b-Bb3ZQ-gA5B4Q-9rAjY6-NxRFT-2AMvfX-G3NVq-nXdNf5-tHSUZ-m7V4yq-6zFMVf-3ezSGo-bPaT5z-ppnCDu-egauEH/

Photo: Loyd Schutte, ‘High School in the 80’s’. Shared under Creative Commons License.

One of the most fascinating things about being in my thirties is that I’m discovering what kinds of adults the people I went to school with have become. My family moved around a lot and I went to many different schools, but through Facebook, and extroverted tendencies, I’ve managed to keep in touch with several people. Some of their experiences have surprised me, particularly those of my old schoolmates Harry, Angie and Cecilia. Here are their stories. I’ve changed the names and fictionalised the details, to avoid incurring me a defriending, but the basics are true.

Harry was one of the first guys in the ‘challenger’ class for ‘gifted’ kids to get a girlfriend. They earned social status in well-behaved ‘challenger’ circles by making out at the bus stop and drinking beer, but not so much that it affected their grades. Later, Harry graduated from Law with great marks and started with a prestigious and highly competitive firm. He moved into a house with some of his male colleagues who’d also just started with the company. He once invited me to one of their parties, where Harry and his friends spent a lot of time listing which of their female colleagues had the best legs/tits/arse. He then moved to a regional office, where he worked for a female manager who talked openly about how as the acknowledged geek at high school, she’d been highly unpopular. (She would never have won that graduate boys’ prize for best legs/tits/arse.) She yelled at him in front of clients and criticised every piece of work he produced. Normally reluctant to admit to vulnerability, Harry asked for advice from his old school friends and sought help from HR. Our advice didn’t work, and HR backed his boss. Eventually, he quit his job. He now works for a smaller, less prestigious firm. He’s still angry about his earlier experiences, but he also says they’ve made him a kinder manager, because he doesn’t want to turn into his old boss.

Angie drove me a bit crazy at high school by asking me what mark I’d got on every assignment, and smugly announcing whenever she’d done better than me — which was quite often. Angie worked hard and got excellent marks. She also struggled with mental health issues. She was never popular and sometimes faced teasing by the ‘cool’ kids, but she always had a few loyal, nerdy friends. At the end of high school, when she didn’t win the dux, rather than congratulate the winner and grit her teeth, she went home crying. Shortly after graduation, she won a prestigious overseas role as a middle manager with an international development agency. She was unlucky enough to be involved with a public stuff-up in which her agency inadvertently caused several local people to be injured. As a manager, Angie was held partly responsible. The work pressure and media attention were too much. She left her job to focus on her mental health. Once this was stabilised, she took a less demanding management role back in Australia. Now, she devotes her competitive energies to running the best ever under 18s local girls’ basketball team. The girls love her — especially those who are going through tough periods — because Angie always makes the time to listen to them.

Cecilia always intrigued me, because she managed to get through one of the most brutally alpha schools I ever attended, doing well academically, and never being bullied or bullying anyone. This in itself was remarkable at our school. If you did well in class, the teachers would like you but the other kids would torment you. If you did badly, the teachers would call you stupid, but the kids would leave you alone. In Cecilia’s adult life, she continued to achieve impressive things modestly, earning a PhD and then a sought-after scientist role in an elite national institution. When she started at her workplace, the women’s toilets were being turned into offices because there weren’t enough female scientists to use them. Many of her male colleagues resented the arrival of this young, female upstart, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Yet Cecilia kept doing her job well and ignoring the critics, just as she’d brushed past the bullies in high school. She’s been there for five years now, quietly advancing the nation’s knowledge in her field, and showing future scientists that it is indeed possible to be female and do her job. She recently had her first child.

High school can be one of the most difficult experiences people go through. Surprising numbers of adults struggle to hold it together when asked about high school — or they lie and pretend it was all easy. What I’m seeing with the people I know, however, is that high school is not destiny. The smart, popular guy can lose his job. The modestly high-achieving girl can quietly smash gender barriers.

We as grown-ups have a responsibility to share this knowledge. I think this is a role for books, and for young adult writing in particular. We need to tell our own high school stories — honestly — and we need to share the perspective that comes from being out of school for twenty years (and developing wrinkles and knee problems). Yes, high school is full of bullshit, but the bullshit will pass. If you’re having fun, great — enjoy, and be nice to others. If you’re not having fun, ask for help, and try to remember that grade nine is not all you will become. Life has many more challenges and adventures along the way.

Penny Jones   

Sir P Speaks: For he is a gentleman

duel

 

Dear Sir P

I feel unaccomplished. I can’t hold a tune, wield a sword, ride a horse or speak a foreign tongue. I have also occasionally behaved like a bounder and/or a cad. Do I have the right to call myself a gentleman? What is a gentleman, for God’s sake? Also, what is the difference between a bounder and a cad, and which am I?

Am I in fact a true man in any sense? The notion of ‘manhood’ has become extremely confused of late.

Also, I’ve been challenged to a duel. Will you be my second?

Finally, is it inappropriate for a grown man to build models of WWII battleships?

Oh, and what is your favourite country?

Affectionately,

Fuddbut Tromso

 

Dear Fuddbut

As it happens, a number of people have stridently insisted I write a guide to becoming a gentleman. They believe that it would be for the good of the country, that young men are so ill-defined nowadays, and the world at large so wayward and pre-apocalyptic, that what’s really needed is a manual to help an individual forge a robust identity that will survive anything.

I’ve always refused. You can’t teach such things; you can only throw quotes at the problem. So here’s one: the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in the late 18th century that “a king may make a nobleman, but he cannot make a gentleman”.

Sadly, I am living proof of this.

Similarly, a treatise called ‘A Discourse Concerning the Character of a Gentleman’ by ‘A Person of Quality’ in 1716 explains, “The Appellation of the Gentleman (says the Tatler) should never be affix’d to a Man’s Circumstances, but to his Behaviour in them”.

So if by any chance you have a pipe, I invite you to stick the above in it and light up. In my mind, to be a gent it is simply necessary to bear those notions in mind, not speak with your mouth full and to be willing and able to rattle off at least three Gilbert & Sullivan songs, whether sober, squiffy or hammered out of your mind.

In days of yore, being a gent was much more demanding. In 1528, one Count Baldassare Castiglione published The Book of the Courtier, a how-to guide for the original Renaissance man. Among an array of accomplishments, Castiglione encouraged sprezzatura – a certain effortless composure or nonchalance. The sort of thing, frankly, that only an Italian can pull off convincingly. And I suspect, young Fuddbut, that you are not an Italian.

Because I have a dictionary and you clearly don’t, I will now explain the difference between a bounder and a cad. Both are morally reprehensible anti-gents, but a bounder is distinguished by being something of a social climber to boot. I, for one, am a cad. As for which one you are, old son, only a good hard look in the mirror will tell you that.

So where does this leave your manhood, or indeed that of any adult male? Life for the modern man is indeed emasculating but then we can take comfort in the fact that this is true for women too. Judith Lucy is doing a good job of explaining this in her ABC TV show, as has Annabel Crabb in her book The Wife Drought, which my parlour maid told me all about while completing my nightly bed turndown service. Harking back to some non-existent golden age when men bestrode the world safe in their shining armour of self-knowledge is the distraction of a fool. You must fashion your own sense of who you are from true self-knowledge, Fuddbut. Anything else is just another kind of identity fraud …

As for your duel, no, I will not be your second, though I encourage you to get one. He or she needs to make sure your interests are well served and that your opponent doesn’t cheat. More importantly, they’re honour-bound to step in should your nerve fail you. As I suspect it will. But I do admire your willingness to take part. Though duels to the death are rare nowadays it is still sometimes necessary to defend your honour with cold steel or hot lead. There are however two things to bear in mind:

  1. You might lose and end up dead or badly injured
  2. You might win and end up badly jailed

Not that I particularly want you to survive. I suspect your DNA lacks the necessary robustness to warrant being passed on. Though your fondness for building model warships is a redeeming feature. After all, a three-foot-long replica of the Bismarck graces my own hallway. It took Chivers, my manservant, two months to build. Time well spent.

I have two favourite countries. One is Burkina Faso because its capital city rejoices in the splendid name Ouagadougou. The other is Iceland because, quite genuinely, their roads authority has a pro-elf policy, which means that no highway is built across an area thought to be inhabited by elves, trolls or any other supernatural beings. Superb.

Farewell,

Gormley

 

 Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.

Sir P Speaks: The Problem of First-World Problems

Dear Sir P

I’m worried that all my travails are essentially First-World problems. I no longer feel entitled to complain, or even feel aggrieved. This has left a gnawing, hollow sensation inside of me. Which is itself, I suppose, a First-World problem. And so I find myself wandering around in ever-decreasing circles of self-loathing. How do I continue to complain without feeling like a bit of a dickhead?

Adoringly,

Terrance V

 

Well, dear Terrance, we can’t have you loathing yourself. However, it is a tiresome thing when people witter about the built-in redundancy of their iFads or how their favourite charcuterie has just been closed down. While it’s true that people in the Third World suffer from bunions at least as much as people in the West do, it would be fair to say that bunions are the least of their problems.

graveyard_of_indiscretions

If First World Problems Could Kill

Meanwhile, the issue for us Westerners is, when does a particular problem become legitimately whinge-worthy? If say, your beloved girlfriend dispenses with you, it is a bad thing and you are entitled to moan about it. But let’s call that a Second-World problem (and, dear readers, please don’t email me explaining the proper definition of the Second World; even baronets go to school).

But what about when your hitherto excellent wife leaves you for a lion-tamer or similar and takes the kids with her, plus half the house and Augustus, your Labrador-kelpie cross on whom you’ve doted since he was a puppy? Now, that’s a legitimate, bare-knuckled disaster wherever in the world you happen to live. Particularly when said wife then updates her Facebook status to: ‘Free at last from that fat, inbred nutter’.

Though I’m not very insightful generally I have noticed that most people get around the problem you’ve raised, dear Terrance, by not even bothering to do so. If you’ve not spent your childhood grubbing about on a Manila garbage dump then premature hair loss or unusually bulbous earlobes will seem very problematic indeed. You will say to yourself, ‘I can only address the problems that are before me, not the ones I might have experienced had I been incarnated as a Mumbai leper’. It highlights in a way how animal we remain. A gerbil struggling for survival in the desert is hardwired, like all animals, to utterly preoccupy itself with the fact that it is hours away from starvation. It is not interested in the plight of other gerbils. Such matters are not its business, even if it had the smarts to comprehend such things. We do have the smarts but we also have the hardwiring, so coveting my neighbour’s 65-inch 100hz flat-screen 3D TV fills my magnificent human brain to bursting.

However, there may be some value in putting our own issues into perspective. You can start by doing the following quiz. Which of these problems are First, Second or Third World?

  1. The difficulty of finding a band-aid large enough to cover a graze large enough to justify a band-aid.
  2. Reconciling yourself to sharing the world with cyclists and horses.
  3. You want to call your son Tarquin because you’re pretentious, but you know the name will humiliate him.
  4. The presence on the road of silver or grey cars that hover in your blind spot on rainy days (it’s possible I’ve raised this vital issue before).
  5. A man-eating tiger lives near your house. Be careful, or one day it will eat you too.
  6. You’re so exhausted packing for your family holiday to Hawaii it’s almost not worth going.
  7. The excruciatingly awkward nightmare that is Skype.
  8. You would like to wear your tiger onesie out in the street but you are a fully grown man and you would be mocked.
  9. Should you have your child’s 4th birthday at home and endure the appalling mess 15 children inevitably make, or hold it at a soft-play centre and endure the deafening cacophony of a billion screeching children smacked up on pink sugar?
  10. The Patent Office refuses to patent your exciting new invention called ‘Comfort-Go’ – for when you get caught short in heavy traffic.

What are the correct answers, you ask? Who cares? The reassuring thing is that no matter how First-World, inane, self-indulgent or deranged your questions are, good bloggoids, I will always give them the attention they richly deserve.

Devotedly

Gormley

 

Conan Elphicke

Sir Partridge’s emissions are rendered as coherent as they can be by the ever-patient @ConanElphicke. If you are confused and bewildered, and we suspect you are, by all means send your queries to thecringeblog@gmail.com.