The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

A Family Of Wolves

My family is loud. They’re the ones you hear howling across the restaurant, spilling drinks and laughing at their own jokes. They’re the ones who growl in movie theatres, and feel the need to yell during phone calls. No emotions are held back in my family. If you are upset you explain why and crying is done in waves, not ripples.

My mother is the loudest of them all. Her laugh can be heard through oceans, her voice strong, not shrill. But by some strange fate I was born an introvert into this family. My heart grew in a box, and my voice slid through my throat like a rusty piece of wire. In large crowds I would shake and stammer while my feet sunk into the dirt.

When I was young with a stutter my mother was my guide. She would finish my struggling sentences with a confident string of elegant words. She wouldn’t consider herself a poet yet in my young eyes she was.

But shame crawled under my skin when I was forced to speak on my own. I was not one to pull words together quickly, and when I struggled I could see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of the time my silence and short sentences were mistaken for idiocy.

I still have rust in my stomach. I still can’t howl. Where did this weak blood come from?

My dad is not the loudest of the pack, but when he talks, people listen. He knew mum couldn’t be my poet forever, but he didn’t want me to learn to howl the way she had learned.

So dad told me a story.

When he was growing up he saw a man get stabbed outside a coffee house in broad daylight. Dad was 15 and had never ridden his bike so fast home in his life. But he said that still wasn’t as bad as what my mum had been through.

Your mother wasn’t always loud, dad said, she wasn’t always a poet. Her voice, too, was once confined by vines, and other voices had choked her own words in her throat.

Animal-Black-Wolf-Extinct-Pennsylvania-AnimalsDad said while mum never saw a man brandish a knife, she knew a man that was similar in character. At the time she had called the relationship complicated, like oil and water. She loved to preserve peaches and cherries and artichoke hearts in mason jars, but she hadn’t known how to preserve herself. She would tiptoe over eggshells to be the Rose for this man, but this man only offered up thorns. My mum was lost in a pit of despair and false love but it was not my father who pulled her out of it. Dad said there was only one other in our family who had smelt the oncoming storm. She was the only one who had intervened.

I used to hide at the very end of tables at big family gatherings. But there was another who hid at the other end. My grandma was always under a shadow. My proud Welsh grandpa would always growl a comment on everything in the conversation. My grandma would just nod and sit in silence. I didn’t know that she had a howling bone in her at all.

But my grandma snapped when she saw the bruises on my mums face. So my grandma began to hunt at dusk, stalking the man through the back streets and searching for weaknesses in his house of thorns. She spent many nights creeping in her familiar shadows. She was the one of the best, dad said.

One night with a full moon above her head, my grandma crept out of her shadows. The man was limping home and smelt all bloody and bitter. Although my grandma’s howl was quiet, she was efficient in snapping bones, slashing tendons, and tearing flesh. She torched the house of thorns and growled at my grandpa until they moved across the country.

Even though my mother was safe, she still had thorns in her. It took a long time for her to heal. But my grandma never let her forget that she was a wolf and that she should howl like one.

Your blood’s not weak, my dad said. You can howl loudly or you can howl quietly, but you always have the choice. He said, don’t ever forget you’re a wolf too.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

The Cringe welcomes writer Ashlee Poeppmann to the team! Look for more of Ashlee’s short fiction in the coming months.

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

A Day in the Life

alarmAlarm vibrates. Sensation before first thought. Cold. Am I coming down with the flu? No. Um, possibly. I need to be strong, fight through. Check phone. New emails. Refresh podcasts. Work emails? No. I’ll be there soon enough. Will I write today? Yes, when I get home. What will I have for dinner? How long will it take to prepare and cook? How much time will that suck out of my evening?

Wash. Get dressed. Pack my bag. Will I bring my book today? Yes. Don’t waste time sleeping on the train. Pack notebook. My battered and scribble-filled notebook. Damn, I forgot to read those research articles I printed out at work yesterday. I’ll get to them another time.

Driving to train station. I wonder about my main character. How will he react when demands are made of him? Where will the drama come from? What is his truth? Can I write it well? A reminder to write something down when I get on the train: Rylin Webster wants to tell his story, his way, on his terms. A scene forms fast in my head. I watch the odometer. I check the clock. Train leaves in five minutes. I’m two minutes away from station car park. Trying to hang onto a thread of thought. The scene gets vivid and intense. I speak a line of dialogue out loud.

“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”

Who says this?

trainPark car. Hustle to platform. Train comes. Find seat. Flip open notebook. Scrawl and scribble. Thoughts come quicker than I can write. Words are illegible. Will I be able to read this later? Will it make sense or will I lose the gist? PA announcement. Thoughts exhausted. The distraction of landscape speeding by at 100kmph.

Read my book. Can’t focus for more than a page or two at a time. Thoughts beget thoughts. Ideas form but have no place. Context is elusive. Open notebook. Scribble. Empty my brain. Close notebook. Take a few deep breaths. Read some more but don’t absorb what I’m reading.

WTFTrain reaches its destination. Earphone in. Podcasts at the ready. Maybe NBA’s The Starters. Maybe Marc Maron’s WTF. Maybe TOFOP. Twenty minute walk. My mind remains active. Plot lines weave in and out of the audio flowing into my head. Traffic noise on Broadway coming from Harris St drowns out everything.

At work. Put all thoughts of writing and being a writer to one side. Really? Good luck with thtrafficat. Do my job. Earn my keep. Read occasional online articles of interest. Send quotes, links and ideas to myself via email throughout the day. Making a cup of tea, wonder about Rylin Webster’s marriage. Why did his supermodel wife fall in love with him in the first place? Make small talk with a colleague about the upcoming weekend. Day’s end is getting closer.

inceptionWalk back to train station. New thoughts emerge. Links connect. Links miss their mark. Kill the podcast feed. Need music instead. The National? The Shins? No. This story feeds off the energy from movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer. Interstellar? I know, Inception. Traffic noise. The roar of a motorcycle. The pang of hunger and the yawn of mental, if not physical, tiredness.

Make train ten minutes early. Open notebook. Scribble quickly, furiously, illegibly. Smile to myself that the adverbs I’m using in my notes will not make my manuscript. Why do I care what Stephen King thinks? Bret Easton Ellis, a writer I love, embraces adverbs. Look at Glamorama?Glamorama

As the train pulls out of the station, close notebook. Take out earphones. No music. No novel. No writing. Sydney’s inner-west suburbs slip by. Macdonaldtown. Newtown. Stanmore. Petersham. Lewisham. My eyes start to get heavy. I sit up, get out my book. Red or Dead by David Peace. Read a page. Battle tiredness. Read half-a-page more before my head drops. Strathfield, Epping, Hornsby don’t register.  I wake up with my finger between pages like a bookmark. Read another page. Then jack into another podcast. Pete Holmes laughs then gets deep, questions our understanding of the universe, then asks his guest whether success can come too soon?You-Made-It-Weird

Its six’o’clock. Hunger has full sway over me. That means I won’t be writing until at least seven, maybe eight. I already know what scene I want to write, need to write, if I’m to drive the story forward.

Walk in the front door. Hello to my wife, bear-tackle my son. Get changed and play dinosaurs for half-an-hour. Hunger lingers, distracts me. The desire to write lingers, distracts me. Cook dinner alone. Use the process of flouring a chicken breast, dipping it in egg and covering it in breadcrumbs, to untether my mind from now, from the day that’s been, from myself.

Too full afterdeadmau5-Superliminal-300x300 dinner, I shower and shave. Wash the day away. Start preparing for the day to come. Clothes laid out. Shoes polished. Top up Opal Card. Check work emails. Flick a few away. Exclaim in frustration over a client who is beyond demanding. Turn off phone’s WiFi. Mac on. iTunes is a ‘Go!’ Deadmau5 – Superliminal. Google Docs open. Here it comes. The manuscript loads up. I scroll down to the last page and read the notes I left from the previous day.Timmy-Mallet-with-Malletts-Mallet

I’m writing. Dialogue flows. Too much dialogue. Go back. Insert thoughts, description. Maintain tone. Not enough tension. Too much conflict? Where’s this scene going? Oh, wow. Yes, that works. I could never have planned that. There’s a knock on the door. My son comes in, jumps on my bed. ‘Let’s play Mallet’s Mallett?’

‘Ten minutes, Buddy.’

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Lots of dialogue to finish. Lots of red squiggly lines under misspelt words. Rylin Webster is angry but doesn’t know it. He’s pushing everyone around him away. He thinks this is normal. A lightbulb moment. A new scene. Not the next scene. File it away. The door opens. My wife brings a glass of wine. ‘House of Cards is starting.’

The manuscript automatically savhouse-of-cardses. I shut down the computer. Frank Underwood, my wife and a glass of wine awaits.

Later, sleep beckons. I hold on through a nothing episode of Game of Thrones. I wonder about tomorrow? What will happen? What will I achieve? How long will it be until I get to write again? In bed, before sleep fully takes over, I imagine Rylin Webster on the basketball court. He’s hurting his defender. He’s hurting his team. He’s hurting himself. An idea teases, never fully settles and then, nothing.

Quid est veritas?

What is truth?

The quest for an answer to this proposition is arguably the driving force behind all human endeavour, sitting at the heart of scientific, artistic, philosophical, historical, cultural and ideological pursuit. Certainly in literature it forms the central narrative drive, propelling action and informing the struggles and motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike. It seems to represent the core struggle and mystery of life’s frustrations.

Significant in literary and historical record, these words are attributed to Pontius Pilate, a question asked during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in an exchange between the two men that has long been the source of much commentary and analysis.

However one approaches Good Friday, whether it be a day of religious, philosophical or simply social significance, the events that form the basis of our cultural recognition of Easter bear some consideration. As with any historical episode that has become part of cultural identity, the story of Good Friday is as significant for its wider implications as for its immediate context.

Within the many layers of narrative and religious symbolism, Pontius Pilate is one character that lends the narrative a deeper resonance of meaning. Confronted by his subjects, whose laws and customs he did not share, to execute a seemingly innocent man on the eve of their most important religious festival, Pilate faced one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of recorded Roman government.

Pilate

Roman prefects were not known for their light hand or mild manners. They were inevitably promoted to office because of their proven military strength, adherence to judicial code, and practical understanding of the intricacies of political strategy and rational decision-making.

Pilate’s apparent disinclination to condemn Jesus is clearly represented in all recorded accounts of the event, but is illustrated most intimately in the canonical book of John where Pilate questions the Nazarene to ascertain a reason for the Jews’ sudden and unanimous call for his death.

Caught between the politically serious accusations of treason, the increasingly violent demands of the crowd, and his personal unwillingness to convict a man who had seemingly done no harm, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the question that initiates their short but compelling exchange, a conversation that is unlike any other recorded between an accused criminal and the man who legally controls his fate. Far from defending himself, Jesus remains strangely obtuse.

Commentators and narrative adaptations have portrayed this interaction from many different perspectives, some interpreting that Pilate was questioning Jesus in jest or that he was supremely disinterested in the whole proceeding and in the affairs of Jews in general. However other glimpses into Pilate’s nature provided by the canonical, apocryphal and historical records portray him as a man who wouldn’t have hesitated on a conviction had he not had cause to doubt Jesus’ guilt. This belies a much greater political if not personal investment in the situation than some commentators would claim, indicating, in fact, the very opposite of indifference: a deep and enduring reluctance to condemn the Nazarene.

It is this reluctance that leads to Pilate’s persistent questioning, an effort to determine if Jesus does in fact believe himself to be a King. Jesus’ simple but confounding responses eventually elicit from Pilate the startlingly personal and equally rhetorical question: “What is truth?”

The proposition is famously left unanswered. Nietzsche considers this to be further evidence of Pilate’s scorn for Jesus, and yet Pilate’s direct response is to publicly declare: “He is not guilty of any crime.”

Furthermore Pilate attempts a political move to dissuade the angry crowd, by appealing to the ritual of releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover. In an almost comical comparison he presents them with the choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer. The crowd, as we know, chooses Barabbas.

Pilate continues to try, even then, to dissuade the Jewish leaders, repeatedly stating his lack of conviction and famously washing his hands of the situation in one account. In light of the context it does not seem likely that Nietzsche and similar commentators were correct in believing that Pilate held Jesus in scorn, much less that he had no interest in the man’s fate.

In his last recorded exchange with Jesus, Pilate tries a final desperate question, strange for its superfluity, perhaps in an attempt to clarify Jesus’ earlier statement that his kingdom is “not of this world”, the one caveat that prevented Pilate from ruling a conviction of treason.

Pilate asks him “Where are you from?” but, as John records, “Jesus gave no answer.”

The same void of response is what makes our titular question so lastingly perplexing. For some reason, in this narrative, we see Pilate thrust into the role of the Everyman. A public figure of great authority, and vested with political power, suddenly in a private aside is reduced to the fundamental human condition where he wrestles with the logic and meaning of his own situation.

“What is truth?”

The lack of an answer does not serve to undermine the significance of the exchange, as some have posited. Instead it carries a much more essential purpose: to force us, like Pilate, to continue in the asking.

 

Elise Janes

 

On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.

Unnatural Selection

Melbourne Cup‘ The race that stops a nation.’ It’s a big claim by Racing Victoria, but is it really true?

Since its inception, and not even halted by two World Wars, the Melbourne Cup has been embraced with increasing gusto by every generation of Australians. But at some point during the 70s and 80s — when work was just a place you visited five days a week to fill in time and lunches were spent downing beers at the local pub — our attitude to (and love of) the race began a slow transformation into something much uglier.

Those heady decades leading up to Black Monday were a time of enormous wealth generated largely by a booming resource industry; a time when entrepreneurs like Alan Bond were showing the rest of us how they lived large in the ‘wild West’. A precedent was set and celebrating the Melbourne Cup ever more excessively became the new Australian way, the thing to do, iconic and culturally fitting.

Then, on the first Tuesday of each November, offices around the country would close for business from mid-morning. Old box televisions were wheeled into board rooms, canapés and flutes of French champagne were passed around with largesse by ruddy-faced directors, and there were always at least five sweeps on the go in any one place, giving every tipsy worker a fair chance of scooping enough cash with which to celebrate later. For those few hours, corporate tiers were torn down, bosses mingling (usually in more ways than one) with employees, the reception desk abandoned and the switchboard turned off — all for the sake of a three-minute horse race. What other nation on earth would dare to slow its production wheels for such a silly thing?

But if the race managed to grind too-rich corporations to a halt, there were plenty of industries that didn’t — couldn’t — stop to partake: teachers, doctors and nurses, emergency services, transport workers and the like. The adage that the Melbourne Cup ‘stops a nation’ didn’t then — and doesn’t now — bear scrutiny. How could it? But it’s a great marketing gimmick, and one that Racing Victoria clings to.

Even the most extreme measure taken by Victoria — declaring Melbourne Cup day a public holiday — hasn’t proved the claim true. In a number of regional centres it’s business as usual; they celebrate their own spring racing carnivals (Kyneton Cup) and they’ll take their holiday when it suits, thank you very much. Most Melburnians decide, since Tuesday’s already a holiday, they might as well bunk off on the Monday off too, so it becomes the longest of long weekends. A chance to get away. Race? What race? And for those Victorians who do give a damn; who plan a modest get-together of their own — the men tapping in online bets and beering it up around the BBQ while, in the kitchen (yes, even in 2014), women peel cling film from bowls of salads and supervise hordes of children — it no longer holds the same appeal. Because, just as it’s been for the last 40 years, celebrating the Melbourne Cup isn’t about watching a race. It’s about over-indulging and skiving off work. And when you’re already off work, what’s left to celebrate?

Flemington_main_stand,_2013_Melbourne_Cup (1)

Flemington main stand, 2013 Melbourne Cup by Jupiter Firelyte via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, unless we ignore the race altogether, what else can Victorians do except attend the bloody thing?

So we do. In droves. Every year the numbers increase (over 104,000 in 2013) and one could be forgiven for thinking the enforced holiday nothing more than a clever money-spinning ploy. But there’s no denying that for many who frock up and flock to Flemington for the big day (or the whole week: 331,196 last year), the Melbourne Cup remains a high point on the social calendar. And it celebrates everything that’s wonderful, as well as all that is truly awful, about our society.

It’s about selection – the fastest horses, the best-dressed race-goers, the most expensive foods and wines, the most coveted of tents — the rich, the powerful, celebrities and dignitaries alike, all choppered and chauffeured to the track and separated by affordability and popularity from the untidy masses who collect on the concourse. It’s as much about selection as it is about rejection, and it isn’t hailed ‘the sport of kings’ for nothing. Charles Darwin, if he were alive today, might be more than a little bemused by the spectacle.

Because there’s nothing natural about the Melbourne Cup. It has become a day of wanton excess. A day where twenty-four of the world’s most thoroughly-bred and genetically engineered horses compete for brief accolade, and their owners and trainers compete for huge prize-money.

2013_Myer_Fashions_on_the_Field_(10705584675)

2013 Myer Fashions on the Field by Chris Phutully via Wikimedia Commons

It’s about breeding, and not just on the track. It’s about who’s-who and what’s-what and where to be as well as how best to be seen. It’s about gambling, about squandering that last fiver or throwing down another five hundred — because let’s face it, so many there can afford to — on a whispered tip. It’s a day that heralds every extravagance and every hope and every desperate dream. It’s a race that’s less about the majesty of the horse — its power, its grace, its extraordinary stamina — or the skill of the jockey, and more about a multi billion-dollar industry.

While it can be argued that the Melbourne Cup generates huge profits for all involved in organising and running the event (no, they don’t ‘stop’ either) and helps fill government coffers, it’s not all pretty.

horse_crash3

2007 Melbourne Cup race day – English import Bay Story put down after crash with Bling Bling in Race 3. Via Brisbane Times

It’s been impossible (for me, at least) to find any records stating the exact number of horses that have had to be euthanased as a result of injuries sustained on Melbourne Cup race day. Racing Victoria guards such statistics zealously. And this year, much has been made of the legal wrangle between the racing industry and The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, when the latter erected a billboard depicting a dead racehorse over one of Melbourne’s busiest tollways. (It’s since been removed). Add to this any number of horror stories about what happens to these magnificent animals once their use — their money-raking days — are over.

melbourne-cup-2009 -3But there are other horror stories too, the derisive kind, those that mock ridiculous fashion and excessive drinking and spending, and next-day’s tabloids are filled with pictures of the plastered and the poorly attired and all the mess they’ve left behind. And for us Melburnians who have ignored it — who’ve escaped the city and are returning from our long long-weekend — there’s the after-race spectacle to endure as dishevelled, panda-eyed girls totter and weave their way home, while already drunk race-goers decide it’d be a ‘great idea, mate!’ to continue their carousing, crowding pubs and clubs before vomiting and defecating on street corners. Yep, it’s a glorious day for all.

So wherever you are tomorrow, if you’re watching, make sure you savour every second of those three minutes. After all, ‘the race that stops a nation’ is the real reason you’re there. Isn’t it?

Jane Abbott   

Wish I Was There — Imagined Postcard from the Edge

Postcard

Heavy cloud coverage today.

I spit at it, staining the barred window, watching the white foam dribble and streak down the glass.

A few days ago there was the most beautiful of azure skies.

I punched the pale yellow cell wall until my knuckles bled and bone showed through torn skin.

Pain is relative.

I scream, shredding my vocal cords, and marvel at how dull the sound sounds.

The walls eat it up and soon paint cracks and peels.

Fissures in the firmament.

Air steels in, a slivering draft.

There’s whispers of disease.

The contagion is spreading.

But not in here.

Out there.

In here I’m contained, kept safe by my enforced quarantine.

Their disease is not my disease. Out there, they share and spread and plaster themselves all over each other in one huge globule mess.

In here I’m contained, kept solitary because of my proclivity for harming others.

Now I only harm the walls, in turn harming myself.

No-one sees me and no-one cares.

I listen with an ear pressed to a crack in the wall at mumblings, distant snatches of conversation.

‘Vomiting.’

‘Blistering.’

‘Haemorrhaging.’

The ailments of a world closed to me.

The rapture of a slow and painful death.

But death is too much to wish for.

I wish for wind, for rain, for heat.

I wish for external elements to impact upon me and test the bonds of my being.

If I stand after the onslaught, so be it.

I am attached to no outcome in relation to my survival.

I only desire to feel something.

Oh, to be free and to be infected.

To wallow in the throes of such wonderful toxicity.

I wait and I wait, with an ear pressed to the crack in the wall.

What a thing it is to be incarcerated and safe from it all.

Ken Ward  

Prepare for Unauthorised Entries

partyWriting a story is a bit like throwing a party. If you’re a plotter, odds are you’re also a planner, the date chosen well in advance with plenty of notice given to intended guests. Your menu will be detailed and practical, catering for vegans and meat lovers alike; music will be playlisted and honed to an exact number of themed songs, timed to finish at the appointed hour. Invitations are always mailed (e- or snail-), RSVPs ticked off a corresponding list; mathematical precision will allow for just the right amount of alcohol and mixers, having ordered all necessary glassware from a catering company. Neighbours will be apprised and the function will proceed in an orderly fashion. Naturally, the police will never be called.

At the other extreme is the pantser. They’ll throw out a casual invitation to pretty much everyone they meet, the start time will be vague, and the menu an unplanned and artless display of potato chips and questionable dips. Depending on that day’s mood, music will range from soulful eighties ballads to heavy rock. They’ll buy too much alcohol or, worse, not enough. The few plates and glasses they manage to scrape together won’t suffice and trusted guests will be dispatched on arrival to fetch ice and other essentials. The pantser will forget they even have neighbours and the police will be summoned. Several times.

But whether it’s planned with military precision or left to chance, one thing neither plotter nor pantser ever allows for is the unwanted guest — that unexpected character. Some are harmless; a visiting relative, too insipid to be left alone, is brought by a friend too dear to admonish; a work colleague tags along on the vague assurance that the host ‘won’t mind at all’; both are fillers and assume cursory roles.

And then there’s the other type, a plotter’s worst nightmare: sauntering into the room (and onto page two) with fuck-you confidence, they settle without apology and demand everyone’s attention. It’s easier for pantsers. Having had no real command of the situation in the first place — and still a little vague about who was invited — most will welcome the intrusion, flinging the door wide.

Just as there are social constraints placed on a host — do you insist firmly that the guest leave, or endure their presence with stoic grace? — so writers face the same dilemma: stick to your hard-worked plan and hit the delete key, ridding the scene of this unwanted person, or offer them a drink (watch as they snatch the whole bottle) before introducing them to others? Most likely they’ll have come armed with an intriguing life story and a slew of bawdy jokes, and they’ll quickly divide the audience, charming or horrifying everyone they meet. And there’s every chance they’ll slip your darling a mickey, or stab them in the coat closet, but that alone might be the just reason they’ve appeared.

Just like your party, if you want your story to be memorable, don’t kick out the most interesting characters before you’ve made an effort to get to know them.

Jane Abbott