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In Adelaide recently for a variety of reasons including taking He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate out for dinner (and what a dinner it ended up being) but also to experience the Fringe Festival, which we did with much unearthly delight, I found myself in North Adelaide one night in a room above a café watching a young man film himself. No, I hadn’t strayed and ended up in a strip joint, though this was before He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate flew over to join me.
You see, I’d run into a friend at an arts function – Malcolm, a performance artist, and I first met on a residency last year. Anxiously, he invited me to attend his Fringe show. I’d seen his work before, in fact I’d been quite moved by it: it was both shambolic and finely honed, which sounds oxymoronic, I know, but is accurate.
So I accepted the invitation and headed over the Torrens. The café was posh: well-dressed patrons comfortably sipped expensive wine or imported beer and ate $30 pizzas. But upstairs five other people and I watched the young man film himself; for an hour he did nothing else but dance, the footage projected on vertical blinds for our viewing pleasure, on an adjacent wall YouTube video clips of other people filming themselves dancing. Apparently it was about how the internet has blurred the line between public and private, which is undoubtedly true.
After a ten-minute break during which I hurriedly drank a glass of Riesling, we returned upstairs and watched Malcolm, now alone, begin his piece (his opening-act colleague had inexplicably scuttled away in a taxi). But Malcolm was so nervous he couldn’t get a glass of red wine to his lips. Nevertheless, he repeatedly asked us to love him; he stripped down to his boxer shorts and conversed with an empty chair; he eventually managed to get some red wine into his mouth and then let it dribble down his neck and chest so it looked like he was bleeding from the inside; he smashed a red wine bottle and put the shards between his toes and paraded around the room; he tried to explain the show by drawing a graph on the wall; he sang a Nick Cave song; he finished by inviting us to get naked, which we declined.
In the taxi back to the relative safety of Hindley Street, I couldn’t help wondering what makes someone travel halfway across the country to perform in front of six people. The thrill of the risk-taking? The rush of communication? The satisfaction of pursuing a career most would consider useless at best?
I bunkered down in my hotel room. Needing company I clicked on the large flat-screen TV and watched beautiful young men and women go through their meretricious moves on So You Think You Can Dance. And then some Peter Carey lines popped into my head, from his story The Death of a Famous Mime: ‘Asked to describe death he busied himself taking Polaroid photographs of his questioners. Asked to describe marriage he handed out small cheap mirrors with MADE IN TUNISIA written on the back. His popularity declined.’
My friend Malcolm may or may not end up being popular, but his bravery has been etched onto my mind.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, March 27 2010.)
‘One day I will die. One day I will not wake up to the smell of my partner bringing my morning mug of strong coffee up the stairs. One day I will be dust. But I have learnt the truly hard way that the passion I must cling to and ardently believe in is plain gusto. To respectfully paraphrase [Agatha] Christie – whose books were wonderful comfort and company when I was on chemo – how lovely to be fifty-four years old and greedy!’ From On Passion, by the much-loved poet Dorothy Porter (1954-2008).
I’m a fair way off 54, but I’m greedy too. For great stories (like those contained in this book), for great music (Frightened Rabbit is doing it for me at the moment), for great food, for great places, for great company, which I’m lucky to have.
I’m greedy for as much life as my trusty little ticker can handle.
I’m greedy for fucking gusto.
But best to give the last word to the poetry wizard, another quote from the delicious read that is On Passion. ‘One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen is an azure kingfisher fishing in a mangrove swamp near my family home in Pittwater, Sydney. I was paddling a canoe down a creek in a rare meditative silence (one of the joys of canoeing), when there was a flash of orange/blue, like a jewelled dart suddenly spearing into the water. And as Gerard Manley Hopkins so exquisitely says, I watched a kingfisher ‘catch fire’. In the same sonnet, Hopkins proclaims the unique wonder of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’‘
In Radelaide recently (‘Radelaide’ being what appears to be a relatively new and sarcastic moniker for the grand old dame of South Australia, Adelaide) I spent a lot of time walking between Hindley Street, which is the Kings Cross of that part of the world and blogged about below in ‘Every City Has Sex’, an admittedly meretricious title for a post, but, hey, we all want to be wanted don’t we), and Rundle Street, because that wildly wicked Fringe Festival was on at the bottom of the street. So I wore out a fair bit of rubber on the old joggers, which I really should replace, though I don’t want to, because me and those joggers have been through so much – we’ve struck up this friendship and I can’t break it off, not yet.
Hang on, this isn’t about footwear friendships. It’s about chicks. Kind of.
Between Hindley Street and Rundle Street is Rundle Mall, a typical Australian pedestrian plaza filled with chewy-struck brick pavers, reject shops, fashion stores that only those with too little taste would bother entering, bubblers that don’t work, a bit of public art here and there (fat brass pigs banging around fake rubbish bins, that kind of thing), and stranded cafes selling over-priced coffee and cakes that should have been taken to the tip weeks ago. Actually it’s not that bad – I’m just getting carried away with myself…yet again (but getting carried away is my professional obligation, or so I keep telling myself).
But then, on a hoarding for a new fit-out for a department store, I spotted a series of women. Of course, there weren’t really women stuck to the hoarding, though that would have been very interesting indeed – as I said, this was the time of the Fringe, so anything can happen, anything should happen, so a group of women stapling themselves to a temporary facade would have been just lovely. But the images: LIFE-SIZED (I can’t stress that enough) cartoons of young, apparently modern women. There was The Professional Woman, The Casual Woman, and the High Society Woman. There were others but I was beginning to look like a freak as I snapped away at what were essentially marketing images. We live in age when a man with a digital camera in public is either a terrorist or a pervert, and I’m happy to report I am neither.
Despite sounding like a Year Twelve Media Studies teacher, I can’t help asking a question: what do the images want to tell us? ‘If you’re a woman, you too can have the waist the size of a 5-cent piece, the head the size of a hot-air balloon, and the eyes that Walt Disney would kill for.’ If you’re one of the developed world’s larger girls or women, are they saying, ‘Come inside this department store and we’ll make you slim and slinky and beautiful? Just spend some money and walk out carrying a few shopping bags and you’ll have the biggest spring in your step it’ll be like you’ve just shagged 10,000 Jude Laws.’
Are these images saying, ‘Don’t worry about what you eat – just yack it up and all’s well?’ Are they saying, ‘Women don’t really have stomachs – that’s a myth’? Are they saying, ‘Women can be anything they want, so come inside, max out your credit card and validate your freedom’?
I may well be getting all worked up over nothing. Tell me I’m getting worked up about nothing. Except Canadian humourist (and economist, would you believe) Stephen Leacock did say in The Garden of Folly (1924) that ‘Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’. He’s got a point, doesn’t he.
Still, tell me to go listen to some wretchedly miserable contemporary rock band (Oh God, he’s going to mention The Antlers again, I hear you cry).
Tell me to just go to sleep and wake up cheery like a normal person.
There used to be a time when I’d hear about new music because I saw it on Countdown, a much-loved Sunday-night music show here in Australia. Or I’d read about it in the free street press, when I pretended to know about what the next big thing would be. Or I’d hear it on my crackly old transistor radio (where on earth did that go?). Or I’d overhear some kid much cooler than me talking about it in the schoolyard, or I’d spot a sticker on a folder when I was meant to working out what the hell the teacher had just written on the board. A third of a century later it just magically turns up courtesy of this whole interweb thing. Which is one of the perks of this brave new world we live in, I guess.
So…getting to the point…some new music:
I’d not heard of The Society Islands before (neither the place nor the band), but I have now. Essentially The Islands are a one-man band formed by Boris Rogowski, one talented bastard based in Cologne, Germany. And their latest album, the rather ominously titled Last Hero of the Western World is well worth a listen. I don’t do mp3s on Under the Flutter (partly out of technological ineptness, but also because of the principle – it’s not so bad to actually pay for music every now and again), but you can visit the band here or check out LastFM to listen to a few of the tracks.
There’s an obvious intelligence to the songwriting, which is both dramatic and melodic, in parts reminding me of Jeff Buckley if he was a little more on the Jarvis Cocker side (and, of course, a little less on the dead side). There’s even some David Bowie in the clarity of the voice and the elocution. Mostly, however, I hear Canada’s The Dears, particularly in the biting, cynical though at times very funny lyrics and the cinematic feel to much of the music. For me, it’s the last two tracks that are the real killers,’No Place Home’ and ‘The Filing Cabinet’; here the dramatics are kept in check and the melancholic melodies allowed to work their evil magic, a little like a less morose Antlers.
By the sounds of it, The Society Islands (which, for those wondering, are a group of islands in the south Pacific Ocean and were named by James Cook in honour of the Royal Society, the sponsor of the first British scientific survey of that neck of the woods) are the epitome of determination, with Mr Rogowski pushing on regardless of whether or not this album gets picked up by a major.
Certainly worth a few minutes of your time to get your ears wrapped some of the beauties on offer here.
Now, if only Countdown made a comeback. Anyone?
I’m going to put it out there: I’m not a fan of weddings, not in the slightest, in fact the older I get the more I don’t look forward to them, and despite being a gay man I don’t cry when the couple finally gets to snog and then walks down the aisle with grins the size of tuna fish. Whilst I’m always (well, almost always) happy for the couple involved, and won’t hesitate to knock off their booze and food at the lavish receptions, and maybe, just maybe, if I’m sufficiently stonkered, I might dance with a grandma to some bad 80s tune, it’s rare that I’ll get into the true celebratory spirit. It could be that I’m jealous of the couple who’s just tied the knot, or I have a problem with all the attention they’re getting (why can’t I have just a bit of that?), or it might be that I’m wearing a suit that no longer fits. Yes, it could be these things. But it’s not, not entirely.
The first reason I’m not a fan of the whole wedding caper is the insistence of couples continuing to use the words husband and wife. According to my beloved Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a perfect resource when researching things about marriage), husband is derived from the Old English ‘husbonda’, from the Old Norse ‘husbondi’, which combines ‘hus’, meaning ‘house’, and ‘bondi’, ‘one who has a household’ (clearly not the famous Australian beach). So a husband is a man in his capacity as head of the household. Is this what women really want when they declare in front of a couple of hundred people that they take said bloke to be their ‘husband’ – please rule over me for all eternity?
The origins of wife are not as easy to trace, though it’s believed to be from the Old English ‘wif’, meaning woman. The original meaning may have been ‘the veiled one’. Make of that what you will, but again is that what men really want when they declare in front of a couple of hundred people that they take said lady to be their ‘wife’ – I’m going to keep you away from the gaze of the public for all eternity. Mmm, perhaps that’s exactly what they want. But the lack of thinking and challenge around these words and their meanings – meanings overt, subtle and subliminal – is what gets me all hot under the collar at weddings. (I must admit that although I use it all the time the word ‘partner’ can often seem so vacuously PC to be vomit-worthy, but at least its meaning is inclusive.)
The second and probably main reason that weddings really get my goat (one day I should look up the meaning of that phrase, ‘get my goat’), is the fact that Australia’s former government, lead by the cunningly conservative John Howard, who always looked like the uncle everyone has though everyone hates, except lots of people actually liked John Howard, which distressed me and many others senseless, amended the Marriage Act to include a definition of marriage as being ‘a union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. It’s worth noting that the Opposition at the time, the Australian Labor Party, backed this amendment.
I don’t want to get lost in the politics, but it is a bitter pill to swallow when my long-term partner (there’s that word) and I dutifully take our seats at yet another marriage ceremony to be informed yet again that, despite thirteen years in duration, our relationship doesn’t count, that it isn’t valued, that it’s second-class, that there’s no place for it in contemporary Australian society. So I put this challenge out there: if you’re about to get married and you think the Marriage Act in your country sucks the big one, then be a revolutionary: just before you tie the knot pause proceedings and turn to your family and friends and say something along the lines of this: “We love each other and want to commit to each other in front of you all and the law, but we want all those who love each other to have the opportunity to commit in front of their family and friends and the law, so we make this stand right here, right now, that we believe the Marriage Act discriminates and find this unacceptable – we look forward to this situation changing sooner rather than later”.
Or just quote Gwen Stafani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’: ‘Let me hear you say this shit is bananas/B-A-N-A-N-A-S’.
How good that would be. I might actually cry at a wedding.
I took these images over the weekend just gone in Hindley Street, Adelaide. Hindley Street is essentially the seedy end of that South Australian town, filled with a wild, almost out of control mix of cancerous fast-food franchises, strip joints, sports bars, wine bars, hotels (some posh, some not), and independent bookshops with a fair bit of street art, both permanent and ephemeral, thrown in for good measure. To spend a week in the street – so to speak – was a joy, especially for someone who comes from the right side of the tracks.
I was in Adelaide for a range of reasons, including attending the Fringe Festival (which was bloody brilliant – steal money from your grandma to see Australia’s own The Burlesque Hour and The Wau-Wau Sisters from New York) as well as for He Who Deserves The Best Bars and Restaurants Money Can Buy, because it was his birthday, well, it’s almost his birthday.
But since I’ve been back in the comfort of my own house and street and suburb and city, I’ve been thinking about the miracle that is a pulsing city street, one that’s human despite the threat in the faces of the people who live there, beautiful despite the ugliness, wanting despite the aloofness.
Tonight I’ve come across a quote from the British author and critic John Berger. In Keeping a Rendezvous (1987), he wrote ‘Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman’.
I’m not from Adelaide but I’d call it an old-man wino in search of a cultural experience or a quickie in a laneway. And my home town, Canberra? A bored middle-class white boy speeding along in a stolen car hoping to crash into some meaning.
Your place – how would you describe it?