21 March 2013

A Little Rain on VerseDay

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:00 am

Equinox x2500I’ve now been tweeting my verse Equinox for six months, which means it’s halfway through, and in honour of the actual equinox—autumnal where the book is set, vernal where I am now—I’m releasing the whole thing as an e-book through the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR). Naturally I’ll keep tweeting the rest of the book as normal, to secure the coveted prize of First Verse Novel Tweeted in its Entirety, but if you want to see how it ends now you can pick it up for the low introductory price of £0.79/€0.89/$0.99.

Equinox tells a story of Sydney over four seasons. The days lengthen and fortune shines, until the earth swings from the sun and into a long winter. The city-dwellers all draw the same curve with their lives: the bright spark whose job is killing him in any number of ways; the deckhand trying to shunt her father through his life; the beauty queen who finds the city a jealous rival; even the homeless man wandering like a frightened angel. They struggle through different parts of the city—though their paths may meet, and they may help each other back to the spring. 

Each day in the city’s year is told in a sonnet, capturing some of the patterns and rhythms of the story. Each sonnet is an impression, strung together into the moving image of a city and its many parts, its rivers and gardens, its towers and suburbs, its pubs and empty streets, and the people who cling to it as if to a ship in high seas.

The characters’ fortunes are mapped to the length of their days and nights; now, halfway through the story, early hopes have been disappointed and dreams complicated, with the sense that worse is to come. While a solstice suggests a slowing and a pause, an equinox is a time of rapid change, and the steepest part of the sine curve that describes the day’s length throughout the year. The point of equality is where the derivative, the change in the change, reverses its direction: an infinitesimal shift more sensed than observed:


The equinox, the height of autumn
if autumn ever had a height,
contains both post- and ante-mortem,
the morning after and the night.
Between its tallest and its deepest
the curve of day and night is steepest
here at the point of its inflection.
The city basks in its protection:
the rain has stopped; the air is balmy;
a sense of balance and of stasis
converts the flood to an oasis
and checks the gathering tsunami.
The city hides within its folds
and wonders what the future holds.

This launch is timed not only to coincide with the equinox, but also to tie in with VerseDay 2013, an initiative of the brilliant VerseNovels.com, your only source of verse novel news and reviews. When I first came to write Solstice in the early 1990s, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate stood almost alone as a contemporary novel in verse; since then there has been a veritable explosion of them, most notably in the young adult arena. Any parent knows that kids love poetry, the energy and familiarity and surprise of language arranged according to its tones and its cadences as well as by its meaning, and there’s no reason this should stop with Dr Seuss and Hairy Maclary—there’s no reason it should ever stop. So it’s terrific to see so many verse novels doing so well and being discussed so widely, and writer Gabrielle Prendergast is doing a great job keeping track of it all. There’ll be at least one VerseDay blog every Thursday in 2013 and I’m delighted to be part of it.

To celebrate the launch, my other verse projects have been reduced to the same low price: that’s both the new edition and the original play of Solstice, and my play Fortinbrasse. 

Happy equinox, and happy VerseDay!

22 January 2013

Two plays in verse

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:58 am

Fortinbrasse CoverWhen I published the new digital edition of Solstice late last year, I got some delightful responses from people who had seen the theatre adaptation, which was staged very beautifully in the outdoor amphitheatre at the Festival Centre as part of Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival. It’s likely that many more people saw the play than read the book: it was sold out most nights, and only rained out once. I’m sure the play’s success was entirely thanks to the stellar cast and the terrific musicians, led by Kate Ceberano and Barney McAll (or “KC and the Solstice Band” as they called themselves for a couple of unforgettable side gigs)—but I like to think that the script at least kept out of their way while they all did their wonderful stuff. 

Because the music was largely improvised it’s now more or less lost to history—last I heard, the State Theatre Company has at least one performance on tape but it’s tricky to get at because of rights clearances—but the text is happily mine and so I’ve made it available in its own digital edition for the introductory price of £0.79/€0.89/$0.99 in the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR) with other outlets, as I keep saying, to follow. Check it out if you’re nostalgic for the play, especially if you’d like to mount it again, in a professional, amateur or educational capacity!

The playscript presented a few new challenges for e-book formatting, since the old Kindles and the Kindle apps aren’t very good at fixed layout elements, and the smaller screens make it dangerous to work around these limitations with tricks like invisible tables and so on. So the script doesn’t look exactly like the script we used for the actual production, but I think it’s as clean and readable as possible. Anybody who ever wants to stage the play can e-mail me for a more tractable format. 

Anyway, while I was working out these issues I thought I’d try them on another of my plays in verse. This is Fortinbrasse, the tragedy of the Prince of Norway, who is referred to rather obliquely but recurrently in Hamlet. Instead of sonnets and iambs, this one is written in fornyrðislag (“old-story metre” or “metre of ancient utterance”), the old Norse alliterative verse form used in the Eddas and later in Beowulf. Its language and symbolism take advantage of the rich pantheon of Norse mythology and the traditions of kenning (“whale-road” for ocean, “sword-water” for blood); its plot fills in the arc sketched by the Second Quarto Hamlet  (which has the most extensive treatment of events in Norway, and hence my spelling) with additional details from Shakespeare’s sources and their sources (François de Belleforest’s Hamblet, Saxo Grammaticus’s Amleth, you name it) and my own embellishments to tell the tragic tale of Hamlet’s mirror and foil. 

Fortinbrasse hasn’t been performed yet: it’s got quite a large cast, it’s in alliterative verse, and it’s possible that not everybody is as big a Hamlet tragic as I am. But I think it would be great to read or even stage in conjunction with Hamlet. Check it out if you’re a fan of fornyrðislag, or if you’ve ever wondered why Fortinbras(se) is so bummed when he arrives at Elsinore and Horatio hands him the keys, or indeed what he’s doing marching across Denmark to get to Poland when it’s not really on the way. Fortinbrasse is available from the Kindle Store (US UK CA DE FR ES IT JP BR) for the same low introductory price as Solstice

4 October 2012

Death of the Book? Death of the Author!

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:21 am

Death of the Author Dark x2500I’ve been talking rather a lot lately about e-books and alternative publishing models, but I haven’t really put my money where my mouth is: apart from occasional stunts like Equinox, all of my books have been published on paper by traditional publishers. There have been obvious advantages to going this way: very handy advances, excellent editorial guidance, professional design and layout, publicity and marketing. I’m very lucky to have been published traditionally and I still think it, or something very like it, is the best way to go if you have the option, particularly when you’re starting out.

But sometimes you don’t have the option. To take a random example: my third novel turned out to be A Little Rain on Thursday (also called Vellum), but for quite a while it was going to be a postmodern serial killer thriller called Death of the Author, a playful and gruesome pastiche about a psychopath called The Reader who preys on the writers attending a Festival of Multiple Homicide Fiction in Adelaide, famously one of the world’s creepiest cities. It quotes Roland Barthes and its form is partly inspired by Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, interleaving the hunt for the killer with extracts from each of the murdered authors’ books and yielding many serial killers for one low price. It pokes loving fun at writers’ festivals and Adelaide, and features a high-speed chase on a guided busway—to my knowledge unique in all of fiction. 

This was the manuscript that got me my first agent, and it was quickly accepted by a very good publisher with a tentative release date set. Unfortunately, the publisher restructured, the fiction editor left, and the book found itself in limbo. By the time everything shook out, it was like the moment had been lost: postmodernism had plateaued, Andrew Masterson’s book had come out with the same title, my agent had retired and I’d moved on to my next project. But now I look back on the book with some nostalgia, almost as a period piece: a tribute to the late 1990s, a fin de siècle, I suppose; a simpler and yet much more unnecessarily complicated time. 

So I’ve decided that for all kinds of reasons this should be my first adventure in independent electronic publishing. It’s as much to get a feel for how the whole thing works from the inside as anything, and I’ve enjoyed tinkering with e-book formats and experimenting with cover designs. I’ve settled on this one, based on macro photographs of printer’s type, reversed of course for the purposes of legibility: it’s simple but I think quite distinctive, and easily adaptable to other titles. 

Death of the Author is now available worldwide from your favourite Kindle Store (US, UK, DE, FR, ES, IT), priced competitively at $US2.99, £1.99 or €2.79 including any VAT. Other outlets will come in the near future, but you can read Kindle books on just about anything these days, and Death of the Author is naturally DRM-free so you can convert it to any other format if you need to. 

As always, you can download a generous sample to your favourite device for free. And let me know if you or anyone you know would like to review the book for a print or online publication, and I’ll send a review copy in your preferred electronic format.

20 September 2012

Equinox is coming to Twitter

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:36 pm

EquinoxI’ll be tweeting Equinoxmy novel in sonnet form, in its entirety over a year starting on the actual equinox, the 22nd of September 2012. 

The novel, which is a sequel to my earlier Solstice, follows four characters through Sydney, Australia over the course of a year, capturing each day in a single Pushkin sonnet. That’s fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter every day, which fit pretty comfortably into seven tweets.

Solstice was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award and published by the estimable Allen & Unwin; Equinox was longlisted for the same award but the verse-novel bubble had burst by then and the book has not been traditionally published. It made its first appearance in serial form  on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, where it started off strongly but received less traffic as time went on. I think this was partly because it kept moving around, to different places on the front page and then to the Books section, but mostly because people forgot or didn’t have time to visit the page every day and lost the thread of the story.

Twitter solves these problems: just follow me at @mattrubinstein and a new sonnet will appear in your stream at the same time each day, along with links to new blog posts and fairly occasional musings and retweets. I’m hoping that people might retweet couplets, quatrains or even whole sonnets they find pleasing, and I look forward to seeing where the whole thing goes.

A couple of prose novels have already debuted on Twitter, as have short stories like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”. But this is without question the first full-length novel in verse to be tweeted in its entirety in the history of the known universe. We take what we can get.

You can read more about the astronomical equinox here and some stuff about Pushkin and sonnets here. When it comes to iambic tetrameter, I can’t do any better than Vikram Seth’s defence in his inspirational The Golden Gate

Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter, 
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Deamean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme,
To reassert themselves, but sadly,
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That’s why.

For endless examples of the “tyrant of English” I refer you to the Pentametron.

2 September 2012

Calibre Prize 2012

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:54 am

CathachOfStColumbaI am thrilled to announce that my essay “Body and Soul: Copyright Law and Enforcement in the Age of the Electronic Book” has just won the 2012 Calibre Prize for a long-form essay on any non-fiction topic. The prize is administered by Australian Book Review and supported by the Cultural Fund of Copyright Agency Limited.

I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve won anything since my epic undergraduate poem “The 1500 Words of Loretta DeFrupp” took out the Dr Seuss Tribute Competition organised by the Adelaide University Literary Society’s Timely Literary Suppository. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated, shortlisted and highly commended, I’ve been a finalist and a runner-up, but never outright won anything. I was overjoyed to hear that I’d been longlisted and then shortlisted for the Calibre prize, along with four intriguing essays by accomplished writers: Claire Corbett’s “The Last Space Waltz?: Reflections on 2001: A Space Odyssey and NASA—On Being Earthbound at the End of the Age of Atlantis”, Enid Ratnam-Keese’s “Mapping the Edges of the Night”, Bronwyn Lay’s “Imaginary Exile” and Colin Nettelbeck’s “Now They’ve Gone”. I had most of a blog post written in my head about how winning isn’t everything, a bronze or silver isn’t a loss, and how in my judging experience a shortlisting often means that someone is in there fighting hard for you. It was going to be called “You have won second prize in a beauty contest” and would probably have referenced the Simpsons episode where Lisa is outdone by Winona Ryder and dreams she’s in an almost-supergroup with Art Garfunkel, John Oates and Jim Messina, singing their #2 hit “Born to Runner-up”… But then they went and spoiled it all. Woo!

The essay is about the way a book’s essence and its physical form interact, what that means for the future of books in the digital age, and what that means for copyright law and enforcement in the face of perfect, costless and just-about-frictionless reproduction. It’s kind of a perfect storm of my colliding interests in writing, technology and law, and I really enjoyed researching it and working it up. It begins with the first known copyright dispute:

The most precious manuscript held by the Royal Irish Academy is RIA MS 12 R 33, a sixth-century book of psalms known as an Cathach (‘the Battler’), or the Psalter of St Columba. It is believed to be the oldest extant Irish psalter, the earliest example of Irish writing – and the world’s oldest pirate copy. According to tradition, St Columba secretly transcribed the manuscript from a psalter belonging to his teacher, St Finian. Finian discovered the subterfuge, demanded the copy, and brought the dispute before Diarmait, the last pagan king of Ireland. The king decreed that ‘to every cow belongs her calf’, and so the copy of a book belonged to the owner of the original. Columba appealed the decision on the battlefield, and defeated Finian in a bloody clash at Cúl Dreimhne. No trace remains of Finian’s original manuscript, if it ever existed. Only ‘The Battler’ survives.

Finian v Columba is difficult to reconcile with modern copyright law. The psalms in question were attributed to God, revealed to David, and translated by St Jerome in the fourth century, so Finian’s claim to copyright in the work is unclear. It may be that the pagan Diarmait simply free-associated his judgment from the calfskin of the Cathach’s pages. But any want of judicial rigour is surely redeemed by the king’s early intuition that there is something valuable about a book beyond its physical self, that it has spirit as well as flesh and a soul beyond its body – as well as by the delicious consequences of an actual military war being fought, at least in part, over a single illegal copy, and of that outlawed copy becoming a national treasure.

You can read the whole thing in the September 2012 issue of Australian Book Review, in print or online. If you’re not a subscriber, you can read the essay and a tonne of other great stuff for $6. Thanks, ABR and CAL! 

30 April 2012

David Foster Wallace on The Simpsons

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:07 pm


This week’s episode of The Simpsons is full of pleasing references to David Foster Wallace’s famous essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, first published in Harper’s as Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise and expanded in the essay collection that bears its new and lasting title. 

The connections begin obviously enough with the episode title, the grammatically-fussier A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again. DFW geeks may also notice that the four-fingered family narrowly avoid being shunted onto a sugar-free fitness cruise (“welcome to eight days and seven nights of push-ups and kale!”) aboard the grim Nadir, which was DFW’s ironym for the Zenith, the luxury liner he spends nearly 30,000 words (plus footnotes) hilariously eviscerating. 

Even more piquant is this quick cameo of the man himself, sitting behind Bart in his celebrated tuxedo T-shirt:

The Fleet Bar was also the site of Elegant Tea Time later that same day, where elderly female passengers wore long white stripper-gloves and pinkies protruded from cups, and where among my breaches of Elegant Tea Time etiquette apparently were: (a) imagining people would be amused by the tuxedo-design T-shirt I wore because I hadn’t taken seriously the Celebrity brochure’s instruction to bring a real tux on the Cruise…


I, dickhead that I am, decided in advance that the idea of Formalwear on a tropical vacation was absurd, and I steadfastly refused to buy or rent a tux and go through the hassle of trying to figure out how even to pack it. I was both right and wrong: yes, the Formalwear thing is absurd, but since every Nadirite except me went ahead and dressed up in absurd Formalwear on Formal nights, I—having, of course, ironically enough spurned a tux precisely because of absurdity-considerations—was the one who ends up looking absurd at Formal 5*C.R. suppers—painfully absurd in the tuxedo-motif T-shirt I wore on the first Formal night…

Since it appears only in the footnotes to the essay, the tuxedo T-shirt probably occupies a whole additional level of DFW geekery, so hats off to the Simpsons writers for their delightful tribute. There are almost certainly even more stratospheric references visible only to even more dedicated DFW geeks than me. 

For what it’s worth, DFW might not have been entirely happy to be even further immortalised here. As he told Wisconsin Public Radio’s Steve Paulson in 1997:

I think The Simpsons is important art. On the other hand, it’s also—in my opinion—relentlessly corrosive to the soul, and everything is parodied, and everything’s ridiculous. Maybe I’m old, but for my part I can be steeped in about an hour of it, and I sort of have to walk away and look at a flower or something. 

24 April 2012

Copyright infringement is more like trespass than theft

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:06 pm


In the wake of the Australian High Court decision in Roadshow Films v iiNet [2012] HCA 16, though not entirely apropos of it, Prof Stuart Green of the Rutgers School of Law tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that illegal downloading is more similar to the crime of trespass than of theft:

“To say that there was a trespass is traditionally understood to mean that there was a temporary use of someone’s property without permission,” he said. “If someone trespasses on your property it means that they’ve come uninvited but they haven’t deprived you of use. They haven’t deprived you of the basic possession of the property.

This is something I’ve been arguing in pubs and such for some time, so I’m glad to have at some academic support. If you copy my movie or book or whatever without permission, you’ve enjoyed something for free that the law says I can exclude you from or else charge you for as I see fit. What I hold is something like a property right, but it’s not so much like a right in tangible personal property—which can be stolen, destroyed or used up—as like a right in real property, which I own up to heaven and down to hell and come what may. 

Say I’ve got some land on a hill with a beautiful view. I might charge people to climb my hill and have a look—and if trespassers sneak in at night they’ve acted contrary to my right to charge or exclude them, but it’s a stretch to say that they’ve stolen anything from me. So it is with copyright infringement. It’s not the same as stealing a DVD off a shelf, where a retailer has paid for that DVD and now won’t be able to sell it to anyone else. It’s more like sneaking in to see a movie without paying, where the loss suffered is more amorphous and harder to quantify.

One difference between copyright infringement and trespass to land is that it’s not likely that literally millions of people would sneak up my hill at night, perhaps vastly outnumbering the people who paid, with almost nothing I could do to stop them. But I’m not sure that the empirical consequence of many repetitions of an individual act should be allowed to affect the legal nature of that act, or to call it anything other than what it is. 

Does it matter? I think it does. Intellectual property is valuable and the people who develop it deserve to be paid. But punishing breaches of copyright is never going to be as effective as persuading people not to infringe in the first place. And we won’t persuade them of anything by presenting them with bad arguments whose premises they instinctively feel to be false. Rather than the simple-but-wrong equation of copyright infringement with theft, I think it’s worth making slightly more complex and much more sustainable arguments. As Green has said previously:

So what are the lessons in all this? For starters, we should stop trying to shoehorn the 21st-century problem of illegal downloading into a moral and legal regime that was developed with a pre- or mid-20th-century economy in mind. Second, we should recognize that the criminal law is least effective—and least legitimate—when it is at odds with widely held moral intuitions.

Illegal downloading is, of course, a real problem. People who work hard to produce creative works are entitled to enjoy legal protection to reap the benefits of their labors. And if others want to enjoy those creative works, it’s reasonable to make them pay for the privilege. But framing illegal downloading as a form of stealing doesn’t, and probably never will, work. We would do better to consider a range of legal concepts that fit the problem more appropriately: concepts like unauthorized use, trespass, conversion and misappropriation.

This is not merely a question of nomenclature. The label we apply to criminal acts matters crucially in terms of how we conceive of and stigmatize them. What we choose to call a given type of crime ultimately determines how it’s formulated and classified and, perhaps most important, how it will be punished. Treating different forms of property deprivation as different crimes may seem untidy, but that is the nature of criminal law.

I’m looking forward to the anti-piracy ads to come: You wouldn’t sneak into a movie. You wouldn’t dodge a bridge toll. You wouldn’t just have a picnic in someone’s field. Downloading pirated films is conceptually a lot like trespass. Trespass is against the law. Piracy. It’s a crime. Just not that one. 

18 April 2012

Tremble before the Pentametron

by Matt Rubinstein at 4:14 am

This may be enough to justify the entire Internet: inadvertent lines of iambic pentameter automatically harvested from Twitter, arranged into rhyming couplets and then into sonnets (well, groups of 7 couplets).

I fucking #love the wonder years. Okay?
I’m just an aggravated mess today. ????
In English………. Romeo and Juliet
Why isn’t Marijuana legal yet?

I have a practice. Party is in may
yew gotta operate the easy way
The angels sang a whiskey lullaby.
Another day another dollar sigh

Good morning =) ! Thankful for another day !
I’m bringing extra shirts & cooling spray
Another day another dollar #Grind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind :)

My teachers playing climax .. OH OKAY.
Goodmorning!!!(: feeling good about today(:

Feature requests: iambic tetrameter (marvellous, swift meter) and Pushkin sonnets (ABAB CCDD EFFE GG). Thanks to the Boings.

17 April 2012

What kind of gorilla is Amazon?

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:44 pm

This isn't going to end wellAn 800-pound one, obviously—but the rampaging, Manhattan-crushing terror of King Kong, or the misunderstood, nurturing crowd-pleaser of King Kong?

My always-switched-on agent was the first to forward me this piece by Charlie Stross about the giant e-tailer’s desire and ability to dominate the still-vulnerable e-book industry by controlling both the sale of e-books to the public and the purchase of those e-books from publishers—creating a monopoly in the downstream market and a monopsony in the upstream.

Stross argues that the publishers did just about everything in their power to put Amazon in this position in the first place, mostly by requiring Amazon to secure their e-books with digital rights management that locked the books to Amazon’s Kindle hardware:

By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony.

I’m going to have to come back to the casual use of “predatory” here, but it’s not really necessary to Stross’s conclusion:

So, because Amazon had shoved a subsidized Kindle reader or a free Kindle iPhone app into their hands, and they’d bought a handful of books using it, the majority of customers found themselves locked in to the platform they’d started out on. Want to move to another platform? That’s hard; you lose all the books you’ve already bought, because you can’t take them with you.

Now, I also think DRM is wrong-headed and contemptible, and I make it a point never to buy any DRM-protected media unless I know that the tools exist for me to unlock it if I need to in the future. But many people don’t realise either that the DRM is there in the first place or that they can break it, and so they can easily find themselves constrained within a particular ecosystem, and that can have powerful anti-competitive effects.

However, as I hinted last time, I don’t believe that in Amazon’s case the effects are as strong as they used to be, or as many people still think. See for example Jordan Wiseman’s analysis in The Atlantic, somewhat hysterically headlined (though probably not by him) “The Justice Department Just Made Jeff Bezos Dictator-for-Life”:

Thanks to the use of DRM technology, most eBooks can only be read on a proprietary device. Amazon’s eBooks can only be read on a Kindle, or a Kindle app. Barnes & Noble’s books can only be read on a Nook. So the larger a library any one customer builds with a single retailer, the less likely it is they’ll ultimately switch.

The problem is that Wiseman and even Stross seem to blithely align Kindle devices and Kindle apps as if they’re the same thing, but they’re not.

When you could only read Kindle books on a physical Kindle, Amazon could afford to take a bath on best-sellers, and perhaps barely break even on overall e-book sales, knowing that everyone who bought a cheap Kindle book must also have bought a Kindle at a much healthier margin. This gave Amazon a competitive advantage over the few retailers of e-books who couldn’t subsidise their low prices with hardware sales, and helped to establish Amazon as the major presence in the sector.

But in response to the iPad, the iBookstore and the agency model, Amazon changed its strategy substantially. It now looks like it’s making the bulk of its money from selling e-books, not from selling Kindle hardware.

The first Kindles were priced far higher than their estimated build costs, but every Kindle since the launch of the iPad and the agency model has been priced close to marginal cost or even below it—these are the “subsidized” Kindles Stross is talking about; it’s clear that either the books or the hardware can be subsidised, but they can’t both subsidise each other.

Kindle reader apps are now available for the PC, the Mac, the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and for Android phones and tablets. Amazon doesn’t say how many Kindles have been sold, but it did brag that it had shifted “well over 1 million” each week for December 2011. By contrast, Apple sold three million new iPads in the four days following launch. And every iPad is potentially a Kindle reader: right now the Kindle app is the seventh-most-downloaded free iPad app, five places above Apple’s own iBooks app. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to conclude that more people read Kindle books on iPads than on Kindles; and in fact they read more Kindle books on their iPads than they read iBooks.

This suggests to me that hardware lock-in isn’t what it used to be. Yes, you’re still using Amazon’s platform, but who cares? You can use it on any computer and just about any tablet that you’re likely to buy. Yes, your Kindle books will forever be accessed through your Kindle app and not your iBooks app, but that’s not such a high price to pay—many people have more than one bookshelf in their homes. It’s not as good as an open, DRM-free standard, but it’s not true to say that you can’t easily take your books to another platform (unless you’re trying to move from the Apple ecosystem).

Amazon can still price below cost, of course, but under the new arrangements it can’t expect to make up the resulting losses from hardware sales. It will quickly lose actual money—unless it can drive all its competitors out of the market, and keep them out long enough to raise prices high enough to make up its earlier losses. This is much harder than it sounds, and has led some economists to wonder whether predatory pricing is actually a real thing that ever works. And when one of the competitors you’re trying to drive out is Apple—which still sells all its hardware at a substantial margin, and could subsidise iBooks if it wanted— it’s even harder.

I also don’t think Amazon can return to its old strategy of high-margin hardware and unprofitable e-books that are only available on that hardware. By my wild guess, millions of Kindle books have been sold to people who don’t own any Kindle hardware at all, and I don’t see how Amazon can cut them loose now—either by withdrawing their apps altogether or refusing to sell them any new books. So many gallons of ink and e-ink have been lately spent explaining why Amazon is a predatory monster precisely because most customers like Amazon—for its cheap prices, yes, but also for its above-average customer service. For most people—seeing as there are more customers than suppliers around—Amazon still looks like the good guy in this fight, while the publishers are coming off as sneaky or clueless. If public opinion were to turn against Amazon—as it surely would if it suddenly cut off everyone’s non-Kindle Kindle books—I think it would be in much more trouble than it is.

Amazon might still return to a dominant position in e-book acquisition and retailing—if it ever relinquished that position—but it won’t be because of DRM or predatory pricing; from now on, it will have to be through scale economies and giving customers what they want. What that might mean for the future of publishing and even writing is, I think, anybody’s guess.


14 April 2012

e-books and antitrust

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:55 am


More than two years ago (but shamefully still on the same blog page as this entry) we spoke of the imminent launch of the iPad and iBookstore and their consequences for e-book pricing and distribution. I noted that Steve Jobs seemed eerily sanguine about competing with Amazon and its heavyweight Kindle Store despite projected iBook prices being 30% to 50% higher than their Kindle equivalents. “The prices will be the same,” Steve predicted breezily.

And he was right. Amazon’s famous $9.99 new releases and bestsellers are no more, and now most new trade books cost $12.99—the same as they do on the iBookstore, and indeed on the Nook Store, the Kobo Store, and whatever Google is calling its e-bookstore this week. How did Steve know? According to the US Department of Justice, it’s because Apple had already agreed with the major publishers to engineer an industry-wide shift from the traditional wholesale-retail model to a new agency model that would allow publishers to set retail prices directly, paying distributors a uniform 30% commission instead of charging a wholesale price.

On the face of it, this was never an astounding deal for publishers or authors: if the old wholesale price for a new release was $10 or more (so that Amazon’s $9.99 broke even or lost money, as has always been argued) then taking $9.09 on a $12.99 title doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. But it seems the publishers were more worried about customers getting used to the $9.99 price point and being reluctant to pay any more than that for either e-books or printed books into the future. As a result, they’ve been willing to sacrifice some short-term revenues—and allegedly limit retail prices to the tiers agreed with Apple—in order to wrest control of the emerging e-book market from a powerful Amazon.

I’m a bit conflicted about all of this since I like basically all of the parties involved. As an itinerant reader I like e-books as well as print books, and I sure liked Amazon’s lower prices. I also like Apple hardware, and have a ton of Kindle books on my iPad. As a writer I like publishers and want them to make money and keep publishing books and paying advances—though I would rather see them competing among themselves to innovate in the emerging market instead of just coordinating to prop up print sales. And as a sometime competition lawyer I like the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and am not at all sure that the best answer to a dominant Amazon is the elimination of retail price competition.

Anyway, Hachette, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have all settled with the DoJ, and will have to renegotiate with Apple and stop preventing other retailers from discounting e-books to undercut the iBookstore. This is essentially a renunciation of the agency model, since an agent who can set the retail price isn’t really much of an agent. Macmillan—the first to force the agency model on Amazon—and Penguin have refused to settle, and Apple has denied everything. The world’s biggest trade bookseller, Random House, quietly adopted the agency model in February 2011 but has escaped the DoJ’s wrath and is referred to only obliquely in the filing as “the holdout publisher” and “the non-defendant publisher” bullied by the other five and Apple for not going agency sooner.

What happens if the DoJ wins or settles with the remaining publishers and the agency model is consigned to a footnote? The publishers and Authors Guild president Scott Turow argue that Amazon will return to its below-cost pricing and kill all other electronic and print outlets. I’m not convinced that this will happen, partly because it’s not clear to what extent Amazon’s pricing was ever properly predatory, and partly because things have changed considerably in the past two years.

Going in the face of the conventional wisdom, the DoJ asserts, presumably on information from Amazon, that:

From the time of its launch, Amazon’s e-book distribution business has been consistently profitable, even when substantially discounting some newly released and bestselling titles.

I’m going to assume that Amazon isn’t sneakily accounting Kindle hardware sales into its “e-book distribution business” and conclude that, even if Amazon did sell new releases and New York Times best-sellers at or slightly below the wholesale price it paid to publishers, it could still turn a profit overall by charging comfortably more than the wholesale cost on other books—the slightly older or more specialist titles that make up its immensely long tail. You can see this strategy at any physical bookshop.

The kick from Kindle hardware must have been a factor, but I wonder whether this would still be such a big deal if the wholesale-retail model were to return now. Remember that for the first two years of the Kindle Store, you could only read a Kindle book on an actual Kindle—unless you went to the trouble of decrypting and converting it to read on your computer or sideload onto another e-reader. In very late 2009 Amazon released its Kindle Reader for PC, and since then has provided its own apps for almost every major mobile and desktop operating system, as well as the Kindle Cloud Reader that lets you read your Kindle books on any browser.

As a result, there’s no longer any guarantee that a loss on a Kindle title will be offset by any sale of Kindle hardware: instead, cheap Kindle books are just as likely to drive iPad sales (whereas you can’t read an iBook on any non-Apple device without significant hackery). At any rate, Amazon’s ability to subsidise e-books from hardware sales is no greater than Apple’s or Barnes & Noble’s. Amazon’s expansion beyond the Kindle may well have been a response to the new agency arrangement, but it’s hard to see them going back on it now.

The agency arrangements have certainly fostered new competitors to Amazon and levelled the field somewhat. But without retail price competition and the ability of retailers to experiment with new models, this is not a competitive system in any substantive sense—Scott Turow’s “the government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition” is catchy but empty. The agency model, whether it resulted from a conspiracy or not, may have been a useful transitional arrangement in a fragile emerging market, but I don’t think it’s healthy in the long run. I want to see what happens next.


3 March 2012

Friday Night Lights

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:41 pm

FnlI watched the Super Bowl this year, and if it made any sense at all it was because I’ve spent the last six months wading through NBC’s Friday Night Lights, spun off from Peter Berg’s 2004 film of the same name, in turn was based on HG “Buzz” Bissinger’s book of the slightly longer (and Oxford-commaed) name Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream.

I remember enjoying the film, which starred Billy Bob Thornton as the heroic coach, Connie Britton as his heroic wife and Lucas Black as the heroic quarterback. For some reason I’ve always enjoyed films about American football, from Any Given Sunday and Remember the Titans to Jerry Maguire and Shane Black’s million-dollar script for Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout.

Somewhat pretentiously, I first heard about the TV series from Lorrie Moore’s review in The New York Review of Books, as serious and sympathetic an analysis of popular culture as I’ve read anywhere buy levitra vardenafil. Moore remembers a party where:

I found myself locked in enthusiastic conversation in a corner with two other writers, all three of us, we discovered, solitary, isolated viewers of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. We spewed forth excitedly, like addicts—this was no longer a secret habit but a legitimately brilliant drama.

FNL‘s fifth and final season finished a year ago, but as far as I can tell it had never been seriously broadcast in the UK until it began on Sky Atlantic last month. It also struggled to find a regular slot in Australia, bouncing between Channel 10, Foxtel and ABC2. I’ve been watching it on Netflix, and like Lorrie Moore I’ve also come across quite a few closet fans who have tracked it down on DVD or online—and they’ve often been writers.

So I was stoked to see that in the recent Simpsons episode The Book Job, Lisa takes time out from the young adult novel she’s supposed to be writing to watch all five seasons. It’s a fun episode that features Neil Gaiman and begins with Lisa’s disappointment that one of her favourite authors is really a fabricated front for a committee of ghost-writers.

13 July 2011

Raymond Chandler in Hollywood

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:12 am


Raymond Chandler went to Hollywood in the 1940s and wasn’t too impressed by the studio system, the way it treated screenwriters or the films they produced together:

An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.

It’s a terrific angry read and fantastic that a piece written for The Atlantic in 1945 is again available in full on the Internet. It gives us a great chance to see how things were back then—expressed in full throat by one of the writers most important to film as well as literature—and think about what’s changed. Certainly it’s still true that a screenwriter can’t expect to maintain much purity of vision through the long and collaborative process of getting a story to screen; though film is now at least seen as a director’s medium rather than a producer’s medium, whatever the financial reality might be. And it’s still almost always true that:

On the billboards, in the newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing; it will be the first to disappear as the size of the ad is cut down toward the middle of the week; it will be the last and least to be mentioned in any word-of-mouth or radio promotion.

…though there have been a handful of reasonably famous screenwriters and television writers since 1945. It’s still true that many movies are being made from terrible screenplays and terrible stories—even though one of the main things Chandler blames for this state of affairs has changed almost completely:

If there is no art of the screenplay, the reason is at least partly that there exists no available body of technical theory and practice by which it can be learned. There is no available library of screenplay literature, because the screenplays belong to the studios, and they will only show them within their guarded walls. There is no body of critical opinion, because there are no critics of the screenplay; there are only critics of motion pictures as entertainment, and most of these critics know nothing whatever of the means whereby the motion picture is created and put on celluloid. There is no teaching, because there is no one to teach.

Well, now there’s plenty of technical theory and practice, there are plenty of teachers, and thanks again to the Internet you can get various drafts of just about any movie you like. Has it made us better screenwriters? I’m sure it has. Has it led to better films? That’s a bit trickier. Everything I’ve learned about writing suggests that there are few if any shortcuts, even with all the best tools and techniques you need a lot of time to rework and refine, and that kind of support is hard to find.

The Falcon Takes Over was the second sequel to RKO’s 1941 B-movie The Gay Falcon, and was the first adaptation of Chandler’s work: in this case Farewell, My Lovely, the second Philip Marlowe novel, replacing Marlowe with the titular Gay Falcon. This kind of thing still happens all the time, of course, most recently when Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides was shoehorned into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, earlier when Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes became Die Hard 2, and probably a lot of others. Luckily Farewell, My Lovely was adapted twice more with Marlowe restored to the lead, and Chandler’s series became its own film phenomenon after Bogie in The Big Sleep. I don’t know whether anybody else’s novels ever became screen Marlowes—that would have been poetically just, though no doubt appalling.

10 May 2011

Home, James

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:59 pm

Clive James in Cambridge Footlights 1969I found myself moved by David Free’s defence of Clive James’s late poetry in this month’s Australian Literary Review. Free has performed a kind of literary biopsy, diagnosing the condition of James’s health as revealed in his recent poems:

Vertical Envelopment, published in December last year, revealed that James had been hospitalised twice during the preceding months, first with a serious bout of emphysema (“The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer”); and later, in New York, after being “felled” by a blood clot. The same poem makes a glancing but ominous reference to the poet’s “CLL / Leukaemia that might hold off for years”. Slow-moving as this form of the disease may be, it still sounds like something one would prefer not to have.

…and argues that these new reflections typify a more serious and personal phase in James’s work. The piece coincides with the official news that James is being treated for leukaemia—presumably the chronic lymphocytic leukaemia initialled in “Vertical Envelopment”, along with the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or “COPD / Which sounds as if it might star Dennis Franz / As Andy Sipowicz, but it turns out / To be the bug they once called emphysema”.

ALR editor Luke Slattery writes that it was Free’s essay that prompted him to contact James to inquire about the state of his health. It probably says something about the attention paid to poetry—maybe in general, maybe his in particular—that James’s leukaemia only became worldwide news in May, although “Vertical Envelopment” was published last November. You can’t assume that a poem is autobiographical or true, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making this up—especially if you’ve been to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge:

Taking the piss out of my catheter,
The near-full plastic bag bulks on my calf
As I push my I.V. tower through Addenbrooke’s
Like an Airborne soldier heading for D-day
Down the longest corridor in England.

I was always a fan of James as a television personality, and was devoted to Clive James on Television and Saturday Night Clive through high school. People used to tell me I sounded like James when I’d hazard a sarcastic observation and it thrilled me, as if a tone or  inflection were as good as an insight. I watched him with my Dad, who he reminded me of, and whose sense of humour I inherited in the usual way—first groaning at, and then stealing, all his jokes.

It was only here in Cambridge that I started to read James’s memoirs and his poetry. A lot of it is tinted with the experience of an Australian in England, and I suppose it suddenly seemed a lot more relevant to me. There are long passages of May Week was in June—one of the most perfect titles ever—that have helped me understand the place and even survive some of it. Like the joyless winters:

Your first academic year in Cambridge is so arranged that you must learn to appreciate your surroundings in winter, when the trees are waterlogged traceries and the buildings are doomy silhouettes between sky and fen. Captain Cousteau diving without lights saw more colour under a continental shelf than you will see in Cambridge between November and March. Also he kept relatively dry. So you either hang yourself from despair inside one of the venerable edifices or else learn to love them for their shape alone.

And it was one of James’s most recent poems, “Fashion Statement”, that warmed me, deep in this last winter, with its memories of the place I’d just left again:

I see it now, the truth of what we were
Back then when we were young and Sydney shone
Like a classic silver milk-shake canister
Trapping the sunlight in a cyclotron
Of dented brilliance.

But then:

This year I almost died.

I wonder whether this is the poem that set David Free on his search. “Vertical Envelopment” appeared in <a href="http://www.standpointonline.co you could check here.uk/node/3594″>Standpoint magazine and on James’s website, but “Fashion Statement” made the Times Literary Supplement and was probably the first really public announcement of his health problems. It certainly arrested me.

We live a few doors away from James’s Cambridge house, as we discovered from one of his letters to the TLS. We have the same “Front windows on a trimly English park”, if I’m reading “Castle in the Air” right. The first time I saw him—perhaps off on “the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive”, or else just to Sainsbury’s—was a private thrill but also something of a shock. He looked a bit reduced, a bit tired, he wasn’t smiling that crinkling, self-delighted smile. I thought it might just have been the twenty years since Saturday Night Clive, or the prospect of Sainsbury’s. Now I guess it probably wasn’t. I haven’t spoken to him. On Hallowe’en, in the early dusk between the neighbourhood trick-or-treaters, I almost told him I liked his Clive James mask. I’m glad I didn’t, now. But I wish I’d told him how much I’ve enjoyed and admired his work, throughout my life but never more than here and now. I hope I’ll get another chance.

Everyone agrees that James is a keen satirist and humorist, but there’s an ongoing argument over whether he’s a serious or significant poet. Guy Rundle argues in Crikey that it’s a kind of cultural cringe that keeps James’s poems in Australian literary pages. But the anti-James brigade must have its own cultural component as well: we save a particular vitriol for those who leave and don’t come back, especially if they dare to claim a continuing connection to, let alone authority over, the place that first formed them.

You might think David Free’s analysis of James’s late poetry shows the kind of accommodation you might expect for a man in poor health, but Free has been defending James’s serious writing for some time. I don’t know much about poetry, and a lot of good and terrible poetry seem pretty similar to me. I love “Fashion Statement” and many of the others; they are at the same time nimble and intensely focused. I find a few of them a bit chaotic in their allusions, and less intimate than my favourites. I also feel that Free might be working too hard to explain why the occasional clichés in James’s poetry aren’t really clichés. But I’m convinced by his argument that many of the lines in “The Falcon Growing Old” are all the evidence we need that James is a proper poet, writing here about writing:

Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless.

Get well soon, Clive.


8 September 2010

Ein Leichterer Regen am Donnerstag

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:33 pm

donnerstag.jpgJust a quick note to welcome the German paperback edition of the novel variously known as Vellum, A Little Rain on Thursday, and of course Ein Leichter Regen am Donnerstag. This version is even leichterer, both in the Hand and on the Brieftasche. I really like the lighthouse and the houses swallowed by the desert. Both German covers are pretty much exactly as I imagined the final scenes of the book.

There are also early murmurings of an electronic version of the book, which I’m very excited about. More information as events warrant.

6 February 2010

Amazon wounded?

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:28 pm

Amazon.jpgIt didn’t take long for Amazon to cry uncle in The Macmillan Impasse (worst thriller title ever), and since then both HarperCollins and Hachette have indicated that they’re moving to a similar agency model, under which each publisher will set the retail price of e-books and share a percentage of revenues with its selling agents; rather than the old sale-and-resale model, under which the publisher would only set the wholesale price and the retailer had control over the price you and I had to pay.

Nobody has missed the fact that all three of these publishers were listed up there on that big screen behind Steve Jobs at the iPad launch, and few expect that the remaining two (Penguin and Simon & Schuster) will be far behind. Again, I have to wonder whether the publishers’ commitments to Apple include at least an attempt to renegotiate their existing deals in order to protect the iBook Store. And again, it’s not like Apple would be twisting any arms here: this is clearly something the publishers think they want.

Amazon has copped a bit of ridicule over the terms of its surrender:

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles

…particularly from people who think Amazon has a pretty tidy monopoly itself or is trying its best to establish one. Through its sorrow and betrayal Amazon hasn’t expressed itself very elegantly, but it’s getting at something interesting, I think: something that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

After all, Macmillan does have a certain kind of monopoly over its own books: it’s the monopoly provided by the copyright system. That’s not the kind of monopoly recognised by microeconomics or competition law or even by everyday usage, which is more to do with the ability to control and dominate markets. But the two aren’t unrelated. Books and other cultural goods are different from other kinds of commodities, have fewer true substitutes, and may come a little closer to forming the elusive single-product markets that are often argued and never accepted.

In any case, it’s clear that if Amazon ever had a lot of market power in the distribution of electronic books, it doesn’t now. It’s always had competitors and now it has Apple, in this market probably the most chilling competitor imaginable. The publishers have a good deal of countervailing power since everyone knows that to survive as a mainstream bookstore Amazon has to carry all the books, electronic and otherwise—and to survive as a product the Kindle definitely has to have access to all the e-books (ask HD DVD).

Many have argued that Amazon is only in the business of e-books so it can sell Kindles, pointing to the fact that under the current model Amazon makes a loss on most Kindle books. This is thought to be nefarious and Microsoftine, but really it’s only a problem if Amazon already has a monopoly in either market. Otherwise it’s just a competing value proposition: Kindles are expensive but you get cheap books, and it’s up to you to decide what’s more important. It’s like buying a printer that’s going to need refills, or a mobile phone that needs a cellular connection. It’s not always easy to know which is the best deal in the long run, but it’s good to have a choice.

I don’t have any problem with the graduated pricing model proposed by Macmillan, where books may start out more expensive but become cheaper over time. That’s the way it’s always been in conventional publishing, and it’s the way it should be: everyone has either time or money, so everyone gets to read the book sooner or later. But you don’t need an agency arrangement to achieve that: if the retail market is competitive, adjustments to the wholesale price will be reflected down the line. And an agency arrangement forecloses the possibility of a competitive retail market—especially if you apply it across the board, as at least Macmillan and Hachette say they’re doing.

Back when the Internet was first commercialised there was a lot of talk about disintermediation or “cutting out the middleman”. But middlemen have their uses; they have more power against suppliers than we have, and we have more influence on them than we would on suppliers. Even in disintermediated industries like travel and insurance, new middlemen have risen up to help us compare all the options and save time and money.

The bookseller is, of course, the world’s most important and beloved middleman—in the real world, at least, and why not online as well? Is an electronic book so different from a physical book? I would have to argue that it’s not: the book itself, and not what it’s made of, is the essential thing. And I’d prefer to see all of them sold in different ways by different people at different prices. Otherwise Macmillan and the others really might as well have their own monopolies.

31 January 2010

e-books and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:29 pm

Publishers.jpgThe day before the iPad launch, the Wall Street Journal reported some quite detailed rumours about Apple’s negotiations with publishers:

Apple is asking publishers to set two e-book price points for hardcover best sellers: $12.99 and $14.99, with fewer titles offered at $9.99. In setting their own e-book prices, publishers would avoid the threat of heavy discounting. Apple would take a 30% cut of the book price, with publishers receiving the remaining 70%.

This is quite a bit higher than the $9.99 Amazon charges for most of its mainstream Kindle titles. The WSJ’s Walt Mossberg had the chance to ask Steve Jobs directly about pricing, with interesting results:

Why should she buy a book for $14.99 on your device when she can buy one for $9.99 on Amazon on the Kindle or from Barnes & Noble on the Nook?
Well that won’t be the case…

You mean you won’t be $14.99 or they won’t be $9.99?
Uh… the prices will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they’re not happy.

Optimistic pundits took this to mean that iBooks would sell for $9.99, even though the one featured most prominently in Steve Jobs’s demo, Ted Kennedy’s True Compass: A Memoir, seemed to be priced at $14.99, and some of the other books cost $10.99 or $12.99.

But it now seems more likely that Jobs’s first answer means what Mossberg was clearly worried it would mean: the prices will be the same because Amazon prices will be forced up.

A couple of days ago Amazon stopped directly selling the print and electronic editions of all Macmillan titles, though you can still buy the print versions through Amazon Marketplace. Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained yesterday that Amazon had dropped the titles in response to Macmillan’s new distribution deal, under which if Amazon wanted to offer electronic editions at the same time as print editions (without “extensive and deep windowing of titles”), it would need to adopt a new “agency” model of distribution:

Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set the price for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time.

Traditionally, publishers have been prevented from controlling the retail price of books by the prohibition against resale price maintenance in many jurisdictions. Resale price maintenance hasn’t been per se illegal in the US since 2007’s Leegin Creative Leather Products v PSKS 511 US 877, though it will still be illegal if it imposes an unreasonable restraint, and is still per se illegal in places like Australia. But an arrangement of agency, rather than sale and resale, can avoid these restrictions and give the publisher full control of the final price to consumers.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that Macmillan is one of the publishers featured in the Apple keynote address, and the alignment of prices and rumours terms makes it pretty clear that at least the following has happened: Macmillan found that it could get a better deal selling through Apple, and is now looking for the same deal for all of its electronic books. There’s no evidence that Apple encouraged Macmillan to increase its prices through Amazon—Macmillan wouldn’t need any encouragement—but the increase would certainly benefit Apple for the reason Walt Mossberg identified right away, and the whole thing makes Steve’s response a little prescient and creepy.

It’s a pretty screwy situation where the introduction of a new competitor has the effect of increasing prices, and as Macmillan author Cory Doctorow points out it’s a problem of concentration at the levels of both production and distribution. Books (and movies and music and so on) are economically a little weird anyway, since in some sense every book occupies its own market and has no close substitutes: if you want True Compass you’re not going to buy The Golden Compass just because it’s cheaper. Since there’s only muted price competition between books themselves, we rely on price competition for each book at the retail level.

And even though retail physical bookselling is also fairly concentrated, it’s still the most competitive part of the supply chain, and with up to 40% of the cover price going to the retailer there’s a lot of room for different business models, improvements in efficiency, and real bargains for readers who want to shop around. With electronic books it’s a slightly different story, since the cost of distribution is very low (and the marginal cost of distribution is zero), but there’s still a lot a retailer can do to differentiate itself: offer a subscription model (like Amazon offers through Audible), bundle e-books with your 3G data plan, and other things I can’t think of because I don’t have an MBA. Publishers should demand and receive a fair wholesale price, but consumers need choice and competition at the retail level. It seems to me that insisting on an agency model threatens to foreclose this competition and could stifle innovation right when the emerging industry needs it. It’s only one publisher so far, and only one territory, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

29 January 2010

iPads and iBooks

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:56 am

gallery-software-ibooks-20100127.jpgAs usual the whole world is in roughly equal parts delighted and outraged by Apple’s latest portable gizmo, the iPad. Much has been made of the name: I personally can’t believe how many posters and commenters have used the exact phrase “sounds like a feminine hygiene product”, all apparently believing they’re the first to have thought of it. Or maybe they don’t, maybe it’s one of those jokes-made-funny-through-repetition that the Internet loves so much. I like this article where “tech writers” forlornly predict that the jokes will simmer down soon.

There are some pretty interesting things about the iPad for readers and writers. There’s no coloured electronic ink or active-matrix organic LED display, just a 9.7″ LCD with in-plane switching for a reasonably wide viewing angle. The video geeks are up in arms (though occasionally confused) that the display is 1024 by 768 pixels in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the same as the big old TV sets we all used to have, so that the old episodes of Star Trek will fill the screen nicely but the new episodes (at 1.78:1) will have big black bars and the movies (at 2.35:1) will have even bigger black bars. This is even chubbier than the iPhone, which at 1.5:1 will leave either horizontal or vertical black bars for almost any video, but it seems reasonably well suited to reading books and magazines. It sits between the US Letter (1.29:1) and A-series (1.41:1) paper sizes and is just a bit squarer than your common B-format (1.52:1) paperback. All of this makes the iPad look slightly more like a thing for reading words than for watching videos, though it should also play videos pretty well despite the black bars.

Of course, films and videos have fixed dimensions and can’t be reformatted without making everybody fat or skinny. An electronic book can also be presented in a fixed format, like a PDF, or else in a “reflowable” format where the text is formatted to fill whatever space you have, with whatever font and pitch you choose. A fixed format is good where you have a lot of images, and also takes care of the rags, widows and orphans that typesetters and editors are so keen to control; but a reflowable format can be shared more easily across a variety of devices with different shapes and sizes, and is probably more useful for everyone but purists.

Apple has chosen not to invent its own format (as Amazon did for its Kindle) but to adopt the EPUB format developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. EPUB is a collection of open standards that Apple may or may not combine with its own proprietary digital rights management system. At the moment, music from the iTunes Store are DRM-free but movies and TV shows are DRM-laden, as are applications from the App Store. There’s no word yet on whether iBooks from the iBook Store will be restricted, but on past performance there’s a good chance. It’s not yet clear that iBooks will sync back to your computer so you can read them there, or on iPhone or iPod Touch, let alone on another non-Apple device, but I’m thinking they’ll give us that at least. And the fact that the iPad uses EPUB is a positive step as it should mean that you can read a wide variety of e-books from other sources, including the public domain, in a decent format.

EPUB is a reflowable format, which means that iBooks won’t be properly typeset like real books but will more or less fill a screen that has more or less the same dimensions as a real book. From the screenshots there’s a bit of trompe l’oeil thrown in to make it look a bit like you’ve got a stack of pages curving away from a gutter, and when you turn the page it looks a bit like you’re really turning a page. I’m not sure that I care about this at all, or that I like the mock bookshelf that holds your purchases. I love book covers but would be happy to see them just sitting there like movie posters or album covers already do. I think that typeface and layout are very important and can be adequately translated to the digital realm, but physical pages and bookshelves can’t really be reproduced on a screen and it might be better to come up with a new metaphor. However, this might be a useful intermediate step for people who are still uneasy about reading books on a screen. And it might in fact make some important psychological difference that Apple has spent way more time and money researching than I ever would.

While the Kindle comes with an international 3G wireless connection effectively built into the price of the books, the iPad comes in two series: one that only has Wi-Fi and will be available internationally at the end of March, and one with a 3G radio that will be available in the US at the end of April and elsewhere from June or July. Apple has organised an “unlimited” data plan with AT&T for $30 a month, which is a lot less of a bargain than Steve Jobs seems to think but is at least pre-paid with no contract. Steve did say that the device is unlocked so theoretically you could get a separate data plan, or even swap out the SIM card from your existing handset—apparently the iPad only accepts the “new” microSIM format, but there may be clever adapters available if the electronics are the same, which it looks like they are.

The best solution is to allow tethering between the iPad and your existing mobile device, such as an iPhone. AT&T still doesn’t offer iPhone tethering, partly because they offer “unlimited” data plans and tethering would wreck the pricing models. But many carriers in other parts of the world sell tiered or limited data plans and have chosen to offer iPhone tethering for free or for a (mostly) reasonable price, and it works seamlessly over USB or Bluetooth. The iPad has Bluetooth and could certainly be made to use the iPhone’s data connection where tethering was offered. Of course, a jailbroken iPhone can be tethered over Wi-Fi, which the iPad would treat like any other Wi-Fi network. I’d say Apple would be doing the non-AT&T carriers a favour by encouraging us to pay the extra for official tethering, rather than forcing us to jailbreak and get it for free.

Outside of the US most of us spend a lot of time out of Wi-Fi range, so cellular wireless is pretty important for a device aimed not only at books but at magazines, regularly-updated news sources and general browsing—especially when, as I suggested earlier, having a live Internet connection could be a big part of what makes electronic books competitive with paper books. But it seems stupid to have multiple data plans when you could easily share the one. We’ll have to wait and see what the international carriers are offering, but I dearly hope they see the sense in tethering. If I do buy an iPad I don’t think it’ll be a 3G-enabled one; and if tethering is supported then I think I’ll buy one.

22 January 2010

Beat up Martin

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:02 pm

Newton.jpgApparently Apple is about to announce some kind of new gadget in the next week or so, and it’s going to revolutionise everything all over again. Although nobody thinks that the new device is going to be a mere e-book reader, it looks like it’s going to be at least an e-book reader, with Apple rumoured to be in talks with Hachette, HarperCollins and others to secure electronic distribution of their titles. The idea would be a sort of iTunes store for books as well as journals and the existing music, movies and TV shows.

I never thought I would have considered a tablet computer or e-book reader, but now I think there’s a good chance I’ll buy the Apple one. What happened to me? Honestly: it was the iPhone. Another rumour has it that the iPhone was born out of something called the “Safari Pad”, a touchscreen tablet-style device intended for web browsing that Steve Jobs finessed into the smartphone we all know and mostly love. That decision now seems to have been an inspired one, about developing the market as much as the technology.

I bought an iPhone because I already had an iPod, I listened to a lot of music and podcasts and could never get them to work seamlessly enough with whatever smartphone I hoped would solve it all for me. I just wanted to carry fewer gadgets and have more free pockets, and the iPhone fit the bill. I hadn’t ever thought of reading books on it, because that wasn’t remotely possible on either previous phones or iPods. The closest thing I’d done on either kind of device was listening to audiobooks, which I do like a lot, though I’ve always found there’s something unwieldy about them: you can’t read at your own pace, it’s hard to flip back and forward to find things you may have missed or misunderstood, you can’t copy out bits that you like.

But I got a couple of free books for the iPhone and started reading them, just because they were there and I didn’t have anything else to read on the bus or waiting in the pub. I downloaded the Shakespeare application, like most people do. I got the Kindle application and bought a book or two. I was sent a first draft of a new novel by e-mail and instead of printing it out I read it on the iPhone. It wasn’t ideal, the screen was too small, it wasn’t particularly comfortable to hold, but instead of thinking it was all rubbish and I’d go back to paperbacks, I started thinking: what if the screen were bigger? If the contrast were better? And then: what if I could easily search through the book, make notes to myself, copy and paste passages? What if, any time I didn’t know a word or a historical reference, I could just tap on it for its definition or Wikipedia entry? By being almost good enough, the iPhone suggested what would come after it, and began to persuade me that I needed something I’d never thought about before.

And then I started thinking: what if, having bought a paperback for reading around the house and making the bookshelves look good, I could pay an extra buck or two to download the electronic version? And what if the audiobook were just a couple of bucks more? (The Kindle has a text-to-speech function available for some titles, but it’s no substitute for a proper reader, who does need to be paid: I don’t know how much of the price of an audiobook goes towards its production, how much is for the underlying work.) What if I could switch between the text version and the spoken version when I had to walk somewhere, and switch back when I sat down again, or when I wanted to make a note or a quote or look something up—and it always knew where I was up to? I still think I’d favour the paper version, and use the others when circumstances demanded, but I’m not sure about that. I can imagine the convenience and versatility of the electronic versions might trump even the pleasure of paper.

At the moment I’m reading my wife’s paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s brutal Blood Meridian together with the audiobook version narrated by Richard Poe that I bought a while ago, and looking up many of McCarthy’s old-west names and places from my iPhone. I feel like there may be a reading experience even richer than the one we’re used to around the corner. As always, the challenge will be to make sure all the rights are dealt with effectively and realistically, to make sure creators are rewarded without stifling innovation or alienating readers. If we don’t get in our own way too much we could offer a new generation of readers something that we’ve never had before. And to have the latest McCarthy bloodfest up there on the same page, in the same search results as the latest Dexter episode or High School Musical instalment or Jay-Z protégé, just as accessible and nearly as flashy and cool—that’s got to be a good thing for the written word.

Paddy Power now has a market on what Apple will call the new product, with “iPad” almost unbackable at 1:5. I always thought it would be cute to call it the iSaac, a synthesis of the overused i-prefix with the original and much-loved Newton MessagePad that let Dolph down so badly in the picture above. But I acknowledge that that would be an extremely nerdy and unlikely name, and Paddy Power prefers even the “EtchaSketch” (at 500:1).

12 August 2009

Unicode Fail

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:28 pm


I’m all kinds of excited at the news that Greek publisher Livanis has just released its edition of Vellum.

Since the novel is all about translations and different kinds of writing, I was stoked when it was first translated and I’m even more stoked now that it’s come out in a different alphabet. My first intimation that there were alphabets other than the familiar Latin one came in my second year of primary school. We had just moved from Byron Bay to Adelaide and I started halfway through the school year. I wasn’t too worried about catching up on the work; I was already well-established as a nerd (I recently got a nice e-mail from my Year 1 teacher who remembered me dictating complete sentences), but I was a bit nervous about making new friends.

So my mother bundled me off with a big bag of cherries so the kids would like me—which may have been the kind of thing that worked in Byron but wasn’t going to cut any mustard at Goodwood Primary. It was a relief to come back to the classroom after that first lonely lunchtime—until I sat down and realised that I couldn’t read any of the writing on the blackboard. I really thought my brain had broken, I could dictate complete sentences and suddenly I couldn’t read a word. And I couldn’t understand how all the other kids were able to read the words aloud. Maybe the whole school was playing a horrible trick on me? No, they were just learning Greek, as they’d been doing all year.

In an earlier draft of the novel, Jack suffered from a condition called transient pure alexia, which is a temporary acquired inability to recognise the relationship between graphemes and phonemes, letters and sounds. My description of his condition was more or less exactly my experience in the Greek class. Even after Jack’s alexia had been cured by redrafting, the dissonance he experiences on first seeing the manuscript’s unreadable writing has a lot to do with my first exposure to another alphabet.

Anyway, the Livanis edition looks great and is dotted with little footnotes added by the translator: sometimes sourcing quotes, sometimes explaining English references, other times who knows. I’m dying to know exactly what the notes mean, but I’m certain that they’re completely apposite to the themes of the book. Many thanks to Rena Lekkou-Dantou for the translation.

3 August 2008

Ein leichter Regen am Donnerstag

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:01 pm

Leichter Regen.jpgI’m thrilled to see that Goldmann Verlag is gearing up to publish A Little Rain on Thursday in Germany next month. They’ve gone for a near-calque of the Australian title and a very atmospheric rendition of one of the book’s central images, which I’ve had in my head and wanted to see for a long time.

Over the past year I’ve had some fascinating exchanges about the book with the translator Eva Kemper. As a professional, Eva knows a lot more about the themes and subject of the book than I do, and I have no doubt that her translation will refute the old proverb by being both beautiful and faithful.

For example, late in the book there’s a quotation from Hebrews 11:5 that says, in the King James version:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him.

This is the last line before Jack disappears into the desert, and of course I was trying to make a lot of hay out of the various meanings of “translate” that have been at play throughout the book. A few chapters earlier I’d also gone on about how translators like quotations, especially of the Bible, because the job has already been done for them by the translators of the original work.

But Eva pointed out that none of the German versions of Hebrews have anything to do with any of my secondary meanings of translation; they just say that old Enoch was “taken away”, like he is in most of the English versions since the KJV. So she scoured her Bibel for a more appropriate verse, and she came up with an absolute cracker in 1 Corinthians 14:10. In the King James, that verse says:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

…but in the German version it means more like “There are many kinds of languages in the world, and nothing is without language.” Which is not only better than any of the English versions, but also sums up what the book’s all about. I totally have to learn German now.

If you’ve already learned German, you can read all about the book, check out the first couple of chapters or pre-order the hardback from various online retailers via Goldmann’s official page here.


27 February 2008

Adelaide Writers’ Week

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:03 am

pictureI’m doing a couple of sessions at next week’s Adelaide Writers’ Week, probably the greatest literary festival in the land. If you’re in town, come on down. Everything is free and the atmosphere is always fantastic.

At 11:00 am on Tuesday 4 March I’ll be talking about Rules and How to Break Them with Paul Auster, Margo Lanagan and John Kinsella. This should be a great discussion, though I’m not sure what I’m going to contribute to it.

Then at 5:45 pm on Thursday 6 March I’m doing a Meet the Author session all on my lonesome. I suppose I’ll be talking about the early influences that made me a writer and the complicated history of my last book. I’ll also be reading various things.

Both events are in the west tent and will be followed by book signings. Please come and line up in front of me at the signing tables: there’s no need to buy my book, I’m more than happy to sign other people’s. And I’ll be hanging around all week, hoping to bump into Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Germaine Greer and the rest of the gang.

26 November 2007


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:33 am

foreigners.jpgI’m about to be involved in an ingenious project devised by Brazilian author Daniela Abade. Dani has brought together a bunch of funky young writers from across the globe (and me) who will each pretend for a year that they are living in one of the other writers’ hometowns, where they have in fact never been.

I will be spending a virtual year in Graz, Austria, the birthplace of Claudia Chibici-Revneanu, who will be visiting Santos, Brazil, which Dani has left to explore Udine, Italy, the town that gave us Max Mauro but lost him to Mexico City, from where hails Gonzalo Soltero, who has the good fortune to be heading to Sydney. David McGuire and Florencia Abbate are swapping Hamilton, Canada and Buenos Aires—it was going to go all the way around but we lost someone along the way and had to redistribute.

Each of us will write a journal set in our assigned cities, and the sense of foreignness that attends any visit to a new place will be compounded by the fact that we’re not even visiting it. I expect the project will explore all kinds of interesting ideas about the way we inhabit cities and write about them. Or, as Dani says:

The condition of being a foreigner will be taken to the edge. The author will be such a foreigner to the place he is writing about that he won’t even know the city; he will have to find the city in his own imagination.

It should be great fun, and it all starts tomorrow at this website here.

20 July 2007

Words, words, words

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:11 am

jack.jpgI did a lot of talking in June, and it wasn’t all about myself (though a lot of it was). At the Sydney Writers’ Festival I spoke about digital books and copyright with Sherman Young and Michael Fraser. Sherman gave a very provocative talk about how books have to go digital or else:

The bottom line is that in 2007, books must embrace the possibilities of digital. Sure, there are issues to be discussed and hurdles to overcome, but unless it happens, books are dead. Weighed down by printed objects, the unique qualities and virtues of books will be sidelined in an increasingly irrelevant part of the cultural universe.

It’s exciting stuff, though I think that for most books the hurdles are maybe a bit more significant than Sherman reckons—which is both good and bad: we can go on doing things the way we’re doing them for a while longer, but we could be doing things a lot better. Anyway, my speech is over here. Michael’s doesn’t seem to have turned up online, but he made some important points about why we need copyright (though I don’t think we need quite as much as we’ve got).

Anyway—while I was putting up the speech I thought I might as well do the other ones. So here’s my talk about literary mysteries, and the one about zines and blogs.

14 July 2007

Me, me, me

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:16 pm

matt.jpgThere’s an even more extensive profile of me in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. I must say there’s something very warming about the day you’re in the paper in your own town. I’ve been strutting around like I own the place, though of course I’ll be fishwrap by tomorrow.

The online version has only my name in the byline, which sets up an interesting paradox—can you say “he comes close to being self-deprecating” about yourself? But don’t be fooled—it was Kelsey Munro who did the interview and wrote the article. Kelsey has a background in rock journalism, must surely be sick of that “dancing about architecture” line by now, and recently did a trenchant review of a gig by my friend Macromantics, née Romy Hoffman, who is doing great things in Australian hip-hop:

Best of all, in a triumphant two-hander with DJ Amy sharing vocals, Hoffman somehow rhymed “macadamia” with an “Acca Dacca stadium”. That’s as Australian a piece of assonance as ever there was.

I agree. It’s a good interview (back to me), though I notice I’ve started to repeat myself a bit. If only I were a more interesting person! (he said, almost self-deprecatingly). I’ll have to make up some new stories.

And I promise to blog about some things other than myself soon.

10 July 2007

Everyone’s a critic

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:08 pm

rain.jpgThere was a nice profile of me in Melbourne’s The Sunday Age last weekend, with a hilarious and very appropriate picture of me looking soaked and monkish. It starts with more comparisons of the good kind with that little-known book about some sort of code:

Rubinstein, 33, is one of the few people who hasn’t yet read Da Vinci but comparisons seem inevitable – even though his compelling work, A Little Rain on Thursday, is in quite a different literary league, rich with characters and intellect.

I had a good chat with journalist Andrew Stephens about the similarities between me and the wild-eyed obsessives in the book, which the photo only corroborates. He also put in quite a bit about my mum, which was great. Gill has obviously been a tremendous influence and inspiration from the get-go, not only advocating the pleasures of the writing life but also warning of its occasional heartbreaks. Though, as Sunday’s article concludes:

with A Little Rain on Thursday receiving a glowing reception and the June issue of Australian Book Review describing it as “The Da Vinci Code with brains”, heartbreak seems far away.

Well, it never seems that far away to me. But the reception has been pretty good so far. The Age review on Saturday didn’t really dig the book; The Australian called it “richly imagined”, “highly original” and “enormously clever”, but there was a but. But The Advertiser thought it “an intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining novel”, and the Courier-Mail said: “A Little Rain on Thursday is an alluring mix… part love story, part whodunit, part poetry, it is a book with something for everyone”. The Sydney Morning Herald was also positive and threw in a nice reference to Arturo Perez-Reverte, a great writer of literary mysteries who not enough people know about.

I hope there’ll be some reviews from the UK soon, though Vellum hasn’t been out a week yet. There may be some Czech ones, but it’s hard to tell! In the meantime, Australian Book Review has kindly given me permission to reproduce its review, the one that started it all and still the glowingest of the bunch. It’s from page 48 of the June 2007 ABR and is available right here.

27 June 2007


by Matt Rubinstein at 5:25 pm

ukvellum.jpgThis week I got a big literal sackful of the UK edition of A Little Rain on Thursday, which for cultural reasons is spelled (and pronounced) as Vellum over there. Of course, the book was first called Vellum and was runner-up for the Australian/Vogel Award under that name; “A Little Rain on Thursday” used to be the name of the first chapter. So I’ve always been torn between the two titles, and now I don’t have to choose. Would that everything were that simple.

Now the name of the first chapter has been replaced by a word in the book’s mysterious alphabet, and your guess is as good as mine. (Perhaps not quite as good.) I hope having two titles doesn’t confuse too many people. It didn’t seem to do Harry Potter and the [Philosopher/Sorcerer]’s Stone too much harm, though those names are admittedly more similar. Maybe a better example is The Sun Also Rises, known in the UK as ¡Fiesta!— let’s not think too hard about what happened to Hemingway.


I quite like the idea of the book having different titles. After all, it’s about a manuscript that everybody interprets in their own unique way. It’s like the mysterious infinite book that can never be read the same way twice in Borges’s The Book of Sand—which also would have been a good name. Maybe for the US edition.

This version looks great—hell, they all do—and feels even better; it’s got a rough texture that suggests old parchment, it really wants to be picked up—and maybe even taken home. The mysterious alphabet has been redrawn and looks terrific, and the whole thing is pleasantly scuffed and charred. The book’s classic (or else newfangled) title lives on in the UK release date: next Thursday, the 5th of July. You can pre-order it from Amazon if you’re in that part of the world.

18 June 2007

Tajemství Pergamenu

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:01 am

TajemPerg.jpgThose Czechs may well be the world’s fastest translators. Barely a week after the Australian launch, Jota has produced the local edition of A Little Rain on Thursday—appealingly, the publication date was last Thursday. It’s now called Tajemství Pergamenu, which near as I can tell means something like “The Secret of the Vellum”, though I might have got the inflections all wrong there. That’s the weird old alphabet surrounding the praying skeleton, and what looks like gaffer tape holding the whole thing together—a fitting innovation, I think.

I can’t wait for my copies to arrive. I’m sure you can pick one up for somewhat less than the RRP of 288 koruny (cheap!). If you want to know more, read on.

V jádru tohoto znepokojujícího napínavého románu a literárního milostného příběhu leží prastarý rukopis, psaný v jakémsi zapomenutém jazyce.

Překladatel a jazykový expert Jack narazí v kryptě starého kamenného kostela v Sydney na ukrytý rukopis. Ten je psán tajemným písmem, obsahuje podivné ilustrace, a cosi v něm naznačuje jakási velká tajemství. Beth, dívka, se kterou Jack chodí, věří, že tento rukopis obsahuje odpovědi na otázky ohledně jejího mrtvého otce. Jack má ale podezření, že rukopis skrývá něco mnohem většího. Je to snad něčí žertík, nějaký tajný kód – nebo je to nějaký zapomenutý jazyk? Jak je vlastně starý? Co vlastně skrývá? A co leží za jeho schopností přivlastnit si ty, kteří ho najdou?

Jack se pouští do horečnatého pátrání, aby svému objevu porozuměl – nápovědu hledá v kryptologii a soudním lékařství, u překladatelů a filosofů, záchranářů a knihovníků, křižáckých rytířů i bláznivých mnichů. Každá nová odbočka v tomto labyrintu ho ale jen odvádí dál od pravdy. Co vlastně hledá? Jackova posedlost začne ohrožovat všechno, čeho si až dosud nejvíc považoval.

I don’t know much about Jota, but they also publish my Text stablemate Kate Holden, and have reportedly made a great success of her memoir In My Skin over there. Kate’s name in Czech is Kate Holdenová, and I drove a Holden Nova for a few years in the 1990s, but I don’t know how they knew that.

Also, the Nova was called Vikram.

11 June 2007


by Matt Rubinstein at 12:13 pm

pictureThe launch of A Little Rain on Thursday at Gleebooks last week went very well. Delia Falconer said some very kind things about the book and there was a great crowd there, so thank you very much if you were part of it. That’s me looking pleased with myself, Delia looking indulgent and the book looking as wonderful as ever (if a little flashed out).

The book’s first review is in the June 2007 issue of Australian Book Review, and it’s a nice one. It’s not available on the Internet, but I’ll argue fair use and extract the opening paragraph:

I realise it is a stretch, but imagine The Da Vinci Code with brains. No, that’s not fair: it obviously takes brains of a kind to top best-seller lists for several years. So try thinking of how a serious intellect, as distinct from a facility for page-turning compulsiveness, might have gone to work on it. Such effort won’t tell you all you need to know about Matt Rubinstein’s new novel, but A Little Rain on Thursday is inter alia about old manuscripts, church history, subterranean chambers, Templars and libraries – and it is compulsive reading.

Shucks! I mean, I’m always bit ambivalent about comparisons to Dan Brown’s book, but I’m not going to complain if they’re all like that. The review also draws in AS Byatt, Michelangelo Antonioni and Peter Carey, which I absolutely love.

There was also a bit of a profile of me in Saturday’s Advertiser, and it is available online here. It was my first interview in a while, so I hope I don’t sound like too much of a dork. It starts:

Matt Rubinstein’s new novel, A Little Rain on Thursday, seems like many books rolled into one: it’s a mystery, a novel of ideas, a meditation on faith, grief, love and the quest for knowledge – and it’s a rollicking page-turner.

I’d sure buy a book like that—wouldn’t you?

7 June 2007

Near enough

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:56 pm

<img src="http://ma.ttrubinste buy levitra cheap.in//wp-images/lord-alfred-tennyson.jpeg” border=”0″ alt=”tennyson.jpeg” align=”right” hspace=20 vspace=10 />I just watched El Espinazo del Diablo (here called The Devil’s Backbone), Guillermo del Toro’s predecessor and companion to last year’s El Labertino del Fauno (aka Pan’s Labyrinth). Both films have the gruesome beauty of old fairytales; they are uneasy dreams that can’t decide whether or not they’re nightmares. I like them a lot, and Hellboy is great fun too.

One of the characters in The Devil’s Backbone, Casares, is fond of reciting old poems, including one subtitled like this:

Stay by my side as my light grows dim,
as my blood slows down and my nerves shatter
with stabbing pain, as my heart grows weak
and the wheels of my being turn slowly.

Stay by my side as my fragile body
is racked by pain which verges on truth
and manic time continues scattering dust
and furious life bursts out in flames.

Stay by my side as I fade
so you can point to the end of my struggle
and the twilight of eternal days
at the low, dark edge of life.

It’s very tenderly delivered at a heartbreaking point in the film, and it sounds great. But there’s also something familiar about it. Yes, it’s from Canto 50 of In Memoriam AHH, which of course is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lengthy elegy to his Cambridge mate Arthur Henry Hallam:

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

Now, I don’t know enough Spanish to work out to what extent Casares was paraphrasing Tennyson. Normally where a character in a foreign film quotes an English poem or whatever, the practice is for the subtitle to revert to the original English—that way it rhymes and everything, plus as a translator you can kind of put your feet up for a bit. But maybe the paraphrase actually gives more of a flavour of the Spanish version—which, after all, doesn’t rhyme or scan or sound like nineteenth-century English poetry.

Canto 50 also supplies the title and epigraph of Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel, Be Near Me. Andrew charmed the absolute pants off the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival with his enthusiasm, his good humour and his Scottish accent. At his session in the Blue Mountains I overheard one old dear behind me whisper to another: “Imagine being his wife.” He mentioned that he hadn’t been sure what to call his book until he heard or remembered A,LT’s canto. Was it del Toro’s film that reminded him? Probably not, but still.

16 May 2007

A Little Rain on Thursday

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:55 pm

cover.jpgMy new novel, A Little Rain on Thursday, is back from the printers, and it looks fantastic. Chong at Text Publishing has done a great job with the design and it’s tremendous to hold the thing in my hand. It looks almost exactly like a real book!

It will be launched by the hugely talented Delia Falconer at 6:00 for 6:30 pm on Tuesday, 5th June 2007 upstairs at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, Sydney. You can book a spot here. Naturally, it would be great to see you there.

9 May 2007

A city transformed… by words!

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:14 pm

swf.jpgThis year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is on in about three weeks and it looks like a cracker. This is being billed as the 10th annual one—it’s older than that but really took off when it moved to Walsh Bay in 1998. I was there that year, a bit out of my depth—but I’m back again this year. It’s a stunning location and a great place to hang around. It does get crowded, even now that it’s spilled into a bunch of other venues around town and beyond—in fact, way beyond—but that’s very encouraging.

I’m looking forward to Andrew O’Hagan, whose Personality is a beautiful study of fame and loneliness; to Richard Ford, whose celebrated The Sportswriter I am determined to read in the next couple of weeks; and to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, if I can snarf a ticket from somewhere. Richard Dawkins is kvetching via satellite, and there’s an impressive panel on Writing in an Age of Terror, plus a debate over whether the balance between national security and human rights was “right” in the case of David HicksBret Walker SC and Lex Lasry QC say no, Gerard Henderson says sure, why not? It’s a clash of the titans!

I’m involved in the following events:

Concertos, Gospels and A Little Rain On Thursday
Tuesday, May 29 2007, 11:30 – 12:30
Carrington Hotel, Blue Mountains

Hear some of the best new Australian writing as Jo Gardiner, Emily Maguire and Matt Rubinstein talk with Varuna’s Creative Director Peter Bishop about their new novels and the intimate lives of us.

Books in the Digital Age
Friday, June 1 2007, 17:00 – 18:00

Digital media is the new black, but what does it means for books? Google intends to scan every book ever published, and to make the full texts searchable, in the same way that Web sites can be searched on the company’s engine. Discussing what the digital age means for books and copyright are Sherman Young, Michael Fraser and Matt Rubinstein.

The 15 fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer
Sunday, June 3 2007, 12:30 – 13:30
Bangarra Theatre

Now that the Blog Age has advanced the status of fanzine from the work of an individual with access to a photocopier to global proportions and even fame, will we see the rise of a new generation of authors whose work may not ever make it into print? Does it mean better quality writing? Or just more typing? Matt Rubinstein, Rachel Hills and Andrew Mueller discuss.

Literary Mysteries
Sunday, June 3 2007, 15:30 – 16:30
Bangarra Mezzanine

A translator and linguist uncovers a manuscript written in the crypt of an old stone church in Sydney. A priceless exhibition of the papers of poet Emily Dickinson goes missing on arrival in Sydney and a lonely single father starts to follow the newspaper articles about the theft. Matt Rubinstein and Mark Ragg talk about their literary mysteries set on Sydney’s streets.

Come along, it’ll be great!

4 April 2007

The city under the sky over Berlin

by Matt Rubinstein at 4:42 am

Memorial.jpgI’ve had a thing for the city of Berlin ever since I saw Wim Wenders’s 1987 Der Himmel über Berlin, somewhat cheesily rebadged as Wings of Desire for the English-speaking world and later unforgivably remade as City of Angels, with Meg Ryan as the heart surgeon who “didn’t believe in angels until she fell in love with one”.

The original features a couple of weatherbeaten old angels who mooch around Berlin in trenchcoats, reading the thoughts of various locals—and Peter Falk, for some reason—and wondering what it’s like to be human. It’s one of the most poetic movies I’ve seen, thanks to Wenders’s lilting direction and Peter Handke’s contribution to the script: particularly his Lied Vom Kindsein or Song of Childhood, which winds its way through the film.

The poem sounds amazing read by Bruno Ganz in German, with the near-antimetabolic (or perhaps chiastic, but certainly within the context of the poem anaphoric) “Als das Kind Kind war”. It also translates pretty well into English:

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
It had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so.

Handke got in trouble last year for kind of sticking up for Slobodan Milošević, with the result that when he was awarded the city of Düsseldorf’s €50,000 Heinrich Heise prize, the city councillors kicked up such a stink that he declined it. Without getting too much into why we’re so desperate that good writers also be good people, I did find Handke’s apparent position on Milošević a bit disturbing after the gentle inquisition of his poetry—maybe not as much as TS Eliot’s anti-semitism, but more than Günter Grass’s stint in the Waffen-SS. It’s still a good poem, though.

So I first visited Berlin in 1991, and things were pretty much like they were in the movie. The wall had been down for two years, but it hadn’t all been sold to tourists yet and there were quite a few sections still standing. There was a big difference between Ost and West, and between them the great squares of Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, cut in half by the wall and its associated battlements, were still the wastelands of rubble and busted sofas where the angels had wandered around eavesdropping on lonely old bums and their memories.

When I went back in 1997 they were laying foundations and sticking up scaffolding for inconceivable construction projects, and last week I finally got back there and couldn’t believe it—the Platz is now an immense, shining citadel where Sony, DaimerChrysler and a bunch of others have shimmering towers linked by malls and multiplexes. It’s a truly remarkable transformation, even if it now looks much more like the kind of place you’d find Meg Ryan staring sappily into the middle-distance.

The best thing is just up the road, where New York architect Peter Eisenman has built a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, pictured above. It’s made up of 2711 concrete stelae arranged in a rough grid over an undulating field. From the outside it’s pretty interesting: each of the slabs is a different height, they all tilt slightly off true, and the light and shadow make endless patterns. As you walk towards the centre, the stones rise over you—the tallest one is 4.7 metres high—and it quickly feels like you’re lost in a grim kind of industrial forest. Then there’s a Doppler-affected giggle and a little kid tears past along the axis perpendicular to yours, and then the kid who’s chasing her, and then they’re gone again. It’s all very sombre and playful and thought-provoking; I liked it a lot. Eisenman once thought it would be a good idea to let people graffiti up the place, but instead the stelae were slapped with a non-stick coating—which also turned out to be controversial, since the first batch was made by the crew who supplied concentration camps with Zyklon B and had to be replaced.

Also very impressive is Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Jewish Museum, a lightning bolt full of slopes and voids, long walks and hard climbs. One of the most affecting parts of the building is a corridor that narrows in all directions until you feel like those guys in that illusion and leads into a deep angular well that opens to the sky, and the silence, and the cold. There’s also another, earlier field of stelae in a sloping garden. Some pretty moving stuff in the exhibition, too.

I tried really hard to get Berlin right in my book Nomad, which borrowed a bit from the Wim Wenders movie—there’s the same bronze statue on top of the Siegessäule, though the neo-Nazi Depeche Mode fans are all mine—but I didn’t come close, of course. What the hell did I know? I’d like to try again some time; it is an incredible place.

21 March 2007

Damn that elegiac Bill-Murray-whoring-himself-in-Tokyo movie

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:05 pm

bomb.jpg…because if you could ever use the common phrase that is also the name of that movie as the clever title of your article or blog entry about the difficulties people sometimes have trying to express things in different languages, you sure can’t now. Oh no <a href="http://www.guardian.co More hints.uk/germany/article/0,,1781004,00.html”>wait, maybe you can.

I’ve got a novel coming out soon whose main character is a contract subtitler for an unnamed multilingual television network, so I was interested to read this imaginatively-titled article complaining that the modern trend of Hollywood studios outsourcing their subtitles to the sweatshops of India and Malaysia has had some unsatisfactory results:

Frustrated at seeing what are already low wages forced down still further, native subtitlers have begun compiling examples of the errors littering British and American movies released in foreign markets. And from their research, there certainly seems no shortage of cases where literal-minded or just plain odd translations have rendered Hollywood movies incomprehensible (or, if we’re going to be honest about this, more incomprehensible).

Unfortunately, the examples offered aren’t all that compelling. The Guild of Native Subtitlers reports that “Sir David Attenborough” has been translated as “Sherlock Holmes”, “an asteroid field” as “a steroid field” and “Vietnam vet” as “veterinarian from Vietnam”, but most of these mistakes are pretty understandable and their results quite comprehensible (except the Sherlock Holmes thing). Faced with such slim pickings, the journalist is reduced to speculation:

After all, would you want the pivotal line of Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on war, Full Metal Jacket, to have been given to you as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning – smells like Viscounts”? Or seen Some Like It Hot end with Jack Lemmon being told by his amorous suitor: “You nobody! You are a prefect?” And, as for Silence of the Lambs, surely no audience deserves to have Hannibal Lecter terrify Clarice Starling with the revelation that: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate some liver with him and then we had ice cream”?

This last one sounds more like what CleanFlicks and the other “movie sanitizers” used to do, but all of them are pretty much beside the point. Mysteriously, our guy ignores the only really funny one caught by the Disgrunted Subtitlers’ Union: a television broadcast in which “she died in a freak rugby accident” is rendered as “she died in a rugby match for people with deformities”.

But if Her Majesty’s Own Subtitlers can’t come up with a lot more examples than that, maybe it’s no wonder they’re losing work to India. Haven’t they heard of the Internet? It’s full of great stuff. A lot of it might be as flagrantly invented as Hannibal Lecter’s ice cream, but whatever. And they could easily have used some of these old favourites, which are actual subtitles from unspecified Hong Kong films:

I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.

Same old rules: no eyes, no groin.

Take my advice, or I’ll spank you without pants.

You always use violence. I should’ve ordered glutinous rice chicken.

You daring lousy guy.

Beat him out of recognizable shape!

Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

I know, but they’re fun. Back in the real world Subtitling Worldwide, a Dutch outfit whose English website adds another layer to the whole thing, offers its own salutary examples:

After all he put you through. This was said to someone who had been given a hard time by her boyfriend. Still the subtitle read, ‘after all, he connected you/put you through (by telephone)’.

Rest easy. A soldier was shot dead, another soldier closes his eyes and says, ‘Rest easy.’ The Dutch subtitle said: ‘Take a nice little break.’

A famous anachronism. In the Dutch subtitles of The Onedin Line one of the saddest/funniest mistakes ever was made. The series is situated in the pre-steamship era, a time when Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t been born yet. From a sailing ship a character surrounded by old rope, old sails and old wood, shouts to the shore, ‘I’ll call you.’ The subtitler, maybe focussed on different things entirely, maybe under time pressure, translated: ‘I’ll phone you.’

Send me a carbon copy. This again incredibly was translated as ‘send me a copy of coal’.

They mate for life (about swans which stick together their whole life). This is continually wrongly translated in subtitles, usually implying vehement or continuous copulating, which forms a comic contrast with the almost conventional nature of swans (and other wrongly treated birds).

Again, many of these are understandable mistakes. The trouble is, most professional subtitlers do know more or less what they’re doing. You have to venture into the black market to dig up the really astonishing attitudes towards captioning. It’s not always easy to imagine why these things exist at all, but we can all be thankful that they do. This guy gets a lot of mileage from a bootleg copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (or indeed Gentlement) he picked up in Bangladesh:

The errors in subtitles start off as banal mistakes. A drunken sot’s remark to a visitor, “And I suppose you’re another traveler, got it in your head to sample the dark continent” becomes the reverse: “And I suppose you aren’t a traveler. Got it into your head to stuff from the dark continent.” Dire predictions of an unstable world, “Baying for blood, it’s a powder keg.” changes to “Being for blood, it’s a powder cake.” The Invisible Man’s jest, “I’m feeling a bit of draft in my nether regions” becomes, “I’m feeling a bit of drafted another agents.” Individual phrases also provide a challenge: “Thief” changes to “faith,” “boon” to “bone,” “sick note” to “sick knot,” “as patriotic” to “the speech” and “prerogative” to “perlocutive.”

Some sense can still be made of the subtitles, until utterly nonsensical constructions start to appear. “There is great unrest, countries set at each other’s throats” mutates to “That’s glad on rest, countries set each other throat.” “These attacks have every nation clamoring for the very weapons that assail them” changes to “And he attached every nations claiming very weapons to the sierra.” Sean Connery’s guttural growl after a fight, “Wasn’t there another one of these buggers?” becomes “You guys sent another this baggage?” Strangest of all, Quatermain’s boast, “I don’t know whether to regale with how I found King Solomon’s mines,” becomes “I know how to regret you with how I found to kick soloman’s mind.”

This other guy has an even better experience with a Chinese boot of Star War III: the Backstroke of the West, which has captions like:

You are a sacrifice article that I cut up rough now

He big in nothing important in good elephant

Giving first aid the already disheveled hair projection

I hope that these dreamses really can’t become

Send these troopseses only

They want to know him at fuck

I was just made by the Presbyterian Church

A line have beened distorted by the dark world

…and which pretty much closes the loop on the whole All Your Base thing pictured above.

20 March 2007

Sucks to be Hicks

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:36 pm

hicks.jpgABC Radio National’s Lingua Franca has been running a series of programs on the language of the law in the David Hicks case—that’s “case” in the generic sense, of course, not in the sense of a legal action decided in a properly constituted court. All three programs are well worth listening to, even if you already suspect that certain ancient legal precepts shouldn’t just be tossed out without a thought even if these are the Last Days. Each is only fifteen minutes long and they’re all available online: there’s Julian Burnside QC on habeas corpus and hearsay, and Peter Vickery QC on ex post facto or retroactive legislation. Transcripts are available for the first two and should be up for the last one soon, but listen to them if you can: they’re as concise and persuasive as you’d expect.

Burnside comes to some particularly frank conclusions about our various leaders. On habeas corpus, the idea that nobody should be detained unless the reason for their detention can be assessed by a competent court:

The principle of legality carries with it the assumption that the lawfulness of executive action is examinable in the courts. Liberty is one of the most fundamental and cherished of all rights. Where a person is deprived of their liberty, habeas corpus is the device which enables the lawfulness of the detention to be examined.

Stripping away the habeas right for detainees at Guantanamo is a step of such awesome significance that it is tempting to think that President Bush has lost his mind.

And then on the admission of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained by coercion:

An Australian citizen, held by our ally America, is about to be subjected to a trial in which hearsay evidence and evidence produced by coercion is permitted. A trial of this sort offends the most basic principles of our justice system, but Philip Ruddock says he is satisfied it will be a fair trial. If he actually believes it, he is not fit to be attorney-general.

There was a time when only refugees were terrified of Philip Ruddock: now we all should be.

A Newspoll last December found that 70% of respondents wanted David Hicks returned to Australia, and another in January found that 56% were against the way the Government had handled the case; only 27% were in favour. The usual nutcases continue to marvel at Hicks’s ongoing popularity despite the overwhelming evidence that the guy is at best a dickhead and at worst really wants to kill a bunch of us. They think we’ve been persuaded by lawyers in snappy uniforms or we can’t believe that a top bloke like Terry Hicks could have a son who’s a terrorist.

It shouldn’t need repeating, but for the benefit of the professional trolletariat: we are not gay for David Hicks. We don’t think he’s dreamy. Few of us even think he’s a harmless idiot. But he is an Australian citizen being denied fundamental human rights, and the fact that our Government is doing so little about it is shameful and terrifying.

Burnside can’t resist quoting Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons—as many others have done, but damned if it doesn’t still send a shiver down this old lawyer’s spine:

This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Burnside leaves out the last bit, though, which is really the whole point:

Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

There are many poor wretches out there who are less guilty than Hicks and are treated worse. But Hicks is our wretch. We can influence his treatment more than we can anyone else’s. And if we choose not to, then we give up a lot of credibility that we might use to suggest that other countries treat their own unfortunates better. You know, if we were into that sort of thing.

Bring the bastard home!

19 March 2007

Credit where it’s due

by Matt Rubinstein at 2:23 am

credits.jpgA while ago now we were talking about the attribution rules set down by the Writers Guild of America and ably summarised by the otherwise corrupt Wikipedia here. In one of those spooky coincidences that can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent designer, less than six months later I came across an actual example of what I was talking about.

This is from Matt Groening‘s underappreciated Futurama, which finished up in 2003 but may yet have a last gasp next year. The gang go to the movies to see the big-screen version of robosoap All my Circuits. The credits imply that Writing Unit 5 wrote the first draft of this triumph, but the second draft was written by Writing Unit 12 together with Joe Eszterhas. 12 and Eszterhas must have been responsible for more than half of the final script; it’s possible that 5 just throws out ideas Stratemeyer-style these days, and it’s good to see that Hollywood has finally forgiven Eszterhas for Showgirls.

15 March 2007

Law and Laureates

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:24 am

judge.jpgJust like those chumps who win the lottery and keep going to work every day, even after I published my novel in verse about Adelaide I still finished my law degree and then practised for five years. I still do a bit of contracting and consulting, for the sole purpose of keeping it real. And of course I’m interested in the occasional intersections of law and literature.

I was particularly pleased to see that the House of Representatives in Minnesota has tabled a bill appointing a poet laureate. Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a similar bill in 2005 on the basis that the North Star State already had a “state folklorist” and he was worried about the inevitable “requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter”. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also burdened with a state mushroom (the morel, Morchella esculenta) and a state muffin (blueberry) as well as a couple more nicknames not already mentioned, including the Bread and Butter State and the Gopher State.) But perhaps the pottery-hating Governor will change his mind when he sees that this bill is written in verse. It’s too awful to extract in full, but at least it admits it:

Subd. 2. Removal.

The poet will be free to write rhyming lines,
With removal only for cause,
But we trust that the bard will promptly resign,
If the verse reads as badly as laws.

Legislation is hardly ever written in verse, but there are quite a few examples in case law. You might remember a couple of years ago when Macomb County (Michigan) Circuit Court Judge Deborah Servitto dismissed a defamation suit against Eminem with a little rap of her own. This one stands up a bit better (citation is DeAngelo Bailey vs Marshall Bruce Mathers, III aka Eminem Slim Shady, Case No. 2001-3606-NO):

Mr Bailey complains that his rep is trash
So he’s seeking compensation in the form of cash
Bailey thinks he’s entitled to some monetary gain
Because Eminem used his name in vain

Eminem says Bailey used to throw him around
Beat him up in the john, shoved his face in the ground
Eminem contends that his rap is protected
By the rights guaranteed by the first amendment

Eminem maintains that the story is true
And that Bailey beat him black and blue
In the alternative he states that the story is phony
And a reasonable person would think it’s baloney

The Court must always balance the rights
Of a defendant and one placed in a false light
If the plaintiff presents no question of fact
To dismiss is the only acceptable act

If the language used is anything but pleasin’
It must be highly objectionable to a person of reason
Even if objectionable and causing offence
Self-help is the first line of defence

Yet when Bailey actually spoke to the press
what do you think he didn’t address?
Those false light charges that so disturbed
Prompted from Bailey not a single word

So highly objectionable, it could not be
—Bailey was happy to hear his name on a CD

Bailey also admitted he was a bully in youth
Which makes what Marshall said substantial truth
This doctrine is a defence well known
And renders Bailey’s case substantially blown

The lyrics are stories no one would take as fact
They’re an exaggeration of a childish act
Any reasonable person could clearly see
That the lyrics could only be hyperbole

It is therefore this Court’s ultimate position
That Eminem is entitled to summary disposition.

Well, it starts out all right. But it’s not a patch on the 1983 Michigan Court of Appeals case of William L Fisher v Karen Lowe et al (122 Mich App 418) which reads, somewhat delightfully:

We thought that we would never see
A suit to compensate a tree.

A suit whose claim in tort is prest
Upon a mangled tree’s behest;

A tree whose battered trunk was prest
Against a Chevy’s crumpled crest;

A tree that faces each new day
With bark and limb in disarray;

A tree that may forever bear
A lasting need for tender care.

Flora lovers though we three,
We must uphold the court’s decree.

That is the full judgment (minus a couple of footnotes that contain the actual prosaic decision) but it was later embellished, apparently by headnote writers at Westlaw, with an opening synopsis which is also pretty good. Then there’s the pretty workmanlike version of “The Raven” found in In re Robin E. Love, Bankruptcy No. 85-03011-BKC-AJC. There’s the Dr-Seuss–like Brown v State 134 Ga App 771, and… ah, hell, there’s a big list of them here, although all the links are to the pay-per-view Westlaw.

The Hon. Gerald Lebovitz writes in Ethical Judicial Opinion Writing (big PDF here):

Judges should not construct opinions in the form of poems. Although “[p]oetic justice is always entertaining,” it is “rarely poetic or just.” Poetic opinions undermine the key aspect that is central to judicial opinions—they lack “a clearly articulated holding supported by precedent.” Litigants, especially the losing side, may feel as though the court treated their issues and arguments frivolously.262 And the public will conclude that the court spent more time constructing the verses than contemplating the law. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “The law is not the place for the artist or poet. The law is the calling of thinkers.” Judges should spend more time contemplating the law than creating verses.

This seems like a bit of a downer, but given how terrible most of the judicial verses are I don’t think anybody’s going to fight too hard for them. Mary Kate Kearney makes a spirited argument based on Porreco v Porreco 811 A.2d 566, which turns out to be quite poetic, though it’s only a dissent:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
when his spouse finds he’s given her a cubic zirconium
instead of a diamond in her engagement band,
the one he said was worth twenty-one grand.

Our deceiver would claim that when his bride relied
on his claim of value, she was not justified
for she should have appraised it; and surely she could have,
but the question is whether a bride-to-be would have.

The realities of the parties control the equation,
and here they’re not comparable in sophistication;
the reasonableness of her reliance we just cannot gauge
with a yardstick of equal experience and age.

This must be remembered when applying the test
by which the “reasonable fiancée” is assessed.
She was 19, he was nearly 30 years older;
was it unreasonable for her to believe what he told her?

Given their history and Pygmalion relation,
I find her reliance was with justification.
Given his accomplishment and given her youth,
was it unjustifiable for her to think he told the truth?

Or for every prenuptial, is it now a must
that you treat your betrothed with presumptive mistrust?
Do we mean reliance on your beloved’s representation
is not justifiable, absent third party verification?

Love, not suspicion, is the underlying foundation
of parties entering the marital relation;
mistrust is not required, and should not be made a priority.
Accordingly, I must depart from the reasoning of the majority.

Way to go, the Hon. J Michael Eakin!

16 February 2006

Weapons drawn

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:02 am

comp.jpgIran’s largest daily newspaper has announced a competition for cartoons depicting the Holocaust. The call is a response to the caricatures of Muhammad published by Denmark’s and newspapers around the world.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” says Hamshahri’s graphics editor, Farid Mortazavi.

On one view, this is a complete non sequitur. Although the Nazis and their offsiders targeted many groups during the Second World War, their attacks on Jews were particularly virulent, and most people recognise the special significance of the Holocaust and its memory to Jewish culture. It is not an obvious vehicle for retaliation against Denmark or the other European countries that published the cartoons.

Certainly very few Danish citizens died in the Holocaust. Even the country’s Jewish population was almost entirely saved; most were smuggled across the Øresund to Sweden, and the few sent to concentration camps received food and medicine from the Danish government. Only around fifty perished, and Danes must reflect on the Holocaust with at least a little pride. Denmark’s population of 5.4 million includes around 8,000 Jews; it is not clear that any of them were involved in the publication of the cartoons. In all of Europe there are fewer than two million Jews, and they approach 1% of the total population only in France.

The Holocaust competition seems to rest on the old conspiracy theory that Jewish interests control the Western media, if not the Western world; cartoons printed in Arabic newspapers suggest that this idea has some currency. Otherwise, it would be more pertinent to attack what is sacred to Europe’s largely Christian population – though that might be difficult, since Jesus is also venerated by Muslims.

Hamshahri’s point may be that the Holocaust is sacrosanct to all Europeans, Jew or Gentile. Europe is certainly sensitive about the subject, and public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence in most of the countries that have published the Muhammad cartoons, though not in Denmark. For that crime Roger Garaudy was fined in France, Gaston-Armand Amaudruz imprisoned in Switzerland, and Siegfried Verbke convicted in Belgium; David Irving is in custody awaiting trial in Austria. Holocaust denial is generally directed against Jews, but it is so condemned by the wider community that it attracts legal prohibition.

Many Muslims also feel that anti-Semitism itself is singled out for reproval. Many countries prohibit incitement to racial hatred or vilification; fewer prohibit incitement to religious hatred. As a result, more protection may be available to Jews—an ethnic as well as a religious group—than to Muslims, who are united only by religion.

Is there a relevant difference between race and religion? Perhaps More Help. Religious beliefs are susceptible to choice—and debate—in a way that race is not. Most religions are at least partly incompatible with each other, so that practising one will often involve questioning or denouncing another. But religion now seems to divide people the way race once did; extremist elements within and without Islam are selling us a clash of civilisations defined not by ethnicity but by belief. It is hard to distinguish religious hatred from old-fashioned racial hatred by its intention, its content or its effect.

One answer is to criticise the beliefs but not the believers; that will sometimes be an illusory distinction—to portray Muhammad as a bomb-wielding psychopath is hardly to flatter his devotees—but it is still worth making. Perhaps the best solution is to apply racial and religious incitement laws consistently but very sparingly, against only the most loathsome and gratuitous expressions—and to subsume Holocaust denial into these laws; it would often though perhaps not always breach them.

Should the European newspapers who stood by the Jyllands-Posten also reprint the Holocaust cartoons? It depends. Prosecutors investigating the Muhammad cartoons found no likely breach of Denmark’s laws against blasphemy or religious insult. If the twelve winners of Hamshahri’s gold coins are significantly more offensive in their portrayals then there is no need to publish them, even if local laws would allow it; there is no hypocrisy in drawing a line. Flemming Rose, the mastermind of the Jyllands-Posten initiative, said that he would run the Holocaust cartoons; his editor-in-chief promptly overruled him. Both decisions seem hasty; we should wait and see.

In the meantime we have the cartoons of the Arab European League, which has made a promise similar to Hamshahri’s. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind,” says its website. Two of its cartoons involve familiar Holocaust denial; one has an undeserving Peter Jackson turn down Steven Spielberg’s new “Holocaust script” with the excuse, “I don’t think I have that much of imagination Steven, sorry”. The most shocking shows a post-coital Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank—killed by the Nazis when she was fifteen—and crowing, “Write this one in your diary, Anne!”

As soon as these cartoons appeared, the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel lodged a criminal complaint with the Dutch public prosecutor; it is easy to see why. They are as senseless as the Muhammad caricatures, and more insulting. They don’t just conflate a prophet with the excesses of his adherents; they accuse a race of fabricating for its own gain the most horrific events in its history, and do violence to the memory of a murdered girl whose relatives are still alive. It is a simple matter to distinguish them from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, though other cartoons may be more difficult to separate.

The Holocaust was long considered an inappropriate subject for any but the most sombre depiction, an injunction almost as firm as Islam’s against images of Muhammad. In 1980, Art Spiegelman began to serialise his comic Maus, which told of his father’s experiences as a Jew in wartime Poland and in concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. Spiegelman softened his portrayal by drawing the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Americans as dogs and so on. Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 but was at first suppressed in Germany for its treatment of the Holocaust; it is now taught in schools there. Last year, Joe Kubert’s Yossel and Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz—comic books dealing with similar themes without Spiegelman’s anthropomorphism—were translated into German and received a cautious reception. “Can you really show the savagery of the Holocaust as a comic?” asked Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild; many Jewish leaders thought that you couldn’t.

During the early stages of the war, American cartoonists drew attention to the plight of Jews in Europe and urged governments to give them refuge in the United States or Palestine. But most cartoon depictions of Jews have been outrageously insulting. Propaganda in Die Brennessel and Der Stürmer from the 1920s onward portrayed them as hook-nosed, unshaven and avaricious, as spiders sucking the livelihood from Germans, worms in the German economy, pimps luring women into prostitution, murderers draining the blood from children; they showed strapping Aryans pushing them off cliffs and having at them with swords. Many Muslim newspapers now work in the same tradition: their cartoons depict Jews drinking the blood of babies, playing puppet-master to the world and particularly the United States; they draw them as snakes, pigs, octopuses, devils, and frequently Nazis.

These unflattering portrayals are not relevant to the way the Western media should treat Islam, or the laws that should apply to racial or religious vilification. The fact that some Muslims incite hatred does not mean that other Muslims should be vilified, and the fact that some Muslim countries make hypocritical demands for religious accommodation does not require our hypocrisy. On past form the Hamshahri cartoons are unlikely to challenge the European media’s commitment to freedom of expression, because they are likely to be of a different nature to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons; we will know soon enough. But cartoons, however offensive, are a much better response than threats and firebombs, and are certainly to be encouraged.

19 August 2005

Journalist’s apostrophe?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

apostrophe.jpgI promise not to let these pages slide into a punctuation witch-hunt (though would it be so terrible if they did?), but it now seems that my relaxed attitude towards misplaced apostrophes of last week may have been dangerously naïve, judging from the opening paragraph of this story on the front page of Wednesday’s The Australian. Now journalists are under pretty constant time pressures and it’s easy to slip up, especially when you’ve just typed a couple of legitimate apostrophes and feel like you’re on a roll. But they do have copy-editors and you’d think that the front page would deserve some special attention. I had to read this paragraph three or four times to confirm that it really was a mistake and that there wasn’t a noun I’d forgotten to read somewhere in there.

Which is why apostrophe abuse in this kind of case is much more damaging than the proverbial greengrocer’s apostrophe. By mapping eye movements during reading tasks, clever science-types have worked out that we generally don’t read a text letter-by-letter or even word-by-word: we skip all over the place, backwards and forwards, and sometimes don’t even look at particular words at all, instead preferring to fill them in based on our knowledge of the patterns of language. Newspaper articles are designed to be read quickly, with guidelines for the order of sentences and paragraphs to allow the reader to extract his or her preferred level of detail in the shortest possible time—which is why, for example, they usually start with a single-sentence summary paragraph. Fast reading involves a certain amount of word-skipping and loads more work onto the predictive parts of our brains. My theory is that when you scan a word with a possessive apostrophe in it you expect a noun phrase to turn up pretty soon afterwards, and when one doesn’t the wheels come off; the fluent reading you were enjoying seizes up and you have to limp back and pick through each word like a jerk to work out what’s actually going on, and it’s a total pain.

Back down at the letter-level, I’m sure you’ve all read this by now:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

But aoccdrnig to Matt Davis, who actually is a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, this isn’t exactly true: in fact, the scrambled words in the example are rather uniquely easy to decipher due to the words themselves (which tend not to have ambiguous anagrams) and the ways the internal letters are scrambled (often simple transpositions of letter-pairs). Language patterns above the word-level must also play a part here; for example if you’ve unpicked the hardly-scrambled “Cmabrigde” it’s much easier to predict the more-thoroughly-mixed “Uinervtisy” that follows. But it’s all very interesting.

3 July 2005

Pointy things

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

pointy3.jpgSometime Murakami translator Jay Rubin has written a delightful book called Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, which Vintage has released as a kind of companion to their very stylish Murakami reissues. It has a lot of great stuff in it, including a discussion of the issues of translation that we’ll get to later, as well as some extracts from and descriptions of early Murakami stories that have not been published in English. It’s a rare treat for those of us who love Murakami’s dreamy weirdness but haven’t quite got around to learning Japanese.

One story, which Rubin describes as one of the weirdest of Murakami’s anthology A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (Kangaruu-biyori)—he seems to have a thing for kangaroos, which is kind of gratifying—is called “Tongari-yaki no seisui”, which Rubin translates as “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes&#8221. It’s about an imaginary traditional Japanese delicacy manufactured by a mysterious concern whose patriarchs turn out to be a bunch of blind crows who eat nothing but the cakes in question, approving or damning new recipes and pecking at each other. It’s very weird. Anyway, Rubin closes with this interesting anecdote of life imitating art:

The word translated as “Sharpies” is tongari-yaki, meaning, more or less literally, “pointy-baked-things&#8221. Some time after he wrote the story, Haruki and Yoko were walking along a Tokyo street when they were bowled over to see a billboard advertising a new snack: tongari-kon or “pointy-corn&#8221, cornucopia-shaped corn chips. “Pointy-corn” has since become far better known than Murakami’s story. Just remember, though, Murakami’s “pointy-baked-things” came first!

Well, maybe you had to be there—but it certainly would be weird to see something you’d invented for a story appear pretty much unchanged in the real world. Imagine how Jules Verne would have felt if he’d stuck around to see actual space travel, or how David Foster Wallace must have felt when those toothbrushes with tongue-scrapers on the back hit the big time and began to be advertised heavily. You may remember this from Infinite Jest:

Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame became of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency, the NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

Anyway, House Foods Corporation‘s Tongari (&#8220Pointy&#8221) Corn is now indeed a popular treat in Japan, where it is reportedly described as “a corn snack of crunchy type!&#8221 and comes in standard flavours plain salt, roasted corn, fresh cheese and tuna mayonnaise.

I also wonder how Murakami reacted to Steve Martin’s enduring 1983 film The Man With Two Brains, in which Dr Hfuhruhurr recites the poetry of John Lillison, England’s greatest one-armed poet and the first person ever to be killed in a car crash. The Collected Poems of John Lillison only features two attested poems, until Steve Martin invents some more. The first is “In Dillman’s Grove&#8221:

In Dillman’s Grove, our love did die,
and now in ground shall ever lie.
None could e’er replace her visage,
until your face brought thoughts of kissage.

But the most famous one, which was also referenced somewhat indulgently in LA Story, is “Pointy Birds&#8221:

Pointy birds,
O pointy pointy,
Anoint my head,

I have often wondered what these pointy birds, or “tongari-tori&#8221, were. Perhaps Murakami has finally given us a clue. More later.

11 June 2005

Adventure Adventure

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

whale.jpgLoyal readers may remember that some time ago these pages revealed the shameful secret of the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate that produced the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and Bobbsey Twins series under names like Franklin W Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Victor Appleton and Laura Lee Hope, figureheads whose sheer implausible prolificacy would have made the underlying ruse obvious to anyone but an early-teenage reader.

That perfidy was contrasted with the honest charms of Willard Price, a singular attested author whose Adventure series delighted more of us than I ever expected. I have even had some feedback on the site and through e-mails fondly remembering this admirable journeyman—approaching 1% of the interest in Missy Higgins Lesbian, much better than it sounds—and bright flashes of recognition among literate types of a certain age at parties, book clubs and so on. It’s encouraging.

But for once the Internet proves not to be the fountain of all knowledge we have come to rely on. (Some people say “font&#8221, but that’s not right: everyone knows that the font of all knowledge is Times New Roman, just as—thanks Nick—the 389 from the City to North Bondi is the route of all evil.) There’s just nothing out there. Perhaps Price lived and wrote at the wrong time, too late to be out of copyright but too early to have made an impact on the current generation. If only he’d written Hilary Duff’s Boobs Adventure or Kate Beckinsale Fucking Adventure, things would have been different, according to my search-engine logs.

But we needn’t go that far. I have consulted the admirable Third Edition of Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers (London: St James Press, 1989) in hardcopy and can offer the following information about this too-long-quiet achiever.

Willard DeMille Price was born on 28 July 1887 in Peterborough, Ontario, and moved to the US when he was four. He got his MA and Litt.D from Columbia, edited the journals Survey and World Outlook, and travelled on many expeditions for the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History between 1920 and 1967. He wrote fourteen Adventure books for young readers: Amazon Adventure (1949), South Sea Adventure (1952), Underwater Adventure (1954), Volcano Adventure (1956), Whale Adventure (1960, pictured is the 1980 edition, the one that terrorised me with its cat-o’-nine-tails), African Adventure (1963), Elephant Adventure (1964), Safari Adventure (1966), Lion Adventure (1967), Gorilla Adventure (1969), Diving Adventure (1970), Cannibal Adventure (1972), Tiger Adventure (1979) and Arctic Adventure (1980). They were actually more diverse than they sound. And at least he wrote them all.

Price embarked on his Last Adventure on 14 October 1983. Earlier that year, he had said:

My aim in writing the “Adventure” series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior. Judging from the letters I have received from boys and girls around the world, I believe I have helped open to them the worlds of books and natural history.

Doesn’t that sound nice. Bear in mind that he’s 96 years old here. And at the risk of sending contributor Fiona Waters, editor Tracy Chevalier and the good people at St James Press broke, I also extract Waters’s essay on the series:

Willard Price’s highly improbable adventures of Hal and Roger Hunt have all the ingredients of Superman except the boys wear safari suits and save animals rather than humans.

In the first of the adventures, Amazon Adventure, the framework is set for all the following books. John Hunt had “studied and collected animals for twenty years, supplying zoos, circuses and museums,” and was planning a trip to South America accompanied by his sons, Hal and Roger. “No man could want better pals on a jungle journey. Hal, finished with school and about to go to college, was as tall and strong as his father. Roger did not run to length, but he was alert and wiry, and brave enough.” Hal and Roger, at 19 and 15, never seem to age and so remain conveniently popular with the widest range of readers possible. Equally, there is never any real development in the two characters, Hal steady and almost a man, Roger endowed with great courage but not much common sense. The plot is always simple, a search for whatever kind of animal is required, but well endowed with feats of endurance and dramatic episodes, and the pages quite crammed with factual detail on the animals which the boys appear ever to have at their encyclopaedic finger tips. They also possess a remarkable ability for picking up scientific and technical detail relevant to the current project, and are therefore able to take on board ballooning, underwater diving or diamond mining without any hesitation or pause for training. Most of all they do have an extraordinary amount of luck. In Gorilla Adventure they survive between them a charge by an infuriated gorilla, a fire in their cabin and a fight with their local guide, an attack by a mamba and then a spitting cobra, a 20-foot fall followed by a fight with a black leopard—all the while managing to collect 22 animals for their father, to find enough diamonds to maintain an ailing bush hospital, and to capture a python and a gorilla together with one rope.

The exploits may be fiction, but the facts and settings could only have come from real life; Price’s tales are based on his own tumultuous and action-packed life. The detail in these adventure books is all accurate and undoubtedly has an enormous appeal to his wide following. Nothing gets in the way of the narration, of the boys’ exploits and the constant stream of information—no time is wasted on philosophizing or theorizing, all is action and very successful.

One gets the feeling from this mixed review that Waters is secretly a huge fan but is just slightly too sophisticated to say so. Come on, Fiona! Let it all out. That sequence with the fire and the gorilla and all the kinds of snakes, where they’re biffing the treacherous guide and the black leopard (the rarest of them all!) and diamonds are spilling everywhere—you can’t get better than that. It wasn’t luck—it was pluck, though having encyclopaedic fingertips can’t have hurt either. And there may not have been much theorising, but there were important themes addressed—of conservation, of cruelty, of courage and cannibalism—all thrashed out through action rather than boring old speeches.

What I certainly never knew growing up was that Price also wrote a slew of non-fiction books for adults, also based on his extensive travels. Some of them were clearly the product of their time, like perhaps Ancient Peoples at New Tasks (1918, for the Missionary Education Movement) and The Negro Around the World (1925). He wrote many, many books on Japan, from the original The South Sea Adventure: Through Japan’s Equatorial Empire (1936, published in the US as Pacific Adventure—a trap for young players) through Japan Rides the Tiger (1952) and Japan’s Islands of Mystery (1944) to Journey by Junk: Japan After MacArthur (1953) and The Japanese Miracle and Peril (1971). He kind of took up where Lafcadio Hearn left off, though perhaps he was always an outsider and never really embraced the culture. Professor Laurie Barber at the University of Waikato across the ditch goes so far as to suggest that Price may have been some kind of US intelligence agent, citing in particular his writings on the Japanese Mandate in Micronesia:

In early 1944 the allied thrust toward Japan reached the South Seas Mandate’s atolls and islands. Fire storm bombardments by now superior United States naval and airforce destroyed air strips and left Truk’s boasted naval fortress, constructed after the war’s beginning, in ruins. Amphibious landings, the employment of flame throwers, tanks, satchel charges, and overwhelming reinforcement, smashed depleted Japanese defences. It is difficult to estimate how much or how little of Price’s information on the Mandate’s coast, atoll chains, and anchorages, may have helped the American invaders at this time. It is likely some did!

But, even so, the question still remains. Was Willard deMille Price, travel story purveyor par excellence, a United States spy? We may never know whether he was formally a United States intelligence agent, or just a patriotic American willing to tell what he had seen. But we do know that Willard Price deliberately travelled to Japan’s South Seas Mandate to check-out whether Japan had contravened League of Nations mandate provisions by erecting fortifications, and incidentally to discover the extent of Japanese colonisation and control. It may be that he was just a patriotic journalist, offering his findings to the jigsaw assembled by United States military in preparation for a foreseeable war. Why not? After all it is proven fact the Japanese tourists in the 1930s deposited their holiday photographs, often taken against backgrounds of port facilities and likely land beaches, with Japan’s military intelligence in Tokyo. For Price and for the Japanese tourists it was the least patriots could do. But there is the lurking suspicion that Price may have been more in the intelligence world, considerably more than just a patriotic citizen!

Well, who knows. Price also wrote about South America, Africa, Tahiti and even Roaming Britain: 8000 Miles Through England, Scotland and Wales (1958: he must have been very lost). His travels were summarised somewhat prematurely in 1952’s I Cannot Rest from Travel: An Autobiography of Adventure in Seventy Lands, and more comprehensively in 1982’s My Own Life of Adventure: Travels in 148 Lands, which was directed at the readers of his children’s series.

But I’m going straight down to the local library to see if they’ve still got Gorilla Adventure. You should, too!

24 May 2005

More Engrish

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

razor.jpgMany, many thanks to Jim and Lyndal for taking time out of their Kyushu honeymoon to pick up this brilliantly-packaged disposable hotel razor for me. It is one of the finest examples of Engrish I have personally seen. Something about the mass-produced banality of this hotel junk and the unexpected poetry that tries to enliven it. It even kind of scans:

You know what you want and what to expect.
To run, at one time, like a horse in the prairie.

Well, sure, I want that—who wouldn’t?—but I don’t know if I should expect it. That’s just asking for disappointment.

Of course the tantalising question is: who comes up with this stuff? One thing I love about Google’s plan to digitise basically everything (apart from the fact that it’s put the wind up the Europeans to do some digitising of their own) is that all kinds of sources will be laid bare, and all kinds of genius properly attributed. In the meantime, the Internet only offers up other attestations of the inimitable razor, without any clue as to its inspiration. Alas.

But I did pick up a terrific T-shirt boldly emblazoned “SOURCE of SOURCE” and mysteriously subtitled with the following message:

Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

Obviously too good to pass up. But this time the Source of Source actually has a source: it turns up in this history of Harlem, and also in this Guide to the Boys’ Choir of Harlem (big PDF, don’t bother), both of which include the following paragraph:

Beginning in the 1870s Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of numerous new single-family rowhouses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses. Commercial concerns and religious, educational and cultural institutions, such as the distinguished Harlem Opera House on the West 125th Street, were established in Harlem to serve the expanding population. The western half of Harlem became a fashionable and prosperous neighbourhood. Luxury elevator apartment buildings with the most modern amenities were constructed, as well as more modest types of multi-family housing. Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

I think that whoever made my T-shirt picked the best sentence, although the penultimate one would have been good too. Neither possible source of Source of Source is terribly accurate with its sources, but both mention Gilbert Osofsky, whose Harlem, the Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930 (New York: Harper & Row, c. 1965) seems to me to be the front-runner. But we may have to wait until Google gets to the New York Public Library to know for sure.

Anyone who can find a likely source for “THE ALWAYS CALM PLAYER MADE HISTORIC RECORD IN THE GAME OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL” please let me know.

13 May 2005

Everything’s A-OK

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

sesame.jpgI’ve just come back from Japan, where I saw many strange and wondrous things. One was this subway poster, in which Sesame Street characters exhort commuters not to take up too much room with their newspapers. It’s a bilingual message, but the dominant English may indicate that it’s directed at the ill-mannered gaijin papering the carriages with their lifestyle sections. Also, the considerate Muppets’ broadsheets are all in English, though the only headline I can make out is A Big Fire Broke Out!!—whose excess of punctuation and dearth of detail suggests that the SESAME Times is probably a Murdoch paper.

The Times also omits any mention of the Sesame Street Muppets’ involvement in the Big Fire, which most historians agree was lit by furry war criminals (from left) Mojabo, Ernie, Teena, Elmo, Bert, Grover and Big Bird as part of an ongoing pattern of aggression against neighbouring streets such as Zhima Jie and Ulitsa Sezam. Violent demonstrations have broken out in those streets. Beneath the harmonious catchcries “Yiiip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh” lies a deeper conflict.

No, wait—the demonstrations were mostly in China and Korea, and they were getting all worked up about the Japanese Ministry of Education’s approval of a new history textbook, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s The New History Textbook. Critics (including Japan’s own Centre of Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility) have argued that the new textbook inadequately characterises Japan’s role in the lead-up to, and behaviour during, the Second World War. For example, the textbook is said to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading Manchuria, to gloss over the Nanjing Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Incident, at opposite ends of the continuum), and to downplay Japanese war crimes including the exploitation of comfort women.

The textbook controversy has been smouldering for about as long as there have been textbooks: Saburo Ienaga spent about 40 years and many court cases trying to get his own textbook published as he’d written it—massacres and all—and not as the Textbook Authorisation System wanted it. He had some important victories but died in 2002; and now the New History Textbook is said to raise (or lower) the bar in minimising or excusing Japan’s role as aggressor in the war—indeed, its publishers are explicitly reacting against the “masochist” (some of us might say “black armband”) view of history and attempting to restore national pride in Japan’s military record.

This site compares the old and new textbooks and includes some interesting timelines. The 2005 edition does seem to apply another coat of whitewash to the 2001 version, which itself could hardly have been described as “masochist&#8221. Of course, the people in Japan’s neighbourhood aren’t shining examples of penitence, or of an encouraging attitude towards unflattering publications, either—and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that China in particular wants to head off any talk of Japan joining it as a permanent member of the Security Council. The BBC News reports that the Chinese Press has explicitly linked the issues; for example, Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao argues:

How can a country which not only cannot correctly handle history, but falsifies history again and again, have the qualifications to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible member of the international community?

Even though the makeup of the Security Council is patently ridiculous and the Chinese defence of it self-serving, it’s hard not to be a little surprised by the official accounts of Japan’s role in the war. I visited the museum attached to the Yasakuni Shrine—which houses the spirits of the Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals like Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui, said to be responsible for Nanjing; and which Junichiro Koizumi keeps raising international eyebrows by visiting—and found it gave a very different account of the war and its causes than I’d pieced together (admittedly, mostly from movies). Like: WWII was everyone’s fault but Japan’s; the US was itching to join in and forced Japan to make the first move at Pearl Harbor; and the Allies unnecessarily prolonged the war by insisting on Japan’s full surrender. Lots of Chinese soldiers died at Nanjing because they were ordered to defend it to the death; Japanese commanding officers issued explicit warnings that civilians were not to be mistreated.

I don’t know what happened. But it seems to me that any responsible history should as far as possible give all sides of the story, with proportionately more space to the more widely- or respectably-held views. Almost nobody adheres to this ideal, but the Japanese government seems to insist on a lower standard than many. On the other hand, at the end of April Koizumi had this to say:

In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, to never turn into a military power but an economic power, and its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means without recourse to use of force.

This is pretty much in line with other apologies issued in the past by Koizumi and other Japanese leaders. It’s not very specific, but it seems genuine enough. Perhaps that’s the Japanese way. I think specifics are important, but perhaps they’re not everything; perhaps actual conduct is more critical.

Brought to you by the letters E and F and the number 3.

22 April 2005

What’s slightly better than a lame old joke?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

It’s a painfully literal response to the set-up of a lame old joke, as first brought to you by McSweeney’s

A man and a woman are crossing the desert. They find a lamp in the sand. The man rubs the lamp and nothing happens. Afterward, he feels a bit foolish.

A man is driving down a country road at night when his car gets a flat tire. He stops by a local farmhouse and asks the owner if he can stay there for the night.
“Sure,” says the farmer. “As long as you don’t touch my three beautiful daughters.”
The man did as he was told, because frankly, he didn’t find the girls nearly so attractive as their father seemed to.

…and recently picked up and democratised by Something Awful, whose many pages include some that are funnier than Dave Eggers’s outfit’s, and may prove some dubious thing to do with the supposed wisdom of crowds:

Why did the deaf man take his parrot to work?
He was weird.

Why do Mexicans not like going out in the rain?
It’s wet.

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

What’s sad about four black people in a Cadillac going over a cliff?
They were my friends.

Have you seen Stevie Wonder’s new house?
Well, it’s really nice.

A blonde girl walks into the local dry cleaners. She places a garment on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon to pick up my dress.” she says.
“Come again?” says the clerk, cupping his ear.
“I said ‘I’LL BE BACK TOMORROW AFTERNOON TO PICK UP MY DRESS’,” says the girl, this time louder.

Well, I think they’re funny. And with our great Australian tradition of lame jokes, it’s easy to come up with local versions:

A council worker fronts up to a house in Redfern on garbage day and notices that there’s no wheelie bin outside. He asks the Aboriginal bloke standing on the front porch, “Where’s ya bin?”
“It’s right there,” the bloke says.
“Oh, I thought that was next door’s.”
“No, they’re away for the week.”

What’s the difference between an Australian and a New Zealander?
Interestingly, in the late 19th century New Zealand was invited to join the proposed federation of Australia, and attended most of the constitutional conventions before ultimately deciding not to proceed. So, to answer your question: they come from different countries.

What do you call twenty Aborigines killed in a bus crash?
Most Aboriginal traditions forbid the naming of recently deceased people. You should check with the families or local authorities for a suitable description or substitute name for each of the deceased. In some areas, “Kunmanara” or “Kumanjayi” may be used, but these are specific to certain groups or regions.

What does Brian Lara’s cock taste like?
Really, is that relevant? Why don’t we shut up and play some cricket.

9 March 2005

Pulse of my heart

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

90210.jpgI’m not sure I entirely bought the Irish parts of Clint Eastwood’s otherwise-compelling Million Dollar Baby. The grizzled trainer struggling through phrasebooks and grammars to recapture some unspecified Lost Thing From The Past seemed just a bit heavy-handed: everything he says and does to Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank shows us he’s gentle and sensitive and haunted; he doesn’t need to go off and read poetry as well. And the Irish fight-fans who obviously know what mo cuishle means seem a bit keen to adopt it as a battlecry to accompany these women just belting each other (on which props to Hilary Swank and her trainer—she really does look ferocious. Can you believe she was on 90210?).

Anyway, The New York Times has an interesting article on the use of the Gaelic phrase in the film, including its full version and meaning:

The name is a shortened form of the phrase “A chuisle mo chroí,” “O, pulse of my heart,” or as Frankie will put it more concisely, “My darling.” But Ms. Swank’s character doesn’t know that yet and neither do we. All we know is that the words emblazoned – and some argue misspelled – on the back of her robe are important to a lot of people.

Well, I don’t speak any Irish, but I suppose there’s a fair argument that if it’s really “mo chuisle” then “mo cuishle” is a misspelling. By far the most common version seems to be macushla, which seems much easier for everyone, but may be offensive or ignorant or something, I don’t know.

The other interesting part of the NYT article discusses the scene in which Clint Eastwood is translating WB Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree from Irish into English for Hilary. It’s certainly a beautiful poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

But alert readers will notice that it is written in English, and always was. Someone may have translated it back into Irish for Clint’s little book, but it wasn’t Yeats, and Clint could have saved himself a lot of trouble by reading the original.

It’s like the scene in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia where Septimus has translated a bit of Antony and Cleopatra into Latin and torments Thomasina as she tries to translate it back into English—then shows off by pretending to puzzle over his own translation as he squeezes out the Shakespeare version. She catches on faster than Hilary Swank did, and is ropable. Tragically I seem to have lent my copy to someone and so can’t extract it.

15 December 2004

Bad sex

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:39 am

The Literary Review‘s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction” prize has been announced, and the winner is Tom Wolfe for I am Charlotte Simmons. Here is an extract:

Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth. She tried to make her lips move in sync with his. The next thing she knew, Hoyt had put his hand sort of under her thigh and hoisted her leg up over his thigh. What was she to do? Was this the point she should say, “Stop!”? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, “No, Hoyt,” in an even voice, the way you would talk to a dog that insists on begging at the table.

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns—oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest—no, the hand was cupping her entire right—Now! She must say “No, Hoyt” and talk to him like a dog…

…the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers until they must be only eighths of inches from the border of her pubic hair—what’s that!—Her panties were so wet down… there—the fingers had definitely reached the outer stand of the field of pubic hair and would soon plunge into the wet mess that was waiting right… there—there—

Now, I think Wolfe is clearly putting us on here: his descriptions of sex are deliberately clumsy, heavy-handed, ill-advised—in short, as gleefully bad as real-life college sex can be. And at least it’s readable—unlike many of the other entries, which are unbearably florid, read like instruction manuals, or involve actual cows. So I would say that while Charlotte Simmons may include the best “bad sex” writing, it’s a far cry from the worst sex writing in fiction.

It’s hard to write about sex—but you always want to, you can’t help yourself. You want to be the first person to write well about sex, but of course you’re not, it’s pure hubris, and disastrous as always. My worst ever sex writing was this, from Nomad, which was actually published (parental advisory—duh):

They were kissing. Lips. Teeth. Tongue. Words darted around his head, triggered like the nerves that were firing all over his body. Metallic tang of saliva. Muscles struggling to be free. Fragments, images: everything had become narration. Her mouth detached from his and sank down to his—what? Penis. Prick. Cock. Whang. So many words; a thesaurus. Some guys had pet names for theirs. One-eyed Jack. Old Feller. Clovis….

She sat back on the rug and let her legs fall outward. He knelt on the ground, held her around the thighs and slipped his tongue into the cleft of her—this was even harder. This wasn’t even his: he didn’t know how to name it, couldn’t think about it without a name. Not a vagina, medical, clinical, cold. Too warm for a vagina; too warm and wet. Too definite for abstracts like her womanhood, her sex. Too real. Not a pussy, stupid word, insulting. By no means a steaming damp slice of chocolate love cake. Perhaps a cunt, base word, no beating around the bush: frank, brutal, but at least not coy. Call a cunt a cunt. Break the taboo, diffuse its power. Right on. But these were all his words, English words: she might know them, but privately she would use her own. For something so intimate she would surely think in Finnish, or possibly Swedish, the other official language. She would probably even contemplate him with the same vocabulary, he realised. Sex had no single language. He had been transformed again. What was once his dick had become something else, something he couldn’t even pronounce, bursting with umlauts and double consonants.

It goes on, but I can’t… I mean, you can see what I was trying to do—can’t you? Trying to write about sex while at the same time writing about writing about sex, and how difficult it is… plus, I was like 20. I think I’ve got better since then, and realised what everybody else probably knew all along: being clever won’t get you anywhere, the mechanics aren’t really important, you don’t have to bang on and on, and a quick game is a good game. (This is all about writing, stop being smart.)

30 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 7:57 pm

Yet another “unfilmable” novel has fallen—this time it’s Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, from a random selection of the team that brought us Notting Hill. I don’t know what you need to do these days to write an unfilmable book that’s going to stick. If William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (bugpowder dust, mugwump jism, sentient assholes), JG Ballard’s Crash (fucking and mangling) and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (rats, nailguns, Whitney Houston) aren’t going to do it, I’m not sure what will.

Well, the whole idea of an unfilmable book gets thrown around a lot these days. People said it about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (various tangents to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (lots of lying around and sand) and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (beats me). And look what happened there.

I guess when people call a book “unfilmable” they often just mean that it’s too (i) violent; (ii) weird; or (iii) boring. Or, to sum up, they mean that what really counts about the book—what the whole point of the book is—just can’t be represented visually. And sometimes they’re right (the thing about The English Patient is the language; on celluloid it’s sumptuous as all hell but I’m definitely with Elaine on that one); sometimes they’re wrong (turns out American Psycho was about consumerism and ennui after all, and quite filmable); and sometimes the film people find a way to dodge the question (like Adaptation‘s adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, an extension of David Cronenberg’s trick with Naked Lunch).

Enduring Love was a great book, particularly the set-piece at the beginning, a bit of virtuosity that was widely published before the novel came out. I’m afraid it’s the kind of thing that can be breathtaking and consuming in a novel but kind of run-of-the-mill in cinema, but of course it’s too early to tell.

Anyway, The Guardian has a quiz about film adaptations which includes a question about a book that’s legally unfilmable due to its author’s intransigence, but we’ll see how long that lasts. See how you go! (I didn’t do very well.)

25 November 2004

A Short Festival on Bad Timing

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:45 am

I wrote this piece on spec for the Herald‘s “short festival” series—which used be on the back of Saturday’s Spectrum part, which was (the Spectrum part was) pleasingly tabloid in shape and easy to handle, as well as having a good concentration of literate and whimsical writing—about a week before the reverse-takeover of the old 48 Hours, in the course of which both the convenient tabloid format and the A Short Festival On: feature were scrapped.

It might even have been ironic if it’d actually been A Short Festival on: Bad Timing, especially because what a lot of people think of as irony—particularly what certain Canadian singers famously think—is in fact just bad timing. But it wasn’t, though it was close. It was, in fact:

A Short Festival On: Mistakes

“That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind,” Commander Neil Alden Armstrong intones portentously as his boot sinks into the lunar dust. At least, that’s what he was supposed to say. In fact he just says “one small step for man”—you can listen to the tape, it’s there forever. And since in the olden days “man” meant the same thing as “mankind” did (that is, “everyone”, and not just “blokes”), perhaps the most famous line in the cosmos winds up making no sense at all.

But it’s hard to blame Neil for his slip of the tongue (or tip of the slung, as the Reverend William Archibald Spooner would have it). He had, after all, just plonked down on the moon, the moon: he was understandably overwhelmed, and the slight flubbing of his line reflected the thrill and awe we all felt at the time, if we were alive. For this honourable, this endearing blunder, he is the patron saint of our festival.

Compare Neil’s benign muffing with US President George Walker Bush’s verbal train wrecks. It may be heart-warming to hear him wax about the struggle to “put food on your family” and affirm that “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully”. But when he starts up with the “tacular weapons” and “potential mential losses”, we suspect he’s trying to get at something to do with tactical nukes and missile launches, and there’s no room for those at our festival. Let his wings take dream somewhere else.

Ah, mistakes. Everyone makes them, so they say. In language, in life, and certainly in love, they’re usually embarrassing and sometimes mortifying. The biggest ones may never be admitted: there have been loads of wars, for example, and surely at least a couple of them have been somewhat off-beam, but you won’t catch anyone fessing up. Maybe they’re too big to be called mistakes; maybe they need another word.

Other mistakes are smaller in scope but still impress with their comprehensiveness. Take the plaque issued by the citizens of Lauderhill, Florida, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day in 2002. It was meant to thank actor James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the good Star Wars films, who had spoken at the celebrations; instead, it was made out to James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr King in 1968. It thanked him for “keeping the dream alive”.

In fact our whole festival could be given over to the Americans, whose country was, after all, discovered by accident. We can only wonder how long Cristoforo Colombo thought he was in the East Indies after he washed up in the New World; certainly long enough to call the people he met Indians, and for that name to stick for four centuries. Some would consider this kind of mistake serendipity, though the “Indians” might not be among them.

Greater consensus attaches to the serendipity of Alexander Fleming, who came back from holidays to find, like many of us, that his dirty plates were growing mould; only his plates had staphylococcus culture on them, and his mould was penicillin. It took an Australian, Sir Howard Walter Florey, to develop useful antibiotics from the mould, but none of it would have been possible without Sir Alexander’s happy accident.

Similar but less-exalted stories persist about the invention of Coca Cola, but in this case the legends themselves are mistaken: the carbonation of that syrupy solvent was by design, not serendipity. Conversely, prevailing wisdom suggests that the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was in fact a mistake.

Mistakes have plagued or enriched art and literature forever. A 1631 edition of the King James Bible landed its printers in hot water when its Seventh Commandment elided a critical word and instructed the credulous: “Thou shalt commit adultery”. Other versions describe Adam and Eve making “aprons” out of fig-leaves, cry “Is there no treacle in Gilead?” and have Rebekah rising with her camels, instead of her damsels. It can be no surprise that one self-referential Bible complains that “Printers have persecuted me without a cause”, where most versions are concerned with princes.

But these are all human errors: what about God? It’s not for us to say, but He, in his omniscience, seems to have had a few regrets. Listen to Him in Genesis, cooking up the flood to destroy everything: “For it repenteth me that I have created them”. It repenteth me—that’s worth a pavilion at our festival.

On the other hand, in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the gods are infallible and the humans are the ones slapsticking and pratfalling about. The king’s story is a litany of bloopers: first he unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, and then he insists on heading the royal commission that ends up exposing and destroying himself. And all because his parents thought they could avoid it all happening, as was prophesied, by leaving their baby on a mountain. Talk about your clangers.

It’s not all bad. Who honestly doesn’t prefer Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bathroom on the right,” or Bob Dylan’s “The ants are my friends” to the real lyrics? Who hasn’t had fun with that Bruce Springsteen number later recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which starts “She was blinded by the light” and goes on about wraps and douches and God knows what else? The Byrds’ 1970 album (Untitled) and the Electric Light Orchestra’s No Answer were both so named because of record company snafus, which may well have helped them, considering some of their intentional titles.

Medieval architects designed their cathedrals with the spires slightly off-centre so as not to pretend perfection and offend God. For the same reason, every Persian carpet contains one mismatched thread. City guides include false streets, and dictionaries made-up words, in order to catch out plagiarists. And old journals claimed to make deliberate mistakes, offering prizes for readers astute enough to spot them.

There is, of course, at least one deliberate mistake in this festival.

16 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 10:10 pm

harbour.jpgAfter a couple of months on the air, Equinox is no longer generating the traffic the Herald and I had hoped for. I have been hearing from people (and have no reason to doubt) that the sonnet-per-day thing makes the story a bit hard to follow, what with having to remember what’s already unfolded in quite a few bite-sized pieces over quite a while, having to commit the new instalment to memory in some way in order to maintain some kind of basic narrative arc, and so on. Perhaps it’s something about the nature of the Internet, too: web users are more accustomed to controlling the rate of their information flow, and being doled out a measly sonnet each day may accordingly be seen as a bit stingy and frustrating.

Anyway, as Yogi Berra famously said (providing among other things a great lead-in for Nick’s and my famous article Ballpark Figures: the Real Cost of Sports Broadcasting Rights, back when we were both lawyers): “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s going to stop them&#8221. I won’t tell you how bad the numbers were getting, but I had been bugging the Herald techs to build a link to this site into the Equinox page—and it turns out we’re getting more hits over here anyway (thanks in large part to Hilary Duff, Missy Higgins, and (new this week) the “Stan Eminem pathetic fallacy&#8221, which sounds like a good name for a thesis).

So the solution has been to hype the book a bit more heavily and for a limited time to put the whole thing on the site at once. You can now read it here. It’s disappointing that the experiment has on one pretty respectable view more or less failed, but I do want to thank everyone who has read the sonnets and passed them on to friends so far; I really appreciate it, and I hope you read and enjoy the rest of the book while it’s up, and we’ll see if the new format has any more luck out there.

More nerd words

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:20 am

engrish.jpgWe’re all familiar with the endearing cultural phenomenon known as Engrish or (perhaps less controversially) Japlish, where more-or-less random English words and phrases are plastered over advertising, packaging, T-shirts, stationery, and so on. This isn’t the dodgy translation of instruction manuals and hotel signs we used to see (I had a model truck whose instructions were just astounding, I wish I still had them); it’s aimed at Japanese-speakers and based on the fact that English is in some sense cool.

The same happens in reverse, of course: you see a lot of people going around with T-shirts or even tattoos of Chinese characters and have to wonder whether they mean what their wearers think they mean, if they’ve even given it that much thought. Maybe we’re all going around with the equivalent of “Crocodile Profusion” and “Cats Know Various Things” on our backs, or our skin. And here are some more examples, stolen from various websites, just because they’re so good:

Standard oneself whom be actual is certainly found.

Freshly cooked pasta is paired with chunky saunce for quick cooking in a skillet. It will expand a world of fancy pasta menu.

Happy Days of Young Sheep
I’m a sheep, young handsome sheep. They say every sheep looks like me very much. But look at them carefully. Their faces are a little bit difference. So I’m lonesome sheep. Would you date me?

Drifting story of a awkward bear and pretty penguins.
Hey, here, here we are!!

As I come closee to a dream, my heart throbs.

Natural bears
Let’s go out in a dreamy mood.

This Sunday morning, time looks to flow especially more slowly than usual.

“Hello, is my voice hearable?”
“Yes, it is well hearable.”
“Let’s go to the movie on Sunday.”
“All right. Let’s do lunch together, after that. It is aware of wonderful restaurant.”

Now it’s everyday man’s job to
What can a believe in?

Sorry, but you can see how addictive this stuff is. Anyway, John McWhorter (again) shows how the Germans have got in on the act (though in a somewhat more tongue-in-cheek way) with their advertisement for McDonald’s “McMorning All-American Breakfast&#8221:

Egg McMuffin: About this Früstücksei lachen ja the chickens.

This is the Preis. Guck at it and think: Oh, very günstig!
The first Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the second Weizenbrötchen, which is unten.
The würzige Stück Speck. Gives you a lecker Geschmack and makes funny Geräusche zwischen the Zähne.
And this is from the Hühner: A crazy good Ei.
This ist the Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung. Käse is very lecker in the morning.
The second Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the the first Weizenbrötchen, which is oben. Please do not verwechseln oben and unten!

Some linguists point out that, although there are hundreds of thousands of words in English, 50% of actual usage is made up of the most common 100 words, and 80% uses only 3000 words. Slightly more advanced linguists counter that although this may be true, it’s the less common words that do the heavy lifting and provide most of the meaning: the rest is largely filler. That seems pretty clear from this example: although there are loads of English words in there, every time something important happens it’s in German.

It’s still pretty funny anyway, but I will tell you that the headline means “The chickens are laughing about this breakfast egg”; knusprig is “crunchy”; Geräusche zwischen the Zähne are “noises between the teeth” and Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung is “melted Cheddar cheese food&#8221. Apparently the official name is Angleutsch, but I’m sure you could substitute your own combination.

11 November 2004

Ms Alphabet

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:15 pm

She wore T-shirts and G-strings; she drove an E-Type with P-plates: she was so A-list. She liked X-rated B-movies, O. Henry and *NSync. She left Q-tips in my S-bend and J-Pop on my iPod. She was my H-bomb.

10 November 2004

It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht, the nicht

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:09 am

As part of my general loin-girding for the rewrite of Vellum, I’m reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, which is full of riches. This guy is a bigger word-nerd than I am, and knows all kinds of things about all kinds of languages. Right now he’s talking about Scots, which is a beautiful and often hilarious language, at least to my ears. Listen to the Scots version of the Prodigal Son story:

There was aince a man hed twa sons; and ae day the yung son said til him, “Faither, gie me the faa-share o your haudin at I hae a richt til.” Sae the faither haufed his haudin atweesh his twa sons. No lang efterhin the yung son niffert the haill o his portion for siller, and fuir awà furth til a faur-aff kintra, whaur he sperfelt his siller livin the life o a weirdless waister.

A faur-aff kintra, a weirdless waister—it’s fantastic. If we’d had that back when I was Rod or Todd Flanders, things might have turned out very differently. But it got me wondering: is Billy Connolly actually funny, or does he just talk funny? I mean, imagine if I came up to you at a party and said:

What is it with McDonald’s staff who pretend they don’t understand you unless you insert the “Mc” before the item you’re ordering? It has to be a “McChicken burger”; a “chicken burger” gets blank looks. Well, I’ll have a McStraw and jam it into your McEyes, you fucking McTosser!

Well, it’s kind of funny, but it’s not that funny. You’d probably think I was a bit of wanker. But if Billy Connolly says it, it’s hilarious. Even when he’s out flogging superannuation products, you can’t help smiling. I’ve got a brilliant friend from Glasgow who’s written a book called The Moral Limits of Law: Obedience, Respect, and Legitimacy, which goes like this:

This enquiry seeks to determine whether, inter alia, the mere fact of legal validity confers a prima-facie or more categorical obligatory character upon each legal directive. Where this is the case, there is a moral obligation to obey each valid legal directive, and each violation of a valid law may be doubly wrongful.

Yes, it’s blindingly clever and serious, but if she read it aloud it would also sound just the faintest bit funny. Is that terrible?

8 November 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:48 am

zhuzh.jpgNow, I have little to no truck with this whole Queer Eye phenomenon. First of all because it’s a “reality”/lifestyle/format show and therefore the scourge of our times. Second because I can’t stand this so-called “metrosexual” movement with all its stylings and hand creams and getting your colours done. Christforsake! Sure, we’ve driven women spare for centuries over all this stuff, but it’s not obvious to me that the solution is now to start driving men spare too. Why can’t we all lighten up? Let that poor sap leave his shirt untucked. Or hers.

None of this is meant to condone John Laws’s insane rant, of course. I certainly don’t want to be counted among the frankly disconcerting group of “truck drivers, wharf labourers, free-thinking red-blooded Australian men and [Laws himself]” for whom that rough-headed pillow-biter-smiter claims to speak. I just don’t want to watch the show.

But it does seem to have coined or at least popularised a new word, and that’s always interesting, especially considering the orthographical difficulties involved. People have evidently tried to spell it tsuz, tszuj, tjuzs, zjuj and tjuz, most of which just involve throwing random letters around. The Macquarie Dictionary has chosen zhuzh, which is the only sensible spelling. The American Dialect Society has a bob each way with both zhuzh (yay) and tjuzs (what?), but it also voted “metrosexual” to be the word of 2003 and deserves to be thoroughly ignored.

What we’re talking about here is a voiced postalveolar fricative. Two of them, in fact. They’re only occasionally found in English, for example in the middle of measure and vision, but they’re everywhere in French, as in jeune and Jacques. They also turn up in Eastern European languages, like the Russian Ж which is generally transliterated as zh. The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol ʒ, which is also called ezh. It makes sense: z is just the voiced version of s (they’re alveolar fricatives), and ʒ is the voiced version of ʃ, which we’re all quite happy writing as sh as in shut the hell up, John Laws!

ʒ is transcribed in other ways in other languages. For example, in Hungarian it’s zs, in Polish and Czech it’s a z with a diacritic (ż and ž), and in South American versions of Spanish it can be rr or ll. Nowhere in the world, as far as I can see, is it transcribed as tj—that’s an affricate, if it’s anything.

That u in the middle’s a bit ambiguous, but English has never worked out what do with that pesky near-close near-back rounded vowel. There’s put, but there’s also pub; on the other hand there’s book but also boot (these distinctions do depend on local prounciation and fall down in various parts of England). Nobody’s suggested anything else, though, so I don’t know why I raise it.

I doubt I’ll ever actually say it, but if you choose to, you should know that you’re saying zhuzh, and not any of these abominations that turn out more like chuzz or zudge—if you’re lucky.

2 November 2004

The Secret of the Secret Syndicate

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:00 am

hardy.jpgI must have read about half of the Hardy Boys books (there were about 60 by the time I got to them) before I realised they were all exactly the same, and I do remember wondering how this Franklin W Dixon could write so many bloody books but never figured out that he couldn’t possibly have. This article in the New Yorker finally set me straight—of course there was no mythical FWD; there was a guy called Edward Stratemeyer who had a syndicate that churned them all out, together with a range of other series from The Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew, all under different unifying pseudonyms.

Stratemeyer used to come up with an outline for each book and send it off to some contract hack to fill it out—which you’d have to suspect a lot of these airport-blockbuster writers now do secretly, and which some (like Tom Clancy, and like Virginia Andrews, who is now dead but keeps churning out sequels to Flowers in the Attic) do more-or-less openly. Then he fixed up the draft according to his own formula:

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

Stratemeyer’s inability to leave a “said” alone gave rise to the infamous “Tom Swifty&#8221, named after another of his series. These are truly awful puns that abuse (strictly) verbs and (by extension) adverbs deplorably, like these:

“This is my second best baseball glove,” Tom submitted.
“The crook went down the stairs,” Tom said condescendingly.
Hamlet completely sucks,” Tom said disdainfully.

God, that’s enough. Anyway, I dropped the Hardys when I discovered their far superior knock-off, the Adventure series by Willard Price, who I think actually existed and was a naturalist. Frank and Joe Hardy’s father may have owned a detective agency, but Hal and Roger Hunt’s father owned some kind of wildlife reserve, and they were always getting into scrapes that involved a lot of detailed information about various animal species. In South Sea Adventure—or it could have been Underwater Adventure—one of them gets bitten by a sea snake; Whale Adventure is pretty gruesome and involves a flogging and a mutiny; and Safari Adventure, African Adventure, Lion Adventure and Elephant Adventure were all, come to think of it, pretty similar. But they were all very exciting and informative, and when I was about 10 I decided to write one for myself, called (obviously) Australian Adventure. It went something like:

Hal and Roger Hunt were swimming out of their depth at the beach when they saw a frightening Great White Shark. “Quick, hit it on the nose!” Hal cried. “The nose is the most sensitive area of the Great White Shark!”

That’s as far as I got, but I think I just about nailed it.

25 October 2004

Any other name

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:25 pm

The long search for the most beautiful German word is finally over, and the clear winner is habseligkeiten, which means, broadly, “stuff&#8221. Then there’s daylight (tageslicht) before geborgenheit, which apparently means “a feeling of security&#8221, and finally good old lieben. Honourable mentions include augenblick, which means “moment”; and my favourite, rhabarbermarmelade, which is “rhubarb jam&#8221, and which I choose to pronounce with seven syllables, all of which assonate.

Some might say that looking for the most beautiful word in German is like trying to find the most progressive member of the Liberal party, but I don’t think that’s fair (to German). Certainly je t’aime and te amo—or even mi amas vin—will sound more appealing to most ears than ich hab dich lieb, depending on who’s saying it. But German has its own chewy appeal, and can in fact sound very beautiful, as I hope I have suggested in my superficial treatment of Rilke.

So the Herald has asked everybody what their favourite English word is, and there are some good answers, as well as predictable smartarse ones. My favourite suggestion was maelstrom. Someone has trundled out “cellar door&#8221, which was referred to in Donnie Darko and in fact was first nailed by Tolkien:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is “beautiful&#8221, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.

Of course Tolkien was famously into linguistics and is said to have got into the whole Middle-Earth thing primarily as an excuse to use all of the languages he had compulsively invented since childhood. I think the staggering popularity of the books has had little to do with their plots (which are kind of plodding and repetitive) and much to do with the languages the worlds are described in, all the Lothlorien and Mithrandir and so on. Tolkien used roots from Celtic and Norse languages, which gave his coinings these remarkable resonances and connotations—and made them sound like real words. It’s great stuff.

I personally can’t see how cellar door loses anything through its association with cellar doors. As usual, the signifier and -fied are comparably beautiful. Words like mellifluous and tranquil and gossamer always get a run in these surveys, while ones like crepuscular and gargoyle tend to come in last—suggesting that it really is strikingly difficult to separate the meaning from the sound.

James Joyce does it, reportedly nominating “cuspidor&#8221 as his most beautiful word. But most of the time I think the Simpsons were right when they pole-axed Juliet’s famous assertion so effectively:

Lisa: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms.
Homer: Or crap-weeds.

23 October 2004

That’s a lot of watermelon

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:24 am

cat.jpgI can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t be excited to learn that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is now 35 years old. As more of my friends are contributing to global overcrowding (but combating the ageing of the population (and they’re so cute)) I can attest to the continuing popularity of this voracious grub. The thing’s got legs! I loved it as a kid, although I must say that while I thought I was a pretty good reader, I missed the Marxist connotations completely:

Muoy You, director of the Seametrey School in Cambodia, explains: “I try to teach our children that you can always become better, but greed is not the solution. When the caterpillar is greedy he gets sick. When he is reasonable, and works hard, he feels better. In Cambodia we need this kind of message.” Eric Carle, on the other hand, remembers the words of a young East German librarian. “She said, ‘This book would never have been published here. The caterpillar represents a capitalist. He bites into every fruit, just takes one bite and he moves on, getting fatter and fatter. He’s exploiting everything.'”.

Now I wonder whether the book has anything to do with this newish problem of obesity in children. The caterpillar starts off pretty well, getting in five serves of fruit; then strays into the chocolate cake; and from then on it’s a nightmare calorie-jag of ice cream, salami and cherry pie, topped off with a self-deluding slice of guilt-melon. I know people who eat exactly like that! And I wonder whether the apparent implosion of the ALP has anything to do with the insoluble conflict between Latham’s read-to-your-kids policy and his keep-your-kids-thin policy that this book represents.

20 October 2004

The clash

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:46 pm

Thanks to Nick for this very interesting article by this year’s Erasmus Prize winner, Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, about the supposed war between Islam and the West.

For those who came in late, this whole thing was sparked off by Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 essay The End of History? predicted that the end of the Cold War marked some final chapter in the history of ideological struggle, and that, occasional skirmishes aside, history itself was in some sense over:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Samuel Huntington soon struck back with his 1993 essay The Clash of Civilisations, which asserted that what Fukuyama called the end of history was in fact just the end of Western history—that, now that it had sorted out its internal ideological divisions, the West was ready to return to the main game: the clash of civilisations. He said:

The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington’s thesis suggests that we’ve actually just been distracted from history—that the old battles between Islam and the West going back to the Crusades, and between all the other civilisations going back forever, will more or less take up where they left off, if in fact they left off. Huntington gives many examples of the old divisions between civilisations transcending more recent ideological and economic issues, and of course the old clashes have that flavour of ancient and implacable hatred, of bad blood and zealotry that we’re all so familiar with from history and literature and the movies—they do seem deeper and darker than our modern disagreements. It sounds frightening. Huntington’s is not an apocalyptic scenario, though. He concludes:

In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West; to promote and maintain cooperative relations with Russia and Japan; to prevent escalation of local inter-civilization conflicts into major inter-civilization wars; to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests; to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions.

In the longer term other measures would be called for. Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.

Huntington’s argument seems to have been extraordinarily influential, at least on the West, and particularly on the US. We’ve already seen most of the short-term responses listed above implemented in the last ten years—even the strengthening of institutions: obviously not the UN, but NATO and the international institution that the US and its ad hoc coalitions are fast becoming. The attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed to many people to be irrefutable evidence of the clash of civilisations Huntington had highlighted.

Except that the newly-terrorised West could not envisage “a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others&#8221—it exploded the tension between civilisations into a great last battle that would result in one side wiping out the other. There’s so much a paranoia around now—they hate us, they want to destroy us all, it’s us or them—and these are otherwise intelligent people saying this stuff, usually prefacing it with “make no mistake” or “have no illusions&#8221. It’s fed right into the US campaign to ignore entirely the long-term implications of the clash of civilisations (ie: we’re going to have to learn to live with each other) and stamp itself all over the world (ie: like hell we are).

But Al-Azm characterises the conflict somewhat differently. He subscribes to Joseph Conrad’s view that “terrorism is an act of madness and despair&#8221—and a quickly self-defeating act—and suggests that the September 2001 attacks marked the end, and not the beginning, of the clash of civilisations:

Despite current predictions of a protracted global war between the West and the Islamic world, I believe that war is over. There may be intermittent battles in the decades to come, with many innocent victims. But the number of supporters of armed Islamism is unlikely to grow, its support throughout the Arab Muslim world will likely decline, and the opposition by other Muslim groups will surely grow. 9/11 signaled the last gasp of Islamism rather than the beginnings of its global challenge.

Islamic terrorism, says Al-Azm, is an expression of fury and frustration that things aren’t going that well for Islam, that Islam’s rightful place in the world has been usurped by the West. Islamic contributions to the world have been significant—in science, in mathematics, and so on—and the West has taken these gifts and run with them, all while “history took a nap&#8221. Islamists believe—as many others do—that their civilisation is the best and brightest and deserves to spread to every corner of the world, that they deserve to be running things:

When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insign
ificance, especially in international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale terrorism of the kind we have become familiar with all over the world.

So both paranoid Americans and reckless Islamists believe that there is a last-days kind of battle unfolding, which they have to win at all costs. But, says Al-Azm, that doesn’t mean there actually is one:

The two supposedly clashing sides are so unequal in power, military might, productive capacity, efficiency, effective institutions, wealth, social organization, science, and technology that the clash can only be of the inconsequential sort. As one literary metaphor says, If a stone falls on an egg the egg breaks, and if an egg falls on a stone the egg breaks too. From the Arab Muslim side of the divide, the West seems so powerful, so efficient, so successful, so unstoppable, that the very idea of an ultimate “clash” is fanciful.

This has to be right. Maybe radical Islamists do want to destroy us all. But so what? Does anyone really think they can? There are hardly any of them. Yes, they can hurt us. No, we don’t have to stand there and take it. We have to protect ourselves. But we don’t have to wipe every Muslim from the earth to achieve that; we don’t have to install little Americas throughout the Middle East, even if we could. It’s not that kind of fight.

Since the attacks, the US has pretty successfully painted itself as a victim, as a country besieged by evil. It doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to see how ridiculous that is. John Kerry got in loads of trouble for calling terrorism a “nuisance” (in fact he said he wanted to reduce terrorism to a nuisance), but let’s face it: in terms of the actual damage it can do to American civilisation, terrorism hardly is more than a nuisance.

That’s not to question the devastating human impact of terrorism. But Western civilisation has always had far more to fear from itself than from Islam. We’re all killing way more of ourselves than terrorists do. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t respond to attacks from outside—but we should respond effectively and proportionately, and not hysterically. But nobody ever won an election by whipping voters into a calm, did they.

18 October 2004

Rock spirits

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:45 pm

mimih.jpgI’m reading Germaine Greer’s provocative Whitefella Jump Up at the moment, but it seems to be pretty well represented by her extract here.

People dismiss Greer for a lot of reasons. She keeps banging on about Australia but hasn’t lived here for years and says she never will again. She may well be bonkers. But there are some interesting ideas in this book, and I think that allegations such as The Spectator‘s that all her ideas are derivative and clichéd are unfair. I think some of these ideas are new and important.

The thrust of the book is that we could solve or bypass a lot of our problems by acknowledging that Australia is an Aboriginal place and that we are all Aborigines. Greer admits that the first thing is much easier than the second thing. And the whole thing may sound a bit loopy at first. But read on.

It seems pretty clear that Europeans in Australia have done things the hard way by trying to remake the country in the image of, say, England, instead of taking it as we found it. For example, my sympathy for the struggling farmer is always tempered by a kind of: what did you expect? Greer goes further (of course), with a pyrotechnic piece of hyperbole:

In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead&#8221. Vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment, and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted&#8221, “warped&#8221, “misshapen&#8221, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without.

It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.

There’s a lot wrong with any idea that conflates Aboriginality with environmental saintliness, stewardship of the land and so on. Clearly it tends to disenfranchise urban Aborigines, who may never have been to the bush or may not care about it particularly, but aren’t any less Aboriginal for that. There’s also some evidence that the first Aborigines completely altered the character of the landscape when they turned up, wiped out a bunch of the megafauna, and managed to sustain themselves so well for so long because there were relatively few of them. Also, it just feels a bit old and mush-headed, this whole “noble savage” thing.

But they have been here for a bloody long time, and the stuff they’ve picked up over that time is just staggering. I don’t just mean knowing how to get around or what plants are good for you—I mean all of the paintings that mean things about the land, and all the interlocking stories, and this business with the songlines. And I think it’s absolutely essential that we find out as much about all this as we’re able to. I don’t think you can begin to understand a place on your own: you need all the different views of it, all the metaphors and images, all the poetry that other people have used, just to get a handle on it. And these guys have been describing the place for such a long time and in such detail that I think there’s a lot of sense in calling it an Aboriginal country, and we’re the poorer for not listening to them. Maybe you can understand Aboriginality (or one can, or someone can) without reference to the land, but I don’t think you can properly understand the land without at least some of the Aboriginal references to and through it.

But we seem to be reluctant. White people’s acknowledgment of traditional owners—at conferences, performances and such—is seen as a bit of a wank. Indigenous renaming or dual naming of places is greeted with a suspicion or outrage that clearly goes beyond the letter-writers’ professed concern with logistics or tokenism. Is it cultural theft, are we pillaging the traditions of people we’ve taken too much from already? Or is that just an excuse? I don’t hear too many complaints from the indigenous corner. There’s a lot we can’t know, of course, but there’s also a lot we can, and should. We’d all get a lot out of it.

Calling ourselves Aboriginal might be pushing it. But one thing we can say is that our Australian identity, whatever that is, probably has a lot more to do with Aboriginality than we generally admit. Greer says:

It is my contention, diffidently offered, that the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines whose dogged resistance to an imported and inappropriate culture has affected our culture more deeply than is usually recognised. From the beginning of colonisation, the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native. In many subtle and largely unexplored ways, they did just that. Indeed, they may already partake in more Aboriginality than they know.

She cites our directness (and willingness to dispense with meaningless niceties); our egalitarianism (and indifference to asserted but unearned authority); our conversational reticence; our yarns and tall stories; our sexual segregation (women in the kitchen with salads, blokes outside around the keg); and even our accents:

Australian English is studded with Aboriginal words; the unmistakable intonation and accent bear the imprint of Aboriginality. The Anglo-Celt settlers came with Scotch and Irish brogues, and the burrs of provincial England. The Australian accent bears scant resemblance to any of these. When I first heard blackfellas speak, I stupidly thought that they were imitating the way whitefellas speak, which just shows how upside-down gubbas’ assumptions can be. The transfer must have happened the other way about; the broad flat vowels, complex diphthongs and murmuring nasalities of spoken Australian English must have come to us from Aboriginal languages.

Some of this seems a bit of a stretch. But many’s the barbie at which one of the blokes turning the snags has jerked his head towards the kitchen and muttered “secret women’s business, eh?” to general murmurs of approval—the opposite may be happening as well—and who knows? That bloke may be exactly right.

I would also nominate our sense of humour. Australian humour must be the driest in the world, full of understatement, ruthlessly iconoclastic, layered with irony, available in the face of the worst excesses and injustices, and never afraid to work blue. All of the Aborigines I’ve met—admittedly not many—and most of those I’ve seen or read about have had exactly that sense of humour. In spades. Have a read of this, from Gillian Cowlishaw’s Blackfellas, Whitefellas, and the Hidden Injuries of Race:

And then on some days they’d ask every kid, “Now we want you to write down what you all had for tea last night. Who had a lovely tea?” These bastards were having roasts and plum duffs and plum pudding and ice cream and jelly and all this shit. We were lucky to have some bully beef and curry. But I used to lie about it. I used to get those things, but not all the time. When these days came up I might have just had a bit of salami and salad or just a rough feed that mum would get together for us. I’d bullshit and say, “Oh yeah I had that too&#8221. ‘Cause Mum was a really good cook. If she had money she could put a go
od Christmas dinner on every meal. She used to cook for a living. It was hard you know, it was a hard camp. Stuff like that I was lying about, I was saying “Yeah I had that too.” I was fucken dreaming. “Strawberries, yeah, fucken oath, yeah.” Probably had bread and fat!

It’s a guy called Jake King talking, and there’s so much going on in there. It’s a terrible story; you know how kids are, with each other—but Jake’s made a big joke out of it, and now it’s something he can be proud of, can enjoy telling. That seems fantastically Australian to me, and maybe it’s something else we have the Aborigines to thank for.

I’d like to see an Aboriginal film comedy. There’s been a great run of dramas—my recent favourites are Australian Rules and The Tracker, but I also liked Yolngu Boy on SBS last night—but not much in the way of comedy. We’re crying out for it. Do people think we’re not allowed to find Aborigines funny, that it means we’re not taking them seriously? Come on. They’re bloody funny, we’ve got the same sense of humour, so let’s get to it.


I was lucky enough to see David Gulpilil’s one-hander Gulpilil at Belvoir St on Friday night, and it was fantastic, and it was hilarious. Not in a stand-up kind of way, but like a long conversation with the funniest friend you’ve got. And everybody loved it, and they were laughing probably even harder than they should have—not to patronise him, but I think because they were all just hanging out to have a laugh with a blackfella. It’s all been so serious for so long—and of course it is serious, but that’s no reason not to joke about it. That’s not the Australian way.

The picture above is by Edward Blitner and is of the Mimih spirits, who live in the rocks and taught the Aborigines everything. To the left is David Ruddy’s Gulpilil, Two Worlds, which won the Archibald Prize this year.

14 October 2004

Two disses

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:05 pm

8-mile.jpgI just found this picture on the Internet and have no idea who put it together, but it’s eerily close to my Heckler tilt earlier this year, which—what the hell—I’ll fully extract below, because the link may not last much longer.

Recently I was watching Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on DVD with a friend visiting from Trinwillershagen, a village in Pomerania. Her English is very good but there’s a lot of fast talking in the movie so we turned the German subtitles on. We’d got to the part where Payback is telling Rafterman about the “thousand-yard stare&#8221, the look Marines get when they’ve been in the… unpleasantness too long.

It’s a great expression, the thousand-yard stare: that gaze that cuts through the world’s fabric. But I couldn’t help noticing, and Kerstin confirmed, that the subtitle had called it the “900-metre stare&#8221. Now I’m sure there are strict EU directives compelling the use of the metric system at all times, but come on: couldn’t they have rounded it up?

Before we make too many derisive comments about German literalness, we should look closer to home. Like at Another Paper (No, Not That One) whose weekend magazine tells the story of a contented pig farmer from Nottinghamshire, who declares that he “Wouldn’t give it up for a million quid ($2.5 million)&#8221. Well, thanks. While over at Yet Another (Possibly Made-up) Paper, environmentalists are complaining about the latest American SUV, which “gets, like, one mile to the gallon (235 litres per 100 km)&#8221.

What kind of nickel-and-dime ($0.21) operation are these people running? Yes, it’s often useful to have foreign measurements converted for us; we don’t always have access to the latest exchange rates and I suppose there may be folks out there who don’t know that a 5’11” woman is pretty tall unless they also hear that she’s 180 cm. But to say you wouldn’t touch something with a 3.05-metre pole: that’s a whole different league (5.56 km).

And it gets worse. When surreptitiously “adapting” a feature borrowed from an overseas source, they’ll sometimes make the conversion without even leaving in the original to give us the flavour of the idiom. Yes, give these people 2.54 cm and they’ll take 1.6 km. In for 2.5 cents, in for 450 grams, they think. And so they go the whole 8.23 metres; they leave no 6.35 kilograms unturned.

English in all its forms is a wonderful, illogical language, full of useful measurements with interesting pedigrees. Imagine the awful puns we could make from knots and fathoms, roods and firkins, scruples and troy ounces — if only space permitted.

Metric makes sense but there’s no poetry in it, and few of its units correspond to the things we need to apply them to. (One exception may be the proposed millihelen, the amount of beauty needed to launch exactly one ship.) It sounds unwieldy and it hasn’t worked its way into our idioms the way imperial has, and probably never will. Sometimes we need help in translation, but usually we get it just fine. But this obsession with conversion will only get worse, dollars to donuts ($1.42s to, I don’t know, lamingtons).

Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth (1.1 eurocents, 0.7 pence, 1.6 yen in late trading).

Sure, it’s an obvious point, but you can see how the picture above made me feel for a moment like I might have some kind of strange double life in which I Photoshop movie posters for my own amusement in my sleep.

Anyway, the idea was to illustrate a couple of lame examples of dissing that have arisen in the last day or so. Some of you might remember the blistering verbal battles that studded 8 Mile like prize fights in a Rocky movie, the best of which was Eminem’s tour de force, which won him the day and possibly the girl, I can’t remember:

This guy ain’t a mother-fucking MC;
I know everything he’s got to say against me:
I am white, I am a fucking bum, I do live in a trailer with my mom;
my boy Future is an “Uncle Tom”;
I do got a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob,
who shoots himself in the leg with his own gun,
I did get jumped by all six of you chumps—
and Wink did fuck my girl,
but I’m still standin here screaming, “Fuck the Free World!”
And never try and judge me, dude:
you don’t know what the fuck I’ve been through.
But I know something about you:
you went to Cranbrook—that’s a private school!
What’s the matter, dawg: you embarrassed?
This guy’s a gangster?
His real name’s Clarence!
And Clarence lives at home with both parents,
And Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage.
This guy don’t wanna battle; he’s shook,
cuz he knows there ain’t no such thing as half-way crooks!
He’s scared to death;
he’s scared to look in his fucking yearbook—
fuck Cranbrook!

Now, I don’t know what half of this means, but I tell you, you didn’t want to be Clarence when this was going down. So it was a shame to hear about Eminem’s most recent offering, Lose It, which seems far from his best work, even though its video has upset Michael Jackson:

In it, Eminem appears, dressed as Jackson, on a bed surrounded by young boys and singing: “Come here, little kiddie, on my lap. Guess who’s back with a brand new rap?”

“And I don’t mean rap as in a new case of child molestation,” Eminem adds.

See? It’s just not as good. And I felt a similar disappointment reading about the Bush v Kerry battle, which is obviously the last climactic one and should show the best they can do:

“There’s a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank,” President George Bush said in the final debate of a close and contentious campaign for the White House. “Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”

That’s a dis? These people just aren’t trying. More debate (perhaps) when I’ve read the whole transcript.

11 October 2004

Is it ironic?

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:50 am

Alanis MorissetteAnyone still confused about irony should read the brilliant piece Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian last year. It goes through all the different kinds of rhetorical irony and charts the evolution from (i) a fairly straightforward Socratic technique; to (ii) a means of discovering the truth; to (iii) a way to communicate a particular meaning different from the literal meaning; and finally to (iv) a way communicate precisely nothing in a way that’s supposed to be cool.

Williams notes in relation to this “fourth age” of irony:

So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front—and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects—and here are some tits!”

Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Charlie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope—”I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.”

I still think there are a couple of different things in here. I can see how the established meaning of rhetorical irony can extend beyond verbal communication and into things like dress and perhaps even pole-dancing, but so far all these forms of irony reside firmly in the communication. It seems that all the Eurovision-and-Big-Brother crew are doing is purporting to enjoy entertainment products in ways not intended by their creators—who presumably couldn’t care less. I suppose by their watching they may be trying to say to the world “These are excellent singers and compositions” or “This is really compelling interpersonal drama” in an ironic or at least sarcastic way. But what if nobody’s listening? It seems to me that taking the communication out of irony is as damaging to the concept as taking the meaning out of it.

And anyway, most of the time it’s obviously just a big lie (as Williams points out, a lie has things in common with irony, but clearly isn’t irony). You can try all you like to enjoy FHM on an ironic level, but you’re obviously just reading it for the tits. A lot of this talk of irony is just trying to have your cake and eat it too. (Interestingly—but hardly ironically—the original expression was “eat your cake and have it too”, which makes much more sense. I wasn’t about to attempt some metaphor to do with tits.)

Of course Alanis Morrissette was trying to tackle situational or cosmic irony, which is like the universe playing a joke on you. Williams explains:

[W]here rhetorical irony can be as simple as saying the opposite of what you mean, cosmic irony is not simply experiencing the opposite of what you thought was going to happen. For instance, if I was having a party, and I thought my dad was going to come, and he didn’t, that wouldn’t be ironic. If, on the other hand, I was having a party and I didn’t want my dad to come, and I spent three weeks working on a brilliant cover story for why he couldn’t come, and then my sister accidentally blew my cover, so I had to invite him anyway, and then, on the way here, he got run over and died—that’s ironic.

So there you have it. Irish Comedian Ed Byrne has a pretty reasonable riff on Alanis’s song:

No, there’s nothing ironic about being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late for something. Unless you’re a town planner. If you were a town planner and you were on your way to a seminar of town planners at which you were giving a talk on how you solved the problem of traffic congestion in your area, couldn’t get to it because you were stuck in a traffic jam, that’d be well ironic: “I’m sorry I’m late, you’ll never guess.”

“It’s like rain on your wedding day”—only if marrying a weatherman and he set the date. I could go on and I will.

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, that’s inconsiderate office management. A no-smoking sign in a cigarette factory—irony. It’s not a difficult concept Alanis. It’s very rare you see a ironic no-smoking sign, although if you ever see one of those that say thank-you for not smoking and you are: fairly ironic.
Astute readers will wonder who the young woman pictured above is. No, it’s not Alanis Morrissette—it’s British Alanis tribute artist Kerry Jay, who, according to her agent, “has the gift of the looks, mannerisms and above all, the distinctive voice of Alanis”. Is that ironic? No, not really. But surely it’s better than nothing.

And but so then

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:06 am

I haven’t yet read David Foster Wallace’s new collection of stories, Oblivion. But he’s one of the writers whose new work is irresistible—there’s no way I’m not going to read it as soon as possible. Others off the top of my head would be Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, I suppose Salman Rushdie, our own Elliot Perlman, and Peter Carey, who we now share with New York.

Some people might say that all these guys—yes, they’re all guys, but I’m sure it’s just a coincidence—keep on writing the same book, except Carey: you couldn’t say that about him. Murakami’s is about disappearing cats, girls with nice ears and Western music; Amis’s about violence in Cockney accents with dysfunctional sex; Rushdie’s about tangled subcontinental dynasties, puns, and Western music; Perlman’s about the kind of social justice agenda items that Webdiary‘s gloaters delight in telling us are demonstrably outdated; and DFW’s as below. Well, maybe—but they’re bloody great books, and they’re not being rewritten like some of the formula hacks’ books are, but more extended, and so I’ll read them until they’re done. You might also say that some of these guys are more interested in style than substance, which I think is in every case unfair, but may reveal a personal weakness.

Anyway, Malcolm Knox reviewed Oblivion in this weekend’s Spectrum, but there doesn’t seem to be an online version (yet?). It was a good review, and as a fellow adherent I can understand the faint outrage that prompted Knox to backhand a couple of lower-shelfers in his opening:

It says something about the book trade when David Foster Wallace is blurbed by Zadie Smith. True, Smith makes herself scarce in Smith’s shadow, saying, “It is a humbling experience to see him go to work” and “He’s in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us”. But buying a Wallace book on Zadie Smith’s recommendation is akin to noticing, say, Stevie Wonder because Guy Sebastian says he’s worth a listen.

Zing! The other good thing about Knox’s review is that it resists entirely the temptation to mimic the more obvious hallmarks of DFW’s prose. These include discursive footnotes, nested brackets, starting sentences with as many conjunctions as possible, and refusing to let a possessive pronoun pass without interposing its (the possessive pronoun’s) referent. See, it’s contagious, and Knox is a better man than I am.

But there is a lot more to DFW than that, and I wholeheartedly recommend his work to date, particularly the comprehensive novel Infinite Jest, the short-story collections Girl with Curious Hair and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, as well as any other short works you can get your hands on. (I know the done thing would be to link all these titles to Amazon.com, but I just can’t do it. That’s not even a real link!)

All this talk has reminded me of one of my favourite DFW pieces, called The Nature of Fun and included in the 1999 collection Why I Write. It starts like this (almost everything, but not everything, DFW writes is long):

The best metaphor I know of for being a fiction-writer in the middle of writing a long book is Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” where he describes the book-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (i.e. dragging itself across the floor of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.

The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction-writer feels for something he’s working on. The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective, so hideous a betrayal of all your hopes for it—a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception—yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it and dandle it and wipe the cerebro-spinal fluid off its slack chin with the cuff of the only clean shirt you have left (you have only one clean shirt left because you haven’t done laundry in like three weeks because finally this one chapter or character seems like it’s finally trembling on the edge of coming together and working and you’re terrified to spend any time on anything other than working on it because if you look away for a second you’ll lose it, dooming the whole infant to continued hideousness). And but so you love the damaged infant and pity it and care for it; but also you hate it—hate it—because it’s deformed, repellent, because something grotesque has happened to it in the parturition from head to page; hate it because its deformity is your deformity (since if you were a better fiction-writer your infant would of course look like one of those babies in catalogue-ads for infantwear, perfect and pink and cerebro-spinally continent) and its every hideous incontinent breath is a devastating indictment of you, on all levels… and so you want it dead, even as you dote and wipe it and dandle it and sometimes even apply CPR when it seems like its own grotesqueness has blocked its breath and it might die altogether.

Or perhaps it was being in the middle of a rewrite that reminded me of this.

10 October 2004

Happy never after

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:17 am

scream.jpgShe woke up and couldn’t open her eyes. It wasn’t just her hangover, which felt tectonic—she could feel new mountain ranges and ocean trenches crumpling her skull. There was also a presence in the bed, a black hole distending the universe of her mattress. She heard his amphibian breath; she felt his humidity. Her heart flattened as her memories of last night cooled and found their orbit.

She thought she’d made it this time. She thought she’d found someone else, someone who made her laugh and didn’t embarrass her at parties, someone with a heart as big as hers once was. She’d had suitors over the years; she’d flirted with some, given others the cold shoulder—but this one was different. She’d thought for a moment that they might have a future together. Even if she was on the rebound, so what? It was the same last time, and here she was, eight years later. She was finally feeling good about herself; she thought she’d had the strength to get out.

But he’d been wooing her again for six long weeks, buying her pretty things, making all the old promises. He’d cut down forests for her; he’d build her a fortress. There was heady talk of interest rates—he’d seduced her all over again with his deep, resonant voice; he’d swooped down and taken her in his arms and given her about a thousand margaritas. He’d worn her down. She knew it was wrong, but she felt her strength ebbing, and at last she thought to herself:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

But now she felt a darkness in every corner of her body; and she opened her eyes to let the light in but all she saw was him: he was squatting at the corner of the bed, and he was happy to see her… he’d been a bit listless recently, but success hadn’t just gone to his head.

“Ah, you’re awake,” he said. “Good. We might only have three more years of this, so let’s get on with it, eh?”

There was nothing she could do. This wasn’t Las Vegas, after all. It was much worse. Three more years, and all she could do was lie back and think of… well, of herself, she supposed.


8 October 2004

Cos Duncan’s me mate

by Matt Rubinstein at 11:38 am

On the recent NT tour our intrepid leader insisted on playing a battered old tape of Slim Dusty’s greatest hits (there are more than you’d think), which drew a small but patriotic chorus from the Australians and a lot of baffled muttering from everyone else. A highlight was, of course, I Love to Have a Beer with Duncan, which goes (sing along everyone):

I love to have a beer with Duncan;
I love to have a beer with Dunc.
We drink in moderation,
And we never ever ever get rolling drunk.
We drink at the Town & Country
Where the atmosphere is great—
I love to have a beer with Duncan
Cos Duncan’s me mate.

The Herald now reports that the legendary Town & Country Hotel in St Peters is up for sale.

The Town & Country is the hotel imortalised in the song I Love To Have A Beer With Duncan, made famous by Slim Dusty but written back in 1976 by a bloke named Pat Alexander.

Years after it had become a hit, Alexander revealed the genesis of the song. “At that time I was trying to sell life insurance and the only good thing that came out of those two horrible years with AMP and CML was Duncan.

“One day I was knocking on factory doors in Sydney’s southern suburbs and this fellow who owned a heat treatment factory invited me in. His name was Duncan Urquhart and he was a civil engineer and suggested we might talk about my product in the pub round the corner—the Town & Country at St Peters. I went back to see Duncan three times before I realised he had no intention of buying life insurance—he just enjoyed the yarn.”

True-blue Australians will know that if Duncan isn’t around the singer doesn’t mind having a beer with Colin, Kevin, Patrick or Robert either. The owner of these feet suggests that in today’s multicultural Australia the song could profitably be extended to the Rakeshes, Nguyens and Hosans with whom we also love to have beers. Does anyone else love to have a beer with a mate who may have been overlooked in Slim’s version? Leave your extra stanzas here.

The more beautiful, the less faithful

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:26 am

rilke.jpg I was talking to a couple of well-read German citizens at Liam’s opening last night when the conversation turned, as it so often does, to überpoet Rainer Maria Rilke. Now Rilke is a great writer but of course as a lifelong ignoramus I’ve only read him in translation, which understandably shocked and saddened the Germans. They said there was no comparison, and this has to be true.

For example, when I was called on to read at a wedding a couple of years ago I chose the Rilke poem that goes like this:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne uber den Eichen
bluhen weiss.

Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendenwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

There are a couple of translations of this awesome mash note floating around, and they’re quite different. One is:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming, over the oaks.

I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
You come too.

And another is:

Do you know, I would quietly
slip from the loud circle,
when first I know the pale
stars above the oaks
are blooming.

Ways will I elect
that seldom any tread
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream but this:
You come too.

In the end I kind of pushed together a few of the translations, because “loud circle” is better than “noisy crowd”, but “no dream but this:” is an absolute cracker. Which no doubt offended the moral rights of various translators and may well have had poor Rainer spinning, but the alternative was learning German and there wasn’t time before the wedding.

Interestingly, Google translates the poem like this:

You, I know want to creep
quietly from loud circle,
if I only those bleach
Stars over the oaks
flower white.

Ways wants to erkiesen I,
those rarely who enters
in pale evening meadows—
and no dream, as this:
You go along.

…which isn’t that bad, all things considered.

Conversation then drifted to Vladimir Nabokov, who must be the best non-native writer of English. My theory is that Nabokov is so good because he has a staggering and fearless ability with language, but never learned the cliche-laden and worn-down English the rest of us did—he had to make everything up. I’d be surprised to find a single unoriginal phrase in any of his writing, and it really helps.

Relevantly, Nabokov was among other things one of the many translators of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, which of course inspired Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate which in turn was a big factor in my Equinox. The interesting thing is that, unlike many fine translations of Onegin, Nabokov’s didn’t stick to the verse form of the original—it didn’t rhyme, even though Nabokov was probably the person most qualified to turn in an authentic rhyming version.

Perhaps to explain why not, and perhaps also to prove that he could have if he’d wanted, he wrote this:

On Translating Eugene Onegin

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose—
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elognated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana’s earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task—a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

Fair enough I suppose, but I still would have liked to read his rhyming Onegin. That would have rocked.

5 October 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 10:02 pm

Fleetwood to the Mac's

Now, the NRL is a long way from my favourite version of football, but Sunday’s grand final provoked a couple of emotions in me.

One was a kind of schadenfreudian nostalgia. I was at the Canterbury Bankstown Leagues Club two years ago the night the Bulldogs were stripped of their premiership points for salary-cap violations—just coincidentally; I was there to see my mate Jules sing as Stevie Nicks in her Fleetwood Mac cover band. All the news crews were clearing out, and the whole place had a stunned feeling about it; I didn’t see anybody cry, but by God they had lumps in their throats. They certainly weren’t in the mood to dance to Gypsy, let me tell you, and even Don’t Stop went down like… well, like the Bulldogs on the ladder. So when I heard that the Dogs had won this year, I hoped they’d invited Fleetwood to the Mac’s back to play that night, to make up for last time. Jules isn’t in the band anymore, though; they’ve had to find a new Stevie Nicks and are about to be shut down for apostrophe violations themselves. So that was the end of that thought.

Of course the real issue is the Bulldogs’ “troubles” of earlier this year. “We’ve been through hell this year,” said Willie Mason. “We’ve done it tough,” said just about everybody. I reckon it’s a bit much. To borrow from my preferred code, it was pretty tough for the Swans to play through head trainer Wally Jackson’s fatal heart attack in Round 21. That was a tragedy. But repeatedly getting involved in dodgy sexual practices, if not actual rape (no charges were laid) and then acting like dickheads during the ensuing investigations—you can’t really throw up your hands and curse the gods about that.

Sure, the fans did it tough—they deserved a lot better, even if their steadfast refusal to sing along with Dreams did suggest a certain lack of character. All the parents of blue-and-white-painted children who not only had to have the birds-and-bees conversation a lot earlier than they’d hoped, but also had to deal with a whole new set of bird-to-bee ratios… We might even spare a thought for the women of Coffs Harbour. But I don’t think the players have had much to complain about, and even less now.

But that whole thing reminded me of something I wrote earlier this year about Mark Gasnier’s serenading of promotions manager and DJ Hannah Toohey from a taxi in May. election… Gaz left a message on her voicemail which said:

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
who is already sick and pale with grief
that thou her maid art far more fair than she…

No, wait, that’s not it. It was more like this (he may have had some help from Anthony Minichiello):

I know that last year on the twelfth of May-month,
to walk abroad, one day you changed your hair-plaits!
I am so used to take your hair for daylight
that—like as when the eye stares at the sun’s disk,
one sees long after a red blot on all things—
so, when I quit thy beams, my dazzled vision
sees upon all things a blonde stain imprinted.

No, that wasn’t it either. In fact, it was more modern than either of those, something like (parental advisory):

where the fuck are you? There’s
in the cab;
it’s twenty to four.
Our cocks are fat and fucking
ready to spurt
and you’re in bed.
Fuck me, fire
up you sad

I know, it’s awful. Maybe you hadn’t read the whole thing before; it certainly took me a while to find an unexpurgated version. Anyway, I wrote a short piece about these difficulties, but then didn’t know what to do with it. I tried Heckler at the SMH, but they didn’t print it. Entwürfe Perhaps because I’d already done a Heckler that week, perhaps because of media bias, to or possibly because it wasn’t all that good. Anyway, now that I’ve got my own blog I don’t need to worry about any of that anymore, so here it is, almost as relevant as it would have been in May.

Like many people, I found the recent “four toey humans” scandal bewildering. Mark Gasnier’s voicemail raises many questions that are proving almost impossible to answer. The most obvious, of course, is: what the hell was he thinking? But a close second would have to be: what the –––– was he saying?

The infamous message was so heavily censored by the major dailies that I can’t have been the only one left wondering exactly how the airwaves had been polluted early that Wednesday. I could work out most of it, but this line had me stumped: “Our ––––– are ––– and ––––––– ready to ––––– ––––– and you’re in bed”. It took me a long time to find out what those boofheads were talking about, and then of course I wished I hadn’t.

I thought perhaps these were the lyrics to a popular song that might have been special to Gaz and [Woman’s name]. Something like sulky homeboy Eamon’s recent number one, –––– It (I Don’t Want You Back) or sassy hip-hopper Frankee’s rejoinder, FURB (–––– You Right Back). Bands these days release self-censored radio-friendly versions of their songs, with these weird silences on the vocal track where the bad words used to be. In the case of these mononymous squabblers, the only lines that make it through intact are the ones that go, “Whoa, whoa, uh uh yeah,” which I’m sure is some kind of rapper Morse code for “––––”.

There’s always been a gap between the language people use in their everyday lives and what is deemed suitable for broadcast. Comedian George Carlin made this point in 1972 with his “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine, which proved prophetic by landing the radio station that broadcast it in the Supreme Court (the seven words were ––––, ––––, ––––, ––––, ––––––––––, –––––––––––– and, for some reason, ––––).

Television has loosened up a bit since then, so we’re hearing fewer of those ridiculous substitutions, those army guys saying “Fig! The fooling fiddler’s fouled!” and so on. But you can still see entire Jerry Springer episodes that play like silent films, as if Charlie Chaplin had been caught ––––––– Buster Keaton. You still see movies that you’re sure were full of dialogue but now seem like a lot of angry glances.

So the reforms haven’t nearly kept pace with the increasingly colourful expression of our frustrations and disappointments, our hopes and dreams. This used to be just inconvenient, if a bit baffling: we all knew what the missing words were, after all; we all made the substitution in our heads. But when our top news stories and most popular songs are rendered all but incomprehensible by our persistent squeamishness, surely the gap has become too wide. Surely we should just concede that most of us talk like that, and that by bowdlerising bad language we’re just encouraging it.

And if you don’t like that, you can –––– the –––– –––––’s ––––.