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

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.

13 August 2009

Stay away from that jazz man

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:06 pm


Last night I had the very great pleasure of catching famed jazz pianist Barney McAll with bass guy Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Simon Barker at the Macquarie Hotel. Barney was in town for some sold-out shows with the legendary Fred Wesley, but this was a more intimate acoustic gig. The piano trio is my favourite jazz combo, and I think it’s the most poetic arrangement. It seems to me to be a perfect balance, rarely showy, a real conversation.

Barney and Jonathan did the music for my stage adaptation of Solstice, with Hamish Stuart on drums and Kate Ceberano singing along. Over the years Barney has continually stretched and redefined himself, experimenting with Cuban, African and electronic influences, and trying to keep up with him has taught me a lot about music. Some of his stuff is pretty challenging, but last night he folded it all back into an old-school trio performance that soothed the mind and the soul.

Barney’s five albums are available as high-quality DRM-free downloads from his website and are well worth the $US9 each. I’m encouraged by the way musicians are using the Internet to get their work out there and get a return on them, despite some questionable moves from the industry associations. I think the publishing industry can learn a lot from the music industry, though I’m not sure exactly what yet.

The Macquarie Hotel is a labyrinth of bars all apparently playing live music at roughly the same time. Some of the classic rock from downstairs started drifting into the Ravál bar upstairs towards the end of the second set. It’s quite a new space and nicely done up with sofas and soft lighting, perfect for jazz. From my seat by the window I could see but not hear the traffic of Wentworth Avenue, and even look up into an apartment block where a few lights were on and a few silhouettes were wandering around. At one point two people in adjacent apartments leaned at the same time against their common wall; one was talking on the phone, and I don’t know what the other one was doing. Looking at them, and at the jazz—it seemed to be what a city is all about. The photo doesn’t do it any justice, but I kind of like it.

There aren’t many famous bassists—Charlie Mingus being a spectacular exception—but it’s an incredible instrument, it reaches deep inside you. It’s usually a buried pulse, occasionally let out for a brief solo, but I’ll never forget Jonathan playing a devastating, elegiac “Over the Rainbow” entirely on his bass one night in Bondi maybe ten years ago. That’s him in this sonnet from Equinox, one of my favourites, though not as good as I wanted it to be:


They book a table at the Basement
with vodka and potato wedges.
The band tonight is Hip Replacement;
the music seems to have no edges.
The bassist slows to treacle pace
and waltzes with his double bass,
cradling its neck with loving fingers,
stroking its strings. The music lingers
like heavy blossom in the air
as he sinks deeper in his solo.
Tugging the collar of his polo
he sweats and winces, unaware
of anything beyond the dance
of man and bass in mutual trance.

Thanks, guys!

16 January 2007

The Doctor and Romana

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:42 am

dawkins2.jpgThis is the preposterous debating chamber of the Cambridge Union Society, and those blobs in the middle are incomparable troublemaker Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, who as many nerds of my vintage will remember played the regenerated Romanadvoratrelundar in Doctor Who at the turn of the 1980s.

Dawkins came to read from his new book, The God Delusion, with help from Ward. I finally got around to finishing the book this week. Actually, I listened to the two of them reading the whole thing on my music player, which was a fun way to experience it. Dawkins really gets fired up, and having Ward speak sternly into my ear reawakened some dormant early-teenage thing, especially when she said things like “virile penis” and “sexual pleasure in women” in that Romanadvoratrelundaresque way. Sorry, but it’s true. You Internet weirdos can keep your gold bikinis as far as I’m concerned.

As everyone knows by now, Dawkins’s latest is a polemic against religion. I was looking forward to it, as I’ve always enjoyed his pugnacity and his unflinching views on the subject. Here he is back in 1999, smacking down Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion can peacefully coexist in the non-overlapping magisteria:

In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. Moreover, religious apologists try to have it both ways. When talking to intellectuals, they carefully keep off science’s turf, safe inside the separate and invulnerable religious magisterium. But when talking to a nonintellectual mass audience, they make wanton use of miracle stories—which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory.

Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged marriage between religion and science is a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham.

This is expounded at greater length in the book, and I find it convincing. It does seem to me that a God that doesn’t encroach at all on the world of science can’t be said to be doing very much, and doesn’t sound like the kind of God many believers—who pray for miracles, who think there’s a meticulous divine plan—believe in. It also seems that the idea of non-overlapping magisteria is really just a way out of thinking too hard about the nature of religion or the implications of science, and is a failure of nerve. So while everyone else was fawning over Pope John Paul II’s 1996 endorsement of evolution, Dawkins pointed out that His Holiness <a href="http://www Continued.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_4_23/ai_55208056/print”>hadn’t really said anything. Which was kind of a downer, but needed to be done.

I also have a lot of time for Dawkins’s argument that we tend to be too solicitous of each other’s religious beliefs, to the extent that we feel unable to argue against them or their real-world consequences. I chuckled over his HL Mencken quotation:

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

The issue came up here recently, when a bunch of religious groups tried to get the House of Lords to annul new regulations under the Equality Act that prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In November, a group calling itself Coherent and Cohesive Voice and claiming to represent hundreds of thousands of Christian voters took out an ad complaining that the regulations would:

Force all schools to actively promote homosexual Civil Partnerships (from primary school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage.

Force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex.

Force a family-run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple even if the family think it is in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home.

Make it illegal for a heterosexual policeman, fireman or member of the Armed Forces to refuse to join a Gay Pride event promoting the homosexual way of life.

Clearly great legal minds down at the CCV. Their solution to these horrors was to suggest an amendment to the regulations providing that:

Nothing in these Regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs.

You can see the problem. You couldn’t refuse a double bed to, say, a mixed-race couple in order to preserve your racist beliefs, no matter how strongly you held them. Why should religious beliefs be any different? It’s not conscientious objection; you’re not saying you don’t like the idea of killing people, you just want to stop a couple of blokes from having a good time in your B&B. Shame on you! (Polly Toynbee says the regulations don’t prevent discrimination against the transgendered, so embattled Christians can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to defending their B&Bs against all those transsexual tourist couples.)

Anyway, Dawkins does a good job on these kinds of beliefs. And all you gay-sex promoters out there will be glad to know that the Sexual Orientation Regulations were confirmed, so get on down to your local Christian print shop right away. Make sure it’s in Northern Ireland, though, because that’s the only place these regulations apply. (Similar ones are expected to be introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom by April this year, so we can expect to do it all again then.)

Dawkins also argues that we don’t need religion for morality. He is especially persuasive on the idea that none of our moral sense actually derives from scripture, since the moral lessons of those old books are often unpalatable or contradictory and we pick and choose among them on some basis other than the Word of God itself. This might just mean that our morality is decided by the church or by religious commentators, but there’s no reason why secular moral philosophers couldn’t do just as good a job. Religion might be good for enforcing morality, of course; but everyone who says that a morality secured by threats and bribes is inferior to one based on personal reflection is surely right. I suspect that the alignment between morality and religion is historical but not necessary, and I look forward to more discussion about the forms that secular morality might take.

Overall I thought the book was brave, thoughtful, and important. There were a few things I didn’t like so much, but I’ll leave them for next time.

13 September 2005

Hands off Coopers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

coopers.jpgThere can be very few brands to which I am as loyal as I am to the Coopers family of ales, lagers and stouts. These guys can do very little wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, they could have kept the apostrophe, but since it’s their trademark I’m willing to let them do what they like with it—and imagine if we had to write “Cooper’s’s marketing strategy” and so on. Even their light beer isn’t too bad—for that matter, even their alcohol-free beer is drinkable, if you’re a space-shuttle pilot or stuck on a desert island (or both).

Many are the reasons for my loyalty to this fine selection of what may generically be called beers. One is that I learned to drink beer in South Australia, where the Coopers is as bountiful as the Tooheys and VB are here, and often cheaper. You can get it all on tap everywhere, magnificent beer fonts bristling with every kind of Coopers spigot from draught to stout. It’s great.

Now that I’m in Sydney I’ll still always go for a Sparkling or a Pale if they’re on tap, and usually if they’re in bottles—particularly now that the Hospitality Industry is catching on to the benefits of rolling. They’re great-tasting full-bodied beers and they’re made without additives or preservatives. Some people complain about the sediment but I think it shows that you’re drinking a real drink that results from natural processes. The marketing has been clever—particularly the brilliant “Cloudy but fine” tag—but understated, and the old-school packaging gives the impression of substance over style.

Beyond all this, I must say that in recent years my devotion to Coopers has been deepened by the fact that it is not owned by either of the regional beverage giants Foster’s Group or Lion Nathan Limited.

Now, I’m not one of these people who think that a corporate structure or stock-exchange listing is an automatic short-cut to global destruction and a place in the newly-constructed circles of Hell. But I do think that, particularly in the case of food and drink, concentrated ownership tends to encourage a certain homogeneity, a kind of blandness; whereas diverse and independent ownership allows more character and more innovation. The chilli sauces made by Masterfoods are kind of sweet and bland, for example; but Beerenberg’s chilli sauce can kill you. Yes, there are some fine products made by big corporations—those chilli or wasabi Kettle chips ultimately attributable to the Campbell Soup Company are pretty good, though I swear they’ve been toned down lately—but you can almost always get something tastier, more interesting, and certainly better for you up the road.

As well as the beer that bears its name, Foster’s Group now produces such brands as Victoria Bitter, Crown Lager, Carlton Cold, Carlton Draught and Cascade Premium Lager. It imports Corona and Asahi and makes loads of wine under the Penfolds, Rosemount Estate, Lindemans, Wolf Blass and Wynns Coonawarra labels. Lion Nathan owns all the Tooheys, XXXX, West End, Southwark, Hahn and James Squire brands, and brews Heineken, Beck’s and Kirin here in Australia. Its wines include Petaluma, Tatachilla, Knappstein and St Hallett. And now it’s after Coopers.

Yes, on 1 September 2005 Lion Nathan announced an off-market offer to buy all the shares in Coopers Brewery Limited at $260 each, valuing the company at $352 million. Coopers has something like 117 shareholders, most of whom are somehow connected with the Cooper family. Lion Nathan acquired 19.9% of the shares through its 1993 purchase of the South Australian Brewing Company, but gave them up in 1995 in exchange for some pre-emptive rights, which have been the subject of several legal stoushes since. Now it wants to buy the lot.

Lion Nathan reckons their bid of $260 per share is pretty reasonable, considering the Cooper family priced a buyback at $45.01 just two years ago. The Coopers Board, bless it, has recommended that shareholders reject the offer, for reasons that will become clear when Coopers files its target statement with ASIC. It has also announced that it might match Lion Nathan’s offer, which it has the pre-emptive rights to do, and is getting the Takeovers Panel and probably the ACCC involved. Unfortunately, there are reports of various divisions within the now-fifth-generation Cooper family, which could result in a bunch of shares winding up with Lion Nathan.

It will be clear to all of you by now that I personally would prefer that this didn’t happen. Coopers claims to be the only surviving family-owned brewery in Australia; certainly it is the most significant. There are some brilliant small brewers around the place, like Scharers of Picton and even the Lord Nelson in the city. But since J Boag & Son was acquired by San Miguel in 2000, there hasn’t been a widely-available independent domestic beer apart from the best beer of all: Coopers. Does it matter? I think it does. If the takeover does go through, I’m going to have to buy up all the family-brewed Coopers I can and drink it for as long as it lasts. And after that I’ll only be able to drink at the Australian (which has Scharer’s), the Lord Nelson (which has Three Sheets) or the Royal Oak (which for some reason has both). Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if socially limiting.

Would the takeover of Coopers by Lion Nathan affect your drinking habits or even just make you nostalgic for better days? Let me know.

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!

18 April 2005

Words of wisdom

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

zappa.jpgI’ve been criticised lately for not posting anything for a while, and also for being too serious. But I’ve been a bit busy with a rewrite and other things, and seem to have less time for frivolous posts, even though I love them so. But to make partial amends I’ve decided to tell you one of my favourite jokes.

Well, it’s not really a joke. It’s from the pseudonymous Kehlog Albran’s The Profit, a delightful spoof of the real Khalil Gibran‘s fantastically popular and much-translated 1923 collection of essays The Prophet, which nowadays seems somewhat overblown and, if not bordering on self-satire, then crying out for satirical treatment:

And the weaver said, “Speak to us of Clothes.”

And he answered:

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.

And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.

Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,

For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.

See? Anyway, so here is the joke version:

A priest asked,
What is Fate, Master?

And he answered:
It is that which gives a beast of burden its reason for existence.
It is that which men in former times had to bear upon their backs.
It is that which has caused nations to build by-ways from City to City upon which carts and coaches pass, and alongside which inns have come to be built to stave off Hunger, Thirst and Weariness.
It is that which has caused great fleets of ships to ply the Seven Seas wherever the wind blows.

And that is Fate? said the priest.

Fate… I thought you said Freight, responded the Master.

That’s all right, said the priest. I wanted to know what Freight was too.

I think it’s great. The Profit was apparently published in 1973 by Price Stern Sloan of Los Angeles, which was formed in the 1960s to publish the allegedly hilarious Mad Libs series by Tonight Show writers Roger Price and Leonard Stern. Roger Price also invented (or at least coined a name for) the Droodles, those simple pictures that turn out to have inventive meanings (remember the Mexican riding a bicycle?). He drew the cover for Frank Zappa’s album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, pictured above. There’s a good chance that Kehlog Albran is really Price and/or Stern, but who knows.

PSS also published Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men and Little Miss series, and were bought by Penguin in 1993. They don’t seem to be about to reprint The Profit, which is a shame. But now I really have to get back to work.

14 March 2005


by Matt Rubinstein at 7:12 am

Further to yesterday’s brief reference to dodgy Nazi analogies (is there any other kind?), Adam Cohen of the New York Times reports today that the famous “X is to Y as…” questions have been dropped from the SATs and predicts the rise of a savage underclass who can’t properly use an analogy:

When Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist, was on the NPR program “Fresh Air” a while back, he casually made a comparison that left the host, Terry Gross, sputtering in disbelief. “Excuse me,” she said. “Did you just … compare the estate tax with the Holocaust?” Yes, he did.

We are living in the age of the false, and often shameless, analogy. A slick advertising campaign compares the politicians working to dismantle Social Security to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a new documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Kenneth Lay compares attacks on his company to the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Intentionally misleading comparisons are becoming the dominant mode of public discourse. The ability to tell true analogies from false ones has never been more important.

Like Cohen, I always kind of enjoyed the analogy questions in the various tests we had to take through school. They were so efficiently expressed, with all those colons, and I think they really did make us think in the right way about the relationships between things. Of course the analogies used in tests aren’t perfectly analogous (heh) with the analogies we really have to think about, like Iraq:Vietnam, war:“ on terror” and so on. But they’re useful tools and so I suppose it is a shame that they’re going out of style. You can practise your old-school analogies here.

13 March 2005

Forking Paths

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:11 am

stamp3.jpgThis entry was prompted by a Boing Boing post complaining about the way famous photographs had been amended in recent years to remove any sign of cigarettes. For example, the French National Library has just swiped Sartre’s Gauloise; a poster version of the Abbey Road cover elided Paul McCartney’s cancer stick; and this US stamp commemorating blues pioneer Robert Johnson is based on on a photograph of him smoking a cigarette, but clearly shows him not smoking a cigarette.

The last example is included as evidence in a rant by determined tilter Dave Hitt, who compares anti-smokers with Hitler—who it turns out was also fiercely anti-tobacco and imposed restrictions on cigarette advertising and sales that are similar in many respects to our modern-day regulation.

Hitt acknowledges Godwin’s law—which states that all online discussions will eventually produce a comparison to Hitler and the Nazis, and has developed into a convention that whenever that comparison arises the discussion is over and the comparer has lost the argument—but protests, like everyone, that this time the comparison really is apt. Certainly it’s apparent that Hitler felt the same way about smoking as today’s anti-smokers do. But calling them “nicotine Nazis” relies on an extremely dubious association between the Nazis’ policies against tobacco and their policies against humanity and reason, and immediately descends into the opportunism and trivialisation that was presumably Mike Godwin’s whole point.

I do think it’s ridiculous—and bad faith—to airbrush cigarettes out of old photos, but perhaps it’s not so bad in the Robert Johnson picture. For starters, this is clearly just a painting based on the famous photo, so it’s more a case of the artist choosing not to paint a cigarette than of removing something that was already there. Johnson didn’t always have a cigarette in his mouth, as the only other surviving picture of him clearly demonstrates. The chord he’s playing in the stamp is also different from the chord in the photo, so perhaps he’s just dropped his fag between bars, or something.

I wanted to post the original photo here, but I had a fair bit of trouble finding it—which, in the case of old and iconic images like this one, usually means there’s a particularly meticulous copyright-holder stalking the Internet. Sure enough, the only images I could find were either hosted in Russia or slavishly attributed to the Delta Haze Corporation and copyrighted to them in the 1980s, which seemed strange for photos taken in the 1930s. However, their story checks out. The individual behind Delta Haze is blues aficionado Stephen LaVere, who in 1974 tracked down Robert Johnson’s last known surviving heir, his half-sister Carrie Thompson, and persuaded her to assign him all of Johnson’s intellectual property in return for 50% of the ongoing profits. It was a good deal for Thompson, who probably didn’t know she had the rights and certainly hadn’t been exploiting them. But arguably it was a better deal for LaVere, who has now made a lot of money out of Johnson and isn’t even related to him. And a lot of people argue that it hasn’t been the best thing for the blues or for Johnson’s legacy.

Johnson’s compositions had long been considered more-or-less in the public domain since he’d died so long ago and nobody was around to enforce his copyright. The most successful rockers in the world had been recording his songs for ages: for example, the Rolling Stones covered (or interpreted, or whatever) his Love in Vain in 1969 and his Stop Breakin’ Down Blues in 1971, both published by Allen Klein’s ABKCO Music. LaVere sued ABKCO for copyright violation in the 1990s. In 2000 the Ninth Circuit found that releasing a record didn’t constitute a publication of the underlying musical work—that is, it didn’t bring the music into the public domain and start the clock ticking on copyright. Which seems a shame, but is just another example of the US and its corporations (and now trading partners) reneging on the intellectual-property bargain—that is, that creators get a limited monopoly on their inventions on the basis that they eventually fall into public use for the good of all. But that’s another story. The Ninth Circuit remanded the ABKCO decision back to the District Court, where so far nothing seems to have happened; maybe it’s settled.

The pictures were discovered in Carrie Thompson’s place and first published by LaVere in Rolling Stone and 78 Quarterly in the late 1980s. That started the clock at last, and they’ll be in the public domain by the 2030s, barring inevitable legislative amendment. I’ll post them then; they’re worth seeing. Or you can get watermarked versions on the Delta Haze website. But it’s the same thing: whoever took the pictures is almost certainly as dead as Johnson; good on LaVere for helping to dig them up, but is that worth a 50-year monopoly?

Meanwhile, ABKCO took a page out of LaVere’s book and sued The Verve for 100% of the royalties from Bittersweet Symphony, which uses an instrumental riff from the Stones’ The Last Time. ABKCO has also slugged George Michael and Janet Jackson for borrowing lyrics popularised by Mick and Keith, so we shouldn’t go feeling sorry for them. Really it’s all a bit ridiculous, since almost all the lyrics and riffs and chord changes have roots almost a hundred years old—it seems kind of obscene that already-rich people should be fighting so hard over them now. But that’s as far as I’m going to follow these tangents for tonight.

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.

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.

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

Everybody wants something

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 pm

degrassi.jpg So I’ve finally caught up with Degrassi: the Next Generation, which has been showing for a few weeks on the ABC and is of course the latest tilt by the loveable overwrought Canucks who first turned up in The Kids of Degrassi Street, found their edu-melodramatic form in Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High, and disturbed a lot of nostalgic 80s-survivors when they returned briefly to shag and maim each other in Degrassi High: School’s Out, but have been pretty quiet since. Until now!

These four are the only ones left from the old days, apart from the long-suffering Mr Raditch—and guess what? They’re all teachers now, guiding a new cohort of eh-sayers through their awkward phases.

Tonight’s episode was a pretty faithful reworking of one of the first Junior High outings, where some 13-year-old decides she’s had enough of being a wallflower and decides to be a skank instead, winning instant popularity and dismaying her bookish best friend, who is charged with jealousy when she expresses her concern, and so on… only last time it was eye-shadow and boob tubes; this time it’s low-riders and outrageous T-bars. Voula’s turning in her grave, I just know it.

Also, Joey Jeremiah now has a step-son, and he’s in a band (the stepson is), and they’re all really good until Joey forces them to join him in a long-awaited rendition of The Zit Remedy’s (Everybody Wants) Something. Then they’re instantly crap. Caitlin lands a well-placed sledge about how could Joey, Wheels and Snake ever think they’d make it as a band when they only had one song? Definitely one for the last generation, who still remember how Shane knocked Spike up at a party, then took acid and fell off a bridge and got brain damage, and thereafter hung around the school being creepy and telling people they should be kicked in the head; how Wheels’s parents were killed in a car crash and he reacted by growing a mullet and becoming a dickhead, and wound up in jail for vehicular manslaughter (irony?); and how Caitlin kept doing weird things with her hair but was always hot, and should never have let Joey wear her down, especially when he was boning that blonde chick!

It was a good show. Let us never speak of it again.

19 October 2004

On the sauce

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:51 am


I just love this—5,000 words on good old tomato sauce, though of course they call it ketchup. I’m a big fan of the dead horse myself—I’ve got friends who don’t like it, who’ll eat a bucket of chips absolutely naked, but I can’t understand them; there’s always going to be this distance between us. I think sauce is just as worthy of attention as these things like salt or mauve or zero or whatever, which have books written about them and their histories. Listen to this, it’s heady stuff:

Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation–the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science.

A renegade band of ketchup manufacturers who spurn benzoate and put their faith in culinary science! It’s brilliant. For the record, the best sauce in the world is South Australia’s Beerenberg Hahndorf Tomato Sauce. You can get it in the David Jones Food Hall; I highly recommend picking some up.

16 October 2004

Wake me up

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:25 am

go-gos.jpgRage remains one of the most important public services our ABC provides. Not only does it keep us company in the lonely hours as we try to get through as many glasses of water as we’ve had standard drinks—it’s there when we wake up again, confirming that we’re as old as we feel with its often-bewildering but always-fascinating ARIA Top 50.

I usually check in at about #20, depending on how many glasses of water I’ve had. Since I don’t do a lot of driving it’s really my only opportunity to keep up with what The Kids are listening to. And of course all the Old Geezers hate The Kids’ music so I won’t go on about it—I mean, everyone hates the Top 50, don’t they? (In my day, it was called the Top 40, and we all hated it as soon as we were cool enough.) Except that I will say that I hate R&B more than most other things in the universe, not least because it appears to disclose neither R nor B. I wish it were called something else.

No, what I find really interesting is how much of the Kids’ music is just recycled Geezer gear. Of course a fair chunk of this is due to the ominous rise of the Australian Idol alumni (I can’t link to that, either). This morning at #33 we have Paulini covering Jeff Healey’s Angel Eyes; at #22 is Cosima with Cold Chisel’s When the War is Over, and I don’t think anyone’s recovered from Shannon Noll’s slavish but soul-destroying retread of Moving Pictures’ What About Me? (apparently the famous corner shop was in Annandale, not in bloody Condobolin).

But it’s not just them. The first thing I ran up against this morning, at #17, was a version of Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain, performed by a trio of Russian hookers called Slinkee Minx (who are in fact from Melbourne and are not, as far as I know, involved in the sex industry). Geezers of my vintage will know that Carlisle (real name: Kurczesky or possibly Kurchinski) sang in 1980s girl-group The Go-gos, whose big hit Our Lips are Sealed (popular mondegreen, and name of Spiderbait’s cover: Alex the Seal) was—wouldn’t you know it—next up at #16, as brutalised by tween sensation Hilary Duff and her sister. Who would have thought back then that the Femme Fab Five would cast such a long shadow? Was any of this stuff really so good the first time round?

Anyway, Jessica Simpson scrapes into the charts with Berlin’s Take my Breath Away, Duran Duran is back in its own right with (Reach Up For The) Sunrise—how 80s are those parentheses?—and JC Chasez has a new track called All Day Long I Dream About Sex, clearly based on what everyone in my high school knew the name of the popular running shoe stood for, with an extraneous “L” dropped in, doubtless for legal reasons.

I do like spunky Melbourne singer/songwriter (shock!) and Unearthed find Missy Higgins and her very hooky Scar. I reckon she could teach Slinkee Minx a thing or two. Guy Sebastian doesn’t like her, though.

I’m still watching, and here’s Britney Spears with hairstyle-trailblazer-and-Whitney-Houston-abuser Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative… but I think we’ve all got the idea.

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.

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 ––––.