Monday, January 29, 2007

David versus Goliath

Over the weekend I found myself reading, with rising anger, Joe Lelyveld's piece in the New York Review of Books about the mess in which America finds itself with its misguided (to put it kindly) policy of locking up foreigners, sorry "furrners", indefinitely, offshore, and without charge, in pursuit of the so-called War on Terror. Lelyveld, who as I understood it was supposed to have moved from the New York Times to the New Yorker, but who appeared once in the latter only to have vanished, Joseph Mitchell-style, ever since, puts in clear and rational terms the combination of barbarity, inhumanity and inextricability that can only lead to ever-larger chickens coming home to roost at some point in the future.

But for the Australian reader, concerned about the terrible plight of David Hicks and his total abandonment by his own government, this passage, written for purposes other than to highlight Hicks's predicament, does just that:

"In all, more than 250 Guantánamo prisoners have been repatriated. In some cases their release appears to have had more to do with diplomatic pressure applied by allied countries in which they had legal residence than with the facts of their particular cases."

Hello? Didn't we blindly march backwards into Iraq, side by side with America, without even waiting to be asked? Haven't we remained there, through thick and thin, as practically all other members of the "coalition" have seen Iraq revealed as America's own folly, and gone home? That doesn't seem to give us as much clout as I would have thought it would, particularly given the "special relationship". Or maybe nobody in Canberra has thought to test it out?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

No, he only smells that way

I put on disc 1 of Tom Waits's "Orphans". After a few minutes, Jules says: Dad, who is this man singing?

I say: This is Tom Waits.

Jules says: Is he dead?

[I resist the urge to explain that, actually, Tom Waits sounded old when he was young, but that now, through some miraculous process of ageing backwards, he sounds like a young experimental noisemaker ready to take on the world on his own terms and tear it apart limb from limb. An almost-seven-year-old wouldn't understand.]

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Astounding headline of the week

From The Age (and from memory):

"Hicks's mental state not an issue: Downer"

So, after letting the guy rot in Guantanamo Bay for five years you can confidently say, from your Canberra air-conditioned bunker, that David Hicks is as happy as Larry.

Since when is Australia's foreign minister a psychiatrist? How many sessions on the couch (or, more likely, the waterboard) did they have together?

Even assuming that "due process" would apply to any trial, which is now demonstrated not to be the case, wouldn't his mental state be a, if not the, crucial issue?

And I thought the government might just have been trying to come to terms with its appalling handling of this appalling matter. Not so: still the dissembling continues.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Against the grain

And speaking of the New York Review of Books, given the critical hammering that has by and large been meted out to Thomas Pynchon's "Against The Day", it was surprising, and also refreshing, to see it described by Luc Sante in such a way as to make it sound like something you would not so much want, as have, to read. (Sante tends to know of what he speaks; and his book "Low Life" is perenially near to top of my "books I really must read" list.)

(And while we are all about books, what is it with Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times? Three times, now, she has been guilty in recent months of describing something as reading like a parody of a book by the author she is reviewing: first the new Richard Ford novel, then "Against The Day", and now, in a review of the new Martin Amis, she has felt compelled to use the same description in relation to his previous novel, "Yellow Dog" (which I actually enjoyed, precisely because it read like a Martin Amis novel). Isn't such an observation (as well as being a cheap shot) as much a vindication of a writer's distinctive style as it is a criticism, if not more so? Isn't she really saying, "I don't like this book because I liked other books like this written by this person?" I mean, what if the new Thomas Pynchon read like a novel by, oh I don't know, Ben Elton? Would that make it alright? Just asking.)

(Of course, if Michiko Kakutani were reviewing the previous paragraph she would point to its excessive, and confusing, use of parentheses and say that it read like a parody of one of my paragraphs.)

Monopoly money

Strange coincidences abound. Yesterday I decided to plunge headlong into Mark Danner's long but essential article from the New York Review of Books in which he looks through the rear-view mirror to establish exactly how the United States could have convinced itself to invade Iraq, given how obvious the resulting diabolical mess now seems. Therein I found this sentence:

"If attaining true political authority depends on securing a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans would never achieve it in Iraq."

Securing a monopoly on legitimate violence. At first glance it seems to be describing the establishment of a police state, but it is in fact setting out a precondition for individual liberty, as long as it's the good guys who hold the monopoly (although words like "legitimate" can readily slide through one's fingers).

Anyway. There I was this afternoon, making good headway with Ian McEwan's "Saturday", when, on page 88, I read this:

"Holding the unruly, the thugs, in check is the famous 'common power' to keep all men in awe - a governing body, an arm of the state, freely granted a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence."

Okay, the phrase might well, for all I know, be covered in Lesson One of Political Science 101, but to stumble across it twice in 24 hours, well, you have to admit that's a tiny bit creepy.

(Yes, I have finally started "Saturday", after having suffered from reader's block for the best part of 12 months. I don't know what was stopping me from picking it up, but it has sat beside the bed, and sat, and sat, and in the meantime I haven't read any other novels because I wanted to read "Saturday" and didn't want anything else to get in the way. Oh, I torture myself sometimes. Well, after a gorgeously languid, yet meticulous, start, it suddenly opens out, around page 87, into a typically brilliant, stomach-tightening Ian McEwan set-up.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Uncle Ray

Yesterday, one day after what would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday, her brother, Ray, my last surviving uncle, died. This news has, as usual, sent me into something of a tailspin of reflection and introspection.

He was 86. He and his wife, Margaret, were a pretty good team, and seem to have been able to keep each other going to what is a very good age. Although I haven’t seen them for a number of years on account of physical distance, we have kept in touch, and they seem to have been in quite good health (although, curiously, they both became diabetic late in life) and in full control of their faculties, although uncle Ray, I am told, had withdrawn into himself in the last little while.

Which might have been difficult for an outsider to notice. Ray was a quiet one at the best of times, a Hewson trait of which I am an inheritor (as was my own mother).

Ray was the survivor of the four Hewson children. For whatever reason, genetics, circumstances, or mere coincidence, none of his three sisters fared entirely well. Mavis, whom my mother spent some years looking after, contracted juvenile diabetes, went blind, and died young. Muriel, mother of the three Coulter boys, also died much too young (when Geoff, the youngest, was only a teenager; he spent some time living at our house, which I was too young to really remember); and mum died at 68, not that young, I suppose, but also not that old, and she had been in varying degrees of poor health for a number of years. Ray, however, was made of stronger stuff.

(As for myself, I don’t think I am a particularly well-made human being. I have had poor eyesight since at least the age of five; my spine is twisted at various angles; I have strange neurological symptoms consistent with, but not, apparently, amounting to, MS; and yesterday I scored 35 in a test in which anything over 28 is indicative of Asperger’s syndrome.)

Perhaps because of my status as an only child, I have never really understood families. I seem to have voluntarily estranged myself from most of my cousins on my father’s side, on account of bad things that happened after he died; and the Hewson side is prone to long silences and infrequent contact. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding that we have never really spent a great deal of time in each other’s company, I feel a strong sense of connection with my cousin Gay, Ray and Margaret’s daughter. Whether this is because we are both only children I couldn’t say, but it probably does have something to do with it.

Gay is a few years older than me, but not many, and we both were born to relatively old parents (for those times). She grew up in Dandenong, which was the closest part of Melbourne to our farm, so we did see them for a few hours at a time, from time to time, and stayed with them occasionally - enough for me to carry a number of lasting, but general and perhaps distorted by time, impressions. They had a caravan, a budgie called Marmaduke and a cat whose name now escapes me. Later, they built on an extra room, which came to be dominated by a billiard table which I was quick to gravitate towards whenever we paid them a visit. (Ray worked for a company called Southern Billiards, if I remember rightly, making billiard tables for a living; he was also a keen gardener and, after his retirement, a fine lawn bowler.) Gay had Stephen King novels in her room, and listened to David Bowie (whose surname Margaret insisted on pronouncing so that the “Bow” sounded like “bow wow”, much to Gay’s disgust - I suspect this was Margaret’s way of expressing her disapproval of this man who wore copious amounts of make-up, had coloured hair, and even wore dresses). They came to our house most years on Christmas day, along with the Coulter cousins. For a long time my prize possession was a postcard from Gay which was sent from Fiji, featuring a policeman wearing a white uniform, directing traffic. I have no idea what impression, if any, Gay formed about me: probably just that I seemed like a strange sort of kid from the country: which, I suppose, I was.

Specific memories? Only two, and one of those not so much a memory as a story.

When I was very young, maybe around five, Ray and Margaret took me out for the day, to what I now believe to have been Venus Bay (where Adrienne and I, much later, went for a long walk on that fateful weekend in 1989 when she first visited me in Leongatha). I was wearing a new pair of black shoes (new shoes, new anything, was something pretty special in my family). I was under strict instructions from Margaret not to get them wet. I was busy for some time playing at the water’s edge, lost in my thoughts and oblivious to anything else that may have been happening around me (such as the tide coming in). There was a shout and a severe reprimand from Margaret when it became obvious that my new shoes had indeed been immersed in the salt water, and who knows for how long? (But why was I not in bare feet like normal kids would have been?) I felt terrible, having failed to follow instructions and, I was led to believe, destroyed my new shoes into the bargain. No doubt I got into more trouble when I got home, but that I don’t remember at all, only my betrayal of my aunt and uncle, who had been good enough to take me to the beach in the first place, a treat which, in my own mind, I clearly didn’t deserve and which would never happen again.

Second, there is a story recounted by my mother of my cousin Max, one of the Coulter boys, at a young age, sitting on the floor at Ray’s feet, while Ray was, characteristically, sitting in an armchair, reading. They stayed there in complete silence for some time, until somebody, perhaps my mother, perhaps Muriel, Max’s mother, said to Max, “What are you doing, Max?”, to which Max replied, “Talking to uncle Ray.”

That story, while it may or may not be entirely true, certainly rings true. Ray is best remembered as a quiet figure sitting in an armchair, reading a magazine, a book or a newspaper, or doing a crossword, seemingly oblivious to events around him but in fact entirely attentive, making the occasional comment, always worth waiting for, and then going back to what he was doing. In some people this may have been considered rude, or arrogant, but Ray conveyed so much generosity of spirit, kindness and goodwill that he could get away with it. In fact, not just “get away with it”: it was who he was.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Spam Header of the Week

"Cow strife".

Specifically and individually targeted, no doubt, to the "farmer in the city".

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Snake oil

Yesterday I picked up, second-hand, a copy of "Big Iron World", a rollicking 2006 record by Old Crow Medicine Show. It contains some fine pickin', fiddlin' and blowin', and is augmented by appearances by David Rawlings (who produced) on guitar, and Gillian Welch on drums(!). As Gillian fixes go, it's not much, but it was all we had (leaving aside the Robyn Hitchcock disc, which wasn't really in the ballpark). Which leads us to our hopes for 2007:

1. A new Gillian Welch album. Please please please. It's well past being about time.

2. The repatriation to Australia of David Hicks, freed from governmental interference and armed with a seven-figure book deal, which for once I wouldn't be in opposition to. Think about all you have done in the last five years. Whatever it is, even if nothing more than sitting in a chair and looking out the window, is more than Hicks has been allowed to do, in whatever appalling conditions he has been kept (and you would have to think that if the conditions were in fact better than we have been led to believe, someone in authority would have made that clear; that they haven't speaks volumes). So perhaps he was hell-bent on killing Americans; more likely he was a misguided young man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For which he has paid with a large chunk of his life and his mental health.

3. World peace and happiness. Obviously.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy New Year To You

Each year at Moistworks, Alex does a new-year mix. It is always a treat, and this year's is no exception.

Off you go, then.

Ho Ho Ho

Santa gave me a Batman Lego kit which includes a Lego Catwoman, looking stunningly curvaceous - well, in a blocky Lego kind of way - in skin-tight black leather (or maybe it's PVC) and carrying a whip.

I like Santa.