Sunday, August 30, 2009

Theodor Storm

Earlier this week a learned friend and colleague of mine asked me if I was familiar with the fiction of Theodor Storm, the nineteenth-century German lawyer, man of letters, and committed advocate of the removal of his native Schleswig-Holstein from Danish hegemony.

Although this name rang a distant bell, in due course I had to be reminded of his light-hearted way with titles, such as Im Nachbarhause Links (In the Neighbor’s House on the Left), that capricious novello of 1875 which has been described as “a study of the eccentric and miserly Frau Jansen, with flashbacks to her childhood and early youth, revealing that the old lady was always a repulsive miser.”

This natural comic flair was already evident in Waldwinkel: “Richard, saddened by years as a political prisoner for his liberal views and by the unfaithfulness of his wife, lives withdrawn from the world. He has taken Waldwinkel, a remote house in the woods, to pursue his botanical studies. Chancing to visit an old friend, a judge, when the latter is presiding over the case of a man who is eventually convicted of indecent behavior in respect of his [the man’s] beautiful ward Franziska, Richard is so struck with the victim that he engages her to help his old housekeeper, and to make sketches of his botanical specimens. He falls in love with Franziska and feels able, with her at his side, to face the world again and take up a chair in botany. However, just before the day fixed for their wedding, Franziska elopes with a young forester.”

If you liked Waldwinkel, you’ll love Wenn die Äpfel reif sind (When the Apples Are Ripe), “a humorous tale of a lovers’ moonlit rendezvous, interrupted by a boy stealing apples.”

One detects a strain of slapstick in Der Herr Etatsrat (The Dyke Administrator): “Sternow is a clever dyke administrator, but completely amoral. He wastes his evenings drinking with callow students and bellowing lewd songs, always attended by his factotum Käfer. The Etatsrat’s two children are utterly neglected. The son, Archimedes, is a good mathematician but kept at home to help his father, and, when Sternow at last relents and sends him off to university, it is too late: Archimedes works, but also drinks excessively, undermines his health, and dies of a fever. Phia, the daughter, leads an utterly solitary life. The scheming Käfer takes advantage of this lonely girl, and in due course she dies shirtly after giving birth to a stillborn child.”

True, German humor does require some perseverance. Fortunately, we may gain certain insights from a useful compendium sifted and arranged in 1903 by Mrs. Minna Sophie Marie Baumann Downes. It is entitled German Wit and Humor (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs and Co.), and the following teaser (p. 7) will demonstrate its immense value:

“A Good Shot”

A man passing through a forest saw an old blind bear. A young bear, whose tail was in the old bear’s mouth, led him. The man took his gun and shot the bear’s tail off. Then he took hold of it, and led the blind bear for two miles to market at Stuttgart.

I am told that this one still elicits loud guffaws from Saarland to Brandenburg, and from Lower Saxony to Bavaria.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Among the most moving of all the great protest songs of the 1960s, and one which is still regularly performed by Joan Baez, bless her, among many others, is the old Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson classic, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1961):
Where have all the flowers gone? / Long time passing / Where have all the flowers gone? / Long time ago / Where have all the flowers gone? / Girls have picked them every one / When will they ever learn? / When will they ever learn?
Where have all the young girls gone?.../ Taken husbands, every one / When will they ever learn? etc.
Where have all the young men gone?... / Gone for soldiers, every one… etc.
Where have all the soldiers gone?... / Gone to graveyards, every one…
Where have all the graveyards gone?... / Covered with flowers, every one… / When will we ever learn?
According to tradition, Seeger was inspired by a Cossack folksong he came across in the novel And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) by Mikhail Sholokhov, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. Some time after he read the book, but well before its author hit the jackpot in Oslo, Seeger came across a few lines he jotted into his notebook, “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.”
The song simply followed from that, and the final verses were added later, a reflection of the deepening crisis in Vietnam. Its circular structure reinforces the memento mori aspect, even if, these days, one might balk a little at the cheerful typecasting of young girls hoovering up all those flowers, not to mention all the young men in turn snaffling the young girls, “every one.” However, let’s not get too carried away with current sensitivities about gender politics.
Lately I thought of this song not because of any recent performance, nor even any resonances with what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan—though I guess these are pretty powerful.
Instead it was when, in my reticule, I came across another version that must surely go down in the annals of recorded music, and even of stage performance, as one of the most stupendously weird covers of any song ever to be voluntarily committed to magnetic tape. I refer, of course, to the 1973 cabaret rendition, “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind,” by the iconic but by then rather elderly Marlene Dietrich. At the time it was aptly remarked by Clive James that, even as the great diva shimmied carefully downstage, center, at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, to the wild applause of devoted fans, the pelts of innumerable small white animals, of which the train of her fur was composed, were evidently still leaving the dressing room.
Setting to one side the matter of Marlene Dietrich’s preferred but gravelly lower register, in the surviving footage her delivery is as clipped as the German translation of the lyrics leans towards the peremptory. She also seems very sleepy. In fact, notwithstanding the loose, open strumming of the acoustic guitar and gradually building café-orchestra accompaniment—together with some zippy, if slightly leaden upward key-changes—in Marlene Dietrich’s hands the song is handled not so much as a rumination on impermanence, love, death, and the futility of warfare, but rather as one might imagine some not particularly senior official appearing before the Düsseldorf town council to defend the imposition of a higher rate of land tax.
Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Wo sind sie geblieben? / Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Was ist geschehn? / Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Mädchen pflückten sie geschwind. / Wann wird man je verstehn? / Wann wird man je verstehn? etc.

Mind you, if Marlene Dietrich had ever put in an appearance in such an unpromising forum—as far as I am aware, as a matter of principal she rarely set foot in Germany after taking American citizenship in 1939—I have no doubt she’d have brought the house down anyway. As James remarked, generally the quality of her later performances was for loyal audiences a foregone conclusion, but I think they are still worth listening to, and not only for a chuckle. And it’s also true that she did look amazing, right to the very end. Check out her final, extraordinary cameo appearance opposite David Bowie in David Hemmings’s fine motion picture Just A Gigolo (1979). She was by then seventy-seven years old.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Kookaburra II

David Sedaris’ article in the current issue of the New Yorker actually takes in the childhood memory of singing with his sister a version of the Kookaburra song, and being punished by his irritable father for doing so. I suppose it would be fair to say that most Australians above a certain age (at least mine) must have sung that song in its original version, namely a delightful four-part round that was written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair, a schoolmistress at Toorak College, of which my grandmother was an alumna, and one of my sisters-in-law still is.

Miss Sinclair entered her composition in a fund-raising competition run by the Girl Guides’ Association of Victoria, and won. The song was first performed in 1934 in the presence of Lieutenant-General the Rt. Hon. Lord Baden-Powell, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., and Lady Baden-Powell, G.B.E., at a jamboree in Frankston (above) It was meticulously reported shortly thereafter in the Argus (January 4, 1935, p. 7), and thence spread across the globe—though not necessarily as a four-part round. However, I remember quite distinctly singing it in this form as a rather fetching treble temporarily seconded to some ad hoc choir, perhaps that of Millear House, on speech day at Grimwade House, with the late Miss Kathleen James at the pianoforte.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Merry, merry king of the bush is he; / Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra! / Gay your life must be.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Eating all the gum drops he can see; / Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra! / Leave some there for me.

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree, / Counting all the monkeys he can see; / Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra! / That’s not a monkey. That’s me

Kookaburra sits on a rusty nail, / Gets a boo-boo in his tail; / Cry, Kookaburra! Cry, kookaburra! / Oh how life can be.

The concluding stanza, I suppose, reflects a degree of gloom arising from that ghastly experience of the Great Depression, from which nobody at all in Australia was spared.

Note the earliest (and correct) form of words: The kookaburra sits on, and not in, the old gum tree, a subtle distinction, certainly, but one that gives that muscular bird a slight hint of dominance, as befits the king of the bush designation that follows in the next line. Incidentally, in this context I have no idea what a boo-boo is. I doubt if it has anything to do with the parish of Boo Boo in the county of Courallie, which is in the Shire of Boolooroo, roughly half way between Narrabri and Moree in northern New South Wales, a few miles east of the Newell Highway (149° 56ʹ E, 29° 54ʹ S, to be precise). Nor, I think is it anything to do with the boobook, as the subtle brown owl we called the mopoke is more properly known. In any case boo-boo, n., is not yet listed in the O.E.D., or the otherwise impeccable Australian National Dictionary, so I shall certain make a point of speaking to the editors about this.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Kookaburra

There is a slightly odd piece in the current issue of the New Yorker in which David Sedaris describes an intimate encounter not so long ago with a tame kookaburra over lunch in Daylesford, Victoria. Reading this I was immediately transported to the weatherboard house at Metung, where, in the very early morning, perched high in the branches of the enormous ghost gum that overhangs the boat-shed, a pair of extremely competitive kookaburras occasionally woke us up with a loud impromptu performance. I’ve always thought “laughter” a poor analogy for the distinctive cry of that muscular bird the kookaburra—except for those scarily over-emphatic, tooth-baring, rapid-fire, ack-ack-style baboon-screeches occasionally uttered by seasoned cocktail party-goers slightly too shrill in their grimly determined sociability. In fact it wasn’t only the kookaburras that unleashed a noisy dawn chorus. Between their limited engagements I recall waking up in the morning to the far more mellifluous song of the pied currawongs, the butcherbirds, the Australian magpies, the bellbirds, the aptly named whipbirds, the honeyeaters, the scratchy-sounding wattlebirds, the noisy miners, the fairy martins, maybe even the subtle mopokes (known more properly, I gather, as the southern boobook, or Ninox novaseelandiae), and very occasionally a rather perplexed and disoriented-looking king-parrot, or else a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Meanwhile, gazing out across the back lake, where we fed kitchen scraps to the seagulls, I always found it hard to take my eyes off the pelicans, those majestic, stately, yet grunting survivors of some antediluvian epoch, or else to keep track of the lissome cormorants after they dived energetically for fish. From time to time, against the evening sky, high above the line of scrubby dunes that separate Bass Strait from the lakes, you could spot a lone sea eagle wheeling hungrily. I have no idea what they sound like.

Jackson Hole, Wyo.

On the front page of this morning’s New York Times there is an upbeat story emanating from a conference of the world’s central bankers that is going on just now in the exceedingly expensive seclusion of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “The prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good,” says the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke (my italics).

It is reported also that sales of houses in America leaped by 7.2% in July; that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen 45% since March; that several foreign governments have lately reported quarters of greater growth than was previously anticipated; that the prices of oil, copper, and gold have all risen; that the Governor of the Bank of Israel—who he?—thinks it is reasonable to assume that the worst of the crisis is behind us, while an investor who rejoices in the name of Laszlo Birinyi, Jr., president of a thing called Birinyi Associates, is quoted as saying, “This is a bull market,” and adds that he is therefore investing in large banks, industrial and technological corporations such as 3M and Apple, as well as good old American steel. How nice.

Sometimes the only conclusion you can reach is that senior bankers, economists, and wealthy businessmen think the rest of us are as stupid as we are gullible. Perhaps they are right.

Certainly, what they are not quite so keen to emphasize just now in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is that unemployment in America was 9.4% in July (approx. 14.5 millions, not counting the farm sector), and is certainly going to get worse before it gets better, albeit at a slower rate. The new administration’s current estimate of the ten-year deficit has had to be revised upward from $7 trillion to $9 trillion, which amounts to 69% of this year’s United States G.D.P.—roughly $13 trillion—in other words a medium- to long-term debt so colossal, so overwhelming, that it is simply impossible to imagine how it will ever be repaid.

It is not simply that the United States Treasury can no longer reflate the world economy, as it has regularly done in the past. Rather it is that in a few years’ time, and for the first time in several generations, we may easily face the specter of a United States Treasury default. (The last time was in 1933.) Obviously there is nothing that President Barack Obama or his administration or the present congress could really have done to prevent this, because the alternative, i.e. no radical intervention at all, would have been far, far more catastrophic, indeed literally unthinkable.

But where are we getting the money that will permit us to pursue this dangerous course? The answer is wholly frightening: (1) Partly we are expecting the surplus countries such as China, Russia, India, the oil states of the Middle East, and so on, to participate in the monthly U.S. Treasury bond tenders, knowing full well that whenever these mature the dollars they retrieve will by then be so devalued by the effects of inflation, and so reduced in political clout that the entire exercise could yet become virtually meaningless. And in that event, how will we persuade those great states to keep on buying our bonds? (2) At the same time, we are printing money, lots and lots of money, enough money as is needed to shore up the gap between what is raised through the sale of bonds; what is saved by the not particularly drastic reduction in public spending, and (3) what else we can borrow from whoever is now in the happy position of being able to lend—an exceedingly unsavory mob, the kind of people your mother always warned you to avoid.

Meanwhile, our reserves of gold bullion (approx. $11 billion); foreign exchange (approx. $63 billion), and the so-called strategic petroleum reserve (approx. $67 billion) don’t amount to much more than peanuts compared with what we owe, and that’s not taking into account the $931 billion in accumulated U.S. consumer credit card debt (a figure not much less than the whole sum of Third World debt—$1.3 trillion), and the fact that we are wearing not only a vast budget deficit, but a trade deficit also.

It is hard to see how the action of the printing presses alone will not cause such inflationary pressure that the centralized interest rate mechanism and even a far tighter, better regulated monetary policy may be insufficient to hold it in check. When you plunge your foot on the accelerator so hard, it follows that eventually you’ll have to hit the brake pedal even harder. Naturally, all this puts at risk the dollar’s long-term trustworthiness as a reserve currency for the whole world, let alone its attractiveness as a plain, straightforward, ordinary old investment.

It is also stated in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that such growth as is now cautiously predicted will be for the time being “job neutral,” in other words the unemployed may expect to remain unemployed until further notice; and that, not surprisingly, consumer spending will remain sluggish, in other words that this could therefore actually impede recovery and growth. Notwithstanding the fact that we have thus far spent ourselves into oblivion, the economists want us to start spending again, and borrowing too. But the banks, meanwhile—never hesitating to leap headlong into the comforting, capacious skirts of Mama Treasury, as they always, always do—have packed up their bat and ball, and are presently sulking, refusing to play in the next innings of the game in which they so grievously and so recklessly hurt themselves, and, incidentally, the rest of us. Not since before 1947 has there been a contraction of credit. And a further 300 American banks will close this financial year.

As well, you do have to ask yourself, in a nation besotted with cars, clogged with 140-odd millions of car-dependent motorists and served by no public transportation system worthy of the name that might offer any viable competition with it, how on earth was it possible for the United States automobile industry to fail? In spite of these enormously favorable conditions such a gruesome failure must surely raise questions of basic competence, and numeracy.

So in the present economy the word “crisis,” is wholly inadequate. This is a catastrophe, a calamity, a disaster that is far, far worse for America and the world than anyone has yet been prepared to acknowledge. The positive noises coming out of Jackson Hole, Wyo., are merely the latest and possibly the most offensive examples of spin, maybe even self-deception, because no serious policy-maker does not yet understand that (a) phase two of the slump could very easily be just around the corner (with very little prospect of additional, gigantic sums of public money being made available to soften the impact), and (b) unless we willingly embrace a completely new and adequately representative global structure of economic and political power, there is a very good chance that we will not recover at all. Such are some of the views expressed not long ago by the Hon. Paul Keating, and I agree with every word.

The only glimmer of hope is that you and I, the ordinary American consumer, collectively constitute 16% of global consumption, and it is therefore in everybody else’s interest to keep us solvent. However that may not always be the case. The middle classes are on the rise in many other parts of the world, and are on the whole cannier, better educated, less fat, and far, far less complacent and indebted than we are.

The principal question therefore is: What will we negotiate with our new partners to replace the old G8, the old I.M.F., the old World Bank, and indeed the old Bretton Woods agreement? Where will the new international financial center be? I fear Washington, D.C., may no longer be acceptable to many of the relevant parties; and it is hard to see anywhere other than Washington, D.C., being at all acceptable to Washington.

Before this happened, we and our chums in the G8 were already debtor nations—six of us carrying public liabilities greater than 60% of G.D.P., two encumbered with more than 100% (Italy at 103%, and Japan at 170%) while Britain has done well to keep them down to 47%, while Russia carries only 6.8%.

However, thanks to monetary policy as loose and ill-fitting as an XXL jellaba, most of us were standing passively by while, in the international financial hub of New York City, the banks tossed vast sums of cheap, borrowed money into the ever greedier hands of millions who could never even qualify for an ordinary mortgage.

We are essentially still the same, however the principal difference is that we now have a debt incalculably more enormous—indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the debt has us, and has us by the throat.

So until every one of us learns to save more, spend less, and repay or merely adequately service our mind-boggling debt; and until we successfully persuade the surplus countries that they stand to gain a very great deal from spending more, and saving less, there will, there can be no end in sight.

Indeed, we may well remember the current cheerfulness of those donkeys, those blinkered fools currently talking up the prospects of Wall Street, not to mention the overpaid mandarins just now taking their leisure in Jackson Hole, Wyo., as engaged in perhaps the most spectacular case of rearranging deck-chairs since that regrettable incident involving the R.M.S. Titanic.

The Beret

Last winter I lost my beret. I have no idea where I left it, or what has happened to it, but it is gone. This was no ordinary beret. Hamish gave it to me for Christmas in 1975, while we were staying with the Francis Tuftons, and he was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge. It was a black woolen second- or even third-hand St. John’s Ambulance Brigade beret with slender leather trim, emblazoned inside the crown with the Maltese cross and certain other armorial bearings of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. Over the years these gradually began to wear away, but this splendid article of apparel nevertheless performed its simple function with 100% effectiveness and utter reliability for no fewer than thirty-three years, gradually adapting itself also to the size of my aging head, and varying amounts of hair. Apart from the beautiful Tissot wristwatch Mum and Dad purchased for me in Basel on the same holiday—that went in 1999 when I was cleaned out by burglers in Adelaide—I cannot recall losing anything else of greater sentimental value. It brings to mind a remark Dennis Potter once made to Melvyn Bragg, which, paraphrased, adapts itself perfectly to the situation: “I’ve lost my beret, oh my god, I’ve lost my beret…oh, the beret-ness of that beret, and the lostness of that loss.” Dennis Potter was talking about the experience of losing something when you are a child, but I reckon there are times when it applies to adults with equal if not greater force—much as we like to pretend that certain material or worldly possessions do not matter to us quite so much as they actually do. For several months I couldn’t bear even to think about trying to replace my beret. However, at this time of year, when with stony dread we await the gruesome onset of fall, then the outrageous atrocities of the next winter, you have no choice but to reach for headgear. So lately I have been trawling on-line. I have with increasing frustration visited countless virtual purveyors of hats, but although the world is awash with berets, I cannot find just the right one. They are either too broad, too snug, too foppish, too furry, the wrong color, or else hitched to some irritating selling point such as “genuine Basque,” or else ridiculously expensive. However, I have not yet given up.

Friday, August 21, 2009


One of the trying aspects of living in America for the time being is that when local persons learn that my Christian name is Angus, they regularly respond with “Angus, you mean like the beef? Ha, ha, ha…” The reference, here, is to the Black or Aberdeen Angus breed of hornless cattle, which was developed through the first half of the nineteenth century from beasts native to the Scottish highland counties of Aberdeenshire and Angus, and successfuly transplanted thence to the New World. Touching though it is when people laugh so heartily at their own jokes, this form of crude free association is not usually applied to me at home in the Commonwealth of Australia, where Angus cattle are also plentiful. Nor does it ever crop up on my frequent visits to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Further, I have noticed that a good number of other American persons, to whom the Christian name of Angus is entirely unknown, assume that what I want to say is “Agnes,” and respond accordingly—and, if we are on the telephone, sprinkle our conversation thereafter with the respectful “Ma’am.” Being a man of the world, and entirely comfortable with gender issues, I really don’t mind this at all, and am careful only to correct the culprits if I sense that to allow their confusion to continue beyond a certain point might cause them discomfiture, awkwardness, or embarrassment. Moreover, I am quite used to it, because for years and years at Melbourne Grammar School entrenched bullies such as the appalling Simon Cameron made a habit of addressing me as Agnes, confident in their belief that this would cause me pain. They were quite wrong, because the beatings were far, far worse—and I have always been most fortunate in having what used to be called “bottom,” in other words a good deal of psychological ballast, much of it inherited. Anyhow, the delightful Agnes is not nearly so bad as what the spell-check portion of a now thankfully obsolete version of the Microsoft Word program used to suggest to my colleagues on the staff of the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, viz. that, wherever it appeared, my full name should be altered to “Anus Tremble.”’ Let us assume that my tactfully worded letter of protest to Mr. Bill Gates went astray, or was more probably forwarded to their attorneys for filing and/or future reference.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Assisted by the vastly learned Richard Warren, I have been systematically working through the extraordinarily rich collection of rare early sound recordings in the collection of the Sterling Memorial Library here at Yale, gradually assembling a representative program to offer through headphones to visitors to our forthcoming Edwardian Opulence exhibition. I wish the relevant laws of copyright would allow us to make this program more widely accessible on CD, possibly even include it in the catalogue, but outside the university I am afraid this will be prohibitively expensive, and administratively unachievable thanks to the relevant provisions of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act 1998 (U.S. Public Law 105–298). Nevertheless, it has been a fascinating task, not least because of those moments of genuine surprise when an occasional tic or habit of British speech or pronunciation stands out as completely different not merely from “received pronunciation,” as it is now known, but from any other even vaguely recognizable variant. I do not speak of those relatively familiar locutions that were discernable at least until fairly recently in the voice of H.M. The Queen, e.g. gawn awf for “gone off,” crawss for “cross,” lawst for “lost,” Awstralia for “Australia,” or sawft for “soft,” though these are plentiful and charming. When Somerset Maugham said petrol he laid exactly equal, seesaw emphasis on both syllables, of which the second was pronounced exactly like “doll”—with an especially short, clipped “o.” E. M. Forster, meanwhile, said articulayte for “articulate” (the adjective); motionliss, useliss, chickin, and Athins (Greece), for “motionless, useless, chicken, and Athens,” as well as sincewity, weeweeniss, mystewiousniss, and murmewing—though naturally these were caused by a slight speech impediment. He also enunciated very carefully the “p” at the beginning of “psychology.” Describing an Ethiopian dignitary at the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary in Westminster Abbey in 1911, Vita Sackville-West later recalled watching this person with “rurl fescinairtion,” more particularly his “high yepple green hyet” with a “lahrn’s mane wined a-rind it” because, she said, every time he turned his head, the lion’s mane tickled “the neauze of his next-daw nebba.” And in a broadcast recorded in 1935, Max Beerbohm makes the perplexing aside: “Mayfair and Westminster and St. James’s were grand, of course, very urban, in a proudly unostentatious way...They were places of leisure—of leesure, one might almost have said, in the old-fashioned way.” Old-fashioned? Presumably he meant late Victorian, or even earlier. And in the scratchy old phonograph recordings Nellie Melba made for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in the comfort of her drawing-room in Cumberland Terrace (ca. 1904), you can clearly hear the voice of the sound engineer from behind a screen give the diva her cue by shouting “Go!” when the clunky recording apparatus was successfully set in slightly arduous motion. Incidentally, the purpose of the screen was to enclose the equipment, and keep the wax of the cylinder well heated and comparatively soft, to avoid creating a harsh whistle in the track. Some engineers were evidently better at doing this than others. At any rate, the knack here is to demonstrate what, if any difference the extraordinary proliferation of sound recording (and motion pictures, for that matter) made to the visual culture of Edwardian Britain, and why we should care. However, I am working on it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Mural II

News of the demise earlier today of Kim Dae-jung, sometime President of South Korea—from what is described in Seoul as “multiple organ dysfunction syndrome,” in other words death—has once more focused attention on the anonymous artist responsible for those murals north of the border. Let us call him the Master of Pyongyang. This painter has evidently been active since at least before 2000, when, pursuing the so-called “sunshine policy” of engagement (햇볕 정책, Haetpyŏt chŏngch’aek), Kim decided to meet Kim, and was duly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. At length the other Kim reneged on his promise to pay a return visit to Seoul, a quid pro quo for which Kim is rumored to have paid Kim sums amounting to $500 million (about 750 times more than the 4 million Swedish kronor forked out by the Nobel committee), so the rapprochement fell rather flat. The crashing breaker mural we saw earlier is generally used for formal portrait photograph opportunities, Kim with Kim, Kim with President Vladimir Putin, Kim with President Bill Clinton, and Kim with whomsoever Kim can persuade to pay an occasional visit. The lunch mural, for want of a better title, strikes an altogether different chord—that of an evacuated spring-blossomy babbling-brook alpine hinterland glorious people-scape, in which the principal technical challenge for the artist was to crank up the volume of the foliage and the foreground blossoms, whilst reining in the waters, because for obvious reasons the plash and gurgle of cataracts can be counterproductive at lunchtime. However, in striving to achieve an appropriately soothing effect by suffusing the waters with a sort of pale milky blush of eau de nil, the better to slow them down, even warm them up a bit, most unfortunately the Master of Pyongyang creates the impression here not of a glacial burn or torrent fed by thawing snow, but rather the cloudy, acrid run-off from some unseen nuclear research facility a little way upstream. I gather this is what Kim, the Kims, and the South Korean delegation were laughing about so heartily in this charming informal group photograph.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Evening at Maxine's

Among my most treasured possessions is a set of classic recordings, each and every one of which was lovingly compiled for me years ago on cassettes from the original gramophone records in the collection of my elder brother Hamish. Lately I had them transferred to CD, so now I can savor them afresh. There is a hint of the remedial instinct at work here, and a gentle nudge from Big Brother towards the specialist taste of the café concert transplanted to Nashville, Tenn., South Gippsland, and Brunswick Street, Fitzroy—also, come to think of it, New Orleans, La., Broadway, Hollywood and San Francisco, Calif., Pinewood Studios and Broadcasting House in London, and Paris, France.

Here, for example, is the playlist for An Evening at Maxine’s, Vol. 1: (1) Charles Aznavour, “The Old-Fashioned Way” (Aznavour/ Garvarentz/ Hirschhorn/ Kasha); (2) Telly Savalas, “Who Loves Ya, Baby?” (Cacavas); (3) Sophie Tucker, “Stay At Home, Papa” (Tucker); (4) Chad Morgan, “The Fatal Wedding” (Morgan); (5) Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Theme music for Doctor Who (fragment) (Grainer); (6) Julio Iglesias, “Pensami” (Grever/ Belfiore); (7) Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner, “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” (Parton); (8) Percy Faith (above) and his orchestra, Theme music for A Summer Place (Steiner); (9) Hank Williams, Jr., “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (Williams); (10) Sons of the Pioneers, Chant of the Wanderer” (1941); (11) The Swingle Singers, Jazz Voice Transcription of the Fugue in D Minor (Bach, from The Well-Tempered Clavier); (12) Lyle Lovett “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” (Lovett); (13) Jerry Lee Lewis, “Cold, Cold Heart” (Williams); (14) Unattributed arrangement of the theme music for The Third Man (Karas); Unidentifiable cover of “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)” (Dorsey); (15) Dolly Parton, “Wings of a Dove” (Parton); (16) Henry Mancini and his orchestra, “The Pink Panther Theme” (Mancini); (17) Mitzi Gaynor, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (original cast recording) (Rodgers and Hammerstein); (18) Glen Campbell, “Honey Come Back To Me” (Webb); (19) Kingston Trio, “Them Sand Pickers” (Mason Williams); (20) Cab Calloway and his orchestra, “Minnie the Moocher” (Calloway/ Mills); (21) Petula Clark, “Il faut revenir” (1966); (22) Unattributed poolside music (“I love the sweet Maori girl”); (23) Commander Cody, “Truck Drivin’ Man” (Fell); (24) Freddie Fender, “The Wild Side of Life” (Carter/ Warren); (25) Tanya Tucker, “Pride of Franklin County” (Tibbles/ Keith); (26) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, “The Lonely Bull (El solo toro)” (Lake); (27) Linda Ronstadt, “The Tattler” (Cooder/ Titelman); (28) Status Quo, “Wild Side of Life” (Warren/ Carter); (29) Dwight Yoakam, “Smoke Along the Track” (Rose/ Helms); (30) Patsy Cline, “Crazy” (Cline/ Nelson), and (31) Fragment of an unattributed cover of “Aloha ’Oe” by Lydia Lili‘u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka‘eha, better known as Queen Lili‘uokalani of the Hawaiian Islands.

Is there, I wonder, a common thread that wends its way through this programme of hits? What lessons has my brother set before me with such thoughtfulness and unabashed eclecticism? The country and western and occasional gospel elements are unavoidable, as is the recurring focus on the clash between, on the one hand, machismo and, on the other, redoubtably independent-minded women, above all the astonishing Sophie Tucker. This makes for considerable Sturm und Drang. Yet consider also the tenderness, the subtlety, the lightness of touch exhibited by Charles, Julio, Glen, Telly Savalas (especially), not to mention The Sons of the Pioneers, and Her late Majesty Queen Lili‘uokalani. An unusual combination, perhaps, but one would expect nothing less from Hamish the Magnificent.

The Frog

This morning I came across one of my old Latin exercises from years ago. In it, Reginaldus asks “what does the following sentence have to mean: ‘AEQVAS RARA INTER COAXAT RANA AQVAS’?” The answer: The rare frog croaks among level waters. These days I’d probably make an adjustment in the interests of English prose style and, notwithstanding the unequivocal meaning of aequas aquas, and Reginaldus’s larger point, which is that there can only be one meaning in this case—level waters, plural—opt instead for The rare frog croaks amid still water. The beauty of this simple Latin sentence is that the (to us) out-of-sequence word order actually reinforces its poetic meaning by beginning with a sort of floating adjective, level, that must wait until the very end before it joins up with its noun, in this case waters. Thus level... waters enclose the verb and its subject, the two parts of which, rara... rana, in turn orbit coaxat like planets around the sun. It is as if the arrangement of the words themselves reflect that lonely frog’s croak radiating over a calm pond. Just brilliant.

In English we are stuck with the relatively primitive, overriding stricture of word order, left to right. Everything is more or less governed by that. The dog bites the cat means one thing, and The cat bites the dog means the opposite. German is not so constrained. Der Hund beißt die Katze and Die Katze beißt der hund both mean the same thing: The dog bites the cat. Unlike Latin, the nominative and genitive cases are indicated in German by the form of the article. That’s why Die Katze beißt der hund can only mean The dog bites the cat, and not the other way around—in which case it would have to be Die Katze (subject) beißt den hund (object) if the cat were doing the biting. However, with Die Katze beißt der hund the word order implies a strong shift in emphasis, as if to imply with a degree of Teutonic impatience: Nein, Dummkopf: it’s the cat that the dog is biting, and not the parakeet. Somewhere along the line the English abandoned that kind of flexibility, and the rest of us are now living with the consequences. As a kind of word-order equivalent of Die Katze beißt der hund, we are obliged to take up those dreadfully blunt weapons of the passive voice and the gerund, and bludgeon our way towards something as hideous as The cat is being bitten by the dog, which, in any case, does not mean quite the same thing.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Market

A stray recollection about Melbourne this morning has brought into vivid focus for me a curious aspect of daily life in the United States of America. Here, people distinguish between “markets”—meaning those virtual rock pools left behind by the vast ebb and flow of capital; the surging tides of the national, indeed the global economy, and the mighty forces of demand and supply, as in “the stock market” or “the commodities market,” for example—and “farmer’s markets,” where mainly in the big cities some people buy their fruit and vegetables, without necessarily ever having seen a real farmer. At home, “the market” means both, on the very reasonable principle, I suppose, that the same gigantic forces that are discernible in one are essentially an amplification of what happens where you buy your carrots. In other words, the American idea of “the farmer’s market” strikes we Australians as distinctly precious, especially at first. Years ago, just after I arrived in New York City, someone commended to me with breathless enthusiasm the farmer’s market in Union Square, for which I duly searched and searched before realizing at length that that was all there was—a sort of wilting, rather small gypsy encampment. In our part of Melbourne “the market” meant the Prahran Market, which, compared with Union Square’s, is simply enormous—a lofty hangar built of cast- and corrugated-iron, attached down one side to a fussy Victorian brick-and-stucco façade on Commercial Road with clock-tower and turrets. When I knew it, the paved interior was divided into aisle upon seemingly endless aisle of boxy stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables; densely crowded with Chinese market gardeners, Greek and Italian greengrocers, tattooed egg-sellers, and hefty fruiterers clattering barrows laden with melons, pineapples, cases of Riverina oranges, etc., all crying specials at the top of their lungs, and, incidentally, using only rudimentary mechanical hanging scales, razor-sharp mental arithmetic, and no cash registers at all. On market days they juggled thousands and thousands of shoppers in a single morning, and did so with amazing efficiency—before repairing to the local pubs in the early afternoon. As a very little boy, I used to go with Mum to the market, riding inside her shapely upright wicker basket on wheels—only vacating it most reluctantly when the iceberg lettuces, red onions, string beans, cabbage, granny smiths, and hands of bananas piled up over my knees. I’m pretty sure that Hamish did exactly the same thing before me, and from him therefore I inherited a special privilege accorded only to a very few of Mr. Mathewson’s best customers. Mr. Mathewson was our butcher. For years and years, Mum’s loyalty to Mr. Mathewson was rock-solid. The butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers occupied a more satisfactorily enclosed avenue of shops adjacent to the market proper, extending at right angles to Commercial Road. Each shop had a cool room behind, a huge timber chopping block on which apron-wearing apprentices noisily demolished whole carcasses before your very eyes, and a shallow, refrigerated stand or icebox at the front brimming with sausages, livers, kidneys, hearts, ox tongues, hams, legs and shoulders of lamb, forequarter slabs of beef, and trays piled high with stewing steak. Entering from the Commercial Road end, Mr. Mathewson’s shop was the second on the left. Along with the vast quantity of meat with which he kept us supplied every week for several decades, sometimes several times a week, Mr. Mathewson took the trouble—first for Hamish, then for me personally—to assemble a sort of amuse bouche consisting of one or two little pork sausages, a miniature piece of steak, maybe a kidney, or a lamb chop (those meltingly little ones), and roll them into my very own brown-paper packet tied with string. He wrote my name on it with a thick wax-pencil—ANGUS—and added the flourish of a lightning-quick sketch of a big black rat with a long tail, and huge whiskers. I’m not sure Mum approved of the rat, but the gesture was one of characteristic kindness and good cheer. Today he’d probably be arrested. Anyhow, he gave it to me, me, and I had at least some of the contents for my dinner, with peas and buttery mashed potato. Now I seem to recall that somewhere along the line one of Mr. Mathewson’s apprentices, or maybe even one of his sons (possibly both), became a celebrated star of the Victorian Football League, the forerunner, of course, of what eventually turned into the A.F.L. I must ask Simon, because he will know. Of course, these days children in big American cities are far more likely to collide with what they laughingly call a “market analyst” or a telemarketer than a proper butcher, or a genuine farmer.


Here are fifty things I remembered about Melbourne with much fondness upon waking up this morning. They are not necessarily listed in any order, and a fair number of the people and places have now either vanished into thin air, or are threatened:

(1) Exploring the Royal Botanic Gardens, especially sitting under the Norfolk pine on the Hopetoun lawn, and having a picnic by the Nymphaea lilies; watching the lazy eels shuttling under the bridge across the shallow channel that joins the ornamental and central lakes, and dodging raucous colonies of bats hard by the Rose pavilion. (2) Eating Peking Duck at The Flower Drum in Market Lane, a special treat. (3) Browsing in the Arts Bookshop in High Street, Armadale—Elly and Gila, where, I wonder, have you gone, and how do I manage without you?! (4) Strolling with Nick on the St. Kilda pier. (5) Inspecting the Jewish cake shops in Acland Street—and afterwards eating more sensibly at Scheherezade, a few doors down: especially their matzoh ball soup and wiener schnitzel; obeying also the peremptory orders issued to customers by that Polish dominatrix in the remarkable boots. (6) Going with Fiona and Mark to the annual Cup Week cocktail party in the garden of the Melbourne Club, a party unlike any other—another special treat. (7) Seeing double features with Sally at the Astor Theatre at 1, Chapel Street, St Kilda. (8) Sitting and reading the leather-bound copies of old newspapers in the otherwise deserted parliamentary library behind the Queen’s Hall. (9) Gazing out at the lights of the city from my bedroom window at Government House. (10) Doing The Times crossword puzzle at the kitchen table with Mum (and achieving only mixed results). (11) Visiting the English pictures at the National Gallery of Victoria. (12) Frolicking with Lucy in Albert Park, and discussing tensile structures and archi matters generally. (13) Having a hot bath, etc., in Porter Street. (14) Shopping at Georges, then going with Helen to the old Regency Room for tea and chicken sandwiches. (15) Having a quiet beer with Michael at the Prince of Wales in Fitzroy Street—yes, quiet. Imagine that! (16) Doing sixty laps of the Beaurepaire pool on a hot morning, true. (17) Running twice around the tan, also true. (18) Meeting Cynthia for coffee at Brunetti’s in Faraday Street, before it went global. (19) Meeting Adam for coffee at Pellegrini’s in Bourke Street. (20) Devouring at Christmas-time my fair share of Uncle Alec’s incomparable mince pies from Paterson’s Cakes in Chapel Street, Prahran. (21) Noticing the neon sign for Skipping Girl Vinegar in Victoria Street, Richmond. (22) Driving all the way along Alexandra Avenue, both directions. (23) Basking sniffily in feelings of effortless superiority whilst tottering past the McMansions in Grange, Albany, and Yar Orrong Roads, also Whernside Avenue. (24) Browsing in the geological survey map shop on the north side of Little Bourke Street between Queen and Elizabeth Streets. (25) Wandering through the delicatessen shed at the Queen Victoria Market, savoring the cheesy pickly savoury sausagey smells. (26) Being measured for a new suit by the distinguished Mr. Fred Earle (by appointment to Lord Casey, Sir Rohan Delacombe, etc., etc.) in his discreet rooms behind frosted glass in an upper floor of the run-down building on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, and then going with him to choose the cloth in an upstairs warehouse somewhere just around the corner in Flinders Lane. I still have it. (27) Watching old Sir Henry Bolte eating his lunch all by himself in the committee room of the Victoria Racing Club at Flemington on Cup Day, three years running. (28) Visiting the platypuses in their enclosure at the Royal Melbourne Zoological Garden in Parkville. (29) Witnessing Mum obey the man who used to perch with binoculars at the top of the covered observation tower behind the Prahran Market, directing motorists to parking spots through a megaphone, like so: “The little lady in the orange mini: third aisle over, five spots down.” (30) Poking around the hat shop underneath the Flinders Street Station. (31) Having a drink with Greg in the lounge bar at the old Southern Cross Hotel on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition Streets. (32) Being given a “spider” at Buckley’s after shopping there for a new school uniform, or else after an appointment with the dentist, Dr. Anthony Woodhouse, in the T. & G. Building. (33) Occupying the wooden seat right next to the forward door on the old green number 69 tram, and riding home from school in it along Balaclava, Kooyong, Dandenong, and Glenferrie Roads. (34) Getting my eyes checked by Dr. David Gale in Alcaston House at 2, Collins Street, on the west corner of Spring Street, overlooking the sexy bronze statue of General Gordon by Hamo Thornycroft. (35) Being taken by Aunt Anne to hear Dame Joan Sutherland in the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at the old Palais in St. Kilda. (36) Raiding the stationery room at Mallesons in the St. James Building at 121 William Street, while Dad dictated correspondence in his office on a quiet Sunday afternoon. (37) Observing Ben have a meltdown (caused by me) at the wheel of his little red MG somewhere in Lygon Street, near Argyle Place, with Sam in the back. (38) Being driven home by Debbie after Laurie Gardiner’s superb evening lectures in the winter of 1982. (39) Watching Pauline prune Granny’s roses in the front garden at 5 Myamyn Street. (40) Getting a small thrill from watching and listening when Mum challenged Mr. Mathewson the butcher over some point of quality, just the right balance of firmness and respect—traveling in both directions. (41) Laughing immoderately in South Yarra at Barbara’s story about what, at least for a while, she and Kevin thought they were going to have to do to obtain a Canadian visa. (42) Working for Hamish on the Maxine’s team in Fitzroy and Collingwood. (43) Writing dust-jacket blurbs for John Iremonger, John Currey, Alex Bertram, and Diana O’Neil at Melbourne University Press, as it was then known, and, with Wendy Sutherland at the Christmas party, getting to grips with the semi-colon—she is the best copy editor I ever had. (44) Sharing with Deborah the upstairs flat in Drummond Street. (45) Attending choral evensong in the chapel of Trinity College, Parkville. (46) Creating with Tim in 1985 the legend of Pat. (47) Learning with Mary from Mirjana at Ormond College the correct pronunciation of Zdravo. (48) Meeting King Maleatoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa, and discovering His Majesty’s ingenious solution to the problem of being frightened of ghosts in the dead of night. (49) Seeing with pride Barrie’s astounding production of The Dybbuk in an old warehouse in Carlisle Street, Balaclava, a few doors up from the corner of St. Kilda Road. (50) Being daily irritated by The Age newspaper.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Seekers

I wonder how many other expatriate Australians from time to time fossick in their reticules, scan their shelves or, these days, rummage about on the internet and take a moment to listen to The Seekers’ cover of the old Peter, Paul and Mary number “Five Hundred Miles” by Hedy West? I find their recording infinitely preferable, supplanting as it does the durge-like mournfulness of Mary Travers with the much higher register, bell-like purity and warmth of the young Judith Durham. Whether for British or even domestic consumption, The Seekers also made some intelligent adjustments to the lyrics, which I transcribe here exactly as they sang them on their 1964 breakthrough record The Seekers, of which we certainly had a copy at number 18, and for as long as I can remember. That’s the one with this slightly clunky photograph on the sleeve. It was taken on Westminster Bridge, bless them, with the side of the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster barely visible through thick 1960s smog in the background, to the right of Athol Guy’s spectacles. I remember as a small child being wholly fixated by Judith Durham’s snappy little shoes.

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone; / You will hear the whistle blow a hundred miles, / A hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles, / You will hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.

Lord I’m one, lord I’m two, lord I’m three, lord I’m four, / Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home. / Away from home, away from home, away from home, away from home, / Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home.

Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name; / Lord I can’t go back home this a-way / This a-away, this a-way, this a-way, this a-way, / Lord I can’t go back home this a-way.

Lord I’m one, lord I’m two, lord I’m three, lord I’m four, etc.

Note the especially charming soft Australian pronunciation of the words “blow,” “four” and “can’t.” This is one of those cases of a spiritual-leaning folksong that has dated, certainly, but in all the right ways. Trains with whistles? Pennies? Incidentally, I still have one, with its splendidly modeled bas relief kangaroo leaping on the verso—and a tiny seven-pointed star of Federation, low on the notional horizon, just above the paw. You didn’t notice that, did you? In America they still call the one-cent piece a penny, but we haven’t had them since decimal currency was introduced on February 14, 1966, and of course Australian one- and two-cent pieces bit the dust in 1990.

Anyhow, for those of us who occasionally wake up early in the morning positively startled by the fact that we are no fewer than 10,372 long, long miles away from home, “Five Hundred Miles” and The Seekers tug powerfully at the heart-strings.