Monday, April 25, 2011

Gunpowder Awakening

There comes a time in every child's life when you realise your parents are not always right about how the world works. This marks the first step you take toward adulthood. My father was the smartest man I knew, and he's still sharp. But in the year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I learned that Dad was fallible.
I once found a live rifle cartridge. I often found empty cartridges on the beach, fired from the yacht club rifle to start the races. But this was the first time I’d found a cartridge that hadn’t been used. Someone had dropped the little red plastic capsule with its golden tip for me to find. I took the cartridge home and showed it to Dad, who admired it.
'Let me show you something scientific,' he said.
Dad left the cartridge out in the sun, so that the gunpowder it contained would dry. Gunpowder, Dad explained, was a mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre or potassium nitrate. (I've always remembered that recipe.) Dad was good with science. He said that with science problems there were only ever two answers - the right one or the wrong one. Dad cut open the red cartridge and showed me the black gunpowder packed inside. It was now dry. We laid out some tarpaper on the veranda and emptied the gunpowder onto it, so that it formed a very thin line just under a metre long. Then Dad took out a box of matches.
‘Dad, are you sure you should do that?’ I asked.
‘Yes, if you’re interested in science.'
'I am. I'm just worried that the gunpowder might explode and blow us up.'
'That won't happen,' Dad said. 'That's the scientific thing. When gunpowder burns, it creates a gas. What makes the explosion is the gas blowing apart whatever is containing it. Like with a hand-grenade. But lit gunpowder alone won't explode. When the Chinese invented it, they didn't even know it could be used as a weapon.’
(I'm not sure if he said that last bit. It was a long time ago.)
'So it definitely won't explode?' I said.
'It will burn like a fuse. That's all.'
Dad set light to the gunpowder and it immediately exploded. I thought I’d been blinded. But as the smoke cleared I found I could see okay. There was the acrid smell of burned human hair. Dad looked different without eyebrows or his grey fringe. His face was bright red. No doubt mine was too.
‘Bloody hell!’ Dad said.
‘It exploded!’ I said.
‘Yes, it did.’
‘That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?’
'No, it wasn't.'
'How did it happen?'
'It was probably faulty gunpowder.'
When we realised we hadn't been injured we laughed ourselves silly. My eyebrows never really grew. They remain two narrow lines of pale hair. I'm not sure if that was the fault of the explosion. Dad's eyebrows, on the other hand, went berserk. They grew big and bushy. To this day, one of them points up and the other down. He refuses to trim them, and we are glad of the fact.

That's how I took my first step toward adulthood. The trouble is, I don't think I've taken many of the others yet.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Secular Good Friday

In 2009, I went to Deakin University to give a talk about my book Tumble Turn, which is on the syllabus there. I didn’t charge. Frankly, I would do anything for Deakin University, since they are the probably the reason that Tumble Turn remains in print. I would paint Deakin University. Really, I would.
Penguin gave me two Cabcharges to get to Burwood and back. As you know, I live in St Kilda and it's a fair hike out east. There's a perfectly adequate tram service. I should have used that. This is what happened in the cab on the way home. The driver asked why a grown man like me would be carrying a novel that looked as though it was aimed at readers younger than myself. And why was there a pig on the cover? He seemed especially upset about that. I explained a little about the book, that it was about a boy who’s going through a tough time, and he is helped through it by an uncle who happens to be Buddhist, among other things.

The cab driver asked if I was a Buddhist, and I said no. Then he asked me a question that cab drivers rarely ask me. 'Who made the universe?' This is a difficult question to answer, especially on the corner of Burke Road and The Burwood Highway. I admitted I didn’t know. But apparently the cab driver did. And he told me, at some length.

Now I can tell you who made The Milky Way. That’s much smaller than the universe, so it’s easy. The goddess Ops, who was the wife of Saturn, got annoyed when her husband started swallowing the children. He did this so he could remain boss of the Pantheon and be unchallenged by his offspring if they ever reached adulthood. Ops would come home from doing the shopping, her bags full of Ambrosia, and notice that there were fewer children than when she left.
'You haven't been eating the children again?' she would admonish her errant husband, Saturn.
'No,' Saturn would say, because lying comes fairly easily to a child-eater.
'But I'm sure there's another one missing,' Ops would say.
'It's probably fallen down the back of the settee.'
But Ops wasn't fooled for a second. Despite Saturn being lousy at rearing children, Ops had another baby to him and called him Jupiter. She loved him like crazy and she certainly didn't want Saturn eating him, so she hid him. But when Saturn demanded to see his new son Jupiter, Ops was worried that her husband might be feeling peckish. Rather than show Jupiter to Saturn, Ops played a trick. She dressed up a rock in a blanket so that it might be mistaken for a baby, and she cradled it in her arms.
'That doesn't look like a baby,' said Saturn. Being a god he was not so easily hoodwinked.
Had I been Ops I think I would have biffed Saturn with the rock, then gone off to find someone with better parenting skills. But Ops was determined for her trick to work. To make the illusion look more convincing, she tried to breast-feed the rock. This, as you can imagine, didn’t work awfully well. Ops' milk spurted out everywhere and became The Milky Way.

That's how The Milky Way was made. That's the truth. Or it would be if you were an early Roman. If you didn’t believe it, you’d be likely to end up in the Coliseum, having your head chewed off by a lion.
Saturn guaranteeing he'll get no presents on Father's Day.

I didn’t tell the cab driver about The Milky Way. He did most of the talking and wouldn't have listened anyway. Now, there is a very parsimonious side to my character, which may have something to do with Scottish ancestry. I hate to spend money unless I really, really need to. I had only one Cabcharge left. If I told the driver to stop the cab and let me out, I’d have to pay for a second cab ride with my own money. Sure, I’d retain my honour, but I’d lose some cash. Was it worth it? After the cab driver mentioned his bloody deity one more time, I decided it was. At the next set of lights I stepped out of the taxi, handed the driver the Cabcharge, then told him to go forth and multiply, but not in those words. (Thanks, Woody Allen.)

Postscript 2011: I will miss my trips to Deakin. Now that Tumble Turn is out of print, it is no longer being studied. This, of course, does not mean you shouldn't read it. Yes, it's another plug for the free e-book on my site. Go forth and read.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hooray for Inglewood

(In the summer of 2004, I accompanied a film crew to Inglewood, a small country town not far from Bendigo, where we shot the first Jetstar ad featuring Magda Szubanski as Julie the marching girl. I had written the jingle, and the advertising agency thought I should be there. I don't know why. Maybe Magda had requested it? Anyway, I wrote an article about the weekend but Qantas didn't like it so it was never published. I figure, seven years later, it's probably okay to publish the story.)

At eleven o’clock the first marching girl begins to feel faint. This prompts an immediate response from two guys who are probably around fifty, but they’re in advertising so it’s hard to tell. Ted (the bearded one) ushers the girl into the shade, fans her with a newspaper and offers her water. Chris (the long-haired one) calls a stop to the filming and we all get out of the sun. It shines blindingly off the silver foil that drapes the daggiest looking parade-float you ever saw. There is a huge orange star at the back of the float. It’s covered in bits of crepe paper and looks cheap. It probably isn’t. The client is Qantas.

The Inglewood locals tell us that weather-wise it is a fairly typical weekend. The farmers say it’s good fencing weather. The wire is easier to manage when the temperature reaches the mid-forties. But us city-slickers are staggering around with soggy Chux superwipes tied around our necks, drinking the recommended half a litre of water per hour so as to avoid the marching girl’s fate. We are told it is a danger sign if our wee goes dark. None of us has weed yet.

Magda Szubanski appears in costume as Julie the marching girl. In her orange marching skirt, long brown wig and tight white boots she looks – well, gorgeous. She chats with the other marching girls – the real marching girls - who range in age from fifteen to fifty. Do they normally march in this heat? They say there are hotter places, though we can’t imagine where. Venus, maybe.

Magda’s job in this first scene is to look excited, then downcast, then alarmed, then confused. She does all four with aplomb. Unfortunately, one of the real marching girls starts giggling at Magda and we have to shoot the scene a few times. Ben the director is handsome, which never happens in television. Most TV directors are as plain as Pyrex. You obviously get a more attractive crew when you’re working with film.

The scene is done, the client is happy and another marching girl feels woozy. This afternoon Magda will be on top of the float, riding through the main street of Inglewood. There will be three hundred extras, marching girls, a brass band, tappers and six dancers choreographed by Tony Bartuccio. And it will be 45 degrees, or so the locals say. But sometimes they tell porkies. They would never be able to work in advertising.

Mandy wanders up to see what is going on. Everyone in Inglewood knows Mandy. (In Inglewood everyone knows everyone.) She is a likeable soul who smiles and talks a lot, though I can’t make sense of what she says. Clearly one of us has sunstroke. Mandy will continue to observe us, smilingly, throughout the whole shoot. She keeps chatting but I still can’t understand what she says. I talk with a lot of the locals and they all make perfect sense, so I guess Mandy is in her own little world. She seems happy there.

Magda is driven to the next location by Stef, the CEO of the ad agency. She is young, pretty and smart, which seems grossly unfair. Stef admits that she recently did something she is not proud of. She ate a raw bull’s willy in a bun on TV. It was for Fear Factor, one of the current jewels in TV’s crown. Some of the crewmembers saw it and are giving Stef a hard time. Then Stef reveals that she won ten thousand bucks for doing it. I think about how much it would take to persuade me to eat a bull’s willy in a bun. Probably less than ten thousand bucks.

Stef hands a big fluffy Babe pig to Magda to sign. It’s for a local police officer’s kid. Magda autographs the pig in texta and draws some big kisses on its bum.

The Calder Highway is blocked off, three hundred extras assemble in the Inglewood Town Hall, massive trucks line the streets. Hollywood comes to Inglewood. Across from the Town Hall is a mansion that is crumbling from neglect. A member of the historical society (and extra) explains that it was built by a man who made a fortune during the gold rush, invested in the stock market then drowned himself in his own dam during the crash of 1890. He left behind a wife and fourteen kids, which is a bit crook. He also managed to drown himself in around ten inches of water, which is just showing off.

The locals say the decaying mansion is inhabited by a little old lady with wild grey hair. She regularly runs across to the public toilet block with a bucket because her water supply was turned off long ago. I think this might be a local myth, like the one about houses that disappear into the earth because the entire town was undermined during the gold rush. But the old lady does appear, albeit without a bucket.

A few doors up is the place where Reginald Ansett was born. He used to run a bike shop in Inglewood before he branched out into aeronautical forms of transport, and indeed once gave our client a run for their money.

The float is set up, the brass band and marching girls are ready. Magda steps up on to the float and it is dragged through the street. She lip-syncs a song she recorded two nights ago and the locals look on. They have been preparing for the moment. Phillip is a temporary Inglewood resident who has agreed to be in the ad. He bought a second-hand Janome sewing machine for twenty bucks and ran up some Hawaiian shirts. All townsfolk have been instructed not to wear white (it flares) or stripes (they strobe) or black (it’s too hot). They already knew about the last one.

We have been duped by the locals. It can’t be 45 degrees in the main street. It has to be at least 80. Grips and gaffers set up cranes and tracks that stick to the bitumen, which has turned into toffee. Chris and Ted hand out drinks and Heaven ice-creams. There’s been a bit of a run on Heavens at the milk bar and we may have to fall back on Paddle-pops. I can’t believe that the guys who are running around handing out ice-creams are the bosses of the whole operation. They have no right to be so nice. They’re in advertising. Together, they claim varying degrees of responsibility for a famous ad involving a Scotsman and a Goggomobile, and for helping get John Howard elected. Ted empties his water bottle over my head. It is a kind gesture. Because I’m the idiot who decided to wear a black teeshirt. Anna from wardrobe finds me an orange shirt to wear. The only problem is, I now look official and extras keep asking me if they are wearing the right clothes. A little old lady asks nervously if her gingham will strobe.

Magda throws her all into playing Julie the marching girl and is therefore stuffed by the end of the scene. The real problem is the wig. Heather from make-up does her best to loosen it but Magda says it feels like a ten-tonne bathing cap. This gives Stef an idea. During the lunch break, Stef goes to the local baths and sits fully dressed in the pool for half an hour.

Six dancers with top hats, tails and umbrellas are in front of the pub, rehearsing their dance routine with Tony Bartuccio. The umbrellas are swung around in Gene Kelly fashion, but keep falling to bits. The art department people have plenty of spare umbrellas. They have spare everything. But Tony modifies the dance moves to prevent umbrella breakage. This will be a huge crowd scene. An umbrella in the eye could bring the party down.

They manage to shoot the insanely enormous scene where hundreds of extras wave their arms, glitter cannons go off and balloons are released into the air. Everyone applauds and Mandy does a sort of victory dance. Tomorrow will be even more spectacular. Magda will stage-dive into the audience.

We are told by The Weather Bureau that Sunday will be cooler.

It is a lie. The weather is far too hot for stage-diving. But apparently it’s okay for Magda to crowd-surf. Magda climbs onto a small platform on top of a hydraulic jack. She is lifted two metres in the air, then spun around by those extras that have managed to last the weekend.

I finally manage to do something useful. Magda is getting ready for a close-up and notices something green stuck between her teeth. (The caterers have very sensibly served us all vast quantities of salad.) Magda asks for dental floss and I realise I have some in the car. I cry out that I can help. We are losing the light, everyone is ready, time is running out. Like Mel Gibson in Gallipoli though slightly less handsome I make the five-hundred-metre dash to my car and return with dental floss. I now feel like a genuine team player. I am also delirious. Mandy starts making sense.

I’m not sure why they wanted me to go on the shoot. All I did was write the words to a jingle, the song that has been driving us mad for the past two days and that will shortly be inflicted upon Australia. But it was an educational time. And in case the client is concerned about my junket, my Saturday evening meal was a huge deluxe pizza that we got for five bucks because the woman who ran the shop was having an argument with her husband and she wanted to piss him off by undercharging. At first she charged only two bucks but we haggled her up.

As for the meal on the Sunday night, I was supposed to follow Chris’s car into Bendigo where we would try to find the one restaurant that had any food left after the Valentine’s Day rush the night before. A nervous driver, I thought I lost Chris once or twice. But I kept following him through the back streets of Bendigo, then up a romantic lane that turned out to be someone’s driveway. The man I had been following was clearly not Chris and somewhat freaked out that I had been tailing him for so long. I explained that I had been working on a TV ad all weekend and was lost. He nodded understandingly then told me to go away.

I stopped at a milk bar, bought a bag of hazelnuts, ate them in the car and drove home. I have the receipt for the hazelnuts but will probably not seek reimbursement.

The Sirens of Titan

A friend read my post about cult comedy books, and took me to task over listing Douglas Adams' books, which he maintains are overrated. (I personally think that good comedy can never be overrated.) But I decided to read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan again. I hadn't read it for thirty years, and had forgotten that the book is not only ingenious and funny, it is also very moving. One of the many concepts that the novel riffs on is a universal religion for earth, known as The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. This religion puts an end to war, but a great sacrifice is made in order for it to established. (I can't tell you what the sacrifice is, but you might even cry.) The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent decrees that for people to be truly equal, it is necessary for them to limit the advantages with which they are born, since these are purely arbitrary. It is unfair that, through no fault of their own, a person is born ugly or uncoordinated. Therefore, out of consideration for the rest of humanity, beautiful people must hide their beauty and athletes must wear cumbersome weights that impede their movement, to bring themselves in line with the universal average.

Spacecraft are powered by a force known as The Universal Will to Become.  Earth has evolved in the bizarre way it has, solely to -

- I have to stop there. I really want to tell you why The Great Wall of China exists, but I can't. The book is full of moments that leave you gasping. It's perfect plotting, and it does rather put Douglas Adams in the shade. (Adams himself admitted what a huge influence Vonnegut was, and clearly much of his work has its roots in Vonnegut.) The difference with Adams is, of course, that he is funnier and more easily enjoyed, even if you don't like science fiction. For that reason, I nominated Adams' first two books as my 'cult books'. I didn't mean to do Vonnegut a disservice. The Sirens of Titan is a better work. The story it tells is remarkable, moving and also funny - just not riotously so. And the moments of sadness are so potent that I challenge you to read the book without getting the occasional lump in your throat. Vonnegut continued to write well for most of his life. He tailed off a little when he became embittered with the world, but Galapagos and Bluebeard, both published in the eighties, are definitely worth a read.

So is Cat's Cradle, one of the really early ones, and I mention it here because it is about yet another new world religion called Bokononism. This religion introduces new words into the vocabulary, to describe things that were unnamed before Bokononism. One of the many utterances of Bokononists is 'Busy busy busy ...' which is used whenever they witness the universal interconnectedness of things. This happens quite a lot. After all, we're all connected. I read the book on a flight to New York. On my first day in The Big Apple, I had a Bokononist experience. Because it was Christmas, the streets were teeming with people in a bad mood desperately trying to buy stuff for friends and relatives; things that would most likely never be used. (Did you ever visit your mum and discover in a cupboard all those unused Body Shop hampers you bought her, year after year?) Anyway, the first familiar face I saw was Kurt Vonnegut's. He wasn't anywhere special, just pacing the sidewalk and carrying bags, like everyone else. He too looked swept up in the Christmas commercial nightmare, so I refrained from interrupting him and gushing that he was one of my favourite authors. It probably would have annoyed him. I'm sure people were always stopping him and telling him that.

Still, I was happy to see him. As the Bokononists say, 'Busy, busy, busy ...'

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What are YOU doing here?

My novel, The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, has just been shortlisted by the CBCA in the Older Readers category. Yes, I didn't expect it either. It hasn't happened before. But thanks to the judges and those people who said nice things. Here's the Older Readers shortlist:

Cath Crowley: Graffiti Moon. Pan Macmillan
Sonya Hartnett: The Midnight Zoo. Viking Books, Penguin Group
Joanne Horniman: About a Girl. Allen and Unwin
Doug MacLeod: The Life of a Teenage Body- Snatcher. Penguin Books
Melina Marchetta: The Piper’s Son. Penguin Books
Fiona Wood: Six Impossible Things. Pan Macmillan

To the Penguin People - especially Dmetri - my deepest gratitude. I apologise for sending you pictures of violent penguins over the past year. I thought they were funny. But they were in very bad taste and I promise not to do it again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The idiot on route 96

I can't tell you about The Curmudgeons' Club. In fact I might even be breaking house rules by telling you that I'm a member and I've been to all but one of the meetings since the Club began. What I can tell you is that the meetings happen at lunchtime and that alcohol is sometimes consumed. After the last meeting, I took the 96 tram home. (I'm giving you far too many clues. You now know that the location of the Club is somewhere close to the 96 line. I may be punished for my transgressions.) Resentfully I approached the ticket dispensing machine and prepared to insert three dollars and eighty cents, a ridiculously high price to pay for a ride from South Melbourne to St Kilda. (Okay, so now you know the club is in South Melbourne. I'm done for.) But just before I inserted my gold coins, an inspector tapped me on the shoulder. I didn't have to pay, he told me, because the machine wasn't working. And sure enough, the machine's little window that normally tells me the ludicrous amount I have to pay to ride seven or eight stops, flashed those three magic words we casual commuters love: OUT OF SERVICE. According to the inspector, who was unable to sell me a ticket himself, the ride was free. There were already a dozen passengers who had shared my good fortune. Weren't we a happy bunch! The tram stopped at Middle Park. More people got on. They were about to put money in the machine. The inspector gave them the advice he had given me. He was a nice inspector. We liked him. Then we got to Fraser Street, just one stop away from St Kilda Station. A man in a beanie got on. The inspector gave him the good news. But the man must have thought it was a trick, or maybe he was just very, very stupid. Even though the machine was telling him that it was definitely OUT OF SERVICE, the man stuck in a two dollar coin. And the bloody thing started working again. The inspector looked at the rest of us sadly. The man's coin had somehow fixed the machine. We all had to buy tickets now. I've never before seen a beanie eyed with such contempt.
Please note I am not in favour of fare evasion. But if you're going to be overcharged to ride on a tram, even though the yellow ones on route 96 are particularly cool, enjoy your honest luck when you can. And if an inspector tells you not to put a coin in the machine because it isn't working, make sure you obey him. That's what inspectors are for.

Cult Comedy Books

On the ABC on 15 March, Jennifer Byrne chaired a discussion about cult books. On the panel were Dave Graney, Marieke Hardy, Bob Sessions and Marcus Zusak. I've always thought it spectacularly unfair that Marcus is not only a very good writer, he is also handsome and can play football quite well.

Markus Zusak being unnecessarily handsome.

His nominated favourite cult book was the comedy Catch 22, which I could never finish. Marcus mentioned that for him Catch 22 was a litmus test. People who liked the book, he figured, were his kind of people. So I guess that rules me out - even though I've spoken with Marcus and I thought we were getting along really well. Mind you, I didn't mention my cult book, which might have ruined things completely. It's this old chestnut:

When Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy first came out, I was hooked. I'd already read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley, to whom Adams' work is compared. I particularly like The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut, which features the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, probably the closest thing to a forebear of an Adams concept. But while Adams was writing about quasi-science and pop philosophy, he was doing it in a style that seemed effortlessly comic. And to seem effortless you have to put an awful lot of time into getting the words just right. Adams was famous for reworking pages over and over, and also for missing deadlines. Comedy in novels - especially young adult novels - generally gets a pretty bad rap. Often it deserves to. But to me, some of Adams' jokes are like poetry. Okay, maybe describing Zaphod Beeblebrox as 'the best bang since the big one' doesn't qualify, but the opening lines of the first book do:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The reference to digital watches has dated, and Adams refused to substitute 'cellphones' in later editions when he had the chance. But don't you love the way such a grandiose sentence can end on such a mundane item? Adams was good at that. But it didn't come easily. He himself expressed disappointment in the last two of the five Hitchhiker books. They really weren't that good. Even the third was a bit wobbly, after the first two little masterpieces. As for the sixth - a book that Eoin Colfer wrote after Adams' death - the less said about that the better. Just please don't do it again.

A really not very good book.

But whack together the first two books in the series - and you have a collection of some of the best comedy ever written. A lot of people know this, of course, and the Adams books continue to show up on top ten lists. (None of the panelists on Jennifer Byrne's show chose the books, though comedy was well represented. Marieke chose The Master and Margarita, Bob chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dave redefined the word 'cult'.)

I agreed with nearly all the comedy choices. But there's a title out there that really should be a cult book but isn't. It's called Augustus Carp Esquire by Himself, and it was first published in 1924.
Excellent book. Shame about the cover.

The author - though his name rarely appears on the cover - is Sir Henry Howarth Bashforth. Anthony Burgess, whose book A Clockwork Orange also has cult status, was a huge fan. Most people who read it were instant converts to the world according to Carp. But for some reason, not that many people did read it. And yet it's every bit as funny as The Diary of a Nobody, which is much more widely known. Carp is about a grotesque, pompous wowser, one of the funniest inventions ever. If you can't find it in bookstores (I had to buy my copy from a secondhand dealer on the internet) then click on that link above the cover for a free e-copy. You won't regret it. And if you haven't read The Diary of a Nobody, click on that link in this paragraph, because you have a treat in store.

By the way, if you're a fan of the Hitchhiker's books, try to avoid the movie and the TV series. You should, however, listen to the BBC audio plays of books four and five. Some think they improve on the original books - especially if you prefer happy endings. (Yes, I know that the first two books were radio shows before they came out as books, and that the first one is especially good.)

For people who have tried to download their free e-copy of Tumble Turn (see earlier post) but found themselves unable to do so, we've made it easier. It downloads to readers like iPads, or you can get a nice PDF to cherish forever. Now, please go and read it then read Augustus Carp. Here are two more nudists, Doris and Charlene, acting out a pivotal moment: