Monthly Archives: April 2011

The verse and chorus of the human condition

I was in pop culture heaven: the characters on ’30 Rock’ – one of my favourite TV shows – were singing ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ – one of my all-time favourite songs.

It was the episode in which the innocent page, Kenneth, having been corrupted by the twin evils of coffee and doughnuts, tells Tracy Jordan, Dot Com and Grizz that he’s leaving New York and going back to the farm in Georgia. He’d sworn to his mother that New York wouldn’t seduce him into bad behaviour and now he’s let his mother down. ‘I’ve been Sodomised!’ he declares. Gladys Knight, who sings the original ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’ makes a cameo appearance at the end of episode, telling the cast to knock it off because she’s trying to take a nap.

‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is one of the great story-songs in that it somehow manages to convey something essential about the human condition in two verses and a repeated chorus. It’s a simple story: man from Georgia goes to LA dreaming of being a star; fails; decides to go home. The person telling the story is his woman and with one line she introduces the conflict of the narrative: ‘I’d rather live in his world, than be without him in mine.’ You get the picture that ‘his world’ is not really where she’d choose to be if left to her own devices but if she decides to stay in LA, with its excitement and opportunities, she’ll have to forego her man. Add classy call-and-response singing from Gladys Knight & The Pips. Serve loud.

And by the way, just how gorgeous are the Pips with their chair-groovin’ and Gladys Knight’s pink pantsuit?

That ‘30 Rock’ episode made me think of other favourite story-songs. What an artform! If you think capturing a narrative in a short story is hard, try doing it with a few verses and a chorus and put it to music that people want to hear. Maybe the degree of difficulty of writing a story-song explains why most of them tell tales of violence and despair.

Let’s play a game: if I give the précis of the story, can you name the song?

  1. A black boxer is framed for a triple murder
  2. Girl dumps her boyfriend because Daddy doesn’t like him; feels regret when boy dies in motorbike accident
  3. Man goes to rehab; returns triumphant to wife and kids
  4. Woman writes to ‘Charlie’ about how well her life’s going; turns out she’s in jail and wants him to send bail
  5. A man cries for the first time in his life; can’t stop crying; dies of dehydration
  6. Woman dreams of going out with the king of Sweden but ends up in jail, then in an asylum, then dead (Hint: has ridiculously cheery chorus)
  7. Man gets his girlfriend pregnant; has to marry her; his life turns to crap
  8. Man writes to friend to tell him he’s forgiven him for stealing his girlfriend (girlfriend has returned with a lock of girlfriend-stealer’s hair)
  9. A fan gets mad that his idol hasn’t written back to him and drives himself and his girlfriend off a bridge
  10. A girl called Lottie writes a confession letter from the prison/asylum, having been convicted of murdering several folk in her town.

Anyone want a crack at getting all ten?  I’ll give the full list of answers in my next post.

OK, I’ll give you the last one:

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It’s only words…

The other day I said to a friend: ‘My life at the moment seems to consist of writing, reading and learning’. She said: ‘That sounds like a good life.’ And you know what? It IS. But in thinking more about the way I lead my life, I realize that practically everything I do relies on my ability to read. I can’t remember a life before reading. My Mum always tells me the story of when I was two and my family was living in a big old house. One night I gave her the fright of her life when I emerged from the hallway in my white night-dress, trailing a nursery rhyme book and reciting: ‘Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fishy (sic) found it.’  She says that the noises of the old house probably scared me. While other kids may have carried a security blanket, I carried a security book…and have pretty much been doing so ever since.

Imagining a life without reading is like trying to imagine being blind or deaf. As a writer and editor, my livelihood would be gone. At a night called Read to me Tuesday I read aloud short stories, accompanied by musician Dave Evans. Obviously if I couldn’t read, that would go. Most days I find out what’s going on in the world by reading newspapers online. Last night I was telling a friend about the book I’ve just finished – ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville. Oh my, I wouldn’t be able to talk about books. As a little girl, I would not have been able to go all by myself to visit the different lands at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree and meet Silky, Moonface and the Saucepan Man. The huge, colourful world of fictional characters and stories would be gone, as would the instructive, educational and expansive world of non-fiction. I wouldn’t be able to read recipes, street signs, medicine instructions, operating instructions, and emails.

Those at the high-end of literary life are immersed in conversation about the fate of paper-based books and publishing in the era of global e-commerce. The other night my book club friends and I were considering the pros and cons of  ‘book versus e-reader’. But consider this: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 46 per cent of Australians aged 15 to 74 have literacy levels below the “minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy.” That’s nearly half of the population. One in five Aboriginal people in remote areas of Australia can’t read at all.

I once had a job teaching literacy in an Indigenous education program. It was one of those experiences that flip your perspective on the world 180 degrees. I put myself in the students’ shoes and imagined the letters of each word as indecipherable marks on a page,  the act of reading as difficult and frustrating. One of my students was 64. He had left school in Year 8 because his family needed him to work. Somehow, he had gone through these years of schooling without learning how to read. By being street-smart and developing a prodigious memory, he had secured jobs and a driver’s license, while being illiterate. (He’d asked a friend to read aloud the learner driver’s permit instruction book and memorized it.) One day he arrived at our lesson beaming, barely able to contain his glee. ‘I read my grandson a story,’ he said. But his pride and happiness were tempered. He had also realized what was in that book: a different way of seeing the world. It had occurred to him  the pages of all the books in the library contained thousands of stories and he had lived his life without them.

Dear Reader, I’m going to make a donation to an organization that teaches people how to read. Would you do the same?  Would you also consider asking all the people you know who love to read, or who make their living from words, to consider making a donation?

Here’s some organizations that teach literacy. I can’t vouch for any of them, or recommend one over another:

The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation

Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Room to Read

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation

And speaking of words, I have to write and read a lot more of them in my non-blogging life, so I can no longer guarantee writing a post per week. If you enjoy my blog, please sign up as a subscriber and that way you’ll know when I’ve put up a new post. Happy reading.

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What I learned at the Tutankhamun exhibition

  1. Humans are clever – and have been for some time.

Tjuya's coffin

If you are a craftsperson, particularly if you sculpt, or make jewellery or furniture, you will love this exhibition. What is remarkable about the 50 objects drawn from Tutankhamun’s tomb is the quality of the craftsmanship and the integrity of the objects, given they were created around 1300 BC and were underground until the tomb’s discovery in 1922.  In my humble opinion, it’s also remarkable that royal jewellery – made, as it is, from solid gold and precious gems – can look so tacky. I like the scarab pectoral,

Scarab pectoral

but surely this headdress is straight out of a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby ‘Road to Cairo’ film?

Tutenkhamun's headdress

But then I also thought the British royal crowns on exhibit at the Tower of London were lacking in the Understated Elegance department.The Imperial Crown of India, (below), set with around 6,000 diamonds and magnificent rubies and emeralds, was made for King George V to wear at the Delhi Coronation Durbar in 1911. It has never been worn since, purportedly because it was so heavy that the king complained it hurt his head but quite possibly because it was too OTT.

Imperial Crown of India: too heavy or just an excuse? When it comes to royalty, you don’t tend to find much of the ‘less is more’ ethos.

Having said this, there are some incredible items in the Tutankhamun exhibition, including a little chair and matching foot stool made for the boy-king and the golden coffin of Tjuya, (pictured above), engraved with exquisite intricacy with dozens of protective figures.

2. History is a slippery enterprise

In the industrial-sized font of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, we are told of the decisions that Tutankhamun made to try to restore harmony and prosperity to Egypt following his father, Akhenaten’s, disastrous rule. Akhenaten had taken an economic rationalist approach to the number of gods, reducing the pantheon to one miserable sun disk. After alienating the priests, he decided to shift the kingdom’s capital. Anyone who’s moved house can imagine how popular he was among his subjects after that decision. But here’s the thing: Tutankhamun was nine when he became king and 12 when ‘he’ decided to move the capital back to Thebes. Is it just me, or do you also find the notion of a child making these kinds of decisions on behalf of the country just a tad implausible? It could be that, at nine, my civic responsibilities were restricted to occasionally drying the dishes, applying contact to my school books and creating name labels for everything with an object  called the Dymo.  As the audio guide wasn’t available for the exhibition preview I attended, I’m not sure if more information about Tutankhamun’s advisors and their level of influence is available. It’s interesting to note that when Tutankhamun died,aged 19, possibly of malaria, one of those advisors married Tutankhamun’s widow, becoming Pharoah. ‘It’s interesting’ – that’s all I’m saying.

3. Don’t have children with family members

I think the royals have worked this out now but back in ancient Egypt, they still made a hobby of horizontal folk-dancing with the siblings. With the modern availability of DNA testing, researchers have been able to discover that Tutankhamun’s mother was not one of Akhenaten’s wives but was one of Akhenaten’s sisters. Breeding with your sibling tends to amplify any dodgy genes in the family, which may explain why poor little Tutankhamun had a cleft palate and a club foot (and no, you won’t find these depicted in renderings of his image). Tutankhamun then married his half-sister. The coffins of their two still-born daughters, also found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, are the saddest objects in the exhibition. Tutankhamun may have restored the status of the gods but the gods  didn’t repay him with kindness.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs is at Melbourne Museum until November.

Discovery Channel has a series of videos about Tutankhamun and DNA testing of the royal mummies.

Why I love the Internet…here’s the original story in The Times about the discovery of the tomb in 1922 by the English anthropologist Howard Carter.

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Tales from the colonies

April Fool’s Day came along this week and the great cosmic joke was that everywhere I went there were references to subjects of previous blog posts.  It was getting so ridiculously postmodern I thought I might be in a film written by Charlie Kaufman. At my local milk bar, a French couple, recently arrived in Australia, inadvertently referenced last week’s post by asking me directions and being so far from where they were meant to be that I took them home to get my car and drove them to their destination.

I went to a comedy show by The Bedroom Philosopher, who, (while dressed as a cat), referenced the post before last by using Chris Isaak’s song ‘Wicked Game’.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that when bush walking, I have a habit of imagining how I’d survive if I didn’t have the food and supplies I’ve brought with me from the city. Well, this week as part of a new course of study, I went on a bush tucker walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens with an Aboriginal guide. Now if I ever get lost in the bush and run out of food, I’ll know exactly how many plants I could eat, while wishing I’d paid more attention on the bush tucker walk to what those plants looked like. I do know that there’s a ‘foam bark tree’ that the local Indigenous people used for fishing. The bark, when mixed with water, forms a sticky film which adheres to the gills of fish. The fish rise to the surface to breathe, at which point you can just collect them. Doesn’t that sound like no-fuss hunting?

There was also the Lamandra plant, described by our guide as ‘the 7-Eleven’. The leaves can be eaten raw and taste like snow peas (according to the guide) and grass (according to a fellow student); the leaves can be used as a bandage and weaved to make baskets. Flour can be made from the plant’s seeds.

I’ve been reading Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’, in which she has used research about her own family to imagine early encounters between Aboriginal people and pardoned English convicts-turned-settlers along the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book.

It also prompts the question of how Australian culture might be different if European settlers had not been so afraid of, and aggressive towards, the Indigenous population. How could Australian culture have been different if Indigenous people had been recognized as the traditional owners of the land from the beginning and treated with respect? How could it have been different if Anglo-Celtic settlers had decided they had much to learn from the Indigenous population? As Melbourne’s boundary expands to accommodate a rapidly growing population, it’s interesting to think about what could have been learned – and still can – about the Indigenous population’s efficient use of the land and its resources.

The Bedroom Philosopher pointed out that saying sorry to Aboriginal people doesn’t really cut it when you’ve decimated the Indigenous population with guns and disease and then taken their children away from them. Afterwards, an American among our group said he noticed an uneasy silence among the audience during this segment of the show. ‘It’s the same with us about slavery and native Americans,’ he said. It was admirable that the Bedroom Philosopher could forego some laughs to say something truthful yet disquieting about his culture, he added.  It’s part of the comedian’s role. I’m sure the late Bill Hicks, a master at combining comedy and social commentary, would agree.

Now here’s something to think about that‘s funny: Australia could easily have been settled by the French. Oui, c’est vrai! Captain Cook beat the French explorer La Perouse to Botany Bay by a whisker in 1788. After hanging around for a couple of months, La Perouse sailed away, planning on returning to France. His ship was wrecked near Vanuatu and he was never seen again. The French did learn something, however, from La Perouse’s exploration and their observance of the British in Australia. They went on to establish a penal colony in New Caledonia and to dispossess the Indigenous Kanak population of their land.

At least the French had the good grace to bring baguettes…and croissants…and the concept of eating pastries with chocolate for breakfast.

PS: If you’re in Melbourne, see ‘Wit-Bix’, The Bedroom Philosopher’s show – it’s a lot of fun…well, apart from you-know. This clip is from his last show, which was all about the people on the 86 tram route. This song’s about the hipsters of Northcote. Yep, that’s where I live. See last post…

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