Literary adventures in the female perspective: four books worth reading

FullSizeRenderFor anyone interested in exploring the female point of view, I can recommend four excellent books I read recently.

They’re all written by women. Two are novels by post-apartheid South African writers being Marita Van Der Vyer’s  ‘Entertaining Angels’ and Pamela Jooste’s  ‘Frieda and Min’. The third is ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by English writer Jeanette Winterson  and the fourth is a collection of three autobiographies by the late New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame called ‘An Angel at My Table’.

All are prize-winning writers, all broke new ground and while each tell very different stories set in different places and times, there is a common thread running through each: they tell stories about women that go on painful journeys of self-discovery and emerge stronger, more complete and with a defining sense of who they are.

While all four novelists would, I am sure, happily where the tag of “feminist” they are really “humanist” writers, telling stories about the female human condition.

For me, it was an un-expected journey into the female psyche that began by accident when I picked up the two South African novels in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in Norwood, Johannesburg, run by two elderly African ladies, while on holiday last year. Later, back in Melbourne, I found the two other books on a shelf of ex-library books for sale outside our local library.

entertaining angelsEntertaining Angels (translated from Afrikaans) was the first book I read. Set in 1989, just before the collapse of apartheid, it tells the story of Griet whose life is in a downward spiral: her husband has thrown her out, she lost her baby and her attempt to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven – a la one of her literary heroes, Sylvia Plath – failed (rather comically) because a dead cockroach inside put her off. Griet starts to see a therapist and begins writing fairy tales as a path to healing.

It was a ground breaking South African novel when first published in 1992 in the early days of the ‘new South Africa’. Van Der Vyver broke free from her conservative Afrikaans culture with the story of a young, well-read, enlightened Afrikaans woman writing about grief, sex, Mandela and ‘The Struggle’ and literary heroes like Germain Greer, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin.

Van Der Vyver’s writing has a magic realism to it as it flits between Griet’s contemplation of her real life journey – alone and barren living in an unfurnished flat with cockroaches – and her fairy tales adventures and travels back in time to Grandma Hannie and Grandpa Petrus’s old farm-house in the stillness of the Karoo.

Written from the perspective of an intense, questioning, deeply thoughtful young Afrikaans woman trying to heal herself in the days before the end of Apartheid, Entertaining Angels is deeply nostalgic, quirky, tender and wryly funny.

But everyone knows it’ easier for a man to live out of a suitcase. What do you do if you begin menstruating in the middle of the night and you discover you didn’t pack your Lil-lets? Or if you forgot your imported night cream….

frieda and minFrieda and Min is a ‘coming of age’ novel spanning three decades of friendship between Frieda Woolf, a Jewish girl growing up in a traditional, poor family in a South African mining town near Johannesburg and Min, a fiercely principled young girl of the same age who dreams of becoming a rural doctor to black South Africans, defying the orders of the Apartheid regime and its puppets. Being Jewish and having grown up in the same mining town as the novel is partially set (Germiston is Frieda’s home town) gave it a deeply personal resonance, but for anyone else, it’s a classic story of two friends from different backgrounds and beliefs and how their lives unfold and diverge, and eventually come back together amidst personal and political upheaval. Despite having many stereotypical characters – the idealistic white girl taking on the evils of apartheid, the Jewish girl looking for a husband and marrying the wrong (rich) man – and plotlines, the writing is superb and fresh. Each girl tells their story in their own words and in the first person as they lose their innocence and come of age. In parts it reminded me of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs‘ but with the Jewish family in South Africa and the apartheid themes of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the ‘Beloved Country’ with a dash of JM Coetzee‘s stoic fatalism.

Frieda: My mother loves shul. She’s there twice a week. You have to take either a train or two buses to get there and everything costs money, but you couldn’t keep her away if you tried. Where we live in Germiston she may be the Jewish woman, but when she gets to Waverley, she is the Queen of the Waverley shul.

orangesOranges are Not the Only Fruit, is written from the perspective of Jeanette, a young gay girl growing up under the thumb of her religious, adoptive mother in an ultra-conservative English Pentacostal Community in a Northern industrial town. Jeanette has been indoctrinated into her evangelical beliefs, but as she grows older, she questions them. Then one day she falls in love with and has an affair with Melanie. There follows an attempt at exorcism, she returns to the fold, but later after another affair with a woman she runs away, discovering her independence and identity. Drifting into allegorical fairy tales, it has a dark humour (chiefly Jeanette’s at times terrifying mother) and provides a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess (exorcism and fiery sermons) and obsession.

I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie but she was beautiful and good and had loved me.

an-angel-at-my-tableAn Angel at My Table is the title of three autobiographies that trace the life of New Zealand’s most famous literary hero, Janet Frame, from her birth in Dunedin to her impoverished childhood in the coastal town of Oamaru and later her great journey to live in London and the island of Ibiza, returning seven years later as a famous novelist. The first volume deals primarily with her family – her sacrificial mother, her early attempts at poetry, the musing of a bright, highly sensitive, creative mind and the death of her sister Myrtle, who had dreamed of a life in showbiz. The most famous part of her life – Frame’s lengthy stay in a mental institute where she was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and narrowly avoided a lobotomy. Part three follows her journey to the North island of New Zealand, where she meets the short story writer Frank Sargeson, who invites the intensely shy Frame to live at his guest house and encourages her talent and is the impetus for her seven-year overseas odyssey.  Perhaps no one has written as intimately about the inner workings of a fragile, doubting, creative mind as Janet Frame. Reading all three intricate autobiographies is an extraordinary adventure that requires a devoted reader, but the pay-off – sharing the monumental journey with Janet Frame – is well worth it.

(Back in London from Europe)…my own past continued to loom. How could I regain my confidence when I had never been able to tell ‘my side of the story. I knew it was time for me to find out ‘the truth [about my schizophrenia]’…In the meantime I found a job, a literary agent, and I bought an encyclopaedia of sex.

Anzac Day: an immigrant’s education

6968598698_f28850d25b_z This Anzac Day, my eleventh in Australia, was a milestone for me.

While I didn’t attend a Dawn service – something I would still like to do – for the first time I got an education about April 25, 1915 and what it means

(And…what it clearly doesn’t mean to a fair proportion of Australians, including SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre, sacked for his disparaging views.)

Firstly, I wanted to understand why “April 25″ and what in fact was being commemorated.

An excellent article by Age journalist Tony Wright “Nation forged by heroes & horror” was a great starting point. Wright wrote his account of the significance of Anzac Day in Gallipoli ahead of the commemoration services.

While evoking the horror of the battles below the cliffs at Anzac Cove –  “shells roaring a few metres overhead, the bodies piling up and the flies and the lice” – Wright provided a neat summary of the important facts and figures:

– that about 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisted to fight in the Great War (the Returned Services League provides the exact number, 331,781)

– that they were all volunteers (this came as a complete shock)

– that they all thought they were going on a “fine adventure’ (another shock), the RSL says they “rushed to enlist for an exciting war”.

– that 8709 young Australian men died at Gallipoli on a patch of land ” barely larger than an Australian farm” and more than 21,000 were injured, (and that more than 60,000 in total died during the War and more than twice that number were wounded).

– that the invasion of Gallipoli by the Anzacs was a military failure, that achieved “precisely nothing for the invaders in the course of World War 1″.

The innocence, bravery and naivety of the Anzacs astonished me, the loss of life monumental for a small country of just 4.9 million at the time (though I disagree with Wright that the numbers are unimaginable: as a Jew, the slaughter of six million by the Nazis in the holocaust is truly unimaginable).

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania - 1916

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania – 1916

Another excellent article, by Tony Stephens, author of The Last Anzacs entitled “Legend outgrows the men who fought“, provided an understanding of what was achieved from the point of view of actual Anzac veterans.

Peeling back the almost cult-like, untouchable heroic status that Anzac Day has undoubtedly achieved among many Australians (among them, the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” McIntyre derides in his contentious tweets) there thoughts are sobering and cautionary:

– Tom Epps of the 27th Battalion: “It provided a lesson in the futility of war.”

– Harry Newhouse of the 4th Battalion: “The Turks never did anything to us and we never did anything to the Turks. We did not think we were going to fight them, poor buggers.”

– Albert White of the 25th Battalion: “I never understood what we were fighting for. I went because most of my cobbers went.”

– Ted Matthews, of the Ist Division Signals: “Some people called us ‘five-bob-a-day murderers’ but the politicians were the murderers. Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”

Stephens writes that Gallipoli built national pride and confidence, but that it’s a “tired cliché to say it marks the birth of a nation, or a coming of age”.

Other events, he says like Federation in 1901, prime minister John Curtin defying Churchill in the Second World War and bringing troops home to defend Australia against Japan, the 1967 referendum that included aborigines in the Census ( I would add the 2008 Rudd government apology to the stolen generations), could all be said to be defining moments in the continual evolution of the shifting Australian national identity.

Many Australian I know – educated, smart, well read – don’t care much for Anzac Day, or how it is remembered.

There views may not be as extreme as Scott McIntyre, but what they really want is some authenticity about how Gallipoli and the Anzacs are remembered and they revile the crass commercialisation, hijacked by the likes of VB, Anzac biscuit makers, Woolworths and others.

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There were hundreds of people, including senior politicians like Malcolm Turnbull who welcomed the sacking of McIntyre for airing his views, but debate about what Anzac Day should mean is healthy and necessary if it is to have resonance for immigrants like myself and our children.

I agree with Guardian columnist and satirist Geoff Lemon, who wrote in light of the sacking of McIntyre, that while his tweets were historically “flawed”…

“…the greatest insult you can offer the fallen is to lie about who they were and what they did – to whitewash their sins and burnish their glories.

Keeping Anzac Day alive and strong starts with education – in my case self-education – not deception, myth-making, political spin and marketing tricks.

I feel a greater affinity with my adopted country, armed with a bit more knowledge about its history.

Lest we forget (…what really happens in war-time)

Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

2212355983_74be3eec5f_zFor any ex-“Jo-burger” living in Melbourne, one can probably count the number of kind things said about Johannesburg on the palm of one’s hand, including comments from ex-South Africans.

For most it exists in the mind as crime-ridden, lawless place with rolling blackouts and road rage – and for those visiting South Africa, the only memory they may wish to have of Johannesburg will be of the ultra-modern airport and perhaps a short cab ride along the motorway – or via the Gautrain – to the safety of their hotel in the leafy suburbs of Rosebank or Sandton.

Most will no doubt wish to head straight out of “Jozi” or “eGoli” (as it is affectionately known by its six million plus residents) for Cape Town and its nearby wineries, the beaches and warm oceans of Kwazulu-Natal or the world-famous Kruger National Park Game Reserve. Anywhere, but hanging about in Jo’burg…

Not even die-hard Jo’burg fans such as myself would be foolish enough to argue that crime is not so bad – you only have to look at the ridiculously high walls and electrified cables which surround nearly all the homes or read the front page of any newspaper to know this is true.

But there is certainly a lot more to the city than tales drenched in blood.

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The city, like South Africa itself is constantly changing and much is being done to shake off the cobwebs and re-energise Johannesburg in a very positive sense – meaning there is a lot to see for any tourists brave enough to venture beyond their hotel room.

The Apartheid Museum

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

First on any tourist itinerary should be a visit to the Apartheid Museum, situated just a short distance from the Gold Reef City Theme Park and Casino – (a gaudy monument to Johannesburg’s modern roots as site of the world’s biggest ever gold rush in 1886).

The museum was completed in 2001 and provides a totally exhaustive and engrossing history of the struggle to end what was a brutal, tyrannical and inhumane regime.

Upon entering the museum visitors are arbitrarily and symbolically classified as either “white” or “non-white”. Once classified, visitors may only enter the through the gates allocated to their race group. Much like the high, windowless concrete walls of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, such devices immediately transport one back into the dark day of Apartheid, setting the tone for the museum, which is designed to be as interactive as possible.

It’s an enormous exhibition full of photographs, video footage and installations detailing apartheid’s genesis, life under the regime, and the resistance struggle which took root in the 1960s and saw Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

Give yourself at least four or five hours to explore – more if you are one of those people who likes to read every word and watch every video.

Constitutional Hill

Next stop on the political trail should be the Constitutional Hill complex near Hillbrow, seat of the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land, where South Africa’s constitution – considered the most democratic in the world – has its home.

The old prison cells - home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The old prison cells – home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The complex is built on the site of the Old Fort, the notorious prison built originally by Boer leader Paul Kruger in a vain attempt to defend Johannesburg from the British.

Visitors to Constitutional Hill should sign up for a guided walking tour to get a real feel for the place. Local guides take visitors through cell blocks which housed every famous political prisoner the country produced including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Mandela’s cell has been recreated and besides the video footage on display it contains original letters written by Mandela – a qualified lawyer – written in elegant curved freehand, detailing his numerous requests from prison authorities for access to books, legal counsel and to see his family.

On the way visitors bypass the now empty and incredibly eerie cellblocks – like everything under apartheid, divided into white and black sections.

As the guides explain and visitors can see for themselves, Apartheid’s reach was limitless. The walk takes one passed notice boards which detail meal rations for prisoners (more meat and extra coffee and sugar for white prisoners, less for Indian prisoners and virtually no luxuries for black inmates).

But constitutional hill is also an uplifting experience culminating in a visit to the Constitutional Court itself. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s finest artists (the nearby art gallery is a must) the building has literally taken what was once a symbol of oppression and turned into a symbol of freedom – an entire wall of the court building is made from the bricks of a section of the old prison.

Ancient histories

For history that predates the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who moored at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, say by a couple of hundred thousand years, another new permanent exhibition has sprung within an hours drive of the city. Called “Maropeng” or “The Cradle of Mankind” it remains one of the world’s great fossil sites and is rightly listed as a “World Heritage Site”.

Looking like a massive ant hill, and surrounded by ominous orange signs telling visitors to “Beware of snakes” (surely not likely to scare off any Australian tourist), the tour main walk way is lined with human and animal fossil finds which lead into the main building. Here a ride through an underground lake takes one to a massive exhibition hall where the “history of mankind” is put on display including some of its most famous fossil finds.

If that’s not enough, there is also an opportunity to visit the nearby cavernous Sterkfontein caves, complete with dripping “stalactites” and “stalagmites”.

Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

No visit to Johannesburg can ever be called complete without a visit to the adjacent township of Soweto. Gone are the days when no one ventured near the township unless they lived there, it’s now a major tourist magnet (and with good reason) with numerous tour companies offering full day tours.

For about $90 you can spend an entire day with a Soweto resident as he takes you in air-conditioned mini-bus on a dazzling tour of the South Western Townships.

Putting aside its significance as the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, the following tidbit should be enough to pique your interest in paying Soweto a visit.

6268519080_0efa4845fe_zAll tours of the township will take you down Vilikazi Street, a dusty street, lined with mostly small, compact houses and unique in this aspect – it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – the country’s greatest leader and former president, the late Nelson Mandela, winner of the prize in 1993  and the enigmatic, Desmond Tutu, the much-loved retired archbishop of Cape Town, who won the prize in 1984.

The tours include a walking tour through traditional African markets – complete with an African witch doctor who can give you a remedy for making anyone of the opposite sex swoon at your feet, outdoor butcheries and once illegal drinking taverns called “Shebeens” where you can sample South African curries and semolina pudding, commonly known as “pap”.

Those brave enough can try dried Mopani worms (similar to Wichita grubs) washed down with Amazi, the traditional African “sour” beer.

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The Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto

You will also visit the site of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students protested against being forced to study in Afrikaans, and where Hector Pieterson a 13-year-old schoolboy was gunned down by police and whose dead body (famously photographed by Sam Nzima) became a symbol of the evils of apartheid.

Multi-cultural shopping and dining

Not all the things touristy in nature in Johannesburg are about history.

Given that one Australian dollar buys you around Nine South African “Rands”, shopping in eGoli can be a real spending spree. The city is littered with mega-malls stocking the latest local and international brands. For those on the hunt for modern finery and expensive African crafts, the ultra-chick Sandton City Mall and Hyde Park Shopping centre in the city’s North are enormous palaces to consumerism, while for sheer ridiculousness, the Monte Casino resort is worth visiting. Besides housing an enormous array of slot machines (pokies) and poker tables, the shopping and eating mall is designed as a fully enclosed Italian village, complete with washing hanging on the line, fake pigeons and a twinkling ceiling, where it’s forever nighttime.

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

There are many adventures to be had in the City of Gold, all of which can be done relatively safely, provided you stick to basic rules like not walking down quiet streets alone at night, leaving your expensive jewellery at home and keeping gadgets out of sight.

Most importantly keep in mind that Johannesburg is a friendly, multi-cultural place filled with some of the loveliest, most hospitable and zany people you will ever meet.

So go on, next time you’re flying into Jo’burg – spend a few nights and explore!

I dare you!

Writing well really does pay according to a new survey

slide_272894_1944735_freeAs a journalist, there’s nothing more annoying than finding spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in your own work.

I confess that I always read my own stories first in the Australian Financial Review – the newspaper I write for – and feel gutted if there is a glaring error – spelling, punctation or grammar. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen to often.

Writers hold their own written work in high esteem, as they should, as it represents their personal brand.

Errors make you look stupid and can be downright embarrassing – or very funny if it’s not your own work.

A while back, a bestseller called “Eats, shoots and leaves” by British radio journalist Lynne Truss attempted to, very humouresly, highlight common punctuation mistakes and how they often change the meaning of a sentence. Her aim was to lift writing standards which have arguably gotten worse since publication of the book given the popularity of Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.(Embarrassingly, Truss made mistakes of her own, in her book).

You may scoff as you type out a garbled text message on your phone or dash off an unreadable tweet, but new research has found that there is a high correlation between how accurately you write and how well you do your job – and very importantly – the level of pay you earn.

Regardless of whether you are a salesman, lawyer, engineer or accountant – those who make fewer mistakes in their emails, reports and presentations are better regarded by those that employ them, and, they earn more money.

This came out of a study of  448 profiles on freelance jobs website Elance by Grammarly, a start-up proofreading web application that finds and explains in-depth grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes online.

Grammarly found that an engineer who made 10 or fewer errors per 100 words written in their online profile earned on average $521 per project while an engineer who made 30 or more errors earned less than half that.

Similarly, lawyers who made less than 10 errors per 100 words earned $372 per job, while those that made three times as many errors earned only $198.

Overall, it found that freelancers who made the fewest mistakes received the highest reviews from their employers – those who made the most mistakes were rated much lower.

In short, accurate writing increases credibility, hireability and pay.

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Grammarley survey: writing well pays better

Journalists and others that write for a living will be pleased to know that – according to the study – writers make the fewest mistakes, followed closely by those in admin and  legal roles.

While it was perhaps not surprising to find that IT professionals make more mistakes on average than any other professional – almost one in every five words – it was alarming to learn that those in leadership positions (in finance and management roles) are almost as bad.

Perhaps it explains why big companies all hire expensive public relations executives – to find and correct all those top management mistakes, before they become public relations disasters.

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Freshlyworded.com is also giving away one free premium access account to Grammarly. Just send your name and email to freshlyworded@gmail.com – The first email received will win the premium pass.

In memorium: the suburban video store

The joy of browsing for a movie...fading fast

The joy of browsing for a movie…fading fast

We watched a lot of DVDs on our recent family holiday on Phillip Island, courtesy of the local video store. We found Phillip Island Video Hire by chance, on the second evening of our holiday, while taking a stroll after dinner. Behind the counter, the spectacled, purple-haired proprietress, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt saved us from a twentieth viewing of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (in video format!) and the ultimate horror, enduring Jar-Jar Binks again and ‘The Phantom Menace’. Our holiday home was a cozy little cottage with a wood-burning fireplace, a TV the size of a postage stamp, one of those technological relics – a combination video and DVD player – and a small pile of reject videos and dust-covered DVDs. Thank god for the local video store! In the evenings, once our little girl was sound asleep, we’d brew tea, bring out the Tim Tams and stretch out in the darkened lounge, illuminated by the flickering orange fire, and watch a movie. (Our selections included the excellent ‘Kill the Messenger‘, the very watchable ‘November Man‘ and Australian-made crime drama, Son of a Gun) While it’s perhaps not that surprising to find a video store still in operation in a coastal holiday town like  Phillip Island (alongside second-hand bookstores and surf shops) in the suburbs of Melbourne and around the world, video stores are dying out in their droves, losing customers to a plethora of cheap video streaming services (Stan, Presto, Netflix, iTunes to name a few) that deliver movies instantly to your home TV, illegal downloading and DVD piracy. Rising rents have also hurt. In the past six months, two local stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy  – have closed in Niddrie, leaving our northern suburb without a video store. (For more stories on video store closures read here, here and here). In place of our local Blockbuster, there is now a giant Pet Warehouse (with DIY dog wash) while a little further down the main road, Video Ezy has been consumed by the neighbouring medical centre. Like the demise of newspapers, the internet or ‘technological progress’ has killed the suburban video store – what was once a fixture of every retail strip, high street and shopping complex alongside Chinese takeaways, bottle shops and pizza joints. More than that, it’s killed a tradition that I, as a child growing up in South Africa in the late seventies, eighties and nineties, remember fondly. In those day, a trip to the local corner video store in Germiston – a mining town about 20 minutes from Johannesburg –  was something to get excited about. It was a family outing!

betamax

We had a Betamax player, similar to this

Our store, Cachet Video, rented out not just movies, but video players as well, firstly Betamax and later VHS players, decades before the arrival of DVDs. I remember, fondly, our top-loading bulky brown Betamax player with a remote control that connected to the machine by cord and which was at one point, the envy of our street. There was the fun of browsing and choosing and I loved turning over the age-restricted movies – when no one was looking – to see what scenes from the movie were on the back. The video store proprietor stood behind a counter in the corner, like the lord of home cinema (also the owner of the attached convenience store South Africans call a ‘cafe’), who would pull out a hand written card bearing our account information when the time came to exchange our empty boxes for actual movies. Having checked we still had credit, he would then disappear into a cavernous back room and return with the precious movies.

Where Cachet Video once stood, an iconic childhood memory

At one time ,the premises of Cachet Video, Germiston, South Africa

A rental transaction always concluding with my mother or father asking: “How many moves do we have left on our account?” Being a conservatively-minded family, my parents only allowed age appropriate selections, but I confess, that on holidays, when my parents were at work and my siblings were elsewhere, I’d race down to the video store on my maroon-coloured 24 speed bike, rent a movie like Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, where there was a guaranteed fabled topless scene. The proprietor looked me up and down – shaking his head, or so I imagined – but never said anything when I sheepishly handed over the video box. Then I’d race back to watch the film, fast forwarding to the ‘important scenes’ and then furiously cycle back to return the movie, before my parents returned home. Later in life, when slightly more mature (and having a car), I made many trips to Johannesburg video establishments like Video Spot on Jan Smuts Avenue, Hyde Park, with its vast collection of art house films and foreign movies to choose from.I remember what I thought at the time were ingenious arrangements of films by actor (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino etc), director (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Allen etc) and franchise (The Godfather, James Bond etc).

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

Later, living in London, there were numerous trips to the Blockbuster video store on Golders Green High Street  (now also closed). In the afternoon, we’d wonder down in a group to choose a weekend movie or two, stopping on the way back home at the local Turkish Shop for cheap wine, pita, dolmades, dips and snacks. On one occasion, we forgot to return a movie before going on holiday for three weeks – the Blockbuster bill was about 60 quid. Living in Sydney, my wife and I and often the dog walked up William Street, past the drunks and prostitutes to the video store in Darlinghurst to rent episodes of The Office and The Sopranos. In Melbourne, it was Blockbuster of Video Ezy (or Video Sleazy as some called it) where browsing the aisles for a movie became a regular weekend fixture, invariably accompanied by a Thai curry. Even in the comparatively boring Niddrie Blockbuster, there was always the $2 section of classics, where you could find an old Woody Allen or re-acquaint yourself with a Clint Eastwood early Western. And there were the familiar faces – the small Asian man who ran the shop (and dished out the fines) who was close to tears when it closed down, the geeky guy with the half-formed goatee often on the phone reminding customers their movie was due back three days ago and the nerdy film buff – plus the huge selection of American candy, merchandise and figurines. Now all that’s left are a couple of self-service kiosks where there’s invariably someone standing behind you sighing heavily, while you try to choose something from a pathetically inadequate collection. So, I shed a tear for the video stores of my youth, my adolescence, my adulthood and my fatherhood and raise a glass to the nerds, geeks, rude bastards and eccentrics who worked in those stores. In fitting tribute, the classic video shop scene from Clerks:

All hail The Waterboys

waterboysThe fact was I could not sell my spare Waterboys ticket.

“Who are The Waterboys?”

That was the common response I got when I told people I was going to their gig at the Melbourne Recital Centre this past Friday night and had a spare ticket.

“You know that song ‘The whole of the moon’” and then I would badly hum the tune.

“Oh yes THAT song” was the reply. Others had never heard of the band formed by Scotsman Mike Scott  in 1983.

It was about 14 years since I last saw them perform at a folk music festival in Finsbury Park, London, headlined by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, which also featured the late, great Gary Moore.

It poured with rain that day and my chief memory is dancing in the mud to classic Waterboy songs like ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, with its glorious, rollicking fiddle melody, the mournful ‘Bang the drum’ – surely one of the most beautiful songs ever written – and the storytelling charm of ‘A girl called Jonny’.

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Waterboys singer-songwriter Mike Scott

Age has not diminished the Dylan-esque voice, guitar and piano playing, and showmanship of Scott (a folky Mick Jagger) nor the wonderful fiddle playing of Steve Wickham, (considered the best rock fiddle player in the world by many) who gives The Waterboys their distinctive folk sound.

It was wonderful hearing all these songs again third row from front in an auditorium designed with the acoustics for classical music concerts.

The band performed five or six songs from their latest album – Modern Blues (against the backdrop of the album’s cover, a giant ‘nature man seemingly conducting music from a field of lavendar) – beginning with the rocking ‘Destinies Entwined’ and creating that rich ‘wall of sound’ with organ, keyboards, fiddle and guitars, before moving into familiar storytelling mode with the ‘The girl who slept for Scotland’, the cheeky ‘Rosalind you married the wrong guy’ and ‘Nearest thing to hip’ about the demise of British shopping streets, where the cool shops have all been replaced by bland chain stores.

By the end of the near two hour set, many people were dancing in the aisles, cheering and stomping their feet.

And next to me was an empty seat, a missed chance to see one of the world’s best rock-folk bands in blistering form.

For a taste of what you missed, Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys

“Fisherman’s Blues”

I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories
Casting out my sweet line
With abandonment and love
No ceiling bearin’ down on me
Save the starry sky above
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

I wish I was the brakeman
On a hurtlin’ fevered train
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland
Like a cannon in the rain
With the beating of the sleepers
And the burnin’ of the coal
Counting the towns flashing by
In a night that’s full of soul
With light in my head
You in my arms
Woo!

Tomorrow I will be loosened
From bonds that hold me fast
That the chains all hung around me
Will fall away at last
And on that fine and fateful day
I will take thee in my hands
I will ride on the train
I will be the fisherman
With light in my head
You in my arms

Light in my head
You in my arms

Melburnians – enjoy the world’s best liveability while it lasts

traffic jam

Gridlock: where Melbourne is heading

Melburnians love to crow about Melbourne’s long-running status as the world’s most liveable city.

Melbourne has ranked top city in the world for the last four years in a row according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability survey – with Sydney a lowly seventh.

Melburnians rightly love to lord it over Sydneysiders and other global city dwellers, but I’m afraid our world’s best status is fading fast.

I could point to a hundred different articles (try this one on urbanisation by Fairfax economics writer Ross Gittins) or extensive research data to explain that we are building upwards at such a rate but without the necessary investment in transport infrastructure to get everyone to and from work, schools and the shops. 

My own daily commute into work is a good case study of the looming chaos that awaits. It begins with a short 15 minute bicycle ride from my home in Niddrie in the northern burbs to Essendon Station, where the Craigieburn line stutters along towards the city, 15 kilometres away.

What a year ago was a pleasant cycle down a quiet backstreet, where I could drift off into my own thoughts, is now a busy road packed with frustrated people-movers, utes, sedans and station wagons, who weave past me in desperation to avoid the gridlock on the main thoroughfare, Keilor Road.

Even this far out from the city, any vacant lot, deserted car yard or decrepid office building is giving way to an apartment block with dozens of units crammed on top. On the quieter streets, old houses have been bulldozed and replaced with three townhouses. 

 More people, more cars, same roads, same frequency of trains and trams. 

At Essendon Station, Rose Street is most days clogged with cars and buses while the train platform is just as crowded, heaving with already weary-looking fellow commuters.

melbourne platform

Flinders Station, Melbourne

There’s a collective groan as the citybound train pulls in and commuter’s faces stare back from inside carriages, pressed against the glass.

And that’s on a good day when there isn’t a dreary announcement about a train cancellation forcing two sets of commuters onto the same train, resulting in carriages packed so tightly you fear getting an itch you could never scratch.

Finally, twenty minutes later we pull into Southern Cross station. I extract my head from under a stranger’s armpit, apologise for inadvertently rubbing my backside against a pensioner’s bald head (hey, at least they got a seat), exhale, and make my way towards the escalators and the exit. Here a gang of transport Gestapo (train police) are usually standing by ready to spear tackle the elderly, children, mothers with babies and minority groups, should they have forgotten to swipe their Myki card.

Lucky for me I fit none of those categories.

 

queen liz

Fit for a queen? I think not!

Yet more fun awaits me later in the day when I hop onto a tram on Collins or Bourke Street for a meeting uptown – the geniuses who came up with the idea of free CBD trams seemingly did not factor in that every man, woman, child, homeless bum and confused tourist now chooses to take a tram rather than walk a city block.  Tempers flare as we all contort ourselves into weird shapes and postures. The tram driver, oblivious to the gang of drunk vagabonds that have boarded the train with shopping trolleys, four large dogs and a spicey pepperoni aroma, yells out that he won’t close the doors until we get off the steps.

Cursing under my breath, I decide to walk back to the office from my meeting…

Liveability my ass.

Melbourne’s crown is slipping as the city grinds towards eventual gridlock.

Anyone who takes a bus, train or tram – or is crazy enough to drive into work – can surely see that for themselves. The old cliched saying of “what goes up, must come down” applies when “up” means high rise apartments and “down” means liveability without investment in public transport