Monthly Archives: January 2013

freshlyworded list of the week: 10 television dramas you have to watch before you die

3533683614_7e4b5741efHaving just watched the final episode of Season 5 of Mad Men – and mourning the long wait I must now endure until Season 6 comes out on DVD, I thought I might jot down the 10 television shows I reckon are among the best to ever grace the small screen.

Plus my wife and sister-in-law are watching Season 3 of The Walking Dead, which I have enjoyed, but there’s only so many gurgling, mindless zombies I can watch chasing the living through an American wasteland.

So these are 10 television shows I reckon are as good as just about anything you could watch at the movies, and in most cases, infinitely better.

(I’d welcome suggestions from other bloggers; yet to watch Boardwalk Empire, Primal Suspect and have a couple of seasons of Inspector Morse on my shelf too as well as The Tudors.)

1. The Sopranos

Apart from the bemusing final episode of Season 6, the Sopranos set a new television benchmark when it hit television screens in 1999. It could be set that it sparked the revival in television entertainment and inspired countless other shows. Who would have thought watching New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano pouring out his family and “business” problems to a sultry psychologist played by Lorraine Bracco would set the stage for the great gangster drama since The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. Plus there’s all the other great characters: power-hungry Junior, stupid but scary Paulie and Tony’s drug-addicted nephew Christopher Moltasanti to name just three.

2. The Wire

Many people argue The Wire – the story about Baltimore police officers and the criminals they pursue – is the greatest television show every created. It’s certainly the greatest show never to win any major awards. Each of the five series looks at a different aspect of Baltimore society: the drug scene, the docks, local politics, the school system and the media. It features the first gay gangster-turned-robin-hood (Omar), arguably the finest portrayal of a police-officer on the small screen (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty) but the real stars are the dialogue, which captures the language of the street perfectly and the carefully woven plot lines. Personally, my favourite character is Bubbles, the heroin addict turned police informer and in many ways the moral compass of the show.

3. Six Feet Under

The story of a dysfunctional Californian family running a funeral home. Each episode begins with a death and the body being prepared for burial by the Fisher Family. There is never a dull episode. It features great performance from Michael C Hall as David a gay man struggling with his sexuality and his virile brother Nate, caught up in a twisted relationship with Brenda, brilliantly played by Australian actress of Muriel’s Wedding fame Rachel Griffiths. And its darkly funny.

4. Breaking Bad

The story of family man Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a poorly paid high school chemistry teacher who upon being diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth with former pupil and local low-life Jessie (Aaron Paul) to build a nest egg for his family.  The pair get mixed up with organised crime and one of the scariest, suavest villains in the form of Gus Fring, the proprieter of ‘Pollos Hermanos’. Yet to see Season 5, but can’t wait.

5. Mad Men

Was there ever a cooler show on the television? The story of the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s. Every shot is a period piece, the dialogue meticulous; you can sit back and just enjoy the decor and clothes, never mind the characters. Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Cambpell and of course Joan Harris – the most voluptuos woman ever to grace the small screen – are creations that would sit comfortably alongside any in the Great Gatsby.

6. Luther

John Luther (Idris Elba) is the toughest and most brilliant police officer you will ever meet. He operates by his own set of rules and code of ethics as he brings down the sickest criminals on the streets of London.  I’ve watched the first two seasons, and believe a third season will air this year. Also a chance to see Paul McGann of Withnail and I fame in a great role.

7. Law & Order: SVU

One of the longest running televisions shows of all time, the Special Victims Unit (SVU) spin-off has generated 14 seasons. The episodes featuring Benson and Stabler as the lead detectives are the best. Very well written, with believable characters and stories, all filmed on location in New York. Plus there’s that bad-ass motherf*cker Ice-T and the freaky, sardonic Munch to entertain you as well.

8. Secret Life of Us

An Australian series about the lives, loves and heartaches of twenty-something Melburnians living in St Kilda. Does not sound like much, but lots of great themes explored. Narrated by the philandering writer-in-training Evan (Samuel Johnson) with career-making performances from Joel Edgerton (now a Hollywood star) Deborah Mailmen and Claudia Karvan to name just a few. The first three seasons are the ones to watch. From Season 4, all the good characters have left the show (I’ve not watched it).

9. Midsomer Murders

Each episode in the 15 seasons set in quaint Midsomer county with its hedges, afternoon teas, quiet woods, grand old mansions and quintessential English villages (the deadliest county in England) is a feature-length whoddunit featuring the unshakeable Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles) and a number of different young side-kicks. The corpses pile up faster than freshly baked scones at a fete but you’ll never guess who the murderer is.

10. Downton Abbey

A period drama about masters and servants who live in palatial Downton Abbey in a changing Britain in the years leading up to World War One and beyond. Headed by the sweet-natured but strong-willed Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his somewhat annoying American wife (Elizabeth McGovern, it features a brilliant performance by an ancient-looking Maggie Smith as Grantham’s mother, the towering Dowager Countess of Grantham.  And of course there’s the dour Mr Bates and impeachable Mr Carter, the butler of Downton Abbey.

The incredible bravey of forgotten refugees: a review of “All that I am” by Anna Funder

all that i amI read “All that I am” by Australian author Anna Funder purely on word-of-mouth.

I’d been told and heard that this book was very good, but knew nothing at all about the subject matter, plot or characters.

The cover of the version I read shows a  woman in a red coat walking past what looks like the Reichstag in Berlin, her reflection a red blur on the wet pavement.

The story, as it unfolds inside the cover, is about a group of German refugees (all but one  are Jews) who are forced to flee their homeland when Hitler rises to power  in Germany in the early 1930s.

Not only are they Jewish intellectuals, but left-wing leaning and socialist – in complete opposition to all that the National Socialists (the Nazis) stand for.

They all manage to obtain refugee visas in London, where despite the constant and very real risk of deportation, they continue to do what they can to plant stories in the British press about Hitler’s plans for  rearmament and his viscious policies towards the Jews and others he deems undesirable.

The central plot of the novel is what happens to four characters, namely: Ruth Wesseman, a bohemian Jewess and intellectual married to non-jewish journalist Hans, Ruth’s cousin Dora, a firebrand, fearless pursuer of justice and freedom (the heroine of the novel) and Dora’s lover, the celebrated left-wing German playwright and agitator, Ernst Toller

There are two narrators: Ruth, now a frail old women in her nineties, but with all her mental faculties intact, who tells the story of her life in Berlin, London and Shanghai before immigrating to Australia in 1947 while recovering from a fall in a Sydney hospital; and the playwright Ernst Toller, living an agoraphobic, reclusive life in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York in 1939 who tells of his relationship with Dora Fabian, his one true love.

The novel moves effortlessly back and forth across timelines from the cake shops along Bondi Road to the Bohemian nightclubs of Berlin to an attic apartment in Bloomsbury in Central London and a terrace house in Hampstead.

They are all real people and Funder’s genius is to breathe life into their characters, relationships and pysches and like a detective piece together the story of what happened to them.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is its exploration of the lives of German refugees forging an existence in London.

This is the book’s central canvas – the secret, untold stories of people who lived under the very tenuous, conditional protection of the British government, a government not yet aware or perhaps not yet convinced of Hitler’s evil intentions and hoping  that appeasement might prevent war.

It is the brave acts of these refugees, who risk their own safety to connect with those still trapped in Europe and get their stories into the newspapers and public consciousness, which ultimately convinces Britain that war is the only route to peace.

What’s most shocking is how easily refugees fleeing persecution – despite the horrible fate that awaited them – could be sent back to Germany if British bureaucrats got word of political activities, in some cases colluding with Nazi operatives.

Such a fate befalls one of the colleagues of the four protagonists. A former German policeman, he is expelled from Britain for speaking out at a trade union convention, and his mistake is being heard by the wrong people.

Once the expulsion order is granted, an immigration agent is assigned to watch him until he is deported. His fate, severe beatings and a first-class ticket to the concentration camps, where he gets to clean the toilets.

The book also recounts the fate of Jews aboard the MS St Louis, a refugee boat that sailed from Germany to seek asylum in Canada and the USA in 1939. It’s fate is told through the eyes of Clara, a jewish refugee and secretary to Ernst Toller while in exile in New York. Her brother is aboard the ship as it remains moored just outside Havana.

Clara is transcribing Toller’s life story (and what will become his memoir), while he urges her not to give up hope as the fate of the MS St Louis remains uncertain. Eventually it is sent back to Europe, where a quarter of those onboard would later die in the concentration camps.

The refugee’s tale, as told by Funder, should resonate with readers in Australia or anyone fortunate to be living in a free country.

The debate about refugees, particularly those that arrive by boat, is such a political hot potato here, that most forget that these are real people’s lives we talk so glibly about and discuss as if they were not human at all – objects to be “processed” or “turned back”.

Upon reading ‘All that I am’ I did some background reading about all the characters in the book, especially the central character of Dr Ruth Blatt (Ruth Wesseman).

Funder was a friend of Ruth Blatt and was no doubt inspired to write about her life through the incredible story she told her.

Searching online, I came across Funder’s interview with Ruth Blatt for a radio broadcast on the ABC.

After you’ve read this gripping, moving story about heroism, bravery and what it means to be all that you can be, listen to the radio broadcast to hear Ruth Blatt tell her story in her own words.

An Australia Day contemplation on becoming an Australian

australia dayA week ago, I rang up the Department of Immigration to enquire about a passport matter.

Whilst on the phone, I asked the woman on the end of the line if she could tell me when I would be eligible for Australian citizenship.

To my surprise, she told me it was mid-March…this year.

I’d expected to be told it would be a couple of years off.

Despite having lived here for over 8 years (and qualified enough in my eyes as my tax returns can attest) I know all too well that there are convoluted rules about how long you must be in the country on certain visas before you can, in the words of Peter Allen (or Qantas), “call Australia home”.

Forests in Tasmania have been decimated to supply the paperwork to complete previous visa applications: two for a work permits and one for my spouse visa.

But that of course is the Australian way.

Finding out about my upcoming dual citizenship opportunity has got me thinking a bit more about what it will mean to be an Australian, provided the spooks (ASIO) don’t deem me a security risk, and send me to the Ecuadorian embassy in London to join Julian Assange, or worse, Pretoria.

Should I pledge my allegiance to Dick Smith and only buy Australian-made products, even if they cost more?

Do I now support the Wallabies, the Kangaroos, the Baggy Greens, the Socceroos, the Olyroos, the Hockeyroos, the Boomers, the Diamonds, the Matildas, the Opals and the Koalas?

Do I have to shout for Lleyton Hewitt? Do I? Do I?

And must I call the mayor the “mare”?

So much to ponder!

Finding out about becoming an oke ‘Stralian has also coincided with the run up to Australia Day tomorrow (January 26) with the nation getting the day off on Monday.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Australia Day.

My mind always seems to conjure up images of drunken yobbos, Australian flags draped over their shoulders like capes, stomping on cars and hurling abuse at anyone not white enough, as happened in Manly a couple of years back.

And I also tend to think of that famous Australian “pride” t-shirt. You know the one that says:

“This Is Australia – We eat meat, we drink beer and we speak f#ckin english!”

Losely translated it means:

“Unless you’re white, kindly f*ck off”

Strangely enough, this Howard-era slogan has not quite disappeared under the slightly left-leaning Labor government.

Instead, it’s morphed into:

“This is Australia: We  eat meat, we speak English, but if you have $5 million, we couldn’t give a f*ck”

Not quite as catchy I admit, but true.

The ‘$5 million, no English’ required refers to the new ‘Golden ticket’ visa – or the more official sounding Significant Investor Visa – the government is giving out to anyone who can stump up a wad of cash, no matter if they speak Martian.

At the same time, they’re deporting refugees who arrive by boat to remote island hell-holes or forcing them into poverty on the mainland, by not allowing them to work.

Which of course brings me to the issue of who I am going to vote for, since voting is compulsory (a strange phenomenon I have yet to get my head around) and there is an election coming up towards the end of the year.

I was never  a fan John Howard and Mr Speedo (Tony Abbott), Shrek (Joe Hockey) and Condeleeza Rice’s cousin-from-another-mother (Julie Bishop) hardly seem much better.

Perhaps if Malcolm Turnbull took charge I’d consider it. Or maybe I’ll have consider the Greens. I’ll have to do some reading.

On that note, I’ve been reading up about what Australia Day really is all about.

Officially, it serves to commemorate the arrival of the first British fleet of convict ships in 1788 and the laying of the foundations for modern day Australia.

But it seems to mean different things to different people, or nothing at all.

The white bogans in the far outer burbs, rusty cars parked on unkept lawns, pit-bulls at the ready, use the occasion to lament the days when Australian culture was whiter the washing washed in OMO.

The aborigines call it invasion day, and who can blame them.

The government talks about celebrating everything that’s great about Australia, but usually just end up in fisticuffs with the opposition, or as happened last year, with the prime minister being unceremoniously dragged off by her security personnel after Tony Abbott had fanned the flames of aboriginal anger.

As for new citizens-to-be like me?

We’re still trying to figure out the bloody rules to Australian football, ponder why football is called soccer and rugby football, and why that red-faced balding geezer who once coached the Wallabies is still on the radio.

Perhaps on Australia Day this year, I’ll just take inspiration from that marvellous Paul Hogan ad from the 1980s - you know the one where he talks about:

“The land  of wonder, the land down under“.

And throw a couple of shrimps on the barbie.

The junkie in literature: a review of ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh

trainspotting‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh is the fourth in a series of a books I am reading and reviewing based on the theme “The junkie in literature” with the aim to learn more about this sub-culture.

I’ve so far read and reviewed ‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner, ‘Junky’ by William S. Burroughs and ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ by Thomas De Quincey.

When I think of Trainspotting, my mind immediately conjures up scenes from the movie of the novel: Mark “Rent Boy’ Renton emerging from the bowl of the filthiest toilet in Scotland, the dead baby crawling on the ceiling, Begbie throwing his glass of beer over his head in a crowded pub and the lines:

“Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machine; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth.”

The film was fantastic and horrible.

The book is much, much better.

A brilliant, excruciating, haunting and often hilarious story about a group of Scottish junkies (and one pyschotic lunatic – Francis Begbie) set in the impoverished council estates of Edinburgh circa the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Mark Renton is the axis of the novel, an intelligent, ocassionaly cruel, somewhat bitter and philosophical junky, who in between trying to quit heroin, muses about the meaning of his life, what it means to be Scottish (colonised by English ‘wankers’ is how he puts it), trying to understand women and the pleasures and pain of being a junkie.

Many of the chapters are narrated through his eyes, but also through the eyes of sweet, hopeless romantic ‘Spud’, the psychotic fury of Frank Begbie and a number of other characters that form part of the scene.

In this way, the reader gets a 360 degree view of the world of the junky: binge drinking, shooting up in squalid apartments, random sex, attempts at a normal life.

The first thing that will strike anyway who reads the book is that its written phonetically, in Scottish dialect, meaning as a reader you have to adjust to the language and at times decipher the meaning of words.

Here’s Renton describing injecting himself:

…Ah start tae cook up another shot. As ah shakily haud the spoon over the candle, waitin for the junk tae dissolve, ah think; more short-term sea, more long-term poison. This thought though is naewhere near sufficient tae stop us fae what ah huv tae dae.”

Strangely, this does not distract from the story telling or plot, but really centres you in the time and place and experiences of the characters in the book.

It gives parts of the book a poetic quality as Welsh managed to convey the gruff musicality of the working class Scottish accent.

For this is a distinctly Scottish tale about heroin addiction, friendship, betrayal, love, radges (crazy people), gadges (schemers) and futbal (football).

It’s about people caught up at the bottom end of the Scottish welfare state with little hope or ambition to get out.

Intelligent and worldly, Renton shares the common trait of many junkies.

Like the writer/drifter William S. Burroughs in ‘Junky, artist Javo in ‘Monkey Grip’ and perceptive, strong-headed and proud Thomas De Quincey in ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’, Renton searches for something to take life beyond the mundane, to rise above crowd, or just to escape the mind-numbing boredom of existence, of everyday life.

Though being a junky is heaven and hell for Renton, Spud and Sick Boy, it is preferable to the familiar storyline of getting married, getting a mortgage, buying a bigger television, a car and watching “mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows.

Describing the heroin ‘hit’, Renton says: “Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace.”

On the effects of heroin: “Julie looked really good when she started oan smack. Maist lassies dae. It seems tae bring oot the best in them. It always seem to gie, before it takes back, wi interest.”

On the appeal of heroin.: “Ma problem is, whenever ah sense the possibility, or realise the actuality ay attaining something that ah thought ah wanted…it just seems so dull n sterlie. Junk’s different though. Ye cannae turn yir back oan it sae easy. It willnae let ye. Trying tae manage a junk problem is the ultimate challenge It’s also a fuckin good kick.”

Trainspotting is a harsh book, unpleasant and horrfying as it is hilarious and insightful, but you get an incredible kick out of reading it, because you become part of the scene.

Required reading I say!

freshlyworded list of the week: 11 meetings with famous people including Spike Lee, Johnny Vegas and Gary Player

The impression you form of a celebrity, someone you see regularly on television or in the newspapers, is often very different to the ‘real person’ when you meet them in the flesh.

Sometimes it can be an exhilarating experience, other times a disappointment. Often they’re just an ass!

Over the years, I’ve bumped into a number of people with varying degrees of fame, some just for a brief minute and others I’ve had the pleasure of engaging  in conversation.

These are the ones that spring most readily in mind:

1. Gary Player

gary-player-z01

I met golfer Gary Player at a charity event at his estate just outside of Johannesburg in the late 1990s. Winner of nine majors and over a 100 tournaments in his career, it was a pleasure talking to this legendary sportsman surrounded by his glass cabinets filled to bursting with his golfing trophies. We talked about the future of South Africa and what the young people needed to do to make the country work. I recall him being very optimistic about the future, very easy to talk to and a real gentlemen. This is of course the guy who said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

2. Spike Lee

spike lee

I very briefly met film director Spike Lee, outside the Union Buildings, Pretoria, about 1999. He had just been part of a press conference with then South African president Thabo Mbeki to promote a television commercial he was shooting for one or other charity. He was getting into a car and I said to him: “Spike I am a great fan of your movies.” He turned around and said: “Oh yeah, which ones?” I told him “Do the right thing,” was my favourite.

3. Gary Bailey

gary bailey1

I met Gary Bailey, who was goal-keeper for Manchester United in nearly 300 hundred games, at a sports press conference in Johannesburg and remember he was very much like his on-camera persona (he hosts the Premier League show on Supersport in South Africa) – warm, friendly and sincere.

4.Michael Madsen

michael madsen

Michael Madsen played ‘Mr White’, the psychopathic criminal in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’,  a film I idolised. He came to London while I was writing for an accountancy magazine (AccountancyAge.com) to attend a press conference to launch a film he was producing and to star in called “Red Light Runners’ (which I don’t think was ever made). It was being funded by some new tax ruling, which was why I was there. Entirely, inappropriately, after the press conference, I asked Madsen to sign my press pack, which he did. He looked a lot older and dishevelled compared to the cool character he played on-screen – dancing around his victim to “Stuck in the middle with you” with a switch-blade. Still it was a bit of a thrill to meet him briefly. Needless to say, I lost the press pack with Madsen’s autograph.

5.Jonny Vegas

Empire Awards 2010 - London

I met Johnny Vegas  (you may have seen him in Black Books, episodes of QI or doing his stand-up routine) also while working on the Accountancy magazine. We attended an awards night in Newcastle on a bitterly cold night, though it didn’t stop the local girls from wearing virtually nothing I recall. Johnny was the entertainment at St James Park (home of Newcastle United football team). He arrived on stage with a tray of Guinness pints, proceeded to get pissed, and then after the show we all joined him for drinks at a nearby pub. He has a really magnetic character, very charming and you should have seen the number of beautiful women hanging off every word of this rotund, jovial man. I got chatting to him about rugby – he is a rugby league fan (coming from the north of England) but we got to chatting about rugby union and I remember him telling me how much he enjoyed the game and was a big fan of the Springboks.

6. Bruce Grobbelaar

bruce grobbelaar

Anyone who is a Liverpool fan will know who Bruce Grobbelaar is . He played for the club in the 1980s and 1990s and was capable of being an unbelievable goalkeeper on his day, but also able to make the silliest mistakes. His career was tainted by match-fixing claims. I met him at an FA Cup event in a pub in Johannesburg. He was signing autographs on the back of beer coasters. He didn’t seem particularly pleased to be there and can’t say I left with a good impression of the man.

7.Dara O’Briain

dara o briain

Dara O’ Briain is probably most recognisable as a frequent guest on Stephen Fry’s QI show on the ABC. I met him when he was less well-known, but hosting our annual Accountancy Age awards in London. Being Irish, he was very friendly, talked a lot, said “ehm” instead of “um” and was also charming and funny.

8. Baby Jake Matlala

baby jake

Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala is a legend in South African boxing. He measures all of 4 foot 10 inches, but was an incredibly tough opponent in the ring as a flyweight fighter and ended up with 53 victories from 68 fights and won four world titles. I found him to be very lively, enthusiastic and sweet in person. Like his jabs and punches, he talked at a rapid rate.

9. Peter FitzSimons

peter fitzsimons

I met Peter FitzSimons very briefly backstage at the Australian Mortgage Awards. FitzSimons was the host and I was presenting one of the awards. He asked me, as we waited for the winner to come on stage, how the magazine was coming along (I was the editor then of a mortgage broking mag called Australian Broker), though I doubt he’d ever read it. But it was a nice thing to say. FitzSimons is a successful Australian non-fiction writer (mainly in relation to wars and battles), a journalist and columnist and played seven test matches at lock for the Wallabies.

10. Iain Banks

iain banks

Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks if you like science fiction-writing) is a best-selling writer, most famous for his novel “The Wasp Factory” a very, very dark, nasty bit of fiction, considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. I met him at a book signing at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. I brought an older, paperback copy of The Wasp Factory. He remarked that he didn’t often see this version of his book. Needless to say, I think I lost that autographed book as well.

11. Andie MacDowell

andie macdowell

I am kind of fibbing on this one. I never actually met her, perhaps “stalking” would be more accurate. I was kind of obsessed with Andie MacDowell, the  model turned Hollywood actress, when I found myself in the Tate Modern Art gallery in London one afternoon, and there she was looking at paintings all on her own. I had a picture of her in my bedroom and loved her in Green Card, Groundhog Day and Short Cuts, perhaps it was her Southern accent that really appealed to me. Anyway, I ended up following her, from a discreet distance as she walked from room to room at the Tate Modern. Only for a few rooms mind you. If I wasn’t so star struck, I might actually have ventured a conversation. “What does this piece say to you Andie?” is perhaps the question I was pondering in my head.

Snake-infested Australia: my own encounters with slithering creatures

23046917_a9950a839aAnyone reading news about Australia lately might be forgiven for thinking the country is overrun with snakes, that we are fighting them off on our way onto trains and planes, in hospitals and in our homes.

The stereotypical view of Australia as a dangerous place full of things that sting, bite and maim has been given an added twist recently with some truly bizarre snake-encounters that have made the news.

There was the story about an inquisitive three-year-old boy from North Queensland who found a nest of nine eggs in his backyard, put them in a plastic takeaway container in his cupboard, only for them to hatch as deadly brown snakes – poisonous from birth.

There’s this tale about a Tiger snake found in a hospital bed in Melbourne and most recently, this rather sad story about a scrub python – the largest snake in Australia – which was filmed at thousands of feet above sea-level in a life and death struggle on the wing of a Qantas aeroplane flying from Cairns to Port Moresby.

All these incidents have given me cause to reflect on my own encounters with snakes in Australia, of which I have had a few.

First, I should begin by saying that unless you live in the country or tropical Queensland (which is rather snake-infested), the chances of encountering a snake in the city or even the suburbs is pretty rare.

On a rainy night in the Valley…

That being said, I first crossed paths with what I believed to be a very large python one rainy night.

I was walking home from Fortitude Valley, the entertainment quarter of Brisbane down Brunswick Road, a steeply dipping road lined with shops, houses and apartments and it was pouring with rain.

Now on occasion, after one or two beers too many, I had mistakenly identified, late at night, fallen branches as would-be serpents, only to discover that they were nothing more dangerous than something to trip over.

However, on this night in question, as I walked through a section of shops and cafes – all closed and quiet, an enormous snake slithered a few metres in front of me, across the pavement and under a house converted into a shop – most houses in Brisbane are raised above the ground (they’re called Queenslanders) so they make a nice spot for a snake to find warmth and shelter.

Well I got quite a shock upon realising it really was a very big, very real, very live snake and that if I’d been a bit more drunk and a just a little bit more careless I could well have stood on it!

A snake in the eaves…

The two other encounters with snakes that are worth mentioning both occurred on a farm we were living on in the outskirts of Sydney near Hornsby on the North Shore.

It was a big old house with acres of land where my sister-in-law had horses and there were rabbits and colourful birds.

We spent most of our time in an enormous front room with floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the fields and the horses – it was quite an idyllic place really.

One morning, as we got up to go out for breakfast – it must have been the weekend – I closed the front door of our front room and noticed something green and glistening just underneath the roof.

This is what I saw:

snake

Looking down at us, its head resting just over  a wooden ledge, we all got the shock of our lives.

I remember  we called the wildlife number, who told us to ignore it after I described the appearance of the snake on the phone and then I rushed out and bought a book of  Australian snakes to identify the specifies.

It turned out to be a diamond-backed python, and it became a regular visitor on the farm. I would often see it winding its way through the vine leaves in front of the double doors of the front room.

On one occasion, the snake did so while we had a guest staying over who swore she would drive all the way back to Sydney (about an hour away) if she saw the dreaded snake.

Her back was facing the window and she had absolutely no idea the snake was only a metre or so behind her – though behind the doors.

I actually grew to really like the snake, it had beautiful markings and never ever bothered us, content with its position up in the roof (though later I learned, after we moved out, that it crawled into the house and over the sofa one night).

Snake in the car…

My last snake tale is a bit sad.

I had parked my car on the grass to clean it and then later driven to the supermarket to pick up groceries. I was driving a Toyota at the time, and not once in many years of owning had it not started.

Groceries in the boot of the car, the dogs in the backseat, I stuck the key in the ignition and turned it over.

The car spluttered but refused to start. I tried again. Something was not right.

Then a guy shouted out across the car park; something you’d only ever here in Australia:

“Mate, there’s a snake coming out of your car.”

I flung open the car, the dog ran off, and I saw a badly burned and mangled snake emerging from the bonnet.

It was pretty horrible. I got into a bit of a panic.

As the snake writhed in agony, people shouted at me to drive over it.

I grabbed the dog, threw him into the back of the car and drove off at high speed, wondering what sort of parallel universe I had just entered and hopefully left behind.

It was a weird f@cking day!

So those are my three major snake tales, though not my only encounters with these curious creatures.

I’ve encountered a python on a nature walk, a little green snake on the beach and recently saw an enormous snake on the side of the road as we drove from Sydney north to Taree over Christmas.

Funnily enough, while my friends in the UK warned me about getting bitten by snakes and spiders “on the arse” when I moved to Australia, the only thing that ever attacked me was a bird.

A ferocious magpie dive-bombed me once when I was living in Coogee, near the beach.

No one had thought to warn me about a little black and white bird that turns feral around Spring time.

freshlyworded list of the week: the 10 Woody Allen films you must see before you die

woody-allenWoody Allen, born in the Bronx as Allen Stewart Koningsberg in 1935, has been making movies since 1965, having starting out as a sketch writer and stand-up comedian.

In total he has written and directed (and in many cases starred in) 46 films starting with ‘What’s Up Tiger Lily?‘ and is currently in post-production on a film called “Blue Jasmine” starring Cate Blanchette and Alec Baldwin.

I admire him immensely: starting from his early stand-up comedy records (watch his famous and hilarious “I shot a Moose” sketch from 1965″) to his early relationship comedies to later more dramatic works.

Manhattan has been the canvas for his stories, but he’s also made London, Paris and Barcelona backdrops for his films.

Not all have been classics, some have been mediocre and forgettable and others have been plain awful.

Why do I admire him so much: it’s the stories he tells about love, relationships, anxiety, existentialism, religion all brought together with classic Woody Allen wit and insight.

It’s also his iconic angst-ridden, questioning, self-doubting and fallible jewish male character, portrayed so often in his films that I love so much.

These are 10 of his films that I have loved (I’ve not seen all of his films) and recommend highly:

215px-Crimes_and_misdemeanors2Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) is Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic achievement. It brings together all of his key themes – religion, morality, family, guilt, the meaning and purpose of life – in a seemless way with great writing, a pitch-perfect soundtrack and wonderful performances by its ensemble cast. There are numerous plots and sub-plots, but the film principally revolves around Judah Rosenthal (a brilliant Martin Landau), a successful and wealthy ophthalmologist, who resorts to desperate measures to end an affair with Dolores Paley (equally brilliant Angelica Huston).  Despite the heavy material, it is also extremely funny with the humour provided by Allen himself an idealistic documentary film-maker Clifford Stern, given the opportunity to make a documentary about his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), an obnoxious big-time television producer. He does it so that he can earn enough money to make a documentary about a life-affirming jewish professor, Louis Levy, all the while falling in love with Lester’s associate producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow).

Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977) would be top of many people’s lists of favourite Woody Allen films. At its heart it’s a love story between the angst-ridden, neurotic Alvy Singer (Allen) and quirky, lovable, absent-minded Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) with some of his best lines and jokes thrown in and questions about God and the meaning of life. There’s also some great cameos from Paul Simon, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver.

One memorable line comes after Annie Hall parks her VW beetle almost perpendicular to the curb following an exhibtion of some of the worst driving ever seen on film.

Alvy remarks: Don’t worry. We can walk to the curb from here.

ManhattanShot beautifully in black and white, Manhattan (1979) is Woody Allen’s visual homage to the city that he loves. The city is the backdrop  to Isaac’s (Allen) affair with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), while pursuing the mistress of his best friend, Yale. There are so many iconic shots of Manhattan to drool over and great lines like:

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we’re just people. We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.

Isaac Davis: I… I gotta model myself after someone.

matchpoint

Matchpoint (2005) sees Woody Allen move locations to London with this dark tale about seduction and murder starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

play it again sam

Play it Again Sam (1972) is actually directly by Herbert Ross, but based on Woody Allen’s stage play and stars him in the lead role of a love-sick film critic and schmuck who turns to his alter ego – Humphrey Bogart in his role as smooth talking Rick Blaine from Casablanca – for inspiration as to how to be a lady’s man.

love and death

Love and Death (1975) is a historical comedy set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Woody Allen plays neurotic soldier Boris, in love with his Sonja (Diane Keaton) who gets involved in a plot to assassinate Napoleon, with philosophical musing and some very silly (but hilarious) skits thrown in.

215px-Midnight_in_Paris_Poster

In Midnight in Paris (2011), Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American would-be writer in Paris with his pretentious fiancée who finds himself transported back to the Paris of the 1920s where he meets, drinks and parties with his literary idols including F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and artists like Picasso, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

images

Zelig (1983) sees Woody Allen play the title role of the chameleon (literally) like Leonard Zelig who can change his appearance to match the people he is with and becomes a global phenomenon. Told in documentary style, it’s hilarious.

deconstructing harry

In Deconstructing Harry (1997) Woody Allen plays Harry block, a writer suffering from writer’s block, with a penchant for prostitutes and vulgarity. It’s a very funny film as Block recalls events from his past and characters from his books. There’s a memorable scene played by Robin Williams, an actor worried about losing his focus who is shown as actually out of focus in the movie.

broadway-danny-rose-1

Broadway Danny Rose (1984) sees Woody Allen play a talent agent to a string of bizarre performers that no one else will hire. One of them is Lou, a talented lounge singer, making a comeback. Allen goes out of his way to help Lou, but finds himself being pursued by mobsters after trying to bring Lou’s crazy mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) to his concert.

And here’s four to definitely avoid:

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Small Time Crooks

Celebrity

Scoop

Time-poor journalists are sitting ducks for press release hoaxes – expect more

5756126865_90a674e31d_mThe hoax ANZ/Whitehaven Coal press release sent out by environmental activist Jonathan Moylan this week not only exposed the fragile mind-sets of nervous investors, but highlighted the challenges facing time-poor journalists in the internet age of the 24 hour news cycle.

As has been pointed out by many different commentators including Eric Johnstone from The Age, a little research, a little consideration, even a little time spent mulling the press release over, should have alerted journalists and editors that it was fake.

“The press release read like the real thing. However there were several red flags. Banks don’t usually go about advertising the fact they have pulled a financing facility. They leave that to the company,” Johnstone writes.

20130107_ANZ_divests_coal_hoax

The fake ANZ press release

Despite these red flags,  respected publications like News Limited’s Business Spectator, Fairfax’s metro papers and the Australian Financial Review all bought it hook, line and sinker.

And yet while everyone has been focusing on the impact a press release written in a forest by a 25-year-old translater with basic Photoshop skills and dodgy internet connection had on investors and share prices and possible breaches of the Corporations Act, the bigger story is one about the challenges facing journalists expected to bash out stories in the time it takes to sip a cup of coffee.

Spend time in any online newsroom (as I have done for the past 10 years) and you’ll instantly understand the pressure journalists are under to file copy.

“I need that copy in 10 minutes

“I need it in five minutes.”

“Just file what you have.”

These are the exclamations that ring in the ears of journalists every day uttered by anxious editors.

In the brave new media world, where commercial success is measured by number of ‘hits’, ‘unique browsers’, ‘tweets’ and ‘likes’, there is hardly any time for journalist to sit back and take a moment to think.

The day begins. You turn on computer, put fingers to your keyboard and write, write, write. The day disappears in a flash.

Government reports running to 300 pages must be digested in a few hours, sometimes less, meaning journalists must resort to reading the executive summary and skimming over huge amounts of information.

Intricate legal judgements, deep economic analysis, complex new government policy – its all about finding the story as you skim the paragraphs (keyword searches are especially useful).

And always there is the pressure of time.

Sure there were (and still are) tight deadlines in the past for those journalists working on daily newspapers (I have not worked on one myself) but more than likely – when lucrative print advertising funded newspapers and magazines – they were manageable and editorial teams were large and well resourced.

Today, if journalists want to wear the mantle of true investigative reporters, they must devote their own time, outside of work hours and sometimes their own money to put a deeply researched story together.

And many do.

Jonathan Moylan may have been surprised at the impact his quickly hashed media statement had – wiping $300 million of value off Whitehaven coal and incensing investors and embarrasing editors – but he shouldn’t be.

As an online journalist myself, I have been all to eager on a few occasions to write the story based on research or a press release, which while not a hoax, was based on incorrect information and if I had taken the time to consider the facts before me, would have realised that it clearly was a load of nonsense.

But, a juicy headline as concocted by Moylan, more likely while he rested against a tree and listened to the birds tweeting, would have been impossible to resist for journalists and editors thinking about readers, hits and revenue.

Certainly, at a glance, it looked convincing enough.

(Here’s a copy  of the scam press release and you can find numerous genuine ANZ press releases on their website if you want to make your own comparisons.)

Make no mistake, there will be others that will attempt similar guerrilla tactics, considering the enormous impact this hoax has had and the success of other stunts in the past (see this hoax involving Dow Chemicals, this one that caught out Harvey Norman and this recent one targeting MacMahon Holdings ).

Yes, journalists and editors will attempt to be more vigilant, but with the passing of time and the pressure to keep churning out story after story, their guards will slip and we will be easy pickings for activists, trouble-makers and those with more time on their hands than we have.

Book review: The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant

freuds wizard“Freud’s Wizard” by Brenda Maddox is a biography tracing the life of one Ernest Jones, a Welsh doctor and psychologist who almost single-handedly promoting Sigmund Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis to Britain and the world.

He also orchestrated the rescuing of Freud, his family and many other prominent Jewish Viennese psychoanalysts when Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Jones secured the difficult-to-get visas and flew into Nazi-occupied Austria to bring Freud to London.

Maddox’s book could easily have been subtitled: “The man who made Sigmund Freud”.

And given the Jones was a short Welshman and Freud a behemoth of modern psychology, it might have been more elaborately sub-titled: “The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant”.

Ernest Jones was Freud’s champion and close confidant for 30 years and wrote what is considered the definitive (three-volume) biography of the father of psychoanalysis – ‘The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud’ – considered to be among the greatest biographies ever written.

Maddox, an anglophile American resident in the UK, who has written a number of noted biographies (including those about DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and Rosalind Franklin) has certainly picked an interesting and influential figure to write about in Ernest Jones, one of those figures in history who stand in the shadows of greatness, but were great in their own right.

The book begins with Jones’s birth in a small town a few miles from Swansea in Wales and follows his progress through school, medical school and the start of a very chequered medical career in London and then Toronto, before meeting Freud in 1906 and beginning his life’s work.

I have read some of the reviews of “Freud’s Wizard” which remark that Jones comes across as not a very likeable man – he was controlling, manipulative and devious, someone who tells his own son that he has a “hell of a superego”.

However, these character flaws pale into insignificance compared with disturbing accusations made against Jones alleging indecent behaviour against children while he was a young doctor in London (similar accusations were made later in his career).

Jones was found not guilty, but his innocence – as explained by Maddox – may have more to do with the epoch in which the incident allegedly occurred – that children were considered “mentally unreliable” while there also did not yet exist the technology to test DNA, which may have been conclusive in proving Jones’s guilt or innocence.

Maddox does not overlook this behaviour – she finds it perplexing and disturbing – nor does she overlook Jones’s infidelities or his womanising, but she clearly admires Jones too much to let them get in the way of portraying him as a hero of Freud and of psychoanalysis, which undoubtedly he was.

freud460

Taken in 1909: Sigmund Freud front left next to Carl Jung (on his right) with Ernest Jones in the middle of the back row.

The axis of the book is Ernest Jones’s relationship with Freud and his efforts to establish psychoanalysis as a recognised medical treatment rather than a quack, devious treatment with its emphasis on unconscious sexual motives (the Oedipus Complex) and other controversial theories such as penis envy.

The book catalogues the different psychoanalytic societies and journals that Jones founded, his insatiable appetite for writing essays on different psychoanalytic themes (he even wrote a book on figure-skating) and his tireless devotion to the cause of psychoanalysis.

While he fails as a doctor – no London hospital will take him on after his record is blackened – but he ultimately thrives as a psychoanalyst, liasing with all the great psychoanalytic minds (apart from Freud) as well as the famous Bloomsbury Group, a collection of English writers, some of whom helped translate Freud’s ideas into English.

The book also chronicles Jones very important role in keeping the American psychoanalytic movement onside when it threatened to split from the Freudians – Americans believed only medical doctors should be allowed to practice psychoanalysis while British and European psychoanalytic societies believed non-medically trained people could become practitioners provided they were properly trained and underwent psychoanalysis themselves.

The passion of Ernest Jones in this endeavour and others is probably one of the key reasons why so many Americans (especially in places like New York ) undergo psychoanalysis today.

And consider this, without Ernst Jones there might never have been neurotic, anxiety-written comics like Woody Allen and his many jokes and references to psychoanalysis.

As Allen’s character Alvy Singer remarks in “Annie Hall”:

“I was depressed…I would have killed myself but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and if you kill yourself … they make you pay for the sessions you miss.”

Ernest Jones, who considered himself something of an honorary jew given his close friendship with Freud and other Jewish pyschoanalysts (cemented by his marriage to Kitty Jokl, a jewess) and fond of using yiddish words, would no doubt have found this joke amusing.

Ironically, it was Ernest Jones’s non-Jewishness which helped give Freud’s theories legitimacy in an age when anti-semitism was rife.