Monthly Archives: March 2013

“Chin, chin Monty”: remembering “Withnail and I” star Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths (left) with Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann)

“My boys” – Richard Griffiths (left) as “Uncle Monty” with “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) in “Withnail and I”

“Monty you terrible c-nt. what are you doing prowling round in the middle of the f-cking night?”

So says “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) upon discovering his rotund, gay, impeccably posh “Uncle Monty” (Richard Griffiths) is the prowler he and “I” (Paul McGann) are so terrified of as they huddle in a room in their freezing cottage in the English  countryside.

For me and I imagine for many of his fans, Richard Griffiths, the English actor who so sadly passed away this weekend will always be remembered as “Uncle Monty” in the cult 1986 comedy “Withnail and I” directed by Bruce Robinson.

For others, he will be remembered as uncle Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films or as the eccentric, but groping and doomed school teacher in the Alan Bennett play, The History Boys.

Living in London at the time, I was fortunate to score free tickets to see the very first performance of The History Boys in 2004 and Richard Griffiths in the lead role.

He was wonderful, and there certainly was an Uncle Monty-like dimension to his character, that of a gay man who can’t hold back his proclivities – (though Uncle Monty preferred tweed and tailored suits and would never have been seen in Hector’s riding-gear leathers.)

The obituaries have been generous and glowing.

Apart from having a short temper, Griffiths is described as lovable, generous, warm and down to earth and someone , who, with out the assistance of good looks or privilege (he grew up in a coal mining town in North Yorkshire and both his parents were deaf) forged a highly successful career as an English character actor who in the words of Guardian writer Lyn Gardner brought “sheer delicacy”to his roles.

All pay tribute to his greatest comic creation, that of Uncle Monty, and so they should.

Upon learning of his death, I pulled out my copy of “With Nails” the film diaries of his “Withnail and I” co-star Richard E. Grant and read what he wrote upon meeting Richard Griffiths for the first time.

Not surprisingly, Griffiths sounds a lot like Uncle Monty; perhaps he was getting into character:

Grant writes:

“Richard Griffiths arrives in the evening, roasted and in agony from too much sun in Tuscany, which doesn’t stop him enjoying five courses, cigs, vino and tales of Thespia. His larger than life avuncularity comes as a great relief for we have been so wound up rehearsing that it was beginning to feel as if we were the only characters in this lark.”

While it would be unfair to say Griffiths had all the best lines in the movie, he certainly got some of the most memorable ones and fans of the movie will no doubt be able to recite many of them verbatim:

Lines like (while discussing the growing of vegetables):

“I happen to think the cauliflower more beautiful than the rose”

…which then turns into a hilarious phallic joke when Monty professes his love of a certain root vegetable:

“There is you’ll agree a certain je ne ses quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot.”

My favourite line is probably, this tender-hearted utterance, when explaining why he can never touch uncooked meat:

“As a youth, I used to weep in butcher shops.”

Griffiths played Uncle Monty with sheer brilliance, portraying him as an eccentric, lonesome gay man with Thespian aspirations to “tread the boards” and fond of delivering soliloquys about his boyhood “friend” Wrigglesworth,with whom he would ride off into the countryside and when night fell,”find some old barn and fall asleep with the sweet perfume of hay on our lips” and “the sounds of nature sighing by our side”.

While “Withnail and I” is a comedy, it is very much a melancholic comedy, with Griffiths as the love-sore, randy and lonesome Uncle Monty, who will “never play the Dane (Hamlet)”.

For those who have not seen it, it’s the story about two out of work actors – “Withnail” (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann) living in London at the end of the 1960s who go on holiday “by mistake” courtesy of Uncle Monty’s cottage in the countryside to escape the misery and cold of their Camden Town flat.

The holiday quickly unravels, filled with misadventure, randy bulls, English tea rooms, copious amounts of alcohol, and a procession of bizarre characters (some even more eccentric than Uncle Monty).

withnail and I poster

Neither “Withnail” nor “I” expect Uncle Monty to pay them a visit and pursue the horror-filled “I” with a buggery-induced belligerence that culminates in those hilarious, lines delivered by Griffiths (and quoted in almost every obituary I have read of him):

“I mean to have you boy, even if it be burglary!”

It’s been a while since I last watched “Withnail and I” but feel a tribute viewing in honour of Richard Griffiths is on the cards.

If you’ve never seen it, seek it out in the cult section of your nearest DVD store immediately.

Chin chin and RIP in Uncle Monty!

Memoirs of a murderous Perth childhood: a review of Robert Drewe’s brilliant ‘The Shark Net’

the shark net‘The Shark Net’ is an acclaimed memoir by Australian journalist and fiction and non-fiction writer Robert Drewe recalling his childhood and journey to adulthood in suburban Perth in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I was drawn to the book by the description on the back cover:

“Aged six. Robert Drewe moved with his family from Melbourne to Perth, the world’s most isolated city – and proud of it….Then a man he knew murdered a boy he also knew. The murderer randomly killed eight strangers – variously shooting, strangling, stabbing, bludgeoning and hacking his victims and running them down with cars – and innocent Perth was changed forever.”

If there was ever a back cover description to entice me to read a memoir, then this was it.

Murder.

Murder by someone the author knew of somone the author also knew.

And in the sleepy, isolated town of Perth.

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, you’d think I’d know someone who had been murdered or been the murderer. But I don’t.

“The Shark Net” is a book I have always had on my mental “must read” list and I was lucky enough to pick up a paper back copy for a couple of dollars while scrounging around in the book section at the Vinne’s op shop in Moonie Ponds.

I’ve known of the author, Robert Drewe, through a collection of excellent short stories I read he edited called “Picador Book of the Beach” and a short story he wrote in it called the “The Body surfers.”

The Shark Net did not disappoint, even though the murders and murderer play a relatively small (but important and binding) part in the plotline of the book.

It begins with Drewe, a young whipper snapper journalist on the Western Australian newspaper attending the trial of the murderer, but then goes back to tell of the story of his family’s move across the country from Melbourne to Perth, a journey that in 1949 took 12 hours by plane with refuelling stops at Adelaide and Kalgoorlie.

Drewe then proceeds to tell the story of his childhood – of his distant, non-communicative father, the archetypal “company man” who was on the rise as a state manager for rubber products maker Dunlop and his overbearing mother who worried about her children dying from “boiled brain” as a result of the Perth heat.

The Perth of Drewe’s childhood bears little resemblance to the modern, mining-rich city it is becoming today.

It’s very much the provincial town where every one seemingly knew each other, so much so that Drewe not only was acquainted with the serial killer, knew one of his victims

Even seven years ago, when I visited Perth for a mortgage conference, it had the feel of a large country town. We stayed in a hotel in the city and my chief memory is of the lack of people on the streets in the middle of the day. You almost expected tumbleweeds to come blowing down. My other memories are of Cottelsoe Beach, delicious oysters, sprawling suburbs with big houses, the historic feel of Fremantle and the long-distances travelled between city and suburb (and lunch at the Little Creatures Brewery).

What Drewe manages to do so powerfully is to create the feeling of being a kid in Perth in this era – of a town that felt seperated in it own universe, far, far away from the rest of Australia. Of the sprawling suburbs among the sand dunes, with the sand working its way into the foundations and onto manicured lawns.

Drewe writes:

“Some people lived in the loose white sand near the ocean. Even though everyone in Perth lived in the dunes I thought of them as Sand People. Every afternoon the fierce sea wind, which they dismissed as The Breeze, blew their sand into the air and corrugated their properties.”

He brilliantly evokes many memorable episodes in his childhood such as his visit to Rottnest Island, where he kills a shark as means to impress a girl (only for it to rot and smelll); a trip with his mother to hear the evangelist Billy Graham speak at  football stadium; a visit by tennis champ Rod Laver, endorsed by Dunlop tennis gear, mysterious suburban prowlers; late night adventures to meet girls and of murder in the suburbs.

Even if you have never ventured as far as Perth or even Australia, it’s an engrossing, entertaining read, with the bland suburbs south of the Swan River turned into places of intrigure, mystery and primal forces.

Make sure you read it.

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers

Modern Perth with its skyscrapers

The travails of Melbourne travel (part 2): Q&A with Melbourne Metro on Craigieburn delays

Melbourne's famous Metro Trains.Earlier this week I blogged about my month of “travails” on the Craigieburn Line from Oak Park to the CBD and back again.

I documenting the delays, cancellations, the great ‘bat’ fiasco and other frustrations that have become part of my daily train commute.

I also put some questions to Melbourne Metro, who kindly responded via senior media liason officer Larisa Tait.

It appears that much of the delays have to do with the “Regional rail link” a major new project aimed at adding 90 kilometres of tracks to the existing rail network (plus new stations, rail bridges etc) and “alleviating major bottlenecks in Victoria’s rail network”.

Sadly, it’s not due for completion until 2016 and whilst under construction, it appears to be creating a bottleneck of its own for the ‘Northern group’ of Metro train lines, which include Craigieburn.

These are my questions and respones from Metro:

Why does the 7.35 train get stuck outside outside North Melbourne so frequently?

Metro: This train is the first of three Craigieburn line trains each day that run direct to Flinders Street Station and not through the City Loop.  These three services were altered as a result of a timetable change in November 2012 which saw more services introduced on the Northern Group (Upfield, Craigieburn and Sunbury) following the opening of the Sunbury line. The reason for the change is due to the fact that only 20 trains can run through the Loop per hour and currently the Loop is at maximum capacity.

These three direct Flinders St trains run over a section of track known as the Broadmeadows Flyover, which is just outside North Melbourne Station. It is this specific section of track where Werribee, Williamstown and Geelong services all merge onto platform 5 at North Melbourne Station.

The timetable is designed to allow this to occur each peak while still running to schedule. However, if there are any delays on any service going through this merge point, it will be these three services that are held outside North Melbourne, awaiting a clear path to the platform and then into Southern Cross and Flinders St.

This is the reason for regular delays at the same section of the line each day.

What causes a train to be defective?

Metro: There are many things that can cause a train to be defective and there are hundreds of types of train faults: vandalism, faulty air-conditioning, graffiti in or near the driver’s cabin, sticking brakes and faulty doors, to name a few. We do however have more trains in service than ever before and only defective trains with a categorised critical fault are removed from service immediately. The remainder of trains with faults continue running and are maintained at the next available opportunity.

Is Metro satisfied with the current performance levels?

No, we are not satisfied with our current performance levels and are working every day to improve it. We will not be satisfied until our performance is near perfect.

 Can you tell me what the performance rating would be for on-time service if a train was considered on time if it arrived within two minutes of its scheduled arrival? (Currently overall on-time performance on the Craigieburn line is around 92% – but on-time is deemed to be a train less than 5 minutes late).

Metro: I can’t give you what our performance would be if we only had a two minute allowance for on time.

However, below is the Craigieburn line on time running for last 28 days: February 6 to March 6 2013:

0 min – 58.9% (ie. up to 59 secs late)

1 min – 69.8% (ie. up to 1:59 secs late…etc)

2 min – 78.1%

3 min – 84.8%

4 min – 89.5%

Will train fares being go up this year?

Fares are not determined by Metro. Direct this question to Public Transport Victoria.

The travails of Melbourne trains: Diary of a bad travel month

4348352914_b23a171cd7_b-001

Melbourne’s train network appears to be slowly breaking down.

The timetable appears to be nothing more than a ‘rough guide’ as to when the train ‘might arrive’.

It is more common for the 7.35 train to come at 7.39 or 7.41 or not at all then to arrive at 7.35.

Announcements are often made without apology and often without explanation through the public address system by someone in a voice so full of boredom and apathy one wonders why they bother at all.

Something like:

“Attention customers on the Craigieburn Line (my line). Attention customers on the Craigiburn Line. The 7.35 train has been cancelled. Your next train will be at 7.41. This train is running five minutes late.”

Combined with the poor service, customers are constantly reminded that if they fare-evade they will  be caught and face a hefty fine.

Try explaining to the authorised officers (train police) that you aren’t paying your fare out of protest at train delays and the non-running of trains and see how far that gets you.

Growing increasingly exasperated at the almost daily delays, late arrival of trains and cancelled services, I kept a diary for a month documenting my travels or as I like to refer to them, ‘my travails’ of travelling the Craigieburn line from Oak Park to Southern Cross station and back every week day:

Thursday, 10 January: Train arrives on time. But then stuck betweeen Moonee Ponds and Newmarket for long periods. Driver silent as a church mouse. Passengers grumble. We eventually arrive at Southern Cross 10 minutes late.

Tuesday, 15 January: Train stuck outside North Melbourne due to V-Line train. I curse the V-Line train and our “country cousins”. Arrive at Southern Cross 10 minutes late.

Wednesday, 16 January: Crawl along from Strathmore to Oak Park due to signal failure. Driver must be a deaf mute. No word. We arrive 10 minutes late.

Thursday, 17 January: 5.39 train cancelled due to defective train. While I am cursing what ever is possibly wrong with the train, I am told in an irritated voice over the loudspeaker that the next train at 5.47 will be arriving late. It duly does.

Monday, 21 January: Train stuck outside North Melbourne due to congestion. Arrives 8 minutes late at Southern Cross station.

Wednesday, 23 January: Train delayed outside North Melbourne due to V-Line train taking our spot on the platform and “congestion”. Why do country bumpkins get preference over hard-working suburbanites?” I ask myself as we stand motionless on the tracks. Arrive at Southern Cross station 6 minutes late.

The 5.39 train homeward bound is 6 minutes late. The symmetry of the day’s commute does not impress me.

Thursday, 24 January: Train arrives late. Then we are stuck outside North Melbourne due to  another cursed V-Line train. Arrived 6 minutes late at Southern Cross Station.

Homeward bound train arrives 10 minutes late as we are stuck in the loop. Emergency stop required. No warning given of emergency stop. Everyone gasps as we lurch towards the edge of our seats. I curse.

Friday, 25 January: Chaos on the way home. Craigieburn line delayed indefinitely due to “bat on overhead line”. Metro trains thinks its all a big joke and merrily tweets about the so-called bat now no longer with us.

(Click to enlarge)

bat2

Take train to North Melbourne to chaotic scene. People crowded together waiting for replacement buses. Station announcer appears to taunt those waiting by telling them they are waiting at the wrong spot and won’t be catching any buses from there. I dispense with the queue forming at the correct bus stop and shove pensioners aside to get on the bus.

Bus driver, a middle-age lady, complains to passengers it is her day off. Then drops a bombshell. She doesn’t know the way to Essendon. “Tut-tutting” passengers direct bus driver to the freeway. Surprisingly we end up in Essendon instead of St Kilda.

Tuesday, 29 January: Train delayed outside North Melbourne. Stuck waiting due to sick person on train. Get off train when told delay could be indefinite. Walk across  to another platform. Train I just got off departs. I curse sick person.

Wednesday, 30 January: We are packed like sardines due to delayed train arriving when previous train was meant to arrive. I have a seat and read my book and decide not to curse.

Thursday, 31 January: Train delayed at North Melbourne. Arrive 6 minutes late.

Friday, 1 February: The 7.35 train does not arrive. Catch the next train which is packed as a result. Confusion for passengers as train is now the 7.41 train and going through the loop instead of direct to Southern Cross. Here lots of cursing.

Monday, 4 February: Train arrives 5 minutes late at Southern Cross due to delays en route. Train packed as a result of delays. Immersed in good book.

Tuesday, 5 February:  The 7.35 train does not arrive again. No annoucement. The next train is packed. Goes through the loop instead of direct to Southern Cross. Train driver tries to explain new route. More cursing and grumbling from fellow passengers. Lots of frowing and mutterings under breath too.

Wednesday, 6 February: 5.47 train homeward bound cancelled due to defective train. I wonder if they ever fix these trains.

Friday, 8 February: Fiasco! Craigieburn-bound train moved to platform 9 instead of usual platform 4 or 5. I race down ramp, through tunnel and up ramp. Jump on train and scramble for seat. Then told the train is not taking passengers due to there being “no qualified driver” available. We are told to go back to platform 4 or 5 to catch 5.53 train.

Arrive home late muttering about “how hard can it be to drive a friggin train?”.

Consider taking train driver course.

Change mind. Passenger rage too stressful.

Loyalty programs: 11 years to shop my way to an ipad

loyaltyThe small lady behind the counter scowls when ever I order a coffee and give her my loyalty card to mark.

I’ve not yet seen her smile, perhaps she is incapable.

She doesn’t have a stamp, as most cafes do, but scribbles a signature in Chinese characters over one of the eight oval shapes that must be filled in before I get a free coffee at Coffee Kingdom (corner Market Street and Flinders Lane).

You’d think a smile might be a nice gesture since I choose her cafe among the myriad of alternatives to go to for my afternoon caffeine fix.

But no. She takes my money and signs my card like a teacher marking the report card of one of her least pleasing students.

I can only wonder how she is going to react when I fill in all the eight spaces and give her my card instead of money and ask for a skinny cappucino.

Will she spit in my coffee when I am not looking? Will she burn the milk? Will the coffee cup be only half full?

All this has got me thinking about loyalty programs.

A couple of years ago, I racked up enough points on my Virgin velocity card to buy an 80 GB ipod classic. It was pretty much top of the range back then – I still have it and use it often – and I was pleased with myself for having bought it for “nothing”.

But of course that’s not the case at all.

I first had to rack up a couple of year’s worth of trips to and from Sydney, a couple of overseas trips to London and back and one or two to Johannesburg and back – all on Virgin to get enough points to buy the gadget.

A while back I thought about writing a blog post about how much shopping I would have to do at Coles to qualify for say an ipad on the Flybuys loyalty program.

On Coles’ Flybuys program I need 113,800 points to buy an ipad 2 with wi-fi and 3G capabilities.rewards

Currently, after a couple of years of grocery shopping ( I don’t do all my shopping at Coles I confess) I have a whopping 5,700 points, which qualifies me for two movie tickets at Hoyts (worth about $40) with a few points to spare or just enough for a six month subscription to the ABC’s Gardening magazine.

So after years and many thousands of dollars spent on groceries, pet food and lately, nappies, I can cash it all in and go to the movies or subscribe to a magazine.

But what about that cherished ipad?

Flybuys does provide a calculator so I can estimate just how much I need to spend at Coles or Kmart or Liquorland to put in my order.

If I were to spend $100 per week on groceries at Coles, this would gives me 400 points. And lets say I spend $50 a week on average at Target (200 points) and $50 on booze at Liquorland (200 points) I’d rack up 800 points a month.

Divide that by 113,800  (minus the 5,700 points I already have accrued) and I get 135 months or just over 11 years.

More than a decade of loyal spending!

Of course in 11 years time, the ipad will probably be replaced by a device implanted behind the eyeballs operated by thoughts and god only knows how many points you’ll need for that.

(Ok, I’ve been watching too many sci-fi movies, but I do believe the next Samsung smartphone will have “eye-scrolling” technology)

The bottom line is that most loyaltly programs throw scraps at loyal customers in return for valuable information about spending patterns and the type of products we might like to buy.

Consider this. I got an email from Flybuys today offering me a bonus 200 points if I shop at the Coles kosher range before passover.

Now, I don’t imagine that catholic priests that do their shopping at Coles – and have never once bought  a kosher chicken at four times the price of a non-kosher one  – will have received this offer.

And I know why I got it.

I’ve only once ever shopped at Coles for kosher food. My mother came to visit last year from South Africa and we bought a kosher chicken and a few other things to prepare a traditional Friday night shabbat dinner.

Of course I duly swiped my Flybuys card and surprise, surprise – I’m on the kosher mail out along with all the regular kosher buyers from Bentleigh and Caufield.

(They must have ignored the bacon, hot cross buns and shaved ham I’ve bought in the past).

Shabbat Shalom indeed!

I should add that loyalty programs are brilliant if someone else is picking up the cheque but you score the points – such as businessmen who fly regularly on the company credit card. I think of the movie “Up in the air” and George Clooney receiving his special graphite loyalty card for racking up a 10 million air miles.

On a smaller scale, I could offer to get the coffee round at work and earn a free coffee everyday at Coffee Kingdom.

Imagine the look on her face!

A review of “Short Cuts” – nine short stories by short story master Raymond Carver

short cutsI came across my copy of “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver in much the same way that things happen to characters in his short stories – by a sequence of events that just ‘happened’ to me.

The book had been packed in storage since I don’t know when really, in a cardboard box and brought over to Sydney by my sister and her husband when they emigrated to Australia.

It was delivered to my door in Oak Park, Melbourne by a woman I found online, whom I paid $35 and who had spare space in her car and was driving down to Melbourne from Sydney. I unpacked the cardboard box and placed the book “Short Cuts” in the bookshelf in the lounge, where it remained for a few weeks.

On Monday morning I woke up, dressed for work and realised I’d left my satchel in our daughter’s room with the book I was reading. Not wanting to risk waking her up, I looked for something else to read on the train into work among the books in the lounge.

I chose “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver, with an introduction by the late US master filmmaker Robert Altman, who constructed his movie “Short Cuts” out of the nine stories in the book, plus one poem.

So one thing led to another, and then another, and then another, and now I find myself contemplating the nine stories and one poem that I read over the past four days.

Raymond Carver was a master of the short story. He is an American literary giant and considered among the greatest exponents of writing a story that can be read and enjoyed in one sitting. He died in 1988, aged 50, from lung cancer, the same year he was posthumously inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In each of the nine stories in Short Cuts (and the poem “Lemonade”) things happen to everyday people.

In one story a couple are asked to look after the flat and feed the cat of their better-off neighbours across the hallway and it becomes the focus of their otherwise mundane lives with comic consequences; in another an out-of-work husband convinces his wife, who works as a waitress in a diner, to lose weight when he overhears other men comment on her thighs when she serves them; in another the pent-up frustrations and libido of a married man leads to unexpected tragedy.

In one of Carver’s most famous short stories, “Will you please be quiet, please?” a quiet evening at home between a husband and wife spirals out of control after an adulterous incident from the past is brought up casually in conversation.

It is a story that taps right into our everyday lives – an evening at home, a chance silly remark (we have all made them) and by the end of the night you’re drunk, alone and sleeping on the couch.

Probably the most famous story in the collection (and re-told in the film “Short cuts” and in the Australian movie “Jindabyne”) is “So much water so close to home” about a group of friends who go fishing and find a dead girl in the river. They deliberate about what to do but eventually decide to tie her to the rocks and continue fishing, notifying the sheriff a few days later. The story is told from the point of view of the appalled wife of Stuart, one of the fisherman, who cannot understand his wife’s rage.

People who have seen Robert Altman’s classic film “Short Cuts” with its inter-weaving storylines set against the backdrop of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs, will recognise elements of the stories in the film, which have been twisted masterfully by Altman into a cinematic narrative.

Suburbia. Ordinary people. Relationships and chance encounters. Tragedy and kindness. Everyday lives and the things that happen to these lives – these are the subjects that Carver writes about in his concise, but elegant prose.

Here’s a short extract from “So much water so close to home”:

“They fish together every spring and early summer, the first two or three months of the season, before family vacations, little league baseball, and visiting relatives can intrude. They are decent men, family men, responsible at their jobs. They have sons and daughters who go to school with our son, Dean. On Friday afternoon these four men left for a three-day fishing trip to the Naches River. They parked the car in the mountains and hiked several miles to where they wanted to fish. They carried their bedrolls, food and cooking utensils, their playing cards, their whiskey. The first evening at the river, even before they could set up camp, Mel Dorn found the girl floating face down in the river, nude, lodged near the shore in some branches.”

If you like the pared-down writing style of Charles Bukowski (read my review of his hilarious memoir “Hollywood”), George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, you will almost certainly enjoy reading this collection of Carver short stories.

Nice people take heroin too: An interview with Kate Holden, author of “In My Skin”

In-My-Skin-Kate-Holden-196x300“In My Skin” by Melbourne author Kate Holden is the fifth-book I have read as part of a blog project on “the junkie in literature”.

I’ve read and reviewed Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Monkey Grip by Helen Gardner, Junky by William S. Burroughs and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey.

In My Skin is Kate Holden’s memoir of her journey from a middle-class suburban family upbringing into heroin addiction and prostitution and later, successfully beating her addiction.

The book charts how she came to become a heroin addict (curiosity, boredom, wanting to be included) and how she was forced to become a prostitute – first walking the streets of St. Kilda and later working in a number of brothels – to pay for her and her boyfriend Robbie’s habits.

It is an incredibly honest account, and quite shocking in its frank description of the life of a prostitute and quite a compassionate one in terms of her views on the men whom frequent brothels and whom she serviced.

It provides the reader with access to a world behind closed doors: brothel bedrooms, the camaraderie of prostitutes, the nervousness of men of women’s bodies and the ferocious nature of some sexual encounters.

I was lucky enough to chat to Kate Holden about the experience of writing “In My Skin”:

Did you read or take inspirations from any other memoirs (about heroin users or anyone else who has struggled against an illness or personal challenge) before or as you wrote “In my skin”?

Kate: I was an interested reader of heroin-related stories I guess, starting with loving ‘Monkey Grip’ (although much more for its Melbourne atmosphere and writing style than anything to do with Javo) and then, just as I was beginning to use, I sought out various books like a novel called ‘Nature Strip’ (by Leonie Stevens set in Melbourne during the 1980s) and another memoir about an American user (name totally forgotten). It was the age of ‘grunge-lit’ so I didn’t have to look far; in the absence of any adult guidance in the ways and destinies of heroin use I had to look for help from literature. I didn’t read anything before I started work on ‘In My Skin’. I can’t stand reading junkie books now.

Who are your favourite writers?

Kate: Hilary Mantel, Anne Michaels, Pablo Neruda, Judith Wright, T. S. Eliot, Geoff Dyer, Michael Chabon.

Was it challenging being so honest about this period in your life or was it mostly cathartic?

Kate: It was refreshing, like jumping in a cold pool.

How did writing the book change how you viewed your journey through heroin addiction? What were the major revelations and insights?

Kate: Mostly I had to figure out a kind of pattern – the arc of addiction, how it made sense within the arc of my life – and to resist the normative ideologies around heroin and the many boring and reductive ways in which people like to either portray it, or pretend to understand it. Generally I came to see that there were some deep, real reasons why I personally came to heroin, and scattered, random, happenstance circumstances that meant I came to heroin. Life is not given to nice moral pat lessons, thank god.

In the books I’ve read about heroin use, I get the sense that something is experienced in the beginning stages of drug use that is of a sublime nature which then makes the ‘ordinary’ world seem dull by comparison? Was this true in your experience?

Kate: The first time I used I lay on a couch feeling slightly sleepy and watched ‘The X Files.’ There was no ecstatic revelation, no swooning back through the carpet (as happens to Renton in Trainspotting), no orgasmic rush. That’s the movies. There are lots of reasons why people like heroin, or don’t; one is that it’s meant to be interesting, and to make you more interesting by dint of being so wild as to dare take it. This is unfortunately very attractive to a shallow naïve person, or a sensitive naïve person like I was.

Do you think there is a certain type of artistic/creative personality (I think of William S. Burroughs, Thomas De Quincey and the character ‘Javo’ in Monkey Grip) that is vulnerable or drawn towards heroin? What is the initial attraction?

Kate: Funny how all the characters or authors you cite are men. I am not a man. So I think automatically it’s unlikely that you have to be William S. Burroughs to be the type to be a heroin user. I will say that most of the users I met were like me, rather nice people when they weren’t desperately savage and haggard.

In “Junky” by William S. Burroughs there is a moment in the book where he looks in the mirror and realises his face has changed and that he has become a junky. Did you experience that sort of thing or was it just that you found yourself suddenly disappearing into this different kind of existence?

Kate: I won’t pretend that there weren’t times when I looked and didn’t know quite who I’d see in the mirror. But actually I was fairly healthy-looking when I was using. Mostly just tired and a bit yellow. There were times I looked and rather enjoyed seeing the changed version of myself. Other times I was just too fucking tired and miserable to care.

In the book, you never seem to lose your pride or purpose while working in the brothel. What was keeping you going? Did you always see a positive end to the story?

Kate: What kept me going was the uncompromising need to make around $500  a day. The positive end was the slice of home delivery lemon meringue pie that I ordered every night on shift as my reward, without which I was utterly desolate. The other reward was heroin. When I gave up heroin the reward was fistfuls of cash and the promise to myself that finally I was going to stop feeling humiliated, since I now had more savings than anyone I knew.

How important was the support of your family in kicking the drug? Do you think you could have become clean without them?

Kate: Words can’t measure it. But to be honest, I had to do it all myself. My family helped by not hating me.

In the book, you have almost a benevolent/healing view of the sex worker? Do you still feel that way about the industry now that you’re no longer part of it?

Kate: I love and admire sex workers more and more as I go. I do work now with Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) and Vixen (Victorian Sex Industry Network), and fucking adore the company of people who know that world. It’s such a relief not to have to mince words. And they are total spunks.

What happened to your ex-boyfriend “Robbie”? Did he manage to get off heroin and are you still friends?

Kate: He’s around.

Last question, I think of the title “In My Skin” as having two meanings – you learning to be comfortable in your own skin – and also the physical act of injecting heroin in to your skin? Am I reading too much into that?

Kate: No.

A quick word of thanks to Jane Novak from Text Publishing for facilitating this interview. Text published ‘In My Skin by Kate Holden.