Friday, March 31, 2006

Fog of War

Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara was a 2003 film which won the Oscar for best documentary in that year.

The narrative of The Fog of War covers some of defining moments of American and world history in the middle of the 20th century and Robert Strange McNamara was at the fulcrum of many of these events.

US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1967, McNamara says in the film “I lived the Cold War”.

The Fog of War is organised both by the kernel events in McNamara’s life and also by the eleven lessons of the film’s subtitle. Much of the content is an interview between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara but McNamara’s voice dominates. He tells his story direct to camera interspersed with archival material such as TV interviews, telephone recordings, stock footage and news broadcasts.

It is also self-reflexive. The voice of the filmmaker is in the dialogue but is without the self-validating, authoritative tone of traditional documentaries. Errol Morris has made little attempt to hide the technical aspects of his editing. There are obvious jump cuts and some editing suggestions from McNamara have made the final text. This manipulation shows that the film’s voice is not to be found in the technical assemblage. Instead, it is an example of what Kuhn called “a text whose ’truth’ may be judged only by means of extra-textual evidence”. It is the insights into McNamara’s decision-making under great pressure which give it its power. It avoids the trap that Bill Nichols calls “conceptual inadequacy” due to the implied addresser’s ability to place context around his statements.

The sound track is often not in synch with the image track. The text continually returns to visual metaphorical motifs (particularly bombs, guns and military preparations) to undermine the political points (eg when President Johnson is shown saying “we seek no wider war” or when McNamara says “we are rational but reason has its limits”). Philip Glass’s urgent pounding score hammers home the brutality of war.

The first event, and the only one out of chronological sequence is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This kernel event offers a dramatic start to show how leaders operate under pressure and to show how close the world and its “rational leaders” came to mutually assured destruction. This narrative has satellite events in both senses of the word (the missile site pictures from space drive the narrative forward by accentuating the tension). Due to the embedded events of the two contradictory messages from Khrushchev, there is agonised discussion on how to respond. In a series of enchained events, Tommy Thompson convinces Kennedy to respond to the first “soft” message and the missiles are removed without bloodshed. The danger has passed due to the application of lesson #1 “empathise with your enemy”. In a flashforward to 1992, McNamara meets Castro and realises just how close to the edge they came. The narrative concludes back in 1962 by contrasting Kennedy’s simple statement “we won” with an oppositional reading from General LeMay “won, hell, we should have destroyed them!”

The rest of the narrative is mostly chronological and the pace slows down for the longest segment of the film dealing with Vietnam. This war scarred the American conscience like no other and McNamara was the ultimate insider. Unlike the previous military rulers, the French, for whom Indochina posed no real threat to the political system in the metropole, the US was deeply politically divided by its foray into Vietnam.

The paradigmatic structure of The Fog of War also merits some attention. Firstly there is an example of paradigmatic relation of selection based on location. The empathy (lesson #1) with which the Kennedy administration dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis is contrasted with the way the Tonkin Gulf incident was handled (lesson #7 “belief and seeing are often wrong”).

There is also a paradigmic role for the American general Curtis LeMay. He appears in both the World War II and the Cuban segments of the text. In World War II, his directness, courage and bombast work successfully in a brutal war. He reduces the bomb abort rate over Germany by placing himself in the lead aeroplane and threatening to court-martial any crew that fails to reach the target site. He also devastates Japan by using incendiary bombs to bomb its wooden cities.

By contrast, he is marginalised in the Cuban episode. He is the embodiment of the myth of American gung-ho attitude and his injunction “let’s destroy Cuba” carries less weight in the uncertainties of the post nuclear world.

Barthes has said that “the Text can be approached, experienced, in reaction to the sign”. Some of The Fog of War’s signification is self-evident, some is requires interpretation. The sheer scope of the narrative and the controversial personalities, actions and ideas it covers allows for plural meanings.

The text assumes certain pre-knowledge of Japan, Cuba, Vietnam and the American political structure. The Fog of War is an example of what Williamson calls a “bearer of different social purposes”. The implied audience are politicians, political scientists, historians and those with an interest in and knowledge of American political, cultural and social hegemony in the middle decades of the twentieth century. As in Brechtian epic theatre, the purpose is to turn the spectator into an observer but also to arouse his or her capacity for action.

The phrase “fog of war” was coined by the nineteenth century Prussian military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz in a reference to the chaos of war while immersed in it. Much of McNamara’s life is spent inside that fog. His recollections are an attempt to view the referent (the events that cause the fog) with the clear daylight clarity of hindsight.

The text also uses iconic, indexical and conventional signs to display meaning. The recurring motif of dominoes falling on a map of South East Asia works in three ways. Firstly it is iconic (the final domino falls on the location of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam), secondly it is indexical (the dominoes are a motivated signifier for the link between Russia, China and Vietnam) and finally it works conventionally (the dominos stand for the theory by which Communism was expected to take root in the surrounding countries if not stopped).

McNamara’s role in the statistical analysis group of the Air Force is also shown by a deft mix of signs. The image track displays maps of Japan, stock footage of aircraft manufacture and statistics of target destruction. His personal responsibility is conveyed by a torrent of numbers and mathematical symbols raining down like bombs on photos of Japanese cities.

The myth and ideology of this film is based around America’s wars of the 20th century. The myth of American infallibility which grew out of their successes in two world wars haunted them in Vietnam. Johnson’s speech “America wins the wars she undertakes” makes a commitment to uphold the myth. McNamara is a sometimes unwilling partner dragged along to make this myth a reality despite the ‘disturbing signs’ coming from the cable. Occasionally, the real author, Morris attempts to puncture the prevailing ethos with his interjections such as “we had attempted to invade you (Cuba)” or by questioning the use of incendiary bombing in World War II and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But the preferred reading of the addresser is the pride of serving one’s country, right or wrong.

McNamara himself is singularly lacking in ideology. Though he is a Democratic presidential appointee, he makes very few ideologically based statements throughout the text. He is guided more by practicalities and politics (for example, knowing the best time of day to release bad news) than by any ideological codes.

The story is McNamara’s life but the plot is mostly confined to his relationship to warfare. The text is mainly concerned with the application of warfare and its devastating consequences. The recurring images of bombs, aeroplanes, war boats and destruction provide anchorage for this preferred reading of the text.

Apart from his decision to work for Ford, the kernel events that are shown are all directly related to war. McNamara’s decision to work for the Air Force, his acceptance of the Secretary of Defense role, the Kennedy assassination and the Tonkin Gulf incident all serve to increase the disequilibrium of the narrative which is not resolved until McNamara quits his position. The ceremony of the Order of Freedom medal is the signifier that his role is finished and the narrative can conclude.

The frame of the narrative as a whole mirrors the format of the Cuban Missile Crisis story. Each kernel event deals with a problem of warfare or commerce, and each ends with homily and a lesson.

There is substantial ellipsis for the period after 1968. Almost all of this period is omitted except where it directly relates to events beforehand (ie his subsequent meetings with Castro and the Vietnamese foreign minister). His thirteen year tenure as head of the World Bank is briefly mentioned in the opening segment and appears once again in the closing titles.

Apart from a few questions and interjections from Morris and some other voices on the archival footage, most of the narration is done by McNamara himself. However as Tom Ryan discovered in his interview with Morris, McNamara never liked the lessons of the film’s subtitle. McNamara is quoted by Morris as saying “These are not my lessons; these are your lessons”. The lessons were a function of control of the real author.

Nonetheless McNamara, the diegetic narrator, is the addresser of these lessons. He wants “to develop the lessons and pass them on”. The technical code fudges the gap between narratee, implied and real audience. Morris uses a technical device called the Interrotron that Ebert says “allows Morris and his subjects to look into each other's eyes while also looking directly into the camera lens”. The effect is that McNamara can cut through the constraints of the narratee and the implied audience to look directly into the eyes of his real audience, Kozloff's “flesh-and-blood viewers in their living rooms”.

McNamara is a complex psychologised character. He is a sensitive soul who cries tears for Kennedy and Norman Morrison and yet has no compunction in issuing orders which results in the deaths of hundreds of thousand Japanese and Vietnamese citizens. He knows that Vietnam is a dubious, unwinnable enterprise. Yet he offers no argument to Johnson’s simplistic urgings instead serving the president’s desire to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Most of McNamara’s character traits are drawn by indirect presentation. According to Rimmon-Kenan, indirect presentation “does not mention the trait but displays it and exemplifies it in various ways”. For instance, his attention to detail and ability to draw conclusions by use of metrics is established in many scenes.

There is also a contradiction between McNamara’s ego and his modesty. The school scene where he talks about the Chinese and Japanese students trying to beat “that damn Irishman” is immediately contrasted by a 1960s TV interview in which he is described as “Mr I have all the answers”. McNamara comfortably bats away the questions with a stylish modesty that cloaks his true opinion of himself. He says “I don’t know what I don’t know…” and follows this up immediately with a phatic but telling counter-comment “…and there is much indeed”. He is on much safer ground when he goes on to bury the question with a statistic of how many hours of preparation he puts in for each hour of congressional testimony.

McNamara is a Proppian hero and many of the events of his life follow the fairytale morphology. He absents himself from home, he is addressed by an interdiction (“there is something beyond one’s self”), there is violation of the interdiction (outbreak of war), there is villainy (Japan), and the hero is tested (rising through the ranks at Ford).

The meeting with the Kennedys is pure Propp function IX: “THE HERO IS APPROACHED WITH A REQUEST OR COMMAND”. The request is to become Secretary of Defense. McNamara accepts and begins his actantial role as the subject of various quests to serve his country and keep it from nuclear annihilation. Eventually the hero is led to the object of search (Propp XV) Vietnam.

There are also binary oppositions at work in the text. At the character level there are obvious differences at work in the Manichean opposites of McNamara (pragmatic) against Johnson (patriot) and McNamara (dove) against LeMay (hawk). There are also ideological opposites present: conspicuous consumption (Cadillac) against prudent economics (Falcon), the US (freedom) against Germany/Japan (fascism), and the US (capitalist) against the USSR (communist). Through use of these oppositions, the text builds an “effective narrative apparatus” so beloved of Eco.

McNamara’s media skills are evident in many of the 1960s interview sequences. His phatic exchanges with the media in the pre-title sequence shows the comfortable ease with which he sets the ground rules and establishes the boundaries between politicians and the media they rely on. His question “let me ask the TV, are you ready?” is also a metaphorical question for the implied viewer about to embark on the narrative of his life story.

McNamara’s disarming honesty when discussing possible war crimes in World War II is contrasted by his refusal to confront his personal responsibility in Vietnam. He avoids questions of responsibility of Vietnam and concludes, when prompted by Morris, that he would rather be “damned if he doesn’t” answer the questions.

In the final sequences, McNamara wears the seatbelt he helped to introduce and drives his car out the film in a form of metonymy. Here is a man at the centre of great power in one of the most controversial periods of modern history and yet the implied audience remains in the dark about how he feels despite the eleven “lessons”.

It is a puzzling and open ending to the narrative of a puzzling character, Robert Strange McNamara.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

images of Australia media concerns 1905

In 1905, Australia had existed as a federation for four years. Two of the major publications of the era, the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Bulletin had stark differences about the merits of the proposed Empire Day to be celebrated for the first time in May that year. Though the Age and the Bulletin disagreed on this point, they were both informed by the question of London’s dominance on local policy and culture and the sense of the vulnerability felt by Australia due to its isolation as a Western nation at the bottom of Asia.

Australia celebrated the beginning of the 20th century by joining its six competing colonies into a new federation on 1 January 1901. Despite the auspiciousness of the date, it has struggled to establish itself as a celebratory anniversary of Australia’s nationality. Other dates such as 26 January and 25 April have competed for this definition, as Australia searched for an appropriate date to honour what Walter called a “sense of ceremony”. In 1902 the Earl of Meath (founder of such auspicious scout-like organisations such as the Fresh Air League and the Lad’s Drill Association) had proposed a day of celebration throughout the empire. By 1905, imperialists were promoting this new event as a more important festival than federation day and demanding it be made a national holiday. This was not a wholly uncontested view and the Bulletin championed the fight against Empire Day in the cause of more independence from Britain.

In 1905 Britain was at the height of her imperial powers. The Pax Britannica was becoming threatened by Wilhelm’s aggressive military policies in Germany and the growing US economic power. However it was easy for the Age to glorify the Empire’s achievements and the great reign of Victoria which had recently ended in a “long glow of invigorating sunlight.” It saw Australia as basking in the reflected glory of that sunlight. They wanted Empire Day to be a conscious strengthening of imperial links.

The Bulletin didn’t see this dual loyalty in the same light. They saw imperialism as a pejorative label representing the Boer War, the Chinese slave-trade and the Japanese Alliance all of which were anathema to “white Australian ideals.” Britain had expected to win the Boer War (1899-1902) quickly but the formidable fighting qualities of the Afrikaners had raised serious doubts about Britain’s conventional might. However it was the Chinese and Japanese threats which were of most interest to the Bulletin.

The Chinese were not a new problem. The came to the gold fields of Victoria in 1855-1856 when the diggers' income was sinking to unskilled manual workers. Because the Chinese were prepared to work for small wages and would do jobs that the locals would not, there were fears that Australian working men would lose their work to an Asian ‘invasion.’ The Bulletin played up to these fears by appealing to racial purity and a fostering of native Australian industries.

The Japanese presented an even greater threat to Australian interests, according to the Bulletin. The Meiji Restoration of the 1860s had transformed Japan from a feudal structure to an emerging world power. By 1905 it was strong enough to inflict a shattering defeat on the Russians in Port Arthur. Britain had signed an alliance with Japan in 1902 as a means of checking Russian expansion in the Pacific. However as part of the terms of the alliance, Britain withdrew its sea power from Asian waters leaving the Japanese navy to dominate raising fears in Australia compounded by race.

The racial factor expressed as the Yellow Peril was common to both the Bulletin and the Age pieces. Although they sharply disagreed on the role of Britain in Australia’s future, neither was averse to the social Darwinism then in vogue. In 1893, Dr Charles H. Pearson’s hugely influential book "National Life and Character" had warned that “the ‘lower’ would overtake the ‘higher’ races.” Australia was a lonely outpost of the “higher race” on the edge of Asia and needed to keep the “white blood pure” (the Bulletin) and keep out the “mingled marriage bonds” (The Age.)

The White Australia Policy, designed to prevent the influx of coloured races, is not mentioned by name in either the Age or Bulletin but had been in place since the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The policy was not universally applauded. Geoffrey Blainey argues the Act was an anomaly of geography and a majority of northern white Australians wanted cheap coloured labour but the south (where all six state capitals were based) did not. Thus racial unity was achieved at the cost of the development of the north of Australia. The constituency of the Age represented conservative Melbourne interests while Bulletin pushed a radical labour movement agenda.

What was of economic concern to the Age was the continued prosperity of Australia under the aegis of the Empire. It was crucial Australia should continue to reap the benefits of a worldwide common market with a revenue of £260,000,000 in 1905. The Bulletin saw only one-way exchange and described Australian industry being exploited as a “satrapy of London.” It said Australian lifestyles were undermined by the cheap wages Asian “coolies” were prepared to work for. It used the mystique of bush legend to great effect in its appeal to the vigour of Australian inhabitants to staunch the flow of Asian immigrants.

The difference in perspective of the Age and Bulletin pieces turned on the way Australia’s role in the Empire wa developing. What to the Age was a “crimson thread of friendship” was to the Bulletin a “mostly nigger empire.” The Age was launched during the gold rush era and became an immense influence in Melbourne selling 120,000 copies a day by the 1890s and exercised great political power. It was not going to rock the imperial boat. The Bulletin’s mix of radicalism and xenophobia was an attractive mix to a different social set. They were preaching a new form of nationalism that did not rely on Britain for its inspiration.

It would have to wait another ten years for the events at Anzac Cove to turn that inspiration into a totem.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tyrannies

Geoffrey Blainey is an Australian historian and a major player in the so-called 'history wars'. These were ideological battles fought between historians and other academics over the bloody nature of the white domination of Australia.

The focus has been on whether Aboriginals were massacred in great numbers or not. Traditionally, left-wing historians such as Manning Clark have postulated that atrocities against blacks were systemic and widespread.

More recently revisionists from the other side of politics, spearheaded by Keith Windschuttle have disputed this view and by a careful (and some would say selective) re-examination of primary source material believe that the evidence of these massacres has been grossly exaggerated.

Blainey was a forerunner of this camp and it was he who coined the phrase 'black armband view of history' to describe historians who were writing critical Australian history 'while wearing a black armband' of grieving or shame.

Despite this controversy, there is no doubt that Blainey is an accomplished historian.

Woolly Days is reading 'Tyranny of Distance' about how the story of modern Australia is primarily one of the conquering of the problems of distance, both distance internally and distance to the rest of the world. The book was first published in 1966 and since then the book title has become a common phrase in the language.

Britain claimed the entire continent by virtue of what Blainey called 'limpet ports' thinly spread across the continent. Factors such as the rise of whaling, the discovery of gold and the profitability of wool contributed to the slow but steady growth of the country.

In the 1850s, sailing ships took the great circle route to get goldseekers to Australia in record time. The route was speedy but dangerous taking ships well below 50 latitude in the Southern Ocean. The route went down the Atlantic before turning east at Tristan da Cunha, beating a path through the Kergeulen and McDonald islands before landing in Melbourne.

The return passage used the prevailing winds of the roaring forties and fifties (with hardly any land mass to slow them down) to push through the South Pacific through the treacherous Cape Horn (named for the dutch city of Hoorn)and back north to Britain via the Atlantic.

Even with the advent of steam and the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the great circle route kept its advantages due to the prevailing winds. It is also a shorter a route than it looks with maps based on Mercator projections.

It wasn't until steamboats could carry all their own coal and avoid the costly stops in many ports that the Suez route finally took sway. The other major advantage it had was the avoidance of Cape Horn and its dangerous weather and enormous seas in the narrow 500km channel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Nothing much was to change in the passage to Australia until the rise of commercial air travel in the 1950s and 60s.

Now only cruise ships ply the Suez route and the Great Circle Run is empty of human traffic and is left to the whales.

Shipshape

Poor crazy calm
Comes clear out of the gulf
And the harmony that hymns behind it
Suez root canal
Truthy grin
and a hand grenade lobbed into the henhouse
here lies harrygator handily helping out
the rate of rats and the right of mice
might challenge the phalanx
deep thinking pool hustlers
rodin’s thoughts
bright brigadiers beyond keydom
attaboy the terrorist
heaving hades’ harem
and hiding all hallowed haloes
who would undermilk
to protect an economy
than open the latch to lax tax
creepers dot their i’s
and place their tees
elbow their way into green pastures
with the aid of a greasy spoon
and a pass-the-parasol in the sol y sombre
wife fronts panting under
places where Paracelsus
in minus forty celcius
far from heights meet and greets
levi stress and gutta percha
paucity of princes and open pincers
sores, soy and sana’a kat
st kitts and ben, family men
gweedore jerseys,
shame rocky shame
salmons of knowledge
mesquito coast
barren joey throws off his cape
feckless fear freaks out the door
el zorro and El Vincente Fox
19 and 21 century collides
and the refusees and refugeniks
rumple still skin
of the borders’ cauliflowers
where pictures of evil and presidents adorn fragrant frames
no pack drill no names
but a feast of forms
and one iota of data
zills of friction in the limousine
cries of foul in the Levantine
miss worldly one voice turning seventeen
whither the shoppers drop
while caught on the hop
between penthouse sale and bargain basement
and blanket authority
to rob Manchester of its city
united in sleepover
megamerchants and superstore me
the cuckold clans
in Kandahar and Kazakhstan
can cascade to endless akbar
cheering semi automatic housefire
and a god made great by commie chant
and breastbeat without priestly cant
no operator needed on
a direct line to heaven

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tsunami

The wavelength of a tsunami can be up to 800km long. They travel at speeds of 800kph. Which means you might have to wait an hour for a second seismic shift. If you are on the beach and the sea suddenly withdraws, it can only mean one thing. Head for the hills – and stay there.

However it is distinctly possible you may not have enough time to evacuate like the poor buggers who lived in Lisbon in 1755. The town was reduced to rubble in six minutes thanks to a sea earthquake that generated waves of 17m (or 55 feet high in the old money).

So why does the earth behave so badly at times? Why does it need to belch on occasion? According to the Modified Mercalli Scale (which measures intensity at a particular location based on observed effects unlike the Richter scale which measures magnitude), a force 9 will cause significant damage to well designed buildings though it is not certain how the sea affects this observation.

Its probably safe to say you don’t want to be on the beach when it happens. The cause is when two parts of the earth move suddenly in relation to each other along a fault line.

The epicentre is a point upon the land (or bottom of the sea) directly above the focal point of the collision. When stretched rocks snap, there is a sudden release of energy and it spreads out in waves. Shock waves travel out from the focus speeding up depending on the density of the material around them.

It is happening all the time at fault lines that mark off the boundary between the continental plates but usually the battle takes the path of least resistance which results in boring old friction. Occasionally a tendon stretched too far will snap and will release massive amounts of energy which vibrates back and forth. Rising lava under a volcano can do the same thing but is only a minor culprit compared to earthquakes. Science still has no idea why deep earthquakes (700km or lower) occur.

The whiteness of those waves crashing through the western hotels of Phuket in the December 2004 tsunami was visually awesome and will share with 9/11 iconology the ability of news bite pictures to define a new kind of terrorism.

Nature’s own remedy shuddering through the rocks by blasting 8.9 Eichter’s of earthquake and then let the sea do the dirty work for us.

Every so often the banality of time is interfered with by a swift kick to the tectonic plates. America’s coasts will be paranoid. What if this happened off Japan or Iceland (both having equally lively geology)? This would be Jerry Bruckheimer’s ultimate fantasy realised, waves tumbling over the statue of liberty for once without the aid of a computer graphic interface.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Alphonse Kerr

Alphonse Kerr was a minor, now forgotten, French writer of the 19th century.

Julian Barnes salutes him on two counts. Firstly as the gentleman who gave us the phrase ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ and secondly for his obscure link to two of the century’s most famous novels on adultery ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. By the way, the female ‘a’ at the end of Karenin-a is added or omitted depending on which version of the novel you read and whether the editors approve of the Russian habit of adding ‘a’ to female surnames. Personally I go with it, after all who has ever heard of Kournikov or Navratilov?

Back to Alphonse and the Russian novel Karenin(a). M. Kerr features some eight to ten pages from the end of the book. Prince Sherbatsky quotes him by name:

‘Alphonse Kerr put it very well’ he exclaimed, ‘before the war with Prussia when he wrote: You say the war is absolutely necessary? Very Well! He who advocates war – off with him in a special advance legion to lead the first onslaught, the first attack!’

As for the link to Bovary, he was embroiled in Flaubert’s personal life. Louise Colet (Flaubert’s mistress) stabbed Kerr in the back, though not fatally. Colet had stabbed Kerr because he had insinuated in a newspaper article Colet’s pension and her unborn child (she was 8 months pregnant at the time) were both the responsibility of Victor Cousin, a high government official.

The insinuation was accurate and Kerr did not appear to be unduly upset by the attack. Despite his own injury, he sent the distressed Collet home in a taxicab and he eventually framed the kitchen knife used in the attack with the label “Given to me by Mme Colet….in the back”.

Kerr eventually retired to become a keen flower grower and even if his works are forgotten, he keeps his place in botanical history with a species of bamboo named for him in the name of Bambosa Glaucescens Alphonse Kerr (pictured above).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word with a very specific meaning.

Actually it has several very specific meanings. It can be ‘crazy life’ or ‘life out of balance’ or more wordy still ‘life that needs to change from its current way of living’.

Godfrey Reggio's 1983 film of that name is a wordless, plotless montage of images scored by Philip Glass’s magpie music (pilfering from every source imaginable.) The film has been described as ‘beautiful but pointless.’ I think that ‘beautiful and besides the point’ describes it better.

It is the change in perspective that gives the film its power. A nuclear explosion in the form of a mushroom cloud is seen from a small desert cactus. We see the pavement view of a rising moon which is suddenly eclipsed by an office building. These images testify to the distorted power of the piece. It offers the planet holistically and then deconstructs it through natural and manmade totems each image adding to the overall unsettling of the whole.

The film raises as many questions as it answers. As Roger Ebert says "It has been hailed as a vast and sorrowful vision, but to what end? If the people in all those cars on all those expressways are indeed living crazy lives, their problem is not the expressway (which is all that makes life in L.A. manageable) but perhaps social facts such as unemployment, crime, racism, drug abuse and illiteracy -- issues so complicated that a return to nature seems like an elitist joke at their expense."

If it is an 'elitist joke' as Ebert contests, Woolly Days is not sure if anyone has seen the funny side of it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Clumsy, Flimsy, Whimsy

The World Trade Centre probably deserved to be destroyed, if only for its starring role in the hideous 1976 remake of King Kong.

In the original 1933 classic by Cooper and Schroedsack, the monstrous monkey carries Fay Wray to the top of the then world’s largest building the Empire State.

By the midseventies it had been eclipsed by the WTC and sheer consideration of records meant that the supersized simian had to carry Jessica Lange to the top of one of the towers.

There being two towers to choose from, it was possible for Kong (lovingly clutching Lange in a hugely hairy paw) to leap from one tower to the other.

He is eventually killed by helicopter gunships and falls off the building but not before gently pushing the heroine to safety. She miraculously appears by the dead ape’s side barely moments later at the base of the towers. Perhaps she survived the jump. Execrable. Al Queeda are merely guardians of good taste.

Peter Jackson went back to source material for his inspiration and took Kong and the heroine (Australian Naomi Watts as the screamstress) back to the Empire State in a dazzling display of CGI. Cynics noted the air force reacts quicker in the 1930s to this Noo York skyscraper drama than they did in September 2001.

Despite the impressive graphics, Jackson takes his usual inordinate time to reach a conclusion and the audience has to squirm through 180 minutes of turgid torture to get to squashed apefruit conclusion.

I think it's time to place a moratorium on Kong and declare him a protected species. No more Hollywood extinction jobs on him for at least 100 years or until the Kongs are repatriated in the wild.

And let's work on getting Kong sized bananas growing on his island so that there is no need for him to show his carnivorous side.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Hocus Pocus and other doggerel

Duncan Fallowell in his book ‘To Noto: or London to Sicily in a Ford’ mentions that hocus pocus is a term of Protestant scorn.

He says it is a contraction of Hoc Est Corpus meum by which Roman Catholics understood a literal transubstantiation. That is the doctrine by which the whole substance of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist are consecrated.

However Woolly Day's dog-eared but trusty Collins English dictionary disagrees and describes the etymology of hocus pocus (trickery, chicanery, mystifying jargon or an incantation used by conjurers or magicians when performing tricks) as being perhaps a dog Latin formation invented by jugglers.

Although they preface the explanation with ‘perhaps’, there is no reference to the religion of the jugglers and it is unlikely to be caused by ‘Protestant scorn’. Need to investigate this further. For now, onwards, never say no to Noto. Chicane, by the way, is a 17th century French word for ‘quibble’.

Meanwhile, on matters completely different, WD was in the pub the other night (the Brunswick Tavern in New Farm to be precise), and said in favour of some forgotten na├»ve adventure ‘the world is full of useless incredulity, not enough people believe’.

The remark was flippant but had a point. Belief is a potent force. It requires suspension of disbelief, that most natural of defensive positions. Belief is active not passive and is a very useful catalyst for getting things done.

The trick is finding the right thing to believe in so actions are infused with great moral force, something intrinsically right that informs, ennobles and emboldens day-to-day adventures.

It is also highly infectious. One committed person can move metaphorical mountains, hitherto inert and apathetic, around him or her. The true believer is ‘the light on the hill’. Ambitions, aspirations and a broad vision are astonishing antidotes to the path of mediocrity.

Safety is abjured and brilliance, however fleeting, becomes tantalisingly possible.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Asperger Dogs

Just finished reading Mark Haddon’s beguiling novel ‘The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time’. Despite winning the Whitbread Book of the year for children's fiction, this is a book for adults.

Though it is never explicitly stated in the book, the 15 year old narrator Christopher Boone suffers from a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome.

Sufferers of this syndrome are often mathematically gifted but deficient in basic social skills and unable to filter out extraneous external influences. To them, all incoming information is equally valuable and when presented with a high value situation such as a busy railway station, their sensory perceptions are overloaded and they cannot cope with the resulting stress.

Autism is seen, for reasons unknown to Woolly Days, as a particularly male disease.

Many university maths departments are filled with its sufferers. And yet they lead mostly well adjusted and important lives. The brain is off-kilter but still functioning and compensating in wonderful ways.

In the book, Hadden drags us into Christopher’s black and white world. We get the absoluteness of his moral universe and his codeset. Through his valid, albeit imperfect testimony we get the exasperated reactions of his parents, his carers, his neighbours, the policeman and others he meets on his adventure.

We are enveloped in Christopher’s claustrophobia and can almost sense his overloaded brain sorting through the ephemeral paraphernalia. We get the nausea as he cascades his way through the station with people pressing all round him (he starts to ‘bark’ if anyone approaches too close).

The 'curious case' of the title is merely the first act that gives Asperger an off-beat title but does not truly reflect what the story is about.

The scene in the underground station where he waits paralysed and panic-stricken for hours is especially powerful. Eventually the sheer force of repetition allied to his native brute strength of logic allows him to conquer his fears and set forth on the next stage of his journey.

His world is chaotic, strange and alas not very unique. We are privileged and horrified to be a part of it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Thoughts on the First Book of Moses



“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”.

According to Genesis 1:1 that was the very first thing that happened. That was for starters.

God made himself a universe and then he went and made us one too.

Admittedly our planet 'was without form and void’ and thus not exactly homely, to begin with. We were far from lock-up stage yet.

Not that it mattered greatly yet, we couldn’t see what we were doing because ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep’. We needed something to brighten the place up, and God’s lick of paint, Light, was called into action.

And lo, for there is always an enlightening lo in such lore, there was light. It was such a valuable resource, it had to be carefully rationed. Thus day and night was the compromise solution(no word at this stage about the sun, the source of all this luminosity).

And then our Master Builder addressed himself to the problems of a watery planet and decided the dolphins couldn’t have it all to themselves. Land was created and upon it was put grass, herbs and trees. The stage was set to support carnivorous beings.

It took him three laborious days to get this far. On Day Four, only now is the Sun created (what source provided all the light for previous two days is never explained.) The Moon too gets its papers on this day.

With the working week in full swing, its time to populate the planet with animals to eat all those succulent plants, herbs and trees. Hence cattle and creeping things, whales and the rest. Two whole days were spent (an activity which was to have major consequences for Noah later in the game, not to mention long queues) putting all the beasts in the fields.

That left day six to make his piece de resistance, the creature in his own image, Man.

Thus the question is, if man is created in God’s image, what is the size of God’s honker? He ignored that question, instead he slyly commanded ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ to his newly created replicates.

He also, dubiously, handed them the keys to the kingdom. Six days it took him all up. No wonder he needed a break, no wonder he was so keen to relinquish control. He did bugger all on the Seventh Day.

From there on in the time period becomes hazy. We have no idea how long it took to build Eden and that most sinister of constructs ‘the tree of knowledge and evil’. More of which later. We do know that he went and built 4 rivers Pison (in Hasilah likely to be modern Saudi Arabia), Bihon in Ethiopia (the white Nile?), Hiddekel in Assyria (Tigris?) and the only one still known by its modern name, the Euphrates. Man was plonked into the middle of this riparian garden.

But this knowledge tree was bothersome. God left specific instructions. Don’t eat the fruit, he commanded in the World’s first council by-law. Poison was the official reason ‘Eat it and you will die’ was the unambiguous message. It is not clear why it was so planted with its killer propensities unless it was deliberate provocation.

Meanwhile, in week two and beyond God was turning his mind to some of the other problems of his making. Man must have his mate, he reckoned. So, while old Adam snoozed, God ripped out one of his ribs and showed great dexterity to turn it into a woman.

Did Eve ever realise she was just one rib away from oblivion? Anyway, when Adam awoke he found they were naked together but, pointedly, unashamed of this condition. They didn’t know any better. They were also possibly aroused, but this is not mentioned.

Unless it is, in the allegorical form of the snake who enters the dramatis personae at this point. The snake slithers up to Eve and gets into her ear about the forbidden fruit. He whispers casually that he frankly doubts God’s edict that the fruit is poisonous (and after all, we only have God’s word for it).

So tempted is she by the snake’s reasoning, she ignores the injunction and eats the fruit. So does Adam, showing at an early stage who was really wearing the trousers in Paradise. But as we know, neither is wearing trousers. The very first effect of this reckless fruit-eating is to ‘open their eyes’ and immediately notice their nakedness. This causes shame to kick in. They rush to find some fig-leaves and press them into service to hide what will soon be immortalised as ‘naughty bits’. The practice will be repeated for time immemorial against works of art by scandalised clergy and laity.

There was another immediate reckoning. Adam was hauled into the boss's office for a ‘please explain’ session. Why did you break my specific order? Adam did the obvious thing and blamed the underling – it was Eve’s fault. So she too was called in for an interrogation. She took the same tack as Adam and blamed the beguiling snake. God wringed his hands, the list of suspects was growing by the minute. The snake was hauled in too for questioning. After listening to all the evidence, God pronounced his stentorian judgement. The snake was cursed and forced evermore to march round on his belly (we are not told how it managed its movements beforehand and the fossil record is inconclusive.)

The woman’s sorrow was multiplied in a way that will impact her oncoming conception (this bit of the judgement, Woolly Days found obscure and difficult to follow.) More importantly God ruled that the husband would henceforth rule over her. Adam himself, despite winning dominion over woman, did not escape God’s wrath. His precious property, the Garden of Eden itself, was to be turned into a dustbowl - Adam and Eve would become the world’s first Okies.

Adam lost his godlike status and was turned into a mere mortal because ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return’. Adam and Eve were grounded in crime and punishment and banished from Eden (though given its now dustbowl status, that may not have been altogether a bad thing.) God hired bouncers called Cherubim to enforce the ban and armed them with madly flashing and flaming swords which turned every which way to make sure the nasty vermin stayed out.

With Judge God presiding, the court had ruled that original sin was in place and humans would not easily be allowed to forget it. In fact it would to be carried until some convenient time is found to expunge it by Christian baptism.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Silence, Exile, Cunning

Jimmy Joyce’s words in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Woolly Days read them again recently in David Malouf’s "Johnno", a paean to growing up hard in Brisbane in the forties and fifties.

Johnno was half choice for One Book One City in 2004, the typical half-assed result of a decision by consensus.

The other half of Two Books, One City was The Girl Most Likely by Rebecca Sparrow – who is not to be confused with Roberta Sparrow, Grandma Death in Donnie Darko, the author of The Philosophy of Time Travel, a book that is not yet written therefore unlikely yet to be half choice for One Book One City.

But I digress. Malouf, like Joyce (and Woolly Days) has chosen the path of exile. Like Joyce, WD has forsaken Ireland. Like Malouf, WD has a strong empathy with Brisbane. Though whether silence has been a strategy for any of us, is a matter of some cunning debate.

For Malouf, Brisbane was a point of departure; for this blog, it is the destination. But the Brisbane of the 21st century is radically different from the country town that the ‘reffo’ Malouf grew up in. He remembers it as ‘staid, old-fashioned but also full of tropical trees all spiked and sharpened in the early sunlight'.

A place without poetry maybe, but beautiful nonetheless.

Brisbane is now cityscape, inescapably dragged into a real world where summertime is one hour ahead, not twenty years behind.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Six Square



36. 11 more than 25 and 13 less than 49. Even Sr Fibonacci says so.

I try to remember the mathematical formula that expresses the value of the differential between successive squares.

Our Y is X + 1 squared minus X squared. So where X=1, X+1 squared is 4 and x squared is 1 so Y is 3. Or in purely factorial terms we first need to unblock (X+1) squared which amounts to x squared plus 2x + 1 and that minus x squared is equal to Y. The two x squares cancel each other out leaving Y = 2x+1.

In other words the next differential value in the sequence is determined by twice the current number in the sequence + 1. In other other words, the differentiation of change gives us a little more effort than double the first input. So what does that mean in non mathematical tennis?

Does this formula have universal application? In order to understand this, we need to first understand what is a square? It is a dimension doubling. 2x +1 represents the scale of each doubling. It is also the differentiation of X squared + X which is another method of looking at the relationship between successive squares.

Differentiation is a stripping away of a dimension. the improvisation of three dimensions pared back to two, the cube parsed to a square, the square doused down to the line, the line to a point.

Our world is less than half the shadow of a 4D universe. Q.E.D squared.

Ad Missile

Not quite not in pain
but relinquished of something sad
Left right around by traction plane
leapt heaped devined into summer lee
Running something scared sacred discarded
Secrets disregarded disagreed by degrees
Believed by decrees and the birds kneesbusy on the bees
A quiet twitter of the lone carrier
Fertile foster-fodder anti-acts like
Fuddyduddy showaddywaddy
Up pily-aye, ladyladdie say I like lazily
Raise the ramparts of the day
To a place to play in old pompeii
Rivers of dirt, squeezing out of heaven
Religion beaming, children screaming
Happy hipster halo gods of st malo
Gentle bitter benzine
Run onset rafter renting
While the lights fly
Eagle junction landlie
Airline words wore on softly
Leaked a lizard portly point
Damned near stopped the crying
Foetal cramp aged denying
Abuse of rapture trying for consent
Clamplit friendly carbox tenant
Flagwove proudly prized pennant
Rubbish for the uber-wider
Finaigle inveigle and angel bagel
Loose in love and lucky at table
Crimson kingdom of maze and beize
Laboratoryrinth it aint a phase
Risksafe douche ropes
Ricebiscuit queer float
Foliage flappers of the handaday wrappers
Hot hankie pancakes pancreas pandering
I’ve decried into my pillow
Where jutes and angles are angry of ankles
And parcels of plastic set on acting drastic
Nero the train shall meet
Slippered on golden feet
Ransacked the halls and shopping malls
Asgard in the vanguard
drinking Picard on the Cunard line
duck in coloured soup
cold and neutered vichy suisse
warlike manugenesis sweetmeats
open hedge nemesis
do where the often is shared out of the light
lodged in characterless fright of beerie nights
crammed into the hostile sausage of leastlike roam
staples count how they cram
ovary stories into the mouth of
babes and slaves of pale graves
whose mixing mountains with lozenges of lava
liquor stamps and halogen lamps
make you welcome
when I’m not home.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Redcliffe Blues

Sitting by the bay and the site of Queensland's first European landfall.

The 1824 colony of Redcliffe started here just north of the jetty. Woolly Days takes time out to examine the monument to their endeavour.

A certain captain Henry Miller led his men at this garrison. Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn, perhaps?

This Miller's tale has the following accompaniments; a sergeant, a corporal and some dozen privates complete with his wife, children and the inevitable party of convicts.

This was to be Queensland first prison colony. Here was the first northern version of the Stain. It didn't last very long.

It was eventually abandoned and re-constituted as Moreton Bay further to the south and more advantageous on the mouth of a big tidal and navigable river.

Perhaps fresh water was the problem here or the economic one of a lack of good ship access. It is a pleasant enough spot peering out past the giant figs across the bay to Moreton island with its bright sanddunes reflecting in the sun.

Now it’s all tourist kitsch some 180 years on. A jetty with boats for dolphin and whale viewing. There is a park and a lagoon for swimming (none of that nasty sea-business here, thank you.) There is a parade of cafes, bars and bric-a-brac shops along its tidy promenade.

It's not a place where you'd expect to find Henry Miller.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Shambles

Was watching Liverpool lose badly to Benfica the other night.

Liverpool’s performance was described correctly by the match commentator as ‘shambolic’. I suddenly needed to find out the etymology of this word. It means, as I expected, ‘completely disorganised, chaotic (cf the interaction of the headless chooks that comprised the Liverpool forward line) and, cutting to the chase, ‘it is irregularly formed from shambles', a 20th century concoction.

Among shambles' meanings I then found out, are a place where animals are slaughtered (or any place of execution) and also as a British dialect word meaning a row of covered stalls where goods (meat, originally) are bought and sold. Such as the street known as The Shambles (pictured) in York, England.

Shambles is a venerable old word dating back to the 14th century. The shambles was the table used by vendors and earlier Old English ‘sceamal’ was a stool from the Latin ‘scamullum’ which meant a small bench.

Here was a word with a rich tradition from the workplace. It went from a bench to a table to a market place to an execution site to a mess to bad tactics. It all adds up. To ‘shamble’ means to walk awkwardly comes from the same root, in this case the shamble legs of the table most closely resembled the gait of the unsteady meat vendors.

Or Liverpool strikers.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Gutenberg, Tyndal

Johann Gutenberg (nee ‘Gensfleisch’) lived from 1398 to 1468 and his seventy years was most notable for the invention of the printing by moveable type.

He was responsible for the first mass-produced bible which changed everything. The era of mass communication had arrived. The Latin bible that bears his name was published in Mainz, Germany and had 643 leaves with each page printed in 2 columns of 42 lines. There were 150 copies of the original bible and each extant version is priceless. The process he used to print was probably invented in Korea. Letters were cast in type metal, composed into sentences on a type stick and set up as pages of type before being inked by the press. Some speculate that Gutenberg designed his press along the lines of wine and linen presses.

By combining these elements into a production system, he allowed for the rapid printing of written materials. An information explosion was about to occur in Renaissance Europe.


In 1524 (some fifty years after the death of Gutenberg), William Tyndal fled England after a dispute with ecclesiastical authorities.

He moved to Germany and there he issued an English language version of the New Testament and the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament.) He translated the bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into English and his words were to become the base for the definitive King James version. He was never forgiven in England for his ‘blasphemy’. He was captured and strangled to death at Antwerp in 1536. He was officially asphyxiated out of history but his bible and his ideas survived him.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

nowt as queer as Polk

Arthur Scargill’s father, according to Arthur Scargill, according to the Sunday Times, according to the Penguin Writers manual, according to Woolly Days, read the dictionary every day in order to learn a new word.

This is excellent advice.

More good advice from the manual is to immediately put the word to use.

So here goes, let’s take a dip into the dictionary.

Casually landing on the 'po' page, a po-faced Woolly Days discovers that a powan, for example, is a freshwater whitefish (Coreogonus Clupeoides) which lives in Scottish lakes.

A fish of the same name is a type of vendace which are also whitefish. Powan is a Scottish variation on the word ‘pollen’ which is the whitefish that live in Northern Irish lakes.

Pollen comes from the Old Irish word ‘poll’ which means lake. Having nothing to do with whitefish is the word ‘pollard’ which is an animal such sheep or deer which have had their horns or antlers removed.

Pollard comes from the Old German word for ‘head’. A Bombay duck, as I found out in a trivia contest last night, is also a fish, a lizard fish found in the Arabian Sea and is often served as an accompaniment to Indian curries so our preferred answer ‘food dish’ was actually correct in a secondary sense.

Working backwards from the various pollwords, the dictionary states that James Polk was the 11th US president serving between 1845 and 1849 (the year of his death).

Texas and California were added to the union during his watch as was territory now included in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon.

Polk was what was called a Jacksonian Democrat, he was house leader under Andrew Jackson and speaker during the Van Buren administration. He defeated Henry Clay in a close election in 1844. During his regime he settled an Oregon border dispute with Britain, he fought the Mexican War and restored the Independent Treasury System. His poor health prevented him from running for a second term and he died shortly after retirement.

There was no time for him to enter an old Polk's home. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Manna Born

In the Old Testament book of Exodus, there is the story of manna, the miraculous food from heaven which sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.

It has entered the English language to mean any unexpected gift or windfall. It is also the sweet substance obtained from ash trees (fraxinus ornus – flowering ash or manna) of Southern Europe used as a laxative.

In Exodus, Moses and his people had successfully fled Egypt and were wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land. God was clearly on his side because he agreed to rain bread from heaven for him.

Each morning as the dew raised from the ground, the Israelites saw a small round thing which they called 'manna' (the Hebrew word for man).

Moses had to explain to his suspicious kinfolks it was edible bread.

There were specific instructions. They were to gather it, an omer each to a man. An omer is one tenth of a Hebrew ephah which is approximate to a bushel or 33 litres in total. That makes an omer about 3.3 litres. That's a lot of bread.

Manna was to be found on the ground six days out of every day. Even God’s gardeners rest on the Sabbath.

The Israelities lived on manna for a full forty years until they blundered into Canaan, Israel – the land of milk and honey. Manna had outlived its usefulness. For that matter, so had Moses. He died having never set foot in the promised land.

Pentateuch
semi conscious, unsure
The other half is there bathed in wan kitchen light
The silent tide is neapwalking
And the blood on the pot is beating out
Grotesque in gigahertz
Struck down by Sundays
Lesser slumpenproletariat
Sheriffprompt and houseproud
Detectives of ruby and earls
Turning ugly by the gasloads
Fierce and financial
Physical forceloads
Kinetic commentary
Stranded skyharbours
Suspicions in peanut demeanour
Raising the not-halves of the north
Demi-derriere sansculottes
Nipped in the buddha by a nervous notary
Counting down the power of the hours
Impounding warlock warrants
Scouring sterling beliefs
Odds against the evening
Long dead drunk
Crapulence in crepuscule
Clumsy treachery
Mirror obsidian
Secretly set on fire by
Saintly architecture
Simon stylite’s stylistic skylight
Stubborn styx and stonehenge
Watery Neolithic victims of
Zen, a phobia of
Johnny forensic
King of the Kitchen pershing
Soiled by the undertaker of the
Reverse paternity typist
Overlapping dromedary
Miracle of the mass serpent
El gran senor, por favor
Phillipic filibuster
Alma matter of fact
With a deafening degree of difficulty
Sentenced to secular suicide
In the tomb of the templar
Lies the sin of the superficial
Diaspora of the dynamite
Liquid to the limit
Largely unspeaking in original syndicate
Slim adds fat to the flavour of
A hemisemidemiquaver
Thalydomide rabies
Rintintinpot touch of scabies
Volumetric imperialist
High density water living
Fit for wanderpigeons
Chalky shit on Will the concrete-eater
Lotus override on a parkinson meter
Chancellor’s chin with the bill
Round trip to Mars via the mill.
Boardwalk boulevards of broken bollywood
In with the given, and I aint mistaking
Among things seep within us
Are blisters of mercy
In torchlight touch tennis
ghetto vendetta inhaling
knives out, priced and impaling
leaves lobsters, willing tasman on the floor
goer for the leaves and the door

Monday, March 06, 2006

I’m ok, you’re okay

The metamorphosis of o.k. is one of the success stories of international language.

This flexible little word is a "sentence substitute", to give it its correct grammatical title.

It is an American creation of the 19th century. It quickly and easily became accepted in international English and thence to almost every other spoken language in the world.

C’est ok, n’est-ce pas? Its etymology is shrouded in legend.

Theories range from nicknames or someone’s initials, an adaptation of a non-English place name (eg ‘aux cayes’) or from the initials of a jokey alteration (o)ll (k)orrect.

It is that last most banal of explanations that find most favour with scholars with a hint of one the former explanations to bolster it. The story goes that in the early 1800s, young university students in Harvard and Yale took to writing ‘oll korrect’ and ‘oll wright’ as a long running, if not particularly funny, joke.

The sayings became contracted to their initials and although ‘ow’ never really took off, "ok’ quickly gathered pace. It was helped considerably by Martin Van Buren’s unsuccessful presidential campaign of 1840. Van Buren’s nickname was ‘Old Knickerbockers’ conveniently shortened to "ok". It first made its way into print in March 1839 in the Boston Morning Post.

The phrase has never looked back since. It is a simple but clearly versatile word and can mean agreeable (is everything ok?), satisfactory (an ok outcome), somewhere between mediocre and satisfactory (it wasn't great but it was ok), in working order (does the pen work ok?), correct (your answer is ok), safe (he was in a car crash but is ok), healthy (how are you? I'm ok).

No wonder so many other languages have appropriated it. Are you ok with that?

Okie-dokie.

Ought
Why can’t we buy from ourselves
Those leaves and loaves
That left us free from responsibility
And uncertain agility
Uncommon dying,
practice the part
Expert de-liars
Cannon conundrum
Nigger on a promise or a problem
Narcissus by the rye and slang
Equal spelled out by Warsaw
Worship sought out by sexagent sinners
One in ten, none of aught.
Burning man we thought we’d never lose
Cosmos surge and commons urge
Daily champion of the hours bread
Craft work machine of fashion
Cruelly exposed and ashen
12 hours a bed and batten
Thems finest hours of deepest day
That slip away and never know
The light that let them go
Scribbling cripple
Cripped and cribbed
Leg and limbed
Heart and hibbed
On the castle road
Scan the navy yard
Back from a russia once belong
Svengali tiger terror
loosened from the oblong glare of space
And muck into the mouey of themselm disease
Count severe is sev ten overboard
Bubbly in water with polished man and truth
Left to lug the lifts and tows
Under the scissors where nobody mows
Elephant grise eminence
Fulcrum at Asia Minor
Istanbul recapitalises international islam
The new sofia with the old silver
Walking the plank of two cultures
Where the sign in the park scaffolds scarfing
A hemispheric haimes
corruption of sculpture
The new driving force of Europe will again emerge
From Granada’s electric shadow
opal skin conmen in constant tin Opels
days of saladins lampooned
conquest buried deep in the hatchet is the anger of gold
and fondness for survival is in the cauldron of dreams
Where mosquitoes bites are bestest boar, it seems
Leninist fundamental gods with a fondness for margarita
Listening to yoyo’s balalaika
Whirling nerdishly
Undeniannihilating chilli
And fivetimes silly
fixing the clock to their new jerusalem
In Saudi greed unpleasant land between us
Handpainted funky ecru medinas
Worth rial dollars in hard currency
five to the petrokelly
A sound gone wonky in cliumphing ember.
Say it with numbers
Polygraphic obsolenity
Register with regularity
Sandwiched between two wipes of a hum
Fed to the hungry hoards
And left to lie in substance what the universe will
mostly vanish in atro
Specialist vatican sellers
Squelletin board by slithered assassins
Mama look who sat in the watching
Endangered by dwindling influence
Potato safari, good timing two-suited
Benobo balbriggan
Crushed by iterramus the camp follower
Re-invent and vested in the harness of luck
Was blinded by a refusal to care about the what
Both died a death for each dread nought
anguish in uberbeenshire
Borne on the firth of July,
With the sausage packed and exported
In practice unsacred
God is on the lam
Feeding the need with buckets of speed
Curling home bruise and hookers with hookahs
None of them lookers
Ferra terra ignoramus
Fella Let me tell ya.
When they found out they were not lame anymore
They rose and blew the house down with the compression and anger
And achieved local prominence with hardened features
Creeping up with the endowed jones
Well-rounded in danish temptations
Sharing the accommodation
Pulverised the plural community
With pesticidal mortars
Proanzac prosaic trouser-pressed powders
Shirty spots unter den linen
Hurt bacchanalien
Dirt-drifted oars in coalsigns spit
Siroccosure sockamamy
Curds slip by in belted ovals
Tesselated, noise abated firkin gas
Gormen guilden guns aghast and rosen
Measly medal count is mynah business
Clock crocodile obey the ten metre penalty rules
And the limit that everybody fools
Is crushed by tidal time, twice a day and packing
With the daemon of Athens, and the glory of Rome
Act the part of the hand of the father of
The Viking Vietcong and the brilliant Korea
Musha where have ya been, mussabejayen
mothballed in closet follicle
where you re-invent yourself in fluent boorjwa
tired of fighting
and looking for places placid
pills pious and paid for
uppers and sundowners
damaged goods and secret services
bonnie and clytemnestra
hail and hollow and schucked to the west
making mercies out of small kindnesses,
lava louche, prairie dogma
fed by rate-prayers in the veldt.
Lizard is the rodent of the pastor
And commit the terrible offence of existing before the powers
Of Christ can save you.
O multiple value jam
Sliced innbox of spam
Ingrate fell short of housed holes
Rather than defied lack of gravity
And the parfumerie was a poolhall short of a creamery
Freedom to the words
Gathering ghosts and fingergarden posts
With a release form graduation
Peckaninny sepulchre pillowplayers
Discuss stevedore highways that pillory the sea
Chandlers raise sun kind of havoc
Aeroflot jetsam with bobbing lifebelt
Squeak squoke squawking
Riffing rogers kinghit cowpersons
Mount misery milo tower of power
Self seeking silo high barrel of hey
Crane signals crashsite ahead
Avoided by a lure-a-poopin
Daffodil deadlies are darkest driffids
Weeping wallow wycliffe jeremiad
In janus we trust
Maxiomatic
If trust we must
Suddenly Vega or bust
Sun criminal inflation
Dwelt in mindsucccoured muscles
by loveboot persuasion is echoed
Rhyming eye for detail
Salome Streetsmart
Smiles here.
As it curled out of the shadows
And slid under the door
It seemed defused
snot abused
the influenza
end o' story

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Gauntlet

Versatile yokes, them gauntlet things.

They can be thrown down or run. Though a closer study of the dictionary tells me that they are entirely different words.

The first meaning of gauntlet (or gantlet) is a medieval armoured leather glove – handy to be wearing one (or two) of them late at night in the city. It is also a heavy glove with a long cuff. This is the gauntlet that can be thrown down and, naturally enough, picked up again. A challenge issued and accepted. It comes from the Old French ‘gantelet’ now the modern French ‘les gantes’ (gloves) which is in fact of Germanic origin.

The second gauntlet is a type of punishment where the victim is forced to run between two rows of men (and the perpetrators were always men) who strike at him (and the victim is always male) when he passes. Military types are fond of this type of ritual sadism. That is why it is run, it must bloody well hurt. By inference the phrase spread to mean the suffering of the slings and arrows of any sort of ordeal or even criticism.

The original word was ‘gantlope’ (a section of railway where two tracks overlap). The gantlope contracted to gantlet and the modern spelling fell under the influence of other steel glove-like meaning of gauntlet. The gantlope, by the way, comes from the Swedish ‘gatlopp’ – the passageway. Thus do words merge and elide.

The first version, French and Romantic, is dramatic and showy with idealistic portents of honour. It is also symbolistic and potentially deadly (if the challenge is answered and the gauntlet is picked up.)

The second version German and Teutonic, is immediate and ritualistic and also highly painful. Yet far less consequential perhaps is the railway version to the silk gloved. The Teutons cause harm but it could be an initiation rite which once done means you are accepted into the fold. The French version is an incitement to hatred which could lead all the way to the graveyard. The sting and power of words is paramount. Achtung, s'il vous plait!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Chess: Battle for Musical Squares

A board, chequered black and white.

64 squares. 2 to the power of 6. Two cubed cubed. 16 pieces each.

Half the squares are taken by stylised pieces as they fall off against each other in primal colours (or non colours if you are of a mind to describe white so.)

Pawns aptly named, infantry men in Old French ultimately reaching back to Latin ‘Pes’ the foot. These footmen are the cannon fodder of the board taking timid steps forward after the likely giant leap at the start who capture in oblique, semi-ecclesiastical manner. They may be lucky enough to avoid the cowards fate of en passant – where he falls not even at the site of its own demise. They do however present a dogged determined physical line of defence only the leaping knights can overcome at the start of the game.

The angular knight with its delightful one-step two-step heartily jumps over all obstacles in its pretty polka. Its dressage can not be interrupted by a defensive cordon and needs a stout attacker to combat its showy magic. It is at once cheval and chevalier and just as likely to attack in either direction. But the knight despite his Janus headed showmanship is slow and cumbersome. Its operating range is within a handful of local squares. It cannot easily dash for safety. This fatal combination of flashy danger and easy prey means that the mortality rate for knights is high at the start of a game. The knights and the bishop can often be seen jousting for control of the centre at the start.

Like the Knight, his Eminence grise the Bishop is usually quick out of the block and into the action on the board. They are of similar value (both worth about 3:1 to the pawn under normal exchange rates) though the slick cleric moves in mysterious ways, diagonally, to be exact. The route must be unoccupied. This diagonal force has the result of always keeping the Bishop on the straight and narrow. Once a white squared Bishop, always a white squared Bishop, and once a black Bishop always a black Bishop. If there are two black Bishops on black squares then either your opponent is cheating or you are. The bishop is a crucial member of the aristocracy but not the most important.

Next up in rank is the Rook (worth roughly five pawns.) The Rook is the King’s castle both in shape and also in alternate name. He is also his castle-mate in the only swapping move allowed in chess. In a sleight of hand worthy of the Knight, the King and Rook exchange homes as long as it is the virginal move for both pieces and His Majesty is not under attack. This has the double advantage of increasing the security of the cynosure of the game and bringing the heavy artillery quickly into the middle. Like the bishop, the Rook (old French ‘rok’ from the Arabic ‘rukhkh’ meaning 'chariot') must have a clear line of sight to advance but because of his seignureal rights he does so in straightforward fashion, up and down, left and right. The Rooks patrol the rows and columns with increasingly dangerous intent especially after the early high mortality of the minor pieces and pawns settles the board. The Rooks do not like clutter and as the game progresses will become more involved in skirmish to keep their lines clean. With a rook, what you see is what you get.

That leaves their Majesties at the scene of their coronation centrepiece. King on his own coloured square, Queen on her opposite.

The Queen is the power piece of the board. She reigns supreme with the equivalent power of both the Bishop and the Rook’s move in her arsenal. She roams diagonally and straight and is to be feared. Long, tall and crowned, she flies hither and thither across the board, attacking here, defending there and always full of intent. She is the most powerful piece but not the most important. That honour goes to His Majesty, the King.

The King is far and away the most ambiguous piece on the board - timid and critical. His move is barely better than a pawn, scrabbling just one square at a time, though crucially in any direction. And yet to capture this crawling piece is to immediately end the game. Whenever the King is attacked, it is the most powerful restraint and the attackee must drop other ideas and attend to his Majesty’s safety before progressing with anything else. While the defender is so occupied, the attacker can proceed with whatever other nefarious plan he or she has in mind. God may save the King, but often his allies can be picked off while the deity is so occupied.

There is no sweeter sound in chess than the cry of ‘checkmate’ when the King can be defended no longer and all recourse to safety is at an end. Checkmate, the game is up! The word, like many other chess terms comes from the Old French ‘eschec mat’ again originating in Arabic ‘shah mat’ which means simply The King is Dead.

Finally we return to the lowly Pawn who has a venomous sting in its inconsiderable tail. Should you be silly enough to let one of your opponents pawns loose, it is capable of marching to the end square where it can undergo a metamorphosis of royal proportions. There it can be Queened and transform itself to rule the roost.

The origin of the game is still disputed but most likely to have emerged from India. where it was called Chaturanga. The earliest mention of Chaturanga, or any version of chess, appears in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, written 2,500 years ago.

It was Chernev and Reinfeld in their book Winning Chess that quoted the use of the word Googol or or one followed by a millions zeroes or ten duotrigintillion to describe the number of possible chess moves. That name was eventually bastardised to form the world's most pervasive Internet search engine.

Don't do harm. Play chess instead.

The Hymns of the Rig Veda

The Rig Veda tells an Eastern version of Genesis, Ravi Shankar’s answer to Phil Collins.

The opening two lines are wondrous and instructive. “There was not non-existent nor existent: There was no realm of air no sky beyond it/What covered and where? And what gave shelter? Was Water there, unfathomed depth of water.”

The first six words alone describe what was there before the Big Bang a mere 13 billion years ago. In some sense it is distilled wisdom, passed on as a means of coping with unfathomed depth of problems.

It is comforting to think this is code which is passed on through the generations as a means of dealing with life. This is a primeval response and is none the worse for it. And utterly simple too; we subtract being and nothing and what is left, is left.

Quease
Memories unbend in photos
Slowly the past elopes
Sugar saddened senses
Age and life
Encrypted smiles
Eyes hidden by glass
The lies of the lens leave last

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Aquatic Moments

A Sunday in February. $17 gets us entry to the Chermside Aquatic centre, Rebecca and Sinead take the full experience and are lost somewhere in the adventure land of the waterpark amidst slides, tyres, mushrooms and falls.

For Woolly Days, the minimum is paid in order to avail of the dubious pleasure of 12 laps of the 25m pool.

That alone proved difficult for a poor swimmer. My legs are powerful from cycling but my upper body strength leaves a lot to be desired.

A girl, around seven or eight years old and of Asian appearance, glides effortlessly up and down in the lane to my right. Woolly Days makes it a matter of personal honour to beat her to the end of the pool and does so at great exhaustion. Undaunted, and unaware she was in a race, the girl casually turns round and saunters back to the other end.

Woolly Days couldn’t even pull itself out of the pool, or rather couldn’t at the price of pants dropping down if it tried.

Indiscretion was by far the worst part of valour and it took the soft option of getting out at the shallow end. Now it is sitting in the shade among an army of ants marching to their own tune.

The tannoy blazes out Green Day, the sun is also blazing and the trees provide delicate breezy shade.

Sunday too far away, again.

Roger Copy

slit different in a word
cannibal Lords tied
by quivering tongues
Shakeout shiver me fingers
Clinking stinking souvenirs
Remember embers
Speak tragedy
Odyssey heel a feeler
“13 days left for activation”
hideface facts in faucet dance
lance laird long-time-a-comin
with nozzle abreast
reef jerky don’t surface
and greet the folks
long may your lamb reek with
lumpenprobability.
street marching questions
stone page stompings
rankle rectal fistitude
goatse footsie
heir in the rain
right bloody brolly folly
azerbejesus back you
and the caspians trump down to the sea
know what armenia
cleft in paper clubs, sign cubs
novella mariner in dumping tubs
takes the cake
from the lake
on the rebound
to seabound
able bodied
marzipends.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Quietude

A slow sullen weekend.

No kids. Just Woolly Days, Naruda and Gus Van Sant. And his Gerries without Mercy.

Reading Naruda in a slightly disembodied Spanish. On the facing page is the translation in English. Translating poetry is always difficult but Naruda’s sparse and descriptive poems lend themselves to good translation.

The same imagery re-appears in poem after poem: “paloma” (the dove), invierno (Winter) and ‘inmobil’ (immobile). He likes to speak of death and black water. He has an ear for discordant phrases “knees like knots” (rodillos como nudos) and “the walls have a sad crocodile colour (las paredes tienen un triste color de crocodilo).

The book is entitled Residence on Earth, a selection of Naruda’s poetry from 1926 to 1945. He sympathised with the Spanish poet Lorca as he thought they both wrote in a lesser language and therefore would be ignored by the world. Naruda did not suffer that fate and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1971.

He is Chile’s greatest gift to modern literature and deservedly lionised in the country of his birth. Lorca was less fortunate and was assassinated by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Meanwhile, back in the near present tense, Woolly Days has just watched Gus Van Sant’s film ‘Gerry’. It is an almost wordless, plotless tale of two men named Gerry.

The Gerrys are played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck who co-wrote what can loosely be called a ‘script’ with Van Sant.

The real star of the film is the Arizona desert wilderness where they get lost on a half-hearted nature walk towards an unnamed ‘Thing’.

The pair almost casually veer off the trail and become disoriented when they decide to call off the quest. They spent three days trying to find their way back to civilisation. Their lack of preparedness is underscored by their total lack of water.

Van Sant delights in long tracking shots with the backdrop of silent scrubby mountains hiding their innate sense of danger.

Ultimately the film ends in tragedy but it barely registers. The main characters are too remote, too self-absorbed and under-developed. This film is about something else again.

Perhaps only Van Sant himself knows exactly what that is. Gerry Mander perhaps.


Behaviour at the Edge of Time

I want to be your action stunt double
you can be yourself right up to the edge of conversation
then as it all turns nasty and mad
I jump out of the telephone jackboot
throw away my disguise
I look you in the eyes and say
“I’ll do it from here”

You stare, pull your head back and laugh
Jackanape, put back on your false eyes
I’ve met your double visions and
I’ve seen your credit cards
How can you imitate my madness
when you are too often safely sane
Avoiding it from here