One Short Black

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Like many people, I didn’t know whether to feel sorrow or amusement when Starbucks came to Australia 5 or 6 years ago and opened a store in Lygon Street, of all places. Every afternoon I would stroll down the pavement past the bustling tables outside all the cafés, and then pass through the dead, sucking void where Starbucks had set up shop.
It seemed like it never had more than three punters in it: a middle-aged American couple, and a Japanese tourist wearing hip-hop gear. Was I deluding myself into thinking that the international chain of overpriced crap coffee was doomed to failure in Melbourne? Was I overestimating the ability to resist the millions of dollars’ worth of pressure the corporation could use to grind down the competition and the public, year after year?
Starbucks will close 70% of its Australian stores and slash more than half of its workforce…
Across the country, the company’s 84 cafes closed yesterday at 2pm…. Although the list of the stores to be closed has not been released, it is believed the controversial Starbucks shop in Lygon Street, Carlton, is among them….
Starbucks president Howard Schultz ruled out closing other stores internationally and cited “challenges unique to the Australian market”. Retail analyst Barry Urquhart said Starbucks failed in Australia in part “because they didn’t understand and respect the unique and differing characteristics of the Australian coffee consumer”.

Frontier: Coburg

Saturday 19 July 2008

A few years ago, my girlfriend went to her first medical checkup in London and found herself explaining to the British-born doctor that Australian houses have bedrooms, thus correcting her assumption that verandahs were primarily designed for sleeping. When the only news story from Australia that has impinged upon British consciousness this year is the one about the bloke with the seatbelt on his slab, it can be hard explaining to Brits that Australia is a modern, largely urbanised society, with a complex and sophisticated culture.
Then you come back to Melbourne for a visit, sit out on the verandah of your friend’s house in leafy Coburg, and flip through the Personal Services classifieds at the back of the local paper.

“Yee-haw! There’s a passel o’ fine fillies up from South Yarra ways on that thar stagecoach, pardner!”
“Shucks, Jed, I ain’t seen me a gin-u-wine South Yarra lady up the Sydney Road in a month o’ Sundays!”
And then there’s this inspired promotional campaign that’s guaranteed to drum up trade. It’s enough to make any bargain-hunting man grab his hod and head out west. Also note the somewhat excessive zeal and efficiency that Amy brings to her job.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Hopelessly Devoted to Who?

Wednesday 2 July 2008

I was emailed by a friend who received an invite to my exhibition (now closed, so no plug) in Melbourne, and noticed that the two letters UK appeared in brackets after my name. “Good to see the cultural cringe is alive and well in the local scene,” he said. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince several people that it wasn’t my idea to bill me as an Overseas Artist. When asked why they’ve listed me as British, I have a guess and say it’s something to do with claiming travel expenses.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been identified as non-Australian. Last year I played a gig in Brisbane which billed me as a New Zealander, owing to my having flown in via Auckland; but that was an honest mistake, whereas the British tag was, to my surprise when I recalled it, true.

Even though I have now lived in London for three years, and even have dual citizenship, there’s nothing about me that feels particularly British; yet it appears that my Australian identity is slowly and steadily slipping away, in ways I cannot control. Does extensive time out of the country inevitably extinguish my Australianness?
Earlier this year The Onion’s A.V. Club posted the latest in a semi-regular series, “The scandal of Olivia Newton-John: 12 surprisingly controversial Wikipedia pages“, chronicling the most protracted and furious arguments on Wikipedia’s Talk pages over the past few months. Fierce debates raged over such controversial subjects as Speedy Gonzales, Rotary International, the capitalisation of the name k.d. lang, and the nationality of Olivia Newton-John:

Yes, we know she was born in England, but moved to Australia at age 5, and left again at age 17. But such details don’t settle the linguistic and existential question of her essential nationality. Nv8200p “think[s] there is no doubt that Newton-John identifies with Australia,” but the ensuing complicated discussion covers dual citizenship, British birth certificates, whether Mel Gibson counts as Australian, and ultimately whether Australians have an inferiority complex. “English-born, Australian-raised” is the phrase that currently describes Newton-John in the first paragraph of her entry, but the issue may not be settled…

A quick straw poll among friends in Melbourne got a unanimous result: Hell yeah, she’s Australian. The English themselves most likely remember her, if at all, as American or Australian more than British – despite her sterling work for the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. At the time of writing, her Wikipedia article describes her as an “English-born, Australian pop singer”, but of course this may change.
ONJ’s Wikipedia Talk page gives a fascinating, if not illuminating, account of the debating process that went into authoring her entry, including a section titled “Gay Icon Project” and the winning reprimand of “The E! TV special on Newton John isn’t the best source for wikipedia [sic].” Probably the most trenchant observation is this comment:

She’s still technically a British person. Australia is as guilty sometimes as some other countries in looking pass[sic] the home-born and reared people in preference of a claiming tightly[sic] to famous people such as Newton-John as the representer of Australia. I’d probably decide to only pledge my undying allegiance to the country that worships me as their symbol too.

Compare Our Libby to that other accidental icon of cheesy Seventies pop culture, the Bee Gees. Singing artistes with a similar, intercontinental upbringing, they are claimed by the British and the Australians with equal possessiveness – even though they are technically Manx. Their more contested national allegiance – in the real world, if not so much on Wikipedia – is doubtless due to their continued eminence in both countries.
Incidentally, the main debate on the Bee Gees Wikipedia Talk page concerns whether their formative years in Brisbane were spent in Redcliffe or the now-vanished Cribb Island. This sticking point seems to be more hotly contested than any of the larger claims for rival nations.
Perhaps it has been the fate of all world-famous Australians to have their nationalities confused, simply by the act of entering the wider world to be famous in. Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne, established his career in England, became an American to avoid the Great War, found his greatest fame in the USA, built his museum in Melbourne, and was buried in Adelaide beside his mother, to whom he dedicated a large memorial statue (with a rather fulsome poem on a plaque beneath) which dwarfs his own, modest grave. Depending on which country you are in, Grainger is either Australian, American, or English – the last in particular, given his identification with Anglo-Saxon, if not Aryan, culture.
There are also rare instances of celebrities who have falsely claimed Australian identities. For many years there were Tasmanians who swore they had personally known Merle Oberon as a girl growing up in St Helens, unaware that her biography was faked to disguise her mixed-race origins in Bombay. Far more common are the lazy inclusiveness granted by Australians to particularly successful New Zealanders, and the affectionate, unofficial status afforded to the likes of Our Tom and Our Fred. Such status, however, can be revoked at any time.
So, what does history have to teach me? Is my case yet another example of cultural cringe? Perhaps, having left Australia’s shores, I have been disowned, fobbed off to another unwitting country, at least until I become famous enough to be reclaimed. Or perhaps during my time abroad I have changed at an imperceptible rate until I am no longer recognisable to my fellow countrymen. Worse still is the fate of those who fall between two shores, the mercenary netherworld of the professional expatriate.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Australia decides that 15 year olds may look at other 15 year olds after all

Friday 6 June 2008

As was to be expected, I’ve been too preoccupied to update anything since arriving in Melbourne for the show (plug!); but now I’m sitting next to a guy looking up Lesbian Upskirt Spanking Parties on YouTube in the back of an IGA in Swanston Street which doesn’t seem to bother charging anyone using the computers.
Also to be expected, a host of pundits have crawled out of the woodwork to miss the point completely about that whole Bill Henson tizzy. Their main point of arfument: yes, we know he’s a child pornographer, but how much porn is too much? Pity they all forgot to think about whether or not Henson’s photographs were pornographic in the first place.

The Classifications Board has now declared the picture “mild” and safe for many children…. Considered one of the most confronting in the Henson exhibition, the picture came to the board for classification when it was discovered in a blog discussing pornography and the sexualisation of children. But the classifiers found the “image of breast nudity … creates a viewing impact that is mild and justified by context … and is not sexualised to any degree.”

“I don’t know what that means but I think there is a suggestion of indecency about it.”

Thursday 29 May 2008

Last weekend in London Tate Modern hosted photographer Nan Goldin’s slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A brief writeup in The Guardian mentions, in passing:

In many ways, [singer/songwriter Patrick] Wolf’s input actually freshened up some work which has become slightly over-familiar, and gave extra emotional heft to shots that no longer seem so shocking or transgressive (though Goldin defiantly kept in the picture of two young girls that caused huge controversy last year).

Comments from readers are mostly affably jaded:

Shocking in 1983 perhaps but with the rise and rise of fetishy sex, drag queens, transexuals and Bondage/S&M fans is commonplace imagery today. Still good art though. Perhaps we do need a new Mary Whitehouse, as many Daily Mail readers are suggesting, if only to remind us how much fun decadence is one you de-commercialise it.

The “huge controversy” mentioned was when police seized a Goldin photograph from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead on suspicion that it was child pornography.
In a few days I’ll be back in Melbourne for my upcoming show (plug!), but the climate there is a bit chilly for artists right now, and not just because of the weather. Right now, Australian Federal Police are investigating the National Gallery of Australia as part of what appears to be a self-appointed crusade against “immoral” art, after New South Wales police raided a Sydney gallery’s exhibition of photographs by Bill Henson. Henson and the gallery owners are being accused by police, politicians and various lobby groups of being child pornographers, and have been threatened with criminal prosecution.
Until last week, there had never been a complaint about Henson’s photographs during his 30-year career, despite it being shown all over Australia and the world, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim, and best of all, forming part of the permanent collection of the High Court of Australia.
Commentary in Britain has been pretty much as you would expect:

This isn’t the first time Australia’s cultural immaturity has been revealed in all it’s ugliness, and it won’t be the last…. Freedom of expression has a long way to go in the provinces.

To show its maturity, the British government has just announced its plan to “toughen up” its child pornogrpahy laws to include the outlawing of drawings of child abuse:

When the existing ban on photographic images was enacted, the argument in principle was that real children are exploited and harmed to make these images, which is true. That entire philosophical plank on which the legislation rested has now been kicked casually away. If you, alone in your room, put pencil to paper and draw – for your eyes only – an obscene doodle involving a child, you will invite a prison term of up to three years. There is real scope for vindictive citizens to ransack desks or bins and call the police.

(The title quote comes, of course, from one of the most influential literary critics, Detective Vogelsang of the South Australian Police Force.)

Short, Stupid Sunday Science

Sunday 11 May 2008

The most popular story currently on BBC News’ Science and Nature website? Great tits cope well with warming.
Hey, goth kids! Wanna know what the mysterious, mind-expanding “green fairy” of absinthe really is? Booze!

Yes, but which Dalai Lama?

Saturday 19 April 2008

It’s only a student newspaper but even so, the Columbia Spectator has just published one of the greatest lapses in fact-checking for the decade and, subsequently, one of the greatest retractions of all time:

The submission misstates that one Dalai Lama admitted to having sex with hundreds of men and women while knowing that he had AIDS. Additionally, the submission misstates that many monks participated in the dismemberment of female bodies. In fact, there is no factual evidence to substantiate either of these claims. Spectator regrets the error.

(Found at Regret the Error.)

Filler By Proxy LVIII: Bobby Fischer for the last time

Saturday 19 January 2008

This blog has a small, unfortunate reputation for giving anti-semitic nutbags an easy ride, so I should mention the death of Bobby Fischer, who was the subject of the first ever Filler by Proxy way back when I was desperately scratching around for subject matter.
There are plenty of detailed obituaries to choose from. Andy McSmith in The Independent manages a concise survey of his madness and his brilliance:
It looked like a petulant blunder by the challenger, who had become more fussy and prone to complain about the conditions under which he was forced to play chess which each passing year. He had repeatedly accused the Russians of cheating, and lying. Now he had thrown a match.
In retrospect, it looks much more like a clever ploy in a psychological war against Spassky and the Soviet apparatus. From then on, Spassky never knew what Fischer would do next, but he hung on gamely as the American repeatedly beat him.

The Canterbury Block

Sunday 23 September 2007

With larger increases in temperature and increases in rainfall pasture production increased by 2030 in the north, but not in the south, and results were not as positive by 2070.

As it turns out, the “Old Europe” is prepared to serve in the relatively peaceful northern parts of Afghanistan, but not in the south, where active combat is the norm.

Over fifty years after the practice was first defined, the Canterbury Block is still thriving.

The constitution contained many present-day Dutch political institutions; however, their functions and composition have changed greatly over the years. The constitution was accepted in the North, but not in the South.

Dry season adults were consistently larger than wet season adults in the tropical north, but not in the south.

From agriculture to international relations, biology to constitutional politics, there is no field of endeavour to which the Canterbury Block can be applied without immediately enhancing and expanding upon the sum of expert knowledge.

In the North Fore, but not in the South, the corpse was buried for several days, then exhumed and eaten when the flesh had “ripened” and the maggots could be cooked as a separate delicacy.

In Ghana, female headship was associated with poverty in the north but not in the south.

A quick search on Google finds choice examples of the Canterbury Block bolstering opinions around the world, informed and uninformed, in a variety of languages. I am beginning to suspect that if there is a grand unified theory of everything, then one of the fundamental building blocks will be the Canterbury Block.

Sinn Féin will probably gain some ground but are not likely to make it into a governing coalition due to a curious double standard that sees the party as fit for government in the North, an increasingly foreign and alien place, but not in the South.

Time is running, but not in the South.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

All about Hugh de Wardener

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Hugh de Wardener is regarded as the single most influential nephrologist produced by the UK in the 20th Century. He qualified at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1939 and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served with distinction, was interned by the Japanese, and was awarded a military MBE.
After the war, he returned to St Thomas’ as a lecturer and started work on renal physiology, salt and water balance, and acute renal failure. During this time, he wrote his internationally famous book, ‘The Kidney’, which described renal physiology and disease with exceptional clarity.
In 1962, he was appointed Professor of Medicine at Charing Cross Hospital, and remained in this post until his retirement in 1981. He continued to work on the role of salt and water in relation to blood pressure and, in particular, investigated natriuretic hormones and performed early work on the use of renal biopsy in the diagnosis of glomerulonephritis. He was also responsible for the introduction of maintenance dialysis at Charing Cross and in expanding this service across the UK.
(Hello to the person or persons persistently googling this site for Hugh de Wardener over the past few months! Hopefully you now won’t have to leave here empty-handed. In the next day or two, more funtastic posts plus some more photos and music. If you’re lucky, I might even update the indices and install a search engine.)

Not the popular American musician

Tuesday 24 July 2007

If you’ll excuse the tautology, I’m a narcissistic blogger; so you know the real reason I’m linking to Sophie Cunningham’s article in The Age about the motivations and dissuasions of blog writing is because I’m quoted in it, regardless of the fact that it is a rare example of a Serious Publication putting out a thoughtful piece about blogs.

I don’t share some writers’ concerns about “giving away” words on the internet, when they sell them for a living. While this is a concern, I am moved by author Jonathan Lethem’s argument in Harper’s recently that “in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience. If I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.” Not all blogs are art, but the act of sharing ideas and conversation is most certainly a gift.

It’s refreshing to read in a newspaper something about online writing other than (a) it’s all angsty ramblings of imperilled teenagers, and dangerous, or (b) it’s an endless partisan political shitfight, and dangerous – it’s usually one or the other from one week to the next, never both at once.
The article includes plenty of links to other quality blogs, to help keep up the online community’s rep for incestuous logrolling (which of course professional journalists would never do). Most importantly, I get to say “dick around” in a broadsheet.
Incidentally, I do have conscientously-formed reasons for maintaining this site, but I don’t need to tell you how to read.

Filler By Proxy LII: Your Pretty Face Is Going to Slough

Tuesday 19 June 2007

There’s something else I learned at Venn, but it has to wait till tomorrow night. In the meantime, please enjoy what promises to be a lengthy series of highly illuminating posts about life in a modern British provincial town; in fact, that most archetypal of nondescript British towns, Slough. The delights that await the business traveller can be followed at the blog Life in the Slough Lane.

Wikipedia: Mostly Harmless

Wednesday 9 May 2007

David Nichols recently wrote at Sarsaparilla about the vagaries of Wikipedia, its errors and omissions, some accidental and some by misguided intention.

Wikipedia has a real future, and this to me is it: it is a beautiful, worldwide record of what people think they know. Day by day it is going to become a bigger, bolder better record of changing attitudes and ideas…

A commenter described his own experience of adding Australian content to the site, only to see overzealous volunteers (presumably not Australian) marking articles for deletion because they’d never heard of the people or places involved: “What struck me about the process was how difficult it seemed for volunteers to verify whether the work was deserving.”

Fortunately, some articles are self-evidently authoritative and thorough. Below is the current Wikipedia entry for the Holden Standard, the base model Australian family car of the 1950s and 60s, reprinted in its entirety:

The Holden Standard was a vehicle manufactured by Holden in Australia. It’s a pretty standard vehicle. As far as standard cars built by Holden go, this is by far the standardest and most Holdeney.

This doesn’t even need a “citation needed” tag. For additional fun, check out the entry’s revision history, showing the careful expansion and polishing it has undergone during the past six months.

A potent mix of critical opinion and biographical fact

Friday 20 October 2006

Scrawled in biro over a poster for the movie of The History Boys on the platform at Euston station*: “Alan Bennett is an overrated poof from Yorkshire.”

* Northern Line, Charing Cross branch.

Advanced East London anti-war campaigning techniques

Monday 9 October 2006

The real reason the war in Iraq is still going. Also, a rare sighting of the old Blogspot banner.