Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jam Fancy

The arid landscape of the Lockyer Valley on the journey to Toowoomba is relieved only by the sight of a red elephant sculpture. It marks the location of a highway oasis that woos travellers from their journey with the promise of mango and, increasingly precious, banana smoothies.

The wrinkled skin of the blushing pachyderm reminds me of papîer maché models of the kind I made in primary school for display in the schools’ exhibition hall at the local agricultural show . The chicken wire frame of the elephant by the roadside is traceable beneath the thin layer of moulded fibreglass, in the same way that the layers of newspaper, glue and paint I helped shape in grade five couldn’t hide the skeletons of Eeyore and Tigger that were constructed in homage to Winnie the Pooh.

There’s something about the kind of amateur marketing, that this sculpture represents, which is difficult to resist. The elephant is a kind of naïve creative work. I don’t know the history of this elephant, but I’d speculate it wasn’t created by a professional sign-writer or even an artist. I imagine, rather, that it was fashioned by farmers trying to secure a future that farming by itself will no longer afford them.

The red elephant embodies the enthusiastic industriousness that arises at the moment when the family-run roadside store is transformed from a value-added side-line to the main business of crop growing, into a self-contained, profit-making concern. The roadside fruit and vegetable shop that the elephant fronts may well be a response by local producers to unacceptably low prices offered by supermarket chains, who might even have declined to buy their crops, for whatever reason.

The resourcefulness that solves the problem of finding a market for unsold produce is further employed in the creation of sculptures like the elephant, which apply a vernacular knowledge of marketing. It can be no mistake that the elephant is red, rather than grey, which would blend into the landscape, or even pink, that would connote something other than wholesome farm-fresh produce. The elephant has almost certainly been constructed with an awareness of the genre of over-sized roadside sculptures—the big pineapple, the big banana etc.—that seek to entice visitors with farm-grown delights from the farmer’s own work roughened hands

In this instance, the home-made charm of the oversized elephant prefigures the character of what is for sale. Beyond the local farm produce, the shop on the side of the Warrego Highway also offers visitors the unmatched goodness of the country farm kitchen in a range of ‘home-made’ preserves. Upon entering this section of the building, another example of naïve marketing is encountered.

I liked this elephant the best. Home wood-working skills are in evidence, and the simplicity of the white writing on the red background further feeds the myth of an uncomplicated rural existence in a way that is somehow comforting, even if it is unable to withstand even the slightest interrogation.

I bought three jars: raspberry jam, chilli jam and beetroot chutney. And I got a tropical smoothie as well. I didn’t get a banana one because I thought that surely $4 for anything that includes bananas these days could not be cost effective for the providore.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Dry New World

I braved a family outing yesterday. I was lured by the charms of the adorable Hannah to get in a car with my mother and sister, V, and go up the range to Toowoomba.

Now Toowoomba may once have been known as the Garden City, with the annual Carnival of Flowers the mainstay of its tourist attractions, but the ongoing drought in South East Queensland has put an end to the possibility of, if not the ongoing colonial yearning for, the flora of Victorian England.

These photos were taken in the Lockyer Valley, which is at the base of the Toowoomba range.

The landscape is usually verdant and green.

The city of Toowoomba itself looks pretty much the same. They’ve been on Level Four water restrictions for a while, so no-one has been able to water their gardens, even with buckets. They’re all preparing to enter into Level Five restrictions in August. There will be no washing of pets then, apparently. All the more reason to get a cat, a species who can look after such things for themselves. Stinky dogs will abound.

Of course, the stench of unwashed canines will be the least of their problems. The local council is eager to volunteer the town and its people as guinea pigs in the establishment of the world’s largest sewage water recycling treatment plant. A referendum will be held for the citizens to vote on whether they would like to drink the water produced from this plant. Perhaps the town’s new slogan could be: ‘Eat Shit!’ Do you think the tourists will still visit?

My sister, F, and her husband J are against the council’s proposition. They are cynical about the glossy brochures that promote the scheme, which they have been receiving in their letterbox. J is familiar with all that is involved in maintaining the proper working of industrial processing equipment and machinery, and he knows how inevitable cost-cutting is, as well the consequences of such measures for any adherence to safe operations. He added ‘And Die!’ to my slogan suggestion.

F is completely appalled that the proposed process—reverse osmosis—does not remove hormones from the sewage water and that the council would gloss over the health implications of the population ingesting them en masse. She points to the installation of dual reticulation plumbing as a much better alternative.

From what I could gather, I can’t understand why the Toowoomba council is pushing the scheme so far as to include drinking, cooking and bathing water. I would have thought that the amount of water consumed indoors was a fraction of that used in laundering and outdoors. Why virtually ensure a ‘No’ vote at the expense of a range of other, obviously valuable and safe, uses of the recycled water?

J says that regardless of whether the people vote ‘Yes’ or not the plant will go ahead and the water will be used for irrigation and other non-domestic purposes. That doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have some partial uptake of the recycled water in the home. Perhaps the council should recognise the legitimate concerns for their health and well-being that citizens have and seek a compromise that uses education to communicate their aims, rather than blindly marketing an intractable position?

Just a thought.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Scream 2

Don’t you just hate it when a crowd of 30,000 people sneaks up on you? That’s what happened to me this afternoon. There I was, moseying home after a big week at the office. I decided to catch the bus all the way into the city so I could buy some milk. I got waylaid by the display of cheap DVDs in Target. I bought Master and Commander, The Others and The Minority Report for the princely sum of $12.95 each. I bought milk, rice crackers and Milo. Then I caught the bus. I was looking out of the bus window when I saw a couple of red and white jerseys. I thought ‘Maybe there’s an AFL game on tonight’, perhaps they’re heading over to the Gabba. I should have known better. The jerseys had sleeves—a clear sign that no one was out barracking for the Sydney Swans.

This is what happened. I had been lulled into a false sense of security because this week Suncorp Stadium had already hosted a major rugby league event. I thought it was okay to wander home aimlessly, because the crowds had been and gone to the State of Origin and left mounds of beer, vodka, and Bacardi Breeze bottles and kebab wrappers behind them on Wednesday night. The streets had been closed, buses had been diverted, and I knew that Queensland had won without even turning on the television or reading a newspaper, because the crowd hung around afterwards, celebrating with more beers and every now and then screaming ‘Queenslander!’ to anyone passing by, and the ether too, well into the wee hours, it seemed. Losers just go home and nurse their disappointment.

Wally Lewis Shows His True Colours

Usually the events at the Stadium are timed to occur at most once a fortnight. I thought that since the powers that be hadn’t even managed to send out the street sweepers, there would be no problem with timing my arrival at home for around 7 pm, just in time for the Big Brother daily show.

As the bus got to Upper Roma Street, I saw that the red and white jerseys were being outnumbered by others in maroon and gold, and the numbers of jersey wearers had grown into a migrating herd that was being corralled up the street on one side by a row of orange and white barriers. That’s when I knew:

Friday 16 June NRL Telstra Premiership—Round 15

Kick off: 4.15pm Preliminary Game 1: Redcliffe High v Marsden High
Kick off: 5.25pm Preliminary Game 2: Aspley v Easts (QRL U/16)
Kick off: 7.30pm Main Game: Broncos v Dragons


Sheesh. Don’t scare me like that.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Anyhoo! is my new favourite expression. It’s not that I necessarily use it on any regular basis myself, but I’ve come across it quite a bit while reading blogs lately, and I’ve decided I like it.

I didn’t realise it was a Homer-ism until I happened to watch The Simpsons the other night and saw the yellow paterfamilias attempting to distract Marge’s attention from something he’d done.

Homer seems to use Anyhoo! as a means of distraction.. It’s his way of saying, ‘Please don’t notice that dumb thing I just did’ as he whistles tunelessly, feigning innocence, while attempting to move everyone along.

People on the blogs I read have adapted the Homer-ism to a slightly different use. It’s still an attempt to divert attention away from something they don’t want anyone to dwell on, but rather than the source of discomfort being a moment of idiocy, it tends to be one of the opposing kind. Bloggers suddenly realise they’ve been intensely nerdy, or perhaps overly confessional, and it’s Homer to the rescue. Anyhoo-oo!


Friday, June 09, 2006

Get the T-Shirt

Somebody sent me an email in reply to one of my blog posts. I wondered why they didn’t just comment as per blog custom, but since they identified themselves in their message as the author of something I’d read, I assumed their opening line, ‘Hi, enjoyed your post’, was a genuine overture to conversation on a topic in which we both had a vested interest. I understand modesty if you’re not at ease with the kind of exposure you get in the blogosphere. I understand wanting to remain anonymous to avoid any consequences or just plain embarrassment if someone makes the connection between your online pseudonym and your embodied existence. I thanked the sender for taking the time to respond and let them know that I had read their work as they’d suspected from the details of my post.

I revealed to the sender that we had met in the ‘real’ world and had acquaintances in common. I said I looked forward to engaging with the thesis chapter they had sent me, and that perhaps rather than continue the conversation via email, it would be easier to talk after an event we were both going to attend, or if that was too intense for a drinks occasion, then we might meet at a nearby coffee shop during a lunch break one day.

Then I attended the event where I saw the respondent. Since they didn’t know me, I waved and said, ‘Hi, I’m the person you emailed’. It turns out the sender knew who I was when they emailed me. I was surprised. Oh. Why didn’t the sender say so in the email? The sender avoided eye contact, didn’t even really want to acknowledge me, said ‘yeah I haven’t replied to your email’, and ‘I was being political’. Huh? The event got underway, and I was distracted by thinking about such a strange statement. Political? About what?

I thought about the content of the email I received. The sender had offered a different perspective on something I’d reported. At the time I’d thought the alternative account was very interesting. I had wanted to ask if I might post sections of the email to the comments page. Now I began to doubt the motivations behind the email. I thought about the sixty-five page chapter I had downloaded with every intention of reading, not really sure if I was up to the task of commenting, but honoured to be asked. I wondered, could a personal email to a less advanced colleague—an email that essentially negated the reported facts of the post and asserted the sender’s higher status/greater knowledge—be political in any affirmative way? If the politics expressed were directed solely towards the reported content of the post, then wouldn’t it make more sense to make the response public?

At the drinks after the event, the sender sat at the other end of the table with someone who doesn’t acknowledge me on any occasion. I felt humiliated and stupid that I’d thought the sender’s email was sincere rather than disingenuous and the assertion of authority that it now appears it was. I’m not sure what it was. I still don’t understand entirely . The sender hasn't offered me anything more.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Gastropod Sunday

I went back to the green grocer I frequent to source some okra as per ThirdCat’s request in the comments on my last Gastropod post, but I think the okra that looked so promising then hasn’t fared too well in the intervening week or so since. I suspect it’s even the same okra, especially if the brown bits and general sponginess were any indication of its age. So, I’m sad to inform you, The Okra Show will be postponed until another day.

Meanwhile, let me share this comic in The Weekend Australian Magazine. You’ve probably already seen it:

Would life be worth living without jam, strawberry or any other kind? The thought of strawberry jam has me humming that Michelle Shocked tune of the same name:

Saturday morning found me itchin’
To get on over to my gran’ma’s kitchen
(What you gonna do honey?)
The sweetest little berries was cookin’ up, right
And then we put ‘em in a cannin’ jar and seal ‘em up tight

We were makin’ jam
(What kind?)
(Strawberry jam, that’s what kind.)
(Oh, the good kind)
Yeah, if you want the best jam,
You got make your own.

We have Smockers, Welches, Knotsberry Farm
But a little home-made jam, never did a body no harm.
A little local motion is all we really need,
To close down these corporate jam factories.

We’ll be makin’ jam
Strawberry jam, mmm hmm.
If you want the best jam,
You got make your own.
(Make that jam, Doc, show ‘em how it’s done)

(Banjo and fiddle)


We have a little revolution, sweepin’ the land
Now what’s more, everybody’s makin’ home made jam,
So won’t you call your friends up on the telephone,
You invite ‘em on over, you make some jam of your own.

You’ll be making jam
Strawberry jam.
If you want the best jam,
You got make your own.

(Go on Jerry, let the jelly roll!)


(Jerry’s makin’ jam)


(That’s Mark O’Connor, he likes jam)

(Oh yeah, that’s as sweet as strawberry jam)

(Uh Huh)

Saturday morning found me itchin’
To get on over to my gran’ma’s kitchen
Where the sweetest little berries were cookin’ up, right
And then we put ‘em in a cannin’ jar and seal ‘em up tight

We was makin’ jam
Strawberry jam
If you want the best jam,
You got make your own.

Oh, one more time! (Repeat last verse. Throw in a few hearty yeahs. Maybe a yee-haw!)

I’m not such a great jam maker, not like Ampersand Duck’s Best Beloved seems to be. I think my last serious attempt was a couple of years ago when I tried to turn a handful of cumquats into jam by dividing the recipe I had by sixteenths, or some such ridiculous equation. Small quantities of jam don’t seem to work. Then there’s the possibility that I was making it in the middle of the night because I was so angry with someone I couldn’t sleep. A friend suggested to me that I’d made a jam so horrible because it was infused with all the emotions I had while making it, a bit like the character in Like Water for Chocolate. Well, it was true, the jam was better put out with the garbage that consumed by anyone.

Note to self: don’t abandon the searing hot grill pan while making pita crisps to go and write a blog post. The neighbours may call the fire brigade. And you’ll end up with pita ashes:

In case you feel cheated by no actual food in this post, allow me to extol the virtues of fennel:This is not such a hot specimen, but since that’s my fridge it’s been in for a week, I have only myself to blame.

My sister likes baked fennel or fennel gratin. I don’t mind them, but my preference is for raw fennel, sliced in a salad. You get the nice fresh aniseed-y taste best this way. I like it most when tossed with toasted walnuts and parmesan shavings in a red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing. I insist on red wine vinegar in this instance. Don’t forget to use the finely chopped leafy bits in the dressing, with the usual freshly cracked pepper and sea salt. You can add semi-dried tomatoes too if you like, but they detract from the purity of the fennel for me.

If you’re still hungry, go and visit a new Antipodean food blog I discovered, the delightfully named Buddha Belly. Tinned rattlesnake and orange cheese, anyone?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Tout Va Bien

My reading is such a mess at the moment, it’s impossible to organise it into any coherent order the way I usually do via the list on the sidebar.

The difficulty began after I finished The Philosopher’s Doll by Amanda Lohrey. Instead of buying a new book, I decided to have another go at Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. Although an abandoned bookmark suggested I had read at least two thirds of the novel on my first attempt, I truly couldn’t remember anything about it, except perhaps a vague confusion about what was going on.

I decided to try Atomised again because I was reminded of it while trying to locate a link for The Philosopher’s Doll. During the search, I discovered that the Tasmanian State Library had nominated Lohrey’s work for this year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (I note it didn’t make the short list). I browsed the rest of the site and found that Atomised had won the Prize in 2002. I suppose I bought it because it won that award. In retrospect, I should have read the signs that warned me against any potential enjoyment of my rediscovery.

First of all, I didn’t like The Philosopher’s Doll. It’s divided into four parts with the first and second parts combining to make up at least three quarters of the book. Each of these parts are divided into chapters and are variously told from the perspectives of Kirsten, who wants to have a baby, and her husband, Lindsay, who doesn’t want to have a baby right now, and sets about purchasing a dog to offer his wife, with a view to stalling the demands of her biological clock. There’s nothing too wrong with the first two parts of the novel, they present both perspectives of a lived conundrum, and offer no easy answer. It’s when I began reading the third part that I wondered what the author was trying to achieve. All of a sudden, the perspective changes to that of a character who was barely been mentioned in the earlier parts of the novel. Sonia is a graduate student of Lindsay’s, and the impression conveyed by Lindsay’s voice, until the third part, is that she has been stalking him for a period, but she suddenly stops, leaving him a written apology before disappearing. When Sonia begins to speak, we learn that their relationship was more reciprocal than we had been led to believe. (Or maybe not?) So, the impression is that Lindsay was lying, which was not so much of a shock, considering his proposed solution to his wife’s desire for a child. But even if it was a revelation that had any kind of potential to demonstrate some deep insight into the human condition, the uneven structure of the novel completely undermined my sympathies for it as a story. As soon as I entered the third part, the book lost me. Emotionally, I was cast adrift.

The second clue that should have alerted me to avoid reading Atomised was the place of the aforementioned bookmark. Who abandons books after making so much of an investment in them? Most sensible people would cut their losses earlier. Well, at least I can say I’ve begun to learn that lesson, because this time I only made it halfway through Atomised before I threw in the towel. My decision was most likely hastened by the fact that I caught a cold/flu (there were aching bones involved) and so my attention span for such a desolate view of humanity was much diminished. I can understand on an intellectual level that Houellebecq is theorising contemporary social relations or lack thereof, as his title suggests. And he is very clever in conveying the sense of alienation felt by his characters through his writing style. The trouble is that he is also successful in alienating the reader. I simply could not care for someone who sought relationships with very young women, while speaking about women his own age in the most derogatory way. I appreciate that such characterisation is part of Houellebecq’s thesis, but, well, I just wasn’t up for it. Even as I lay in bed recovering from illness, I couldn’t conceive of such a bleak vision. I longed for something life affirming.

I remembered a collection of short non-fiction pieces written by Edmund White and illustrated by Hubert Sorin, that I had picked up in a bargain bin at Target. Sketches from Memory: People and Places in the Heart of our Paris was conceived and accomplished while Sorin was dying from AIDS in the apartment he shared with White in the Châtelet district in Paris. Perhaps it was the drawings I wanted to revisit, something my poor diminished attention span could cope with. But that can’t be entirely true, for I found myself studying them in great depth. They are brilliant and comic and the figures seem to move. There are wonderful portraits of well-known figures of Sorin and White’s acquaintance, such as a young Naomi Campbell and the courtier Azzedine Alaïa.White writes:

I remember one night when the Galatea was a ravishing, pouting, smiling teenager, Naomi Campbell, who would later become the world’s most famous model but who then was just a sumptuously beautiful, shy English adolescent. She kept turning and turning as Azzedine ordered her to do, though when he stuck a pin in her she shouted lustily and tapped the tiny maestro on the head.

More important than the voyeuristic, though thoroughly charming, insights into the rich and famous, however, are Sorin and White’s portraits of the people who inhabit their neighbourhood, with whom they have affectionate, neighbourly relationships.

There are fishmongers, butchers, green grocers, buskers and building contractors; there are priests, prostitutes, eccentric homeless people and local dogs, all of whom are the friends of Sorin and White’s basset hound, Fred (after their friend Frédéric; they were unaware of the comic strip).

Madame Denise, the concierge of their apartment building, appears frequently. She is on the front line of demonstrators, protesting about several building projects in the neighbourhood; she is a despairing mother, trying to convince her son to marry; she likes to drink too much in the afternoon; and she is an incurious supporter of her gay charges, especially on the subject of Sorin’s illness. Most humorously, she is a willing model for the local hairdresser’s creative experimentation:

One day our concierge will look like a Roman matron, the next like a Neapolitan tart, then a week later she’ll become a Tonkinese princess or a cabaret singer of the 1940s, startlingly resembling the imposing, throaty lesbian chanteuse Suzy Solidor. Of course constant variety is the very source of the Parisienne’s power to bewitch us, but it’s somewhat disconcerting to see your motherly (and normally brunette) concierge coiffed with a bright red punk’s coxcomb at eight in the morning (or to be more honest—at ten).

While all of these portraits are tinged with the sadness that arises from knowing that Hubert Sorin is soon—within the time frame of the essays—to pass away, that Edmund White will be left alone after his lover’s death, the sketches are anything but bleak. This little book, remaindered no doubt to make way for ‘some vulgar, current best seller’, is finely wrought, and it made me laugh and cry. Reading it, I felt fully engaged with all the foibles of humanity.

"In this drawing of our local gay and lesbian book shop, Les mots a la bouche, Hubert is daring to suggest that my books and other 'literary works' [the titles on the sale table include O. Wilde, V. Woolf, Proust, M. Foucault, A. Gide] of queer fiction are usually remaindered, whereas customers throng to the shelves selling pornography.

Update: Wendy at Sarsaparilla posted a great quote by Nabakov that addresses the conundrum I have recently faced in my reading. Look at this post by David as well. Glad I'm not alone in having a surfeit of half-read books littering my bedside.