May 23

Why are people in the literary realm so often pretentious knobs?

I spent Thursday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and while I had an interesting day, and would certainly go again, I was struck by the affected showiness that overcomes authors once they are published.

It seems that if you earn your living – and your reputation – by putting words together, you must constantly be on top form word-wise, impressing at every opportunity. Imagine if other professions did this. Athletes would be sprinting everywhere they went, doctors would be constantly asking people if they were feeling all right … you get the picture.

I don’t want to name names – but, as an example, one author when quizzed on the structure of her novel/memoir answered along the lines of, “Well, I write the truth … and truth is beauty … and beauty has a structure”. Right. The rest of the time she crapped on about “silence” and the “space between words”.

The exception to this was Mohammed Hanif – perhaps one of the few authors at the festival capable of self-deprecation – who when asked how he had responded to the news that he had been long-listed for the Booker Prize replied (in a thick Pakistani accent): “Well, I was taking my son to a movie, and I got the phone call to tell me I had been long-listed. [Thoughtful pause] Then I went to the movie.” Sadly, poor Mohammed could barely get a word in edgeways.

It’s not just authors of course, anyone associated with the literary world can be affected. Geordie Williamson, book critic for The Australian (and moderator for two of the sessions I attended) is among the worst offenders. He peppers his speech with ludicrous phrases like “disappear up one’s own fundament” and references to semi-obscure literary establishments such as the Prix Goncourt that mean nothing to the average punter.

Of course I did come away having learnt a thing or two. It was painfully clear from the panel discussion featuring debut authors that having an inside connection to the publishing industry is almost a necessity in getting a book deal. Talk of mountainous slush piles and the disdain with which unsolicited manuscripts are treated, the difficulty in finding an agent, the scores of rejection letters, it’s almost enough to turn off any aspiring writer. The unspoken flipside to this is that talent alone is probably not enough. It’s not only what you know, it’s who you know.

Neverthless, the SWF was extremely well organised, the venues were great, and it was cheap as chips. Many sessions are free (if you’re prepared to queue) and tickets are in the $15 range. I hope to be there next year. 

I will finish by pointing out that the Sydney Writers’ Festival has an apostrophe whereas the Melbourne Writers Festival does not. Discuss.

May 21

Let me tell you a story to illustrate the strangeness of the human mind.

When I left school I worked full time as a trainee at BHP Steelworks in Newcastle, and went to uni part time studying Electrical Engineering. I mostly went to lectures at night, but trainees also got eight hours study leave each week, so I went to day lectures and tutorials where possible.

One of the subjects I did in first year was called Maths I. It was split into four branches of mathematics: calculus, statistics, something called “algebra & analysis”, and one other which I forget. The head lecturer was a Professor Smrz. I am still not sure how to pronounce his vowel-less last name, but I think it’s probably something like “smertz”. (I was careful to never say it in his presence, in case I got it wrong.) He was a bit of a strange character, Eastern European, extremely serious, and scary as hell to a disinterested first year student.

In March of my first year at uni I crashed my car, so was temporarily without transport. Because of this I missed a couple of Maths I tutorials. We had been warned that if we missed more than a certain percentage of classes we would fail the course. At the time I worked out I could miss three and still be OK. This gives you some indication as to how seriously I took my studies back then.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, I had just bought a lovely, red 1979 Toyota Corolla. It was a rainy Friday afternoon and I was leaving BHP to attend a 2pm Maths tute. I simply couldn’t face going to uni to sit in a room and listen to Professor Smrz drone on for two hours. I did a quick calculation, figured I had missed two tutes already, and thus had one up my sleeve. So I nicked off into Newcastle and went record shopping. That day I bought a second-hand vinyl copy of Animals by Pink Floyd at Rice’s Bookshop on Hunter St.

As I drove home, I started to get a nagging feeling. I began to wonder if I had miscalculated the number of tutorials I had missed. I rushed into my bedroom, dug out the Maths I notes and flicked through the course calendar. Sure enough, I had screwed up. I had now missed four tutes, enough to get myself booted from the course.

I fretted all weekend. Being kicked out of Maths I would mean a fail grade, which could potentially lose me my traineeship at BHP. Not necessarily a bad thing in hindsight, but at the time it was a scary prospect. The following Monday I raced to uni and explained the situation to Professor Smrz. He was not especially interested in my excuses, and I realise now that I was the kind of apathetic student that lecturers hate, but I begged and pleaded and he gave me another chance. The rest is history!

Since then whenever I get out Pink Floyd’s Animals to give it a spin I get a morbid feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I can picture myself sitting in my bedroom, staring down the barrel of a life of poverty and homelessness, all because of this record. I find it amazing that a simple object like a record cover can bring on physical symptoms of fear more than twenty years after the initial event.

In case you’re wondering, I scraped through Maths I with a Pass.

May 14
Miss Communication
icon4 May 14th, 2009 | icon2 Bric-a-Brac | icon3Comments Off

Last night Rach made a yummy chicken curry. It was scrumptious! So this morning, in the car on the way to the train station, she asks me in a morning chit-chat way, “How good was that chicken curry?” In my head, what I heard was, “How good was that chick in Kurri?”

For a moment I thought, “When did we go to Kurri and what chick are you talking about?” before I realised what she’d said. This sort of thing is happening more and more often. Am I going senile? It was 6:40am after all.

P.S. For those that don’t know.

May 10

Rach and I have just returned from Bermagui on the south coast of New South Wales. On our first night in town we ventured out to the local Hotel-Motel, aka the “Hoey Moey”. (Or better still, “Huey Muey”, as in, “Rach and Snuey went to the Bermagui Huey Muey for a schooey of Toohey’s Newy”.)

First stop was the “Hoey” where we enjoyed a refreshing ale under the watchful gaze of an enormous marlin, hanging on the wall opposite. Down south they love their fish, preferably dead, stuffed and mounted, the bigger the better. The pub was decorated mostly with photographs of large fish, a phenomenon we have witnessed at other southern NSW drinking establishments.

Soon our stomachs were telling us that some dinner was required, so we headed next door to the “Moey”, or its attached bar & restaurant to be precise. I got the chicken schnitzel and Rach had the roast. Tasty! They even had an open fire, which looked real enough but appeared to be plugged into a nearby power socket.

As I waited at the bar to order my obligatory dessert of chocolate mud-cake, ahead of me a very odd couple were placing their dinner order. I couldn’t help overhearing as they attempted to find something on the menu that was prepared to their liking.

“How is the fish done? Is that grilled?”, the guy asked.

“No, sorry, the fish is battered and deep fried”, replied the girl behind the bar.

“What about the squid?”, asked his partner. “That must be grilled, surely?”

“No, that’s deep fried too.”

Thus the conversation continued through each item on the menu until only the side dishes remained. At this point the guy requested a prawn salad, plus a side salad (huh?) and a serve of vegetables. It seems we have some kind of deranged fruitarian on our hands here. The bargirl politely explained that, in fact, the prawn salad was pretty much just a side salad with some prawns added. Thus informed, the order was amended to a prawn salad and two serves of vegetables. The woman ordered something equally confusing along with a further side of veges. 

A few minutes later, as I gave my dessert order a woman appeared from the kitchen and approached the barmaid, piece of paper in hand.

“It says three serves of veges here for two people, is that right?”

The barmaid nodded, exchanging looks with her harried colleague.

Meanwhile the couple’s drinks – some sort of bitters and mineral water concoction – had been prepared and placed on the bar. They had sat at a nearby table and now looked up at their drinks expectantly. A brief conversation ensued on the topic of how best to transport their beverages from the bar to their table. The guy seemed uninterested in his drink, perhaps because upon sitting he had immediately plugged in an earpiece and was fiddling with his iPhone.

Let me try to describe this pair. He was fifty-ish, tall and thin with a mop of curly grey hair. He wore black-framed glasses of the type popular these days with the arty set. His partner – whether she was his spouse or business colleague is unclear – wore identical frames. 

He started making calls on his phone. He had a strange, slightly plummy accent, not English exactly but perhaps lower North Shore Sydney. As their table was near ours his telephone conversations were clearly audible. At one point he left a message for someone informing them that the Aboriginal elder, Uncle Mack, would be “unable to attend the meeting this evening”. His partner sipped her drink in silence.

Their meals arrived and iPhones were pushed to one side. As I was inspecting the ingenious electric fireplace, Rach watched in disbelief as our new friend swung a crystal over his prawn salad, presumably in an attempt to cleanse this potentially tainted food. Clearly this type of New Age hokum has no place in a meat-and-potatoes town like Bermagui. Thank God they didn’t try it next door in the Hoey.

The mud-cake was superb, in case you were wondering.