Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkeys



It’s a sunny, unseasonably warm day so what could make more sense than a visit to the local library? I must admit that by ‘local’ I refer to that service which belongs to the ritzier, more obviously gentrified municipality adjacent to my own, to which my suburb does not belong. I like to conduct as much business as possible in this better locale, with its obvious neutral atmosphere, leafy main street and limited opening hours. The library, for instance, usually opens at 1pm.


I observed with pleasure a young woman face down in the grass in the park that is across the street from the library. Next to her sleeping blonde head was a pile of belongings. In order, they were from the ground up: a closed hard-cover book, an open hard-cover book, a package of tailor-made cigarettes and a red lighter. Nearby were a black handbag and a discarded red cardigan. I looked at her black stockings and thought of how they would absorb the afternoon’s sun. Around the park other young women followed suit, dreaming through a day of purported intellectual labour. I was once one of them, only I preferred to do it by the local pool (which belonged in fact to another municipality again, but that is of no consequence now).


All these people are not writing their books, I smiled to myself. But why did I assume this, and why did I smile?


The library itself was even more idle, though the atmosphere was relatively sunless compared to the park, and the lack of activity signified something other than the gestational delight of half-made thoughts I’d just witnessed. I’m always surprised and reassured, however, by the opportunity to see what others use the library’s services for. When I see middle-aged men frowning into prosy laptops (at desks that happen to be in the children’s section), I am reminded that others have problems with solitude and self-control (most especially in the service of writing); the more I see of them, the better I feel about my own tendency to malinger. Even better are the steroid-abusers I often see booking the library’s computer terminals for half an hour, seemingly only to watch the music videos of Slipknot. I’m mystified and yet somehow charmed by the profound innocence of the scene, which is charged in part by the viewer’s lack of privacy.


These recurring figures notwithstanding I saw far, far more women than men in the library, and in the park, and in the main street today. Many of them were only slightly younger than me, and perhaps they were students loading for exams or dissertations. The most striking pose I saw by far was cut by an older Chinese woman, who had boldly propped up her laptop on a pile of junior fiction, commandeered one of the rare, low ‘reading chairs’ to face the screen she’d improvised, and proceeded to watch soap operas for god knows how long, hands behind her head and knees apart.


At home I now question my assumption that each person I saw was a loafer, that each represented an unfinished book, and I question this not only because my solipsism is repellent but because on the drive home, AM radio finally came through with a song that was optimistic and stupid (instead of weak and romantic, which has been a blight of the dial this week):


We’re just tryin’ to be friendly,
Come and watch us sing and play,
We’re the young generation,
And we’ve got something to say.

What makes the theme of the Monkees so durable is that they in fact had nothing to say. And what makes the blatant idleness of those I saw today in Carlton North so charming is a likewise lack of assertion, which nevertheless demands a public forum: come and watch us sing and play. Viewing public examples of relaxation can be more entertaining than a trip to the zoo; or at least, they are good reminders of what sleepy, distractible animals we are when left to our devices.

But for all these words, I hope one of the people I saw today finished their bloody book.

The first and the last

honeys dead

I am really lucky ‘Teenage Lust‘ was on the stereo the first time a boy made me come. Not least because the album the song is on had been out for years and was outwardly considered passé, by then a species of the previous generation. In this way, in their culturally ossified ways, goths and their hangers-on will always have something very special to offer their teenage peers.

I remember thinking, or rather, fearing, as I suppose many teenagers do, that I would never have sex. As stupid as it seems now, because of how obvious, inevitable, routinely inescapable sex is to the adult, this fear adds a particular zest to the first time one does it. An impossible psychosocial, sexual impasse is crossed, the ravine of infinite self-doubt suddenly snaps shut, and in its place an arc of bliss invites you to ride. An arc, or rainbow, if you will, coloured by pleasure, confusion, momentary recognition; unexpected mastery is born of chance and opportunity, the sudden proximity to another body, the animal charge, timidity and hubris, the interchangeability of act and truth, and so on.

But what about the last time one has sex? How many people are aware this is happening, when it happens?

Because the last time is as inevitable as the first time. And like the disbelief that precedes the first time, the sexual being does not quite believe that they will cross back into the realm of those others, the chaste-again, the not-having-sex. Whom may we count among this legion? Who will tell me, what I today would dearly love to know, what music was playing the last time they had sex? Not the most recent time. The last time, the last time ever.

But perhaps, by the end of their sexual careers, people stop, have stopped, listening to music when they make out. Perhaps no music is even on before such entanglements begin. Perhaps there is no longer any need to play the other anything. Perhaps there is no longer any pretext of a shared aesthetic experience. It seems to be the case that at some point, after the extended adolescence that characterises those who came of age at the turn of the century, music ceased to function in the unconscious seduction method, or at least, with the same zest.

What happened to those goths?

And more importantly: how gross is JAMC?

The Second Mrs. de Winter


On the way to my study I pass a window that sits over the landing at the top of the stairs of my house. Through this window I see the vibrant shapes of workers in high-visibility gear, standing on the roof of a nearly finished apartment building. Naked pine beams and the fresh glint of the windows encasing the adjacent, recently completed apartment blocks finish the scene. Through another window I hear a currawong. Someone once told me that currawongs learn, elaborate upon and pass down variations of their song over close-knit generations. Since the flocks are territorial, occupying a relatively small terrain, butcherbirds across the southern regions of Australia will have slightly different melodies and rhythms, depending upon where you happen to find them. Their song is the sound signature of their home.

I think the currawong outside my study window is lost. He has a distinctive long call, with the decorative third trill of his song recalling to me the butcherbirds of the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. I remember hearing this call often through a friend’s apartment window in the late afternoons I sometimes spent with him there, both of us sleepy in bed as the darkness came. The harbour, which was very close to the apartment, always seemed to resist this darkness, the masts of the yachts and leisure crafts at the little dock down the street knocking in the breeze, clamouring against the night, leaning to the last shadows. I wonder how the butcherbird outside my study window came to be here today, some 878 kilometres away from that sunny city. They’re not travelling birds. I wonder, what is he looking for? How much does he miss that famous harbour?

Windows are a crucial device in the Hitchcock film Rebecca. Think of the housekeeper of the fantastical estate of Mandalay, Mrs. Danvers. I watched Rebecca again the other month with my best friend. ‘What a fucking bitch!’ she exhaled, expressing our mutual awe at the blatant evil of Danvers, grim and camply loyal to the eponymous dead mistress of the house, the first Mrs. de Winter, when the second Mrs. de Winter is brought to stay. Joan Fontaine delivers the second Mrs. de Winter with flawless, fresh-faced naiveté: ‘I hope you haven’t gone to too much trouble,’ she falters, overcome by converging shames (class shame, sexual shame, feminine inadequacy) as Danvers tells her about the house. ‘Of course there’s no view of the sea from your room. The only view of the sea is from the west wing.’ Danvers pauses; there is already menace in the air. ‘The room is very charming and I’m sure I’ll be comfortable,’ rushes the second Mrs. de Winter. ‘If you want anything done, made, you have only to tell me,’ returns Danvers, the deadpan barb inevitable as a crow’s.

I have always noticed something about Rebecca but I’ve never had a place to share the observation until now. Here it is. Mothers really love this movie. My mother loves it, my best friend’s mother loves it, my horrible ex-‘s mother loves it, my other ex-‘s mother loves it, a friend of any random friend’s mother loves it; I know this isn’t strong evidence, but really, I feel like any mother I’ve ever spoken to about this movie has sighed a Gail Jones sigh about it. ‘Rebecca!‘ they’ll swoon. Try this next time you’re with a mother. Maybe there ought to be a secret society built around this secret favourite film. I’ve found it strange that this category of person (because let’s face it, nothing is so much of a category of person as a mother) generally associated with benign qualities including (quite unfairly) aesthetic innocence (i.e. underdeveloped, vanilla taste) could be so drawn to something as demented as Rebecca, which I think is Hitchcock’s most terrifying, satisfying horror. Now listen to this. I always quite liked Rebecca before I had my own child; but the other month, when I watched it again (on… Valentine’s Day? Yeah, wow, Valentine’s Day) I loved it. I think I loved (not liked, but loved) it as a mother, or because I am a mother. I recognise the thought, yet the thought confuses me. I know this is not scientific… But, um, perhaps I’ll work on the science. Shall I?

‘I came here when the first Mrs. de Winter was a bride,’ says Danvers, proudly. The camera rolls in as the music crescendoes, leading to the shot that closes the scene: Danvers a smiling blackguard against a rain-splattered window. Windows can’t be full of anything but light, and in this way they are magical. There is strong magic when the second Mrs. de Winter breaks the taboo of Mandalay and crosses the threshold to the closed west wing to enter the hermetically sealed (so to speak) rooms of the first Mrs. de Winter. Fontaine fumbles across the shadows and reaches for the curtain cord. Music again, and the room fills with the dancing light of the sea, revealing a perfectly kept boudoir. Fontaine’s fingers glance across a hairbrush, a hand mirror, then withdraw as if from a live electrical charge. The open window panes knock in the breeze. The sudden noise alerts us to the presence of Danvers, who stands behind the gauze surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter’s bed. The second Mrs. de Winter nervously explains her presence: ‘I didn’t expect to see you Mrs. Danvers; I noticed a window wasn’t closed and I came up to see if I could fasten it…’ ‘Why did you say that?’ snaps Danvers. ‘I closed it before I left the room. You opened it yourself, didn’t you?’ She opens more curtains, revealing the room’s splendid vanity. She tells her it’s ‘the loveliest room you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?’ She tells her everything has been kept exactly as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.

Don’t we love the concept of the ‘last night’ – the social possibility that everything could end before day break. Rebecca plays with the pleasure of the ‘last night’ through two sequels, or echoes, delaying and thus enhancing the spectacular thrill of catastrophe. There is the desperate costume party given by the second Mrs. de Winter. She leans over the open window of the west wing, in tears over her failed costume. Danvers seizes her moment, sidling up to her impotent mistress. ‘Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on, don’t be afraid.’ The second Mrs. de Winter ponders the ground beneath the mist. Danvers may have succeeded in creating a second ghost to haunt her household if not for the sudden appearance of a shipwreck on the horizon. The rescue mission, of course, unearths the real body of the first Mrs. de Winter, foreshadowing her final narratorial victory.

It’s hard to write about this film because it’s difficult to resist the urge to just retell it. That’s how much I love it. The point is, I’m thinking a lot about its windows. The other blackguard, Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, lover and local car-dealer, enters Mandalay through an open ground floor window, disturbing the  second Mrs. de Winter in her morning room with his caddish assertions. He is cheerful, urbane, and cocky as he acknowledges he is perhaps a less than welcome visitor to the house; but before he leaves, also by way of the window, he chides the young bride for letting Maxim keep her away in hiding. Unsurprisingly, the sexually innocent, ‘lovely thing’ requests that Danvers keep Favell’s visit a secret from the husband, and in fact, to never mention the events of the afternoon again.

I wonder if mothers love Rebecca because it is essentially about spending lots of time in the house. The film invites the viewer to consider the perversity of domestic intimacies, especially those made manifest in the fetish object. Danvers relishes the opportunity to show the second Mrs. de Winter through the perfectly preserved belongings of the first. She takes out a coat, given to Rebecca by Maxim as a Christmas present. Danvers then moves to the underwear drawers, and then finally across to the pillow slip, removing Rebecca’s black negligee. Fontaine’s face expresses a silent horror as the housekeeper murmurs, ‘Did you ever see anything so delicate? Look, you can see my hand through it.’

On the third and final ‘last night’ of Rebecca, Danvers sets fire to Mandalay. I wonder if people who spend lots of time in the house, caring for its inhabitants, caring for its objects, harbour a terrible desire to do likewise, to take the nurturing role to its forbidden, illogical, but emotionally alluring conclusion. The film’s ostensible, or superficial problem, if you will, is that of identification. In the most banal understanding of the film, Danvers suffers from a psychotic over-identification with the first Mrs. de Winter. Whether this over-identification could be read as a repressed lesbian desire is not something I’m well-versed enough to advance, but it’s possible and interesting to consider this.

What interests me is the problem of identification towards the film itself – and I return again to my completely unsubstantiated, but nonetheless felt sense of Rebecca being a film mothers love. I have written this so far in a way that suggests that the archetypal ‘mother viewer’ identifies with the Danvers character, and could make further suggestions to do with fantasies of total control, and fantasies of total servitude to support this claim: ‘If you want anything done, madam, you have only to tell me.’ I also wonder whether the formidable Danvers represents a fantasy of being taken seriously in the household, as ludicrous as this assertion looks. But I equally wonder whether the mother identifies with the second Mrs. de Winter, recognising in the impossibility of the role of homemaker the feeling of being out of one’s depth within a nightmarish, boring, essentially bureaucratic structure beyond one’s control.

Then there’s the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who we never see. How I long to see her! She was beautiful, Danvers repeatedly reminds us. ‘She knew everyone that mattered. And everyone loved her.’ What a tease. We never see her likeness. Is there, in this deliberate, delicious absence, something else here for the mother viewer? A narcissistic seduction, perhaps, an empty space onto which women might project their own self-fantasies of beauty, omnipotence, and love. The final shot is the R on the pillowslip, aflame. Why is there no omni- word for the ability to be loved by everyone? And of course, Rebecca was not loved by everyone. But he who did not was not unpunished for this.

It is not fashionable, and thus not feasible – certainly not serious – to discuss identification in this way when considering texts. One day someone might write the definitive defence of identification and we might proceed. I think someone should think about why certain people like, or dislike, identify, not identify, with such films and fantasies. Why do we like? Why do we love? It is interesting that few words may be said. Finally, I wonder whether mothers identify with the tension of the film itself, rather than its characters. It’s a simple tension, an old tension: innocence and knowledge. In this case, is there a lure in the psychic tension between girl and woman, or girlhood and womanhood? Maybe somewhere in this gap a mother is born.

The Joy of Joe


It’s been said that a mob movie without Joe Pesci is like Christmas without Santa Claus. In one of those nice churns of a metaphor, last Christmas I discovered a little Yuletide recording by Pesci, a very special cover of ‘If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas.’  There are some sample lyrics below, but really, on the page they do little justice; the pleasure, as especially with Pesci, is all in the delivery. Do yourself a favour!

Santa’s just as nice as he could be

There’s just one fuckin thing that worries me:

If it doesn’t snow on Christmas

How’s fatass use that sleigh?

I love the bit just before the fade where he riffs with the children after their chorus. Aye, nice kids. Where the fuck you get em from, a jail?   Oh, Joe Pesci. What a beautiful animal you are.

One of the greatest people I know used to see a shrink; a proper psychoanalyst. In the naughties. Rare, no? Anyway, after years of talking to the wall that faced his sofa, she decided to see a different kind of therapist. Maybe a CBT type? You know the type. ‘Imagine your anger as a tangible character.’ ‘A character?’ ‘Yeah, something you can relate to, but also a flat character. A caricature, if you will.’ My friend subsequently began to imagine her anger as Donald Duck and, lo and behold, her elevated contempt for humanity descended to a manageable level.

What is it, to smile at our own rage?

I think the thought experiment worked because Donald Duck is allowed to get angry. Perhaps that’s why so many children, deep  in their uncorrupt hearts, prefer him to his more iconic counterpart because, unlike Mickey, Donald actually expresses himself. Perhaps the price for this permission is his incomprehensibility – that cacophony of quacks as he stomps on his sailor’s hat. Despite, or perhaps because of his unintelligibility, Donald successfully registers injustice, humiliation, rejection, resentment: all writ large, in technicolor. An animated foreign correspondent, his tantrums transmit news direct from the frontline. The frontline of Disneyland. You know it kids: you don’t really get what you want. No one is listening. Shit isn’t fair. Yep, life blows. 

Ever watch a child’s eyes when you’re bullshitting them? The glazing, the cloud of disappointment that blows over as they watch you? It’s something shameful. Kids long for the truth, maybe even more than Disneyland.

I took my child to Japan the other day. We actually went to Tokyo Disney, and I was surprised by the fact that after a couple of hours of rides and caramel popcorn I really wanted to stay, and he, a newly minted six year old (it was the day of his birthday), asked to go back to the apartment. Anyway, during our stay in Japan we spent a lot of time with a very sweaty, very sweary, and a very brutally honest young man, who, as an aside, joked (sort of) about founding a support group for people that can’t help speak their mind. Assholes Anonymous.

My son has always loved him, but the platonic crush deepened over the holiday. Sample conversation starter: ‘Hey,’ pressing him into a vending machine at Koenji station. ‘Will you say the F-word. Please?’ It’s quite possible that this exact phrasing has never been formulated in the history of the English language. Say the f-word, please?

As unprecedented, or at least, unusual as this formulation may sound, isn’t it really what we are all saying when our faces light up at the sight of Joe Pesci losing his shit on Scorsese’s mob flicks? I just watched Casino, in which he squeezes a troublesome mick’s head in a vice until his eyeball bursts. The mick finally gives up the name of the protected person in question. CHARLIE M? YOU MADE ME POP YOUR FUCKIN EYE OUT FOR CHARLIE M?! Nobody does it better. Pesci is my Donald Duck. Say the f-word, Pesci. Please?

Prefix ex-, suffix -gate


There are many things we don’t know; here is one of them. Why did my ex-, the father of my son, drive his 4WD through the security gates of my house only to stop just short of the living room window, abandoning the car to leg it for god knows where?

I found a most peculiar carnage when I returned home after a morning of errands. The black electronic gates dangled in the air from split hinges, and my neighbour’s wall was smashed, a mess of flaking white paint and dusty weatherboard. Broken mirror sparkled against splinters of plastic along the length of the drive. And at the end of the drive sat that square Ford Maverick, which hadn’t had a right to be parked there for about three years. If I’d had any semblance of cool at the time, I would have remarked to another witness that I didn’t know what I was looking at.

I know very little and fear very much. Think of fear as a front-loading washing machine, with its little mechanism that prohibits the opening of the door until all of the cycles have completed. The panic cycle saw me call my son’s school straight after I called the police. Had his dad picked him up early? He hadn’t been picked up? He was still in class? I broke down in grateful, wasteful sobs on my neighbour’s fence, waiting with my friend for the police to arrive. Don’t go in there, they had said. The apologetic and ashamed cycle was next as I told my ex’s dad I was sorry. He was sitting on the couch, looking grey, red and sensible, a sad Santa Claus, or perhaps, Colonel Sanders, after being interviewed by the police. He was always a good boy. There was the hyper-alert cycle, during which I had to change all the alerts on my phone because the old ones made my hands shake whenever I received a phone call or text message. I would double-take every time I saw a white male, approximately 5 ft 8, in any public place. I would lock the doors from the inside of the car whenever I drove anywhere. I don’t know why I’m using the past tense, I am still double-taking and door-locking.

But what is a washing machine used for? asked another friend, on hearing my analogy. Not, what is it like to be in there? I had to take the point that there was no point in thinking about what it’s like being in there, that thudding, accelerating fear machine. Don’t you come out of a washing machine better? Or at least, cleaner? Isn’t that what your metaphor is about? 

Have I been cleansed? What has been atoned?

It’s amazing how facile the binary becomes. Suddenly it’s an unequivocal situation. He’s the aggressor, the respondent. I’m the victim, the protected person.

It’s very strange. I am not the nicest person. I am no weakling. I don’t say this emptily: I have been cruel, duplicitous, manipulative to others, and in the past, to him. Somehow this is no longer so? I have an official document that describes me as a ‘protected person.’ And so now, the old question is officially taboo, impossible: what did she do to provoke him? I am the protected person. I have been cleansed.

Yeah, I was in the washing machine for a while. A proper housewife’s cycle. Matters weren’t much improved by the fact that I’d returned to the city of Perth; sadly for me not even the ‘City of Perth,’ but the far-flung outskirts across the City of Cockburn, the parched family seat. I had in fact extended my stay as Melbourne was considered unsafe. The police looked for Simon (for that is his name), arrested him, but were unable to interview him about the incident, for reasons still unknown to me. He was taken to the psychiatric ward of the aptly named Northern Hospital for an assessment and then released the next day, also for reasons unknown to me.

I hear there is to be a Royal Commission on the effectiveness of Intervention Orders in the coming months. I wonder how many women will say they felt less safe after their order was activated. Simon tried to contact me once while I was in Perth. I freaked out and called the police to report what I’d been told would be breach of the order, only to be informed that the order hadn’t yet been served.

Let me see, said the young constable, easy-breezy on the line. The kind of seconds that elapse while someone searches for and opens a file on a computer elapsed. The order is not in effect. You see, it has to be served in order to be in effect. Why wouldn’t it be in effect? Hadn’t Simon been to court? I felt stupid for not understanding. And then I felt stupid for somehow trusting an administered system.

Many inconvenient, unpleasant surprises lay in store for me during the holiday period. I don’t mean to detail them all here, or anywhere else. In fact I mean to forget nearly everything.

But I do want to remember the moment I felt like the washing machine was nearing the final cycle. Do you know that decelerating sound? The pitched-down phase began the morning I woke up, still in Perth, and scratched a new mosquito bite. The benzo-clouds parted for a moment, and I giggled. There was a new word. Not a high impact word, more of a creeper. But there it was. I smiled again. Simongate. Why had it taken me so long to name the situation? And what a lovely name for it.

There’s a sketch in the loveable sketch-comedy show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, where the two actors play ‘themselves’ in a caught-between-scenes scenario. David Mitchell plays Mitchell in downtime, relaxing with a newspaper in a director’s chair.

M: ‘I was just going to say that my eye was caught by this whole scandal in America!’

W: ‘Ooooh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate.’

M: ‘Isn’t it just Watergate?’

W: ‘No. That would mean it was just about water. No, it was a scandal, or ‘-gate’ (that’s what you do with a scandal, add the suffix ‘gate’) at the Watergate Hotel. So it’s the Watergate Scandal or Watergategate.’

Simongate. I sent my best friend, who now lives in Japan, a short message about this neologism by email. The event now had a name. Naming something steals power from it. It is a small power, to be sure, the most minor increment up from pretty abject powerlessness, but still, this had something. Precious little for all the pressure it was up against. A lame joke. A transposition of a grammatically contentious suffix that felicitously reverted to the literal. I spoke with the same friend by phone later that day. I told him that this joke was the first time I’d felt really normal since the day it happened.

You don’t really seem so into my new term, I teased him. Yeah, not bad. The old adding the -gate suffix to something bad or scandalous. Ah, you don’t get it. Don’t you see, he literally drove through the gates. Simon smashed the gate. Simongate.

He trilled like a girl, or a drag queen. What a laugh. Oh right! 

Before the washing machine some other bad stuff had already started to happen. I crashed my car. I left my favourite hat on a tram. I smashed my phone. My boyfriend told me he ‘didn’t know’ if he wanted to be in the relationship anymore. (He did know: he didn’t want to.) Looking back now the thing I mourn most is that hat. God we had some good times together. How many bodies of water, in how many cities and towns? The kind of brown that goes with everything. The kind of hat that will get in chlorine, then crumple in your bag for a few days, then still come out smooth for the next road trip or non-straight wedding. An everyday hat for any special occasion.

Anyway, before any of that stuff even happened, before summer, even, I’d been taking all these notes for an article I’d felt compelled to write. It had not been solicited and I hadn’t sought publication for it. Yet I worked on it daily, compelled, unusually for me, to comment on a culturally relevant topic. Something about the link between first-world born jihadi entering Syria in droves to join ISIS and boredom. A partial view on boredom and violence. I’d planned on making the obligatory visit to Perth over summer an opportunity to experience the local boredom, hoping to draw from a well-spring of memories there of a hopelessly boring childhood. Or what I wish to remember as one.

Due to the events of Simongate, which transpired on the day before the flight out to Perth, these research aims were entirely disappointed. I was never bored. I was scared, tired, anxious, occasionally even manically happy (flipping pancakes on Christmas Day). Even along that eminently doomed stretch, Scarborough Beach Road, passing Glendalough Station, my hands shook on the steering wheel, under the magnificent heat of the windshield and that relentless blue sky. An extended stay in Perth. Bleaker words are seldom spoken.

I ask myself all kinds of questions now, in the confused calm of late January. What if all I achieved in this life was being thin? What is the difference between ‘violence against women’ and ‘violence’? How do suburban jihadi from Western Sydney fill their time on the long flight to the Northern Hemisphere? Do they watch the in-flight movie? Which movie?

The friend who elucidated the washing machine analogy also said this in response to the Charlie Hebdo story. What if everyone just stopped talking about terrorism? I mean, completely stopped?

The Clouds

the clouds

On my way home from the library this morning I had a psychic radio moment, where a spontaneous thought was immediately followed by a song that exactly summed up the thought, so much so that it should have come before the thought and indeed, produced it. Put simply, apropos of nothing I thought of a man. And then I changed the radio station. And then his favourite song came on. I turned up the radio and thought about the band (INXS), glancing off the thought that the past must be a pretty powerful aphrodisiac if it can make me wonder what that particular Raskolnikov is doing right now. Sorry, Raskolnikov! I’m sure you’re not complaining as much these days. I hope the weed is mellow, and the dumpster food varied and plentiful, wherever you are!

I turned off the street and remembered that no one can really claim a special relationship to that band, especially not that song. It’s one of those universal situations. So special that it’s nothing special. ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ is good in the same way, I don’t know, the light off the moon is good. I mean, we can talk about these things, but where will that take us other than more surface appreciation? Of course the point is that in the surface lies the chiming beauty; forget about deep connection. I mean, by all means, let’s talk, but let’s not expect too much from our talk. Our talk about INXS. I’ll make wine from your tears.

Speaking of chiming beauty, I saw the Clouds the other day. Now that’s a band you’ll never hear on the radio. As I stood to stage left at the Corner, predictably stuck behind one of those stupid wide pillars, sipping a beer that tasted like carpet, it struck me that my thinking had been all wrong. My thinking had been this (and this is probably just what I’ve often told people): the Clouds are one of those bands that probably would have been really big if the festival circuit had been as developed back then as it would later become. Interesting, catchy pop songs, genuinely independent girls, tough hard playing, heartbeating, Australian belters. But as I stood there at the show, a scary couple of decades later, the fans all seeming like they had babysitters and desk jobs at NGOs, I realised: it’s actually very strange that this band ever got as big as they were. Oh, and if the tone of this post seems mean, that’s because I’m probably just jealous of people with babysitters and desks at NGOs.

The Clouds have a very distinctive sound: lots of dissonances based around 4ths, which seem borrowed from medieval and early modern music. Lots of breakdowns into 6/8 or 3/4 time. Very tight arrangements based around weirdo chord changes. A shitload of attitude. ‘The right attitude‘ quipped my friend, whose cousin, Raph, is the Clouds’ drummer, smiling his way through blissed-out fills. I remember seeing them at an all-ages show at the Fly by Night in Fremantle, Jodi and Trish swinging their guitar and bass like giant schlongs, so dapper and swagger without being butch, somehow virile rather than sexy. Very musical without being nerdy, or showy. ‘Pure,’ said Raph’s cousin.

There’s something very honest about guitar music. Especially when no one’s shy. ‘It’s nice to hear women sing properly,’ I commented to Raph’s cousin. She told me that Trish’s mum was this great country singer and suddenly the storytelling aspect, the narratorial character of songs like ‘4pm’ made sense.

I’m a bitter, twisted soul
With my hand behind my back
I feel my shiny silver blade
Love on my right hand
Hate on my left hand
God at my command
But they don’t understand

The two sets the Clouds played the other day were immaculate, album-perfect. And the only reason this matters is because through this virtual copy of the past (and incidentally, Jodi looks exactly as she looked when I saw her play in 1996) I was able to transition from nostalgia to time travel. It was like breaking a physical law, or a universal taboo. After intermission I passed a middle-aged couple engaged in an ersatz waltz; I presume they’d seen the band when they met in their uni years, a story like that hovered around them as they smiled into each other’s long grey hair. They were remembering hearing it all the first time, while hearing it exactly as it was the first time. ‘This shouldn’t be allowed’ I thought to myself. Memory is obscene. It should remain private, obscured. As I stood there during the sets, refusing to finish my Carlton draught, the waves of pleasure I felt during certain chord changes and bridge distortion reminded me that I was no different from this waltzing couple, forgetting the horizon to wallow in the shallows of memory.

Post script: Neither Raph’s cousin nor I could remember the fourth person on stage that night, a tall man shredding away between Jodi and Trish whom they called Dave. Dave? Who the fuck was Dave? The lovely thing about memory is that it omits what’s not necessary. And the trouble with time travel is that it’s too accurate.

Watching Shelley Duvall


From the backseat of a two-door, four-seat Ford Fiesta (or was it a Festiva?), I listened to the talk of my fellow travellers. They were chatting in that loose, unstructured way of happy friends who have spent some continuous time together. ‘Hey Crumbs, you know what you wanna read? You wanna read Moby Dick.’ ‘Nah, man, I tried to read that about a year ago.’ ‘Not for you?’ The car was parked on the Stradbroke Island ferry; facing the island, we were on the return trip, travelling backwards towards the mainland. The atmosphere was sleepy after three days of beach. On the first day we’d seen humpback whales breaching and dolphins surfing along the island’s eastern coast. I closed my eyes. The recommender was explaining why he loved Moby Dick, or rather, why it was good. ‘It’s not for any literary reason…’ I opened my eyes. The sky was overcast, a bit sharky. Two of the holidaymakers were scientists, and I wondered how an analogous statement might sound. ‘Yeah, I think childhood vaccination is good. But not for any scientific reason.’ But no, this is a stupid analogy. And besides, I myself nearly always like books ‘not for any literary reason.’ I’m not certain that my studies, and rather obscure career, have ever provided any particular reason for why I’ve thought or done anything to do with books. More telling than that comment was the tacit response to it in the car, the lack of any kind of request for further explanation illustrating an acceptance that the speaker of course, naturally, should not recourse to ‘literary reasons’ to justify taste or interest. Naturally: the position is a given. If the study of literature doesn’t provide any reason, if the sense of its irrelevance is general, pervasive and monumentally casual, what is the point of the discipline? Is there any service the discipline supports other than pointless mental exile, which I briefly acknowledged in the reflection of the window of the Festiva (or Fiesta)?

I read somewhere that Shelley Duvall (3 Women, The Shining) had wanted to be a scientist; that growing up her hero was Marie Curie. I read that she never trained as an actress, and that Robert Altman, who discovered her in Texas, instructed her to simply be herself, or not take herself too seriously, to just be in the moment, something like that, in front of the camera. No theory. Be in the moment. Whenever I see her movies two things strike me. First: she’s a star-maker’s star. Like John Cazale, she’s a weird combination of inimitable and forgettable, a freak that flies under the radar. Playing one-on-one against Sissy Spacek or Jack Nicholson, she provides this deeply charged space for her co-star to deliver the god-like performance. Her psychic generosity is immense. Second: watching her is a physical ordeal. I think there’s something really sick about my fascination with on-screen thinness, and worst of all, I suspect I am in the majority regarding this cultural spectacle. There’s something about extreme thinness that is visually hypnotic, like a puzzle we can’t figure out. How can that be a body? A woman’s body? Something like that. I’m also enthralled by Duvall’s hysteria, her hyper-domesticity (think of those wonderful recipes she catalogued as Milly in 3 Women); these excessive identities are utterly linked in my mind to the visual cue of her spectacular thinness.

Maybe this seems like so much posturing. But there’s a fabulous protest embodied by Shelley Duvall that gets me every time. She’s the ultimate weakling, a tearful, high-pitched loser, famously bullied on set by Kubrick and Nicholson. I read that she cried for a year and a half while shooting The Shining. She’s anti-strong; everything she represents is against the idea of the strong woman. Against, and perhaps a protest. But what’s wrong with the strong woman? What could be more feminist, more equal, than a tough, resilient female role model? It’s what we always hear: there aren’t enough strong women in cultural representations (film, music, political offices). There aren’t enough strong role models. The ideal strong woman is a warrior: she goes to war and fires an arrow just like she goes to work and fires the arsehole. That’s how strong she is. And that’s great, I suppose, if you’re telling a story in the heroic era. But I reckon the strong woman is a big fat lie. Rather than standing for modern ‘equal rights’ as such, the strong woman is a flat character consistent with the pre-modern imagination. She doesn’t really doubt, or wonder, or wander in the twin realms of inertia or overexcitement. She doesn’t have the psychology to pretend to be something she’s not. Where is her personhood, her round character? Where is her insecurity, her metaphysical angst? Where is her damage, the thing that makes her interesting? I like Duvall because her hysteria, her thinness, her spectacular self-effacement are brilliantly anti-heroic. A brittle emblem of anti-strength, she embodies trauma and crisis and bad faith and alienation and everything else modern. ‘Hi Tom,’ says Milly as she passes her neighbour’s pool party. She receives no response. She’s been saying it all movie. She continues past the group and takes a lounge by the pool. It’s night-time. She reads a magazine. She waits for someone to talk to her. She’s hard to watch, and she makes everything interesting.