Sunday, December 23, 2007

Northland Trip - Stage One

Departure from Dunedin was not quite as planned. It was raining, so a taxi was in order; unfortunately the first one did not find me and gave up. In full panic mode I actually went so far as to deploy the cellphone to procure another (in three months of ownership, this is my second call). I need not have bothered being anxious, as the bus was a full 40 minutes late. By the time we hit Christchurch, it had more than doubled that – getting past Winchester and getting a call to say we’d left two school girls behind in Timaru did not help. Although I only paid a single $, others paid far more for this slack service.

In Christchurch, I always have plans to check out nice places to eat; sometimes I even manage to but often I don’t. This time round, I missed out on going some place nice, and just had a burger (a good one, but still a burger) for dinner. Getting an IPA at the Twisted Hop seemed like a good idea but they were already closed, so my big night out in Christchurch was pretty much a bust. No worried – I had another day and night. I did have a very nice version of a chilli chicken at a Thai place; curiously enough, as I was finishing off, a girl at the next table brought me over a chocolate and candy cane and wished me a happy Christmas.

The flight to Auckland was late – thanks to Virgin Blue having to find another plane to fly us at the last minute – who knows what was wrong with the first one. Thanks to the marvels of the internet, I had a bargain rental car to pick up at the airport (Avis, $19 for 24 hours) – I went in via Dominion Road and tried out a Vietnamese sandwich place Metro had raved about; it was OK but not really worth the rave. Eventually I made my way out to my brother’s for his 40th – despite being told it was a “whenever you can come” sort of thing, I was first to arrive, followed shortly after by my other brother. Can’t say it was really my scene; most of the people there were his workmates who clustered around talking shop, so we family made our own cluster.

Sunday was really the start of the holiday: I went up to look at the new Albany mall, which is rather curious, in its complete lack of connection to anything of the existing Albany; it just sits in a big paddock. In the evening, I went to Satya and was horribly cheated. I ordered something, thinking it was a deepfried concoction, but a bhel puri turned out to be very healthy, essentially a spiced finely chopped salad mixed with rice bubbles and actually rather nice. I can’t say the same for the pilsener from the much vaunted Galbraith’s ale house; it was like no pilsener I have ever had before, pretty much an ale. I had another day to kill on the Monday, so went out by train to Sylvia Park – the journey was very pleasant, through greenery alongside the Orakei estuary for much of the way.

The nakedbus to Whangarei was sort of on time, just 10 minutes late to leave, but the driver crashed every single gear and talked inanely to himself, in the interests of keeping us passengers informed as to whatever was on his mind. This confirmed my notion that if I have to pay more than $1, I won’t travel nakedbus. Arriving at Whangarei, I was in for two surprises. One was as to how pleasant the place is. When I was growing up there, it had three bog standard pub, some coffee lounges, fish and chip places and for a touch of exotic food, a couple of Chinese places. When I finished working there, it was starting to get interesting – that trend has continued. There are three good bookshops; Indian, Thai and Japanese restaurants (good ones) and interesting bars. Of those there when I was a schoolboy, one was still the same and completely empty, one had been removed to make way for the new police station and the other had been transformed into some sort of street bar. The town looked prosperous – good to see.

My other surprise was when I was being taken to my hostel – we went along Water Street, along Maunu Road, into Otaika Road, down a right-of-way and there was the house I moved into when I left school!

As the present owner drily commented, things have changed. A whole new building has been annexed, the shed has gone, the house has been refurbished but it is where I lived for the 18 months between leaving school and going to university. I even walked up and down Otaika Road to confirm - there is no other house I could possibly have lived in. Spooky.

One old favourite I was pleased to see was good old Arthur's Emporium:
Every town should have one. This place has been here since way before the beginnings of the Warehouse, but it operates a little like the Warehouse in its earliest days. I actually went in looking for shoelaces: I had been to a shoe repair outfit to no avail, and I thought I'd seek out the Emporium. Sure enough, it had about a million shoe laces, along with mile upon mile of ribbons, ropes, wires which were in amongst the fabrics, gate hinges, switches, chopsticks, party gear, plates...


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Once, a film by John Carney (2006)

I went in not knowing much about this movie. It had been on offer in Perth when I was there but I was intent upon seeing the Joe Strummer movie and, besides, the cinema worker made a very bad job of saying what the film was about, made it sound quite dire in fact.

Nothing could be further from the truth: this is a wonderful movie, for those who like small, intimate movies. I understand it was shot over 17 days for a very small amount of money. It is quite literally about a boy and a girl who meet and make beautiful music. We don't even know what their names are. He (Glen Hansard) is busking, singing heartfelt songs of his own composition. She (Markéta Irglová) asks him for whom he sings them, because there must be a she for such sorrowful songs. She discovers he fixes vacuum cleaners for his day job (with his elderly dad) so, since hers is broken, decides she will bring hers to him the following day.
He must not have believed her, as her appearance the next day threw him off. But before fixing her vacuum, they go for this sort of date - she trailing the vacuum the whole way.

Turns out she's musical too - piano, primarily: she has this deal with a music shop which lets her spend an hour each day just playing. And so they do a bit of jamming, he gets the bright idea that she will write the lyrics for his music, and then they decide that they'll spend 48 hours in a studio recording his music. I loved the way he picked his session musicians: a bunch of fellow buskers who "seemed like good guys". I also loved the financing deal: she talks this owner of a very flash studio into a cheap deal, then they go off to the bank to borrow the money. The bank guy doesn't need much persuasion; he has his own musical dream.
Yep - it is that sort of movie, where everything just goes right, even the recording session. The guy running the desk thinks he has a bunch of hoboes and doesn't take them seriously, does no mixing at all, just leaves the channels open. But the music works its magic on him as well; they end up with a fine CD.

Now of course, there's a boy and a girl, and there's all sorts of comments on the web to the effect that it is a movie of unrequited love, but I seriously don't agree. It is a movie about creation and shared passion; I'd say that they both have exactly the same feelings for each other, but they actually both have unresolved relationships, and the experience of loving each other works as a sort of catalyst to re-energise their existing relationships.

Oddly enough, neither has done much acting. He has been involved in Irish TV, she has never acted at all. Both, however, are musicians; they actually composed most of the music for the movie themselves. I'm wondering if tney were doing it in real time, as the movie itself was being shot; it has that sense of intimacy and naturalness to it that makes it entirely possible - a lot of the movie felt like these were real people just getting on with what mattered to them. Fantastic. Oh, and she's gorgeous, a complete charmer. I fell in love.


Launceston, Tasmania (1/9/07)

My last couple of days in Tasmania were fairly quiet. After Port Arthur, I drove up the East coast as far as a place called Sansea: I stopped there because I noticed it had several interesting looking restaurants. Looking further, I found one of the best backpackers I have ever stayed atOnly one thing was lackingYep, there was pretty much no-one about, apart from a group of three contractors who were using it as their base. Surprising really, as Swansea had a lot going for it in terms of a nice sea-side location, lots of accomodation providers and some decent restaurants. At least, I think this one was decent, it looked good from the outsideBut my fancy was taken by Bank - they were having a curry night, and very good it was too. The staff was fantastic - I left with a list of restaurants to eat at for the rest of my stay in Tasmania (never found a one of them!). I was sad to leave Swansea, but the only place I knew I wanted to go to before I left home was St Helens: what a waste of time! I had the YHA entirely to my self (the owner did come in and reveal he had married a woman from Dunedin and had spent quite a bit of time there himself). I went on a wild goose chase out into the countryside to find the restaurant my friends at Bank had sent me to, but never did. By the time I hit town again, just before 8 on a FRIDAY NIGHT, everything was closed, except for the pizza shop, who told me I was their last order and I'd have to take away. So I found some beer at the pub, took my pizza back to my lonely hostel and had a very quiet night indeed.

I made up for it the next night in Launceston. After a very pleasant Thai meal, I went to a gig by a duo from Brisbane called Chicks in Docs - exactly what they were.
This photo came out badly, but I kind of like itAnd thus ended my first, but unlikely to be my last, visit to Tasmania.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Swansea, Tasmania (30,8,07)

Some time ago, in August in fact, I was in Tasmania. I took a lot of photos and a lot of them have showed up here, but I ran out of steam before finishing the task. Since I am about to go on another jaunt, I thought I'd at least get it finished before going.

I had been in Hobart, and had plans to have a look around the city in the morning. Somehow, sleep was very hard to come by; not because I was in a dorm or because there was a lot of noise about, but because my brain just would not settle. It decided to compose a book review, then construct arguments prosecutors could use to close down arguments trotted out by defence lawyers when their client has committed crimes high on P (where that came from, I have no idea). Around 6 I thought I’d get up and read, or watch TV and finally caught some sleep. Maybe that lack of sleep is why I left Hobart without taking the photos I wanted, and without coffee. I grabbed my bags, went out to the car I had to move before the parking meters were switched on and, without even thinking about it, just left town. I did have a pretty gruesome coffee at a McCafe but otherwise headed straight to Port Arthur.

I don’t know - maybe it was because the weather was so fantastic, or because the buildings were near ruins (they had walls but no roofs), or because the prison was actually built as a flour mill, or because I’m simply not sensitive but the old prison at Port Arthur struck me as quite benign, certainly a much nicer place than Fremantle jail.

From a distance, it looks positively palatial

This looks more like it - this is the inside of the punishment wing

And the normal wing does not look like prisoners had a whole lot of space (these are the vestigial internal walls)

Here is the psych ward

And, of course, you could have no prison organised on modern principles (as this one claimed to be) without a chapel, but that raised the problem of how to have men held in solitary confinement join together in prayer

All in all, the spot was a very pleasant one this is the Governor's residenceand this is where some ship's captain lived

I think one of the theories was that it was improving for men, even prisoners, to live and work in a nice environment, but if they did choose to leave, then there would be some sort of threat to suggest they think otherwise. Apparently there were lots of escape attempts, but no-one ever made it - Port Arthur is on a promontory, so one either had to swim for it or go up the road, which was guarded by some very fierce dogs, deliberately kept hungry.

It is sad that the prison has been allowed to fall in to ruins: this is claimed to be a deliberate choice made, for the sake of authenticity. But I've been to Fremantle, which is still fully intact, and man, that's a truly forbidding and spooky place.

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The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

I don't think I have seen a more restrained, some might say boring, cover for a novel. There is another version: the UK cover is an image of a road disappearing into a ghostly blue forest, but I don't mind the starkness of this one.

The road of the title is, of course, the one being taken by the man and his son (their names are never revealed). Nor is their purpose, really. Yes, they're fleeing the cold of the north, but why have they taken this road which, it is revealed, takes them to the coast? Do they hope to find anything? How have they survived so far? What keeps them going? - I don't think I would. The mother did not: she went outside soon after giving birth with a very sharp piece of obsidian and was never seen again (except in the recurring memories of her husband).

The novel is set some ten years (I'm picking that to be the age of the son) after:
The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't anser. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power is already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway, cradling her belly. What is it? she said. What is happening?

I don't know.
This is how McCarthy writes of the end of the world: the entire book is written in a cold, flat unemotional way, with paragraphs that start off with a banal detail but end with mentions of babies being roasted on spits. There are no chapters, just small chunks of narrative which provide an account of a particular episode. As a curious contrast, words that most people have never heard of ("richitic" anyone?) are sprinkled liberally through out the text, along with quite brilliant images - apricots "long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves" and interstate exchanges "like the ruins of a vast funhouse".

Little more is said about the events that stopped the clocks: no more precise identification of what it was or who was responsible for it, just that the "frailty of everything was revealed at last":
People sitting on the sidewalk in the half dawn half immolate and smoking in their clothes. Like failed sectarian suicides. Others would come to help them. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. What had they done? He thought that in the history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it.
There are very few people about: all are to be feared. The man assures his son that "we are the good guys", and maybe they are, particularly the son, as he's willing to share with those they encounter who are in an even more desperate plight than they are. But it is ten years on and society has not regrouped: there is no sign at all of any form of productive work being done, all who survive do so by scavenging or forming themselves into marauding groups or (an echo of Steinbeck?) "phalanxes" ("blood cults consuming each other") and taking what others have. If they have nothing, then the people themselves get taken, for use as food. And most have nothing: this walk down the road takes the man and his son through several cities, which have been stripped bare. There are no birds, no apparent animals, trees have largely been burnt, and it is unlikely that there is any marine life (or life anywhere else on the planet). Even the snow is grey.

The man and his son do seem to be extraordinarily lucky: just as they are at the extremes of their limits in terms of hunger and fatigue, they find food - in one case, an entire bomb-shelter of it. They do suffer at the hands of the gangs and the desperate: twice they are robbed, once the man has to kill.

And so after who knows how long a trudge through this destroyed world, down a road on which "there are no godspoke words", they do hit the coast. But from the very first pages, the idea of the father's death is present: we're told of a fine spray of blood in the snow when the dad coughs. I'm pretty sure that although he wants his son not to know, the boy knows: he is very protective of his father, doing what he can to make sure his dad does not expend all his energy on the boy, but keeps some for himself. But it will never be enough:
... Two more days and they may have traveled ten miles. They crossed the river and a short ways on they came to a crossroads. Downcountry a storm had passed over the isthmus and leveled the dead black trees from east to west like weeds in the floor of a stream. Here they camped and when he lay down he knew that he could go no further and that this was the place where he would die. The boy sat watching him, his eyes welling. Oh Papa, he said.
But maybe his sacrifice was worth it. despite the fact that every person they have met so far is either beyond help or "bad", the novel might actually end on a high note when the boy is taken in by a small group of good guys who claim to have been watching out for him for some time. That's they way I like to see the thing finishing, anyway.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

The End of Mr Y, a novel by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I saw this book in Unity Books last weekend: in its real life incarnation, the cover made the book look so great, I had to pick it up and run away with it. At my first glance, I had no idea what book it was, it just looked good. But then I realised I had already read it so, reluctantly, put the book back down and left the shop. It is the fourth novel by Scarlett Thomas - I have previously had a few words to say about her Bright Young Things.

Although her subject matters seems to change considerably from one novel to the next, one thing stays consistent: she creates female lead characters I would like to have in my life.
Ariel Manto is a brand new academic, just starting a PhD, with an interest in an obscure 19th century writer, Thomas E Lumas. She likes people with big ideas (such as Samuel Butler and Edwin Abbott (author of Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions which, coincidentally, I am planning to read very shortly) and has plenty of mental energy herself. Until recently, she's been writing a magazine column, one for which she researches intensively, then make a random connection to the next one. So, starting with the big bang, she moved to "properties of hydrogen, speed of light, relativity, quantum mechanics, probability theory, Schrodinger's cat, the wave function, light, the luminiferous ether ... to artificial intelligence" and on to Lumas. These things had a particular interest to me when I was reading this book, as I had made a similar whirlwind tour through many of her topics.

Now, she is supposedly studying with another academic, Saul Burlem, but she has not seen him since she started.
The novel starts with her having to go home as her building seems to be falling down. On the way, she pops into a second-hand bookshop to see if they have anything by her pet author: curiously, they have everything the fellow had ever written, including the supposedly cursed book, The End of Mr Y:
How could a book be cursed, anyway? The words themselves - which I don't take in properly at first - simply seem like miracles. Just the fact that they are there, that they still exist, printed in black type on rough-cut pages that are brown with age; this is the thing that amazes me. I can't imagine how many other hands have touched this page, or how many pairs of eyes have seen it. It was published in 1893, and then what happened? Did anyone actually read it? By the time he wrote The End of Mr Y, Lumas was already an obscure writer. He'd been notorious for a while in the 1860's, and people had nown his name, but then everyone had lost interest in him, and decided he was made, or a crank. On one occasion he turned up at the place in Yorkshire where Charles Darwin was receiving what he called his 'water cure': He said something rude about barnacles, and then punched Darwin in the face. This was in 1859. After that, he seemed to retreat into ever more esoteric activities, visiting mediums, exploring paranormal events, and becoming a patron of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. After about 1880, he seemed to stop publishing. The he wrote The End of Mr Y and died the day after it was published, after everyone else who'd had something major to do with the book (the publisher, the editor, the typesetter) had also died. Thus the rumoured 'curse'.
Of course, she reads it (quite a bit is "quoted" for us to read as well). Lumas's particular pre-occupations were with thought experiments and a fourth dimension: His Mr Y recounts a visit to a fairground on which he took a strange mixture and goes on a mental journey:
Then I experienced the most peculiar sensation of all. Language almost fails me when I try to formulate this sensation in words. The closest approximation is this: imagine stepping not into another man's shoes but, rather, into his soul... All at once I intuited what had occurred. Inconceivable and impossible though it may appear, I had entered the mind of another.
Mr Y gets obsessed with this journey, wants to recreate it; the rest of his novel is taken up with his tracking down the recipe for the strange mixture, so that he can return to the troposphere. Ariel, upon reading this, despite all the injunctions to treat it as fiction, is convinced, not only that it all happened, but that it can happen to her. One thing I particularly like about this book is the way that the reader is kept pretty close to Ariel as she does her research into how she might accomplish this (and, indeed, earlier, as she is reading The End of Mr Y, we are with her as she reads, and as she takes her breaks). As she learns, we learn. It builds up a nice intimacy with a charming and highly intelligent character.

Thomas does a great job of rendering this troposphere: it is constructed out of thought, so that for everyone, it will have a different appearance, in much the same way we can create skins for computer applications. Indeed, for Ariel, it does seem like a computer application: there is a console, which indicates the various choices she has available to her, and provides information and a kind of mailbox system. What it does is enables her to travel through time and space by jumping from mind to mind: her first mind is that of a mouse, so that Ariel actually becomes a mouse, but still herself at the same time. She switches to another mouse, only to find it is being pursued by a cat (the mouse's "fur twitches with abstract nouns"): only one choice is logical at this point:
And now I'm blurring again, into something bigger. My tail now feels lighter, and I flick it around as I crouch here, crazy with anticipation, my thin tongue licking my sharp teeth. This is going to be fucking fun, and I'm not even sure I can wait before I pounce. I move my bottom around in a repeating arc, balancing myself. Now? No. Wait. Need the right moment, totally the right moment. I've done this thousands of times before, and I could never, ever get bored with it. I don't plan my attacks in any detail but when I remember them they are like bloddy ballets, with me as the director, poking the dancer with my paw, making the food dance, making it pirouette on broken legs, because I like food that moves. I do eat that brown shit in the plastic bowl but I don't enjoy it: it tastes like death. I only eat it to survive because half the time I have to wear a fucking bell that scares the food away. I anticipate the way the warm blood-gravy liquid will taste in my mouth once I've torn the furry coating off this thing shaking in front of me, trying to appear still. I remember the taste... Oh God. Oh yuck. Its like hot Bovril mixed with iron tablets and rust. And now I'm thinking it must be disgusting really, but the synapses in my mind and the cat's mind are now jumping up and down like kids in a junior debating society. After a couple of seconds I'm almost convinced that blood is delicious after all, but whatever is left of me that is human and vegetarian thinks, No! I can feel this thought blending with the cat's thoughts and so, when the mouse decides this is the moment to leg it under the bin, I hesitate. And my cat-mind does a diving backflip, just for a second, but its enough to fuck everything up. There's a voice in my head telling me not to do it. I don't understand this. I don' have concepts like Why? in my language.
Of course, this makes for a preturnaturally contemplative cat, but I found it amusing. Most amusing of all was the rather dramatic pun she introduces to the troposhpere. Ariel learns she can get around the troposphere by way of a kind of underground railway, which connects various states of mind ("fear", "misery", "joy" etc are the various lines) or, to put it another way, trains of thought.

Her rescue of the mouse gains her a friend in the troposphere, a kind of god of the mice, but really a modern equivalent of Apollo. He has little power, because only six pray for him (which reminded me strongly of American Gods).

The book is not just about this excursion into the troposphere: the book strikes me as an adventure in three (connected) dimensions. And it does get adventurous, because having this knowledge of the ability to get into and navigate the troposphere is highly valuable and desirable. There had been some CIA branch working on what it called Mindspace; that team is no longer working for the CIA and is desirous of acquiring the secrets of the troposphere for itself, for sale to the highest bidder. So, they're after Ariel, both in the real world and in the troposphere. She needs to find her erstwhile supervisor, who is probably the only man who can help her. Plus, Apollo has a task for her: she has to go back and stop the person who invented the lab mouse from doing so (which raises a dilemma: what else does one stop?) The third level of the adventure is the intellectual one, as Ariel works out the science of the troposphere, talks with Burlem and a scientist friend of his who is engaged in the same task and thinking about the nature of existence and the existence of nature, gets worried about the paradoxes arising from changing past events
. They postulate the possibility that through thinking, some people (such as Einstein) can not merely theorise about the nature of the world, but create it. This dimension of the book is pretty serious; quite a few names of philosophers and scientists get thrown around: I found it a bit hard, but enjoyed it, the sense of an intellectual conversation going on just over my head (but also knowing that its fiction).

We're also with Ariel in her daily life; she's an interestingly flawed character, a bit of a bum, no surviving family, self-destructive but extremely bright, pretty much totally alone, having increasingly degraded sex with a man, until the troposphere and a priestly man named Adam (what else!) comes along. At this point, when she finally knows love, she thinks "my whole body feels like a smile".

So, yes, the book is itself a sort of troposphere. In many ways, this is a very modern novel. Ariel is frequently name-dropping contemporary thinkers, using the internet to google people, finding weird things on blogs, but at its heart it honours some quite extreme thinkers from the late 19th century, like Butler and Abbott.