Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

12.11.19

The midnight truck.

It was a warm night. I was two blocks into my six-block return walk, Helen by my side, and the streets were empty. (Helen is a failed greyhound staying with us for a few weeks. Failed as in racing, not as in being a greyhound. At being a greyhound she is quite competent.)

Nothing in the air tonight except the occasional muffled ramp of a distant tram in Sydney Road and the soft rush of a city train on the down line.

This neighbourhood was built in the 1940s for artisans and tradesmen who wanted to work where they lived. House blocks combined a residence with a small factory or workshop: cup of tea in the morning and five minutes later you're planing a piece of mountain ash or cutting some leather for a car seat. There are still several small factories, a couple of old warehouses with car parts hanging from dark ceilings like carcasses in butchers' shops, a bird boarding house that used to be something else, and a couple of print factories that clatter by day and fall silent by night.

Some of the houses even have their aging original owners, while others are being reclaimed from decades-long disuse. In recent years home buyers have moved in from suburbs where prices are nudging a million dollars, and here they regard the semi-industrial 'vibe' - as they call it – as hip.

Helen and I walked on. We turned a corner. The largest factory came into view. It used to make cheese. It had hummed for forty-odd years. Milk obtained from fat Jerseys on Gippsland hillsides had been trucked in by night in large mirrored-silver McColl's tankers.

But the new home buyers did not want the factory near their new houses. The funky industrial 'vibe' turned out to be an attitude, an affectation. It was phony. Perhaps they did not like cheese factories. Or factories period. Or cheese period. I don't know. You can't second-guess anyone's motivations. You can ask them, but even then you don't know if what they tell you is the truth.

So the funky industrial 'vibe' people got up petitions and signed letters and stuck exclamation-marked posters on their retro gateposts – CHEESE OUT! NOW! NO FACTORIES FOR NOCO! NO MORE MIDNIGHT TRUCKS! – and got themselves on the cover of the local paper standing outside the factory blocking their ears, their children pulling Edvard Munch faces. Some white-gumbooted cheese factory employees could be seen standing glumly in the background – 'What am I going to do after working in a cheese factory for forty years? Make coffees in hipster cafes?' – but the blocked-ear mob won the argument when the factory closed down for good in February this year. In the end it wasn't the protests, but because the owner decided to rationalise manufacturing into a regional plant; but the vibe people nevertheless chalked themselves up a moral victory. So much for locavores. You can lead a milk truck to a hipster but you can't make him drink.

We were halfway past the abandoned factory on the opposite side of the street, passing two of the original-resident houses. They were next to each other. I've seen the owners in their two respective front gardens; stooped, aged, gloved, secateur-wielding. The first house had a six-foot brick wall at the front. I peered over it. Fifty or maybe a hundred rose bushes were rioting in their own special patch of sunlight. Yellows, reds, whites, pinks; bushes and standards. The woman was there now. She didn't see me. She was doing something with an old battered watering can. The second house had a low fence and a cossetted 1980s car in the drive and a garden full of ornamentals kept on a tight leash; staked and tied-up peonies and foxgloves and tall daisies, topiaried this and that; rosemary, lavender, small flowering shrubs. I've seen the old man tying up his plants. He always looks like he's arresting a bunch of pretty criminals.

We walked on. Why, why, why? I said to Helen. Why were the old couple content to live across the road from a factory for forty years, when the new arrivals a block or two away were onto its case after five minutes? Why did the old people not take part in the protest with the vibe people? After all, they were right across the road. They'd be affected most by the midnight truck. Maybe they had worked there.

Helen didn't answer.



6.11.19

First Tuesday in November.

The TAB was deserted at 9.30 a.m. "Everyone bets on their phone," she told me when I got home. Of course.

*

Cup Day lunch: home-made chicken burgers in the sun at the new table in the garden, with roses as good as Flemington's (Queen Elizabeth climber planted last year is now in full bloom and six feet tall with a bullet). The burgers were very simple; nothing to it. Hardly needs a recipe:

Toast burger buns very lightly.

Grill or fry crumbed (breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs of choice, salt, pepper) chicken fillets until just done.

Ample shredded iceberg lettuce as a bed for the chicken on bottom bun spread with mayonnaise (peri-peri or aioli). More mayonnaise flecked with finely chopped white onion under top bun. Serve.

*

Alexandra had chosen Vow and Declare, who lost the race with fifty metres to go after leading bravely; and then, incredibly, took off again and got his nose in front.

Then, on the replay, the second horse's crazy diagonal charge across the track in the last fifty metres incited three words from Thomas (or was it William?): "Insane Nascar driver!"

There was always going to be an appeal. Frankie Dettori's Cup Day blasts through the field, once again crashing and burning, are becoming legendary. Second to fourth; third to second; fourth to third.

*

Craig Williams must be heading for a broadcast career after retirement if his post-race interviews were anything to go on.

- "How does it feel to win Australia's most famous horse race?"

- "He did all the work; I just got to sit on him."


*

In the old days the afternoon Herald would be spread on the kitchen table by 6 o'clock (via grey Herald Sun delivery van and Hoffman's Road newsagent) and there in screen-dotted black and white print, lit by late Spring sunshine creeping in the western kitchen window, lay the photo of the winner at the post with block headlines and reverse-print arrowed labels over the heads of each horse.

No evening paper any more and nothing on TV. I took the boys across town, east on Bell Street to Heidelberg, south past the walled gardens of East Ivanhoe, and then along Whitehorse Road to genteel Balwyn's Palace cinema: Balloon, the story of two families' escape from GDR - across the border into Bavaria. Every teenager should see it. Why? A few reasons.




1.11.19

Beatles vs Australia.

A five-Test series: Kitchen Hand pits five Beatles recordings against cover versions recorded by a selection of Australian artists. Who will win the Ashes?

1. Bad Boy

The Larry Williams (Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Slow Down etc) classic put to the test by the Beatles in full flight, versus the Twilights' uncanny harmonies.

The Beatles: A crowd favourite, John Lennon's voice tends to a slight raspiness when he really gets going while Ringo lets fly on the hi-hat or tambourine or whatever brass it is he's belting away on. A classic rock'n roller. But can it beat the Twilights?

The Twilights: Glen Shorrock doesn't rasp like John Lennon and doesn't scream but it's still a visceral vocal job. The drums thunder with that millisecond off-beat accuracy that makes any song as tight as a ... well, drum if no other comparison comes to mind. By the way, don't judge this song by its ridiculous YouTube black and white clip in which Shorrock was forced by some idiot director to jerk about like a multi-armed Indian dancing god.

Verdict: The Twilights by a short hi-hat.

2. Eleanor Rigby

Bleak experimental rock combining social commentary with four violins, two violas, and two cellos. Can four suburban bogans (Zoot) rise to the challenge?

The Beatles: A song about lonely people with clever village observations and disarmingly attractive harmonies with string octet: but what does it all mean?

Zoot: At the end of the 1960s Zoot were messing about on stage when they launched into Eleanor Rigby, turning it into a hard rock number. It worked and they released it as a single in 1971, complete with clumps of 1970s-style electric guitar conjunctions. Darryl Cotton, Beeb Birtles, Rick Brewer and Rick Springfield brought the English village to Australian beer barns. But who was listening to the words?

Verdict: Zoot by 96 decibels.

3. Baby It's You

Bacharach and David's hit given the slow rock treatment by the Fab Four, up against ... an Australian TV compere??????

The Beatles: Backing sha-la-la-las open and run through the song and John Lennon uh-ohs the conjunctions and a nice acoustic break brings the whole thing sailing home like the QEII. (Not a patch on the album's title song Please Please Me which, incredibly, remains one of the best recordings the Beatles ever made thanks to its utterly maniacal delivery.)

Jeff Phillips: TV pop show host decides to get in on the act. Snigger. Wait, what are those horns? And that orchestral backing? And that break? Phillips has turned this song's sha-la-la-la poppiness into some kind of ethereal daydream. Jeff who?

Verdict: Jeff Phillips by a horn section.

4. Dear Prudence

Once upon a time in India, John Lennon noticed that one of the party was too shy to come out of the house. He wrote this song for her.

The Beatles: Sitting around meditating on fame and taking drugs can lead to the creation of songs with interesting lyrics. This is not one of them. The sun is up/the sky is blue/it's beautiful/and so are you. Of course, that does the song a disservice. It's one the Beatles' best.

Doug Parkinson: A visual if not vocal cross between Issey Dye and Cleo Laine, Doug Parkinson had - has - the voice of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. With his band In Focus, he took Dear Prudence and turned it into a monster slow rock ballad that made John Lennon sound weedy in comparison. Mountainous backing and a mega-production inspired by bands such as Blood, Sweat and Tears. Iconic Australian production.

Verdict: Doug Parkinson by an Afro.

5. Help!

Catchy single from the 1965 album of the same name, and title of the world's first 153-minute music video.

The Beatles: Not the best song on the album by a long shot but performed with the Beatles' usual precocious crowd-pleasing harmonies.

John Farnham with Little River Band: In the early 1980s LRB decided to replace Glenn Shorrock with John Farnham, possibly because they realised that 1980s music was largely rubbish and they had to accommodate the market. Together, they took Help! and turned the up-tempo Beatles tune into a turgid stadium ballad sounding like a thousand yowling cats, or Michael Bolton.

Verdict: Beatles knock Farnham out of the park. LRB were so embarrassed they reinstated Glenn Shorrock. Farnham went on to record Whispering Jack.

There you have it: Australia defeats the Beatles 4-1 as judged by an impartial panel of one.


26.10.19

The cusp of crispness: poetry on a plate.

I keep seeing the expression 'comfort food'. Isn't all food 'comfort food'? No. Comfort food is food that (a) makes you feel good when you're eating it; and (b) allows you to think about something else while you are eating. Anyone who continually talks about what they are eating is not eating comfort food.

Pasta carbonara is a prime example, like lamb shanks, or beef goulash, or shepherd's pie, or loaded mashed potato.

I've been making carbonara for years; went through a phase of ordering pasta carbonara on hot summer Fridays for lunch inside darkened Ti Amo in the 1990s, anticipating the efforts needed on Saturdays. Carbonara-loading. Sitting up at the bar, pasta on an oval plate, heavy on the bacon, rings of buttered pasta dura to mop up the cheesy residue, astringent coffee afterwards. Unbeatable.

Pasta carbonara.

Bacon or just about any variety of salted, cured meat is fine. Anyone insisting on guanciale is forgetting rule (b) above. If you have to think about it, it's not comfort food. Likewise parmesan, parmigiano, etc. Pecorino might be genuine but any of the hard cheeses will suffice. Pasta is also your choice.

Let's go with spaghetti.

Cut the bacon into small strips about an inch long. Ti Amo always used streaky bacon so that each strip was bacon-fat-bacon.

Combine a couple of eggs with half a cup of grated cheese and a shake of white pepper. I use the whole egg because separating the eggs is a task not worth it for the supposed benefit of genuineness.

Cook bacon until on the cusp of crispness but not crisp. Anticipation is everything.

Cook and drain the pasta to al dente or however you prefer it. Transfer pasta to pan with just-cooked bacon; pour egg and cheese mixture over and stir gently to combine until eggs have just set. Now shower over a small handful of chopped parsley including some stalks. Not genuine. But I like the added crunch and burst of herbal flavour the parsley adds.

More white pepper if desired.

*

And tomorrow we might not be together
I'm no prophet and I don't know nature's ways
So I'll try and see into your eyes right now
And stay right here 'cause these are the good old days


'Anticipation' - Carly Simon, 1971

9.10.19

1968 and the Grade Six subculture.

Love Machine, an unexceptional folk rock tune recorded by by US west coast band The Roosters, didn't chart in Australia. It probably didn't even get any air play. However, a bunch of musicians in Sydney and Melbourne noticed it in 1968 and thought they could do a better job.

(The Small Faces had just released Itchycoo Park, Cream had The White Room; and The Legend of Xanadu, Pictures of Matchstick Men and Lazy Sunday Afternoon were the psychedelic soundtracks to my Grade Six life at St John Bosco's where I sat at my desk virtually levitating.)

So the musicians who thought they could do a better job of Love Machine did. The result, co-produced by Geoffrey Edelsten, was a swirling symphony of psychedelia complete with synth, keyboards, feedback, phase, reverb, swell, mind-altering drugs and the kind of harmonies the Twilights took to the outer limits with their later incarnations of Axiom and the Little River Band among other projects. The song was recorded under the anonymous studio name of Pastoral Symphony, which was subsequently registered - stolen - by rival musicians.


13.9.19

The man with the guitar.

Sydney Road shoots straight out of Melbourne like an arrow and becomes the Hume Highway, an ant trail of roaring B-double trucks on four, six or eight lanes connecting the two cities.

The concert was in a venue about twelve miles out of town; one of those places that does big outer-suburban weddings. It was raining when I drove through the hipster suburbs where they ask you five questions before they make your coffee. About 7 p.m. I passed the border, which used to be Bell Street and then Gaffney Street; but which is now Camp Road where a checkpoint charlie stops cool people getting out and non-hipsters getting in. It's called Campbellfield.

Then Campbellfield's yellow brick veneers gave way to concrete depots, and empty manufacturing plants, and breaker's lots, and half-built orthodox churches, and signs spruiking new suburbs with names like Eden Rise. I did a U-turn just south of Craigieburn where Supreme Caravans stares across Gasoline Way to Northern Fleet Care and the Metro Service Station and Truck Wash. In heavy rain I followed the glistening southbound carriageway a few hundred metres, turning left down a long dark driveway and crunching to a stop outside an large pale building with curving lines and giant porthole windows and another for a door. It looked like a grounded cruise liner. We shut the car and ran towards the circle of light.

It was like walking into another world. The vast interior was entirely lined with drapes sufficient to wrap the Sydney Opera House. At the far end of the reception area a head waiter was consulting a map of the floor plan and delegating in turn each of about a hundred waiters to take guests to their table. Ours was a five minute walk away. Or is the passage of time making me exaggerate? We must have walked halfway back to Fawkner. Most of tables were full. Everyone was talking Spanish. It seemed the entire Latin population of Melbourne was there. Talking, shouting, gesticulating, laughing. (I should point out this was the last great era before mobile devices killed society.)

After a while some drinks appeared from somewhere borne by a waiter with a tray joined to his left arm, and then battalions of waiters served entrees and, later, main courses. I forget what we ate. I was distracted by the entertainment.

The waiters disappeared. A man with a guitar came out from one of the Christo drapes, stepped on to the low stage and sat on a chair. Small frame, longish hair, dark glasses, denim.

Right foot onto a stool, a flick of the guitar onto his knee, and then he started singing.

An eerie hush came over the crowd. It wasn't the usual let's-be-quiet-and-give-the-poor-guy-a-chance hush where you still hear the odd clinking fork and pinging glass and a cough here and there and a laugh or two from already drunk patrons. It was sudden, absolute, total silence, as if the crowd had been struck dumb and rendered incapable of movement. There was not even the regulation clang of a waiter dropping a fork as he pushed through the swing door to the kitchen. Nothing.

I forget what he sang. His voice had that Latin quality that compresses rhythm and releases it again, something that made someone invent bossa nova and Sergio Mendes and sunshine. His voice chased the notes around and teased them and caught them where they didn't want to be caught and afterwards the crowd destroyed the silence and the man took his guitar and smiled to the audience and left the building.

*

That was more than ten years ago. The other day I drove up the Hume Highway and just when I passed the long driveway a song came on the radio. Jose Feliciano was still stalking the notes like a lion.

7.8.19

American psychedelic: adventures in pop archaeology.

This piece of pop perfection, also buried and forgotten under layers of post-twentieth century sonic silt, saw on-air sunshine today for the first time in decades.

From the days when they used to cram the local symphony orchestra into the sound booth.

As one commenter noted: "I had forgotten what a bright and happy world it was in 1969."

6.8.19

Radio station revives dead singer.

FM radio is full of singers who sound like they are about to cough in between notes, or who ululate as if they are gargling gravel while taking part bin a prehistoric mating ritual. I have lived through some grim fashions in music but the current crop takes some beating.

There are small pockets of resistance. Someone who goes by the on-air name of Ghostrider puts out three hours of gold on Mondays featuring acts you should know but most don't. Drowned in a sea of mediocrity, these names surface and then disappear again for decades at a time.

Yesterday's feature artist: Esther Phillips.

Listen and weep.

Or try this link. MDR has the wrong track listing.

25.7.19

Getting on like a house on fire with elderly relatives.

I wasn't sure who had put the gum tree in all those years ago, or the unidentified tree next to it with the long poplar-like trembly leaves on long stringy liana-like branches that hang down and catch your neck as you try to mow under them (despite not much grass surviving down there in the semi-darkness); but he or she must have had the idea of creating some kind of 'indigenous' garden of Eden in which nymphs dance and cavort amidst the native flora; but what they ended up with was untrammelled undergrowth into which sunshine barely penetrates so that while the monster gum tree expands exponentially everything else dies.

I was in the front garden. (I dealt with the back garden quite some time ago.)

Garden aside, there was a new dilemma inside the house. I had, of course, done some work in the house on many occasions, removing piles of old newspapers that had built up on, beside and behind chairs and sofas. I had also removed hundreds of plastic food containers that had clogged up several cupboards, leaving just enough to give the appearance of sufficient containers to hold a year or two of frozen leftovers. I had also helped clean up the great clipped-recipe explosion of 2009. Ten years ago! It seems like yesterday.

This winter she wanted a heater in her bedroom. I brought over a small radiator and went into the room to set it up. I opened the door and froze. You could barely see a square inch of floor space. There were enough books to stock a library lining one wall on double-thickness shelves, double thickness meaning someone at some time had built a second set of shelves out over the originals, shrinking the size of the room significantly. The second wall was the window, loosely covered by several curtains, each from a different set, on two different rails, adding a certain faded-harem charm to the room. The window would not have admitted any light anyway, as it overlooks the jungle of a front garden. The third wall was a built-in wardrobe and the fourth a full-length cupboard, the top of which was covered in old books, yellowing photos, knick-knacks, pens, old coins, items of clothing, rolls of gift-wrap and other items. The little floor space was taken up by two beds. One was hers; the other was another storage opportunity. It was covered with clothing, more gift-wrap - some used and some unused - more books, and some items that looked like they were associated with the wrapping paper - gifts in progress awaiting despatch. There was also a significant scattering of paper department store bags, with more of these on the floor in between the beds along with shoes, more books, some newspapers, store catalogues, and diaries.

There was no room for a radiator. Not even for a wall-mounted one.

Or, rather, there was room for a radiator if you wanted to burn the place down.

So that's what I told her. Not in so many words, but I said that I could not responsibly place an electric radiator amidst a hoarder's paradise.

She objected.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

"The house could burn down. And I could be charged with manslaughter given the state of this room. It would be like throwing a lit match into dry grass in a heatwave."

I picked up a few shopping bags and moved several rolls of gift-wrap and some old empty envelopes and a couple of newspapers. Then I stacked some shoes away in the wardrobe that was already full. She objected strongly. No, the shoes might not be flammable, I told her. But you could trip on them in the night and knock the radiator over.

Then I left and took the radiator with me. I came back the next day with one of those tall, flat convection heaters that take up less floor space and blow warm air out the top instead of radiating heat lower down, where the paper junk is. I set it up flush against the bookshelf where it would be less likely to be stumbled over. Sort of a compromise. But I did insist the room still had to be kept reasonably clear of combustible items.


11.7.19

Conversation in a bar.

BARRY THE BARRISTER: Now Gordon, this Folau business ...

GORDON THE JUDGE: What would you expect of an uneducated Pacific Islander, Barry?

BARRY: That comment is offensive.

GORDON: Only when amplified in public, Barry, where the great unwashed roil around in confected outrage twenty-four hours a day. But here in this comfortable bar where intelligent adults can have a conversation without stamping their feet or throwing a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old, the question is both rhetorical and ingenuous. And therefore by definition, inoffensive. What would you expect of an uneducated Pacific Islander? – or, indeed, Barry, of an educated one? And the answer, my friend, is that you would expect exactly what we have seen.

BARRY: Stop talking in riddles.

GORDON: That, from a barrister!

BARRY (TO THE BARMAN): Another whisky for my loquacious friend here, please, Charles. (TO GORDON) Then get to the point.

GORDON: There's no point. Only a collection of random observations. This distinction is forgotten in today's dialectical atmosphere in which every verbal exchange is a fencing match. Without the protective mask.

BARRY: (LAUGHS) Except people never say touché any more. No acknowledgment of another argument, just the last word every time. Like fishwives at the market shouting each other down.

GORDON: Who's offensive now?

BARRY: Oh, for Christ's sake, Gordon, it's a fucking metaphor.

GORDON: I think you mean simile. Nevertheless, your observation is apt. There is no resolution; so we trudge off to court. Where you will find Rugby Australia will be subject to many questions; whereas Israel Folau's case will essentially rest on one small but cast-iron point. He will win or lose on that. But RA has opened a Pandora's Box.

BARRY: I think Pandora's Box has been unfastened for quite some time. RA just tripped on it. You reap what you sow. Appoint people of the quality now seen on boards everywhere and they will trip every time. They follow each other like lost sheep.

GORDON: Sheep don't have to be lost to follow each other, Barry. But you are right: quality is now second to a candidate's ability to mimic peer opinions dressed up as collegiality. They accuse the legal fraternity of verbosity but seriously, collegiality? But of the case at hand: Folau quoted words from the bible. Is that an opinion?

BARRY: No, it is a 'post' containing a tract with which Folau agrees.

GORDON: But what is a 'post'? Has its meaning ever been tested in court? Is it like a private letter that RA has opened and examined and redacted like wartime censorship from the battlefront? Illegal now, of course. If it is an opinion, separate from its method of transmission, then it is one person's alone and impervious to legal action.

BARRY: I see where you are heading. The key word is 'transmission'.

GORDON: Exactly. RA's claim is 'breach of contract' or 'bringing the game into disrepute' - the phrase itself is highly suspect and susceptible to being shot down in flames – but the point turns on to whom the courts decide the mode of transmission – 'using a carriage service' was once a quaint description of this – belongs.

BARRY: Well, it doesn't belong to anyone. It belongs to the state ... or to everyone ... or no-one ...

GORDON: You're floundering, Barry. I'd have you on toast in court. But never mind. The truth is, no-one knows. And it is complex. It is an opinion, yes. Who owns the opinion?

BARRY: Folau, obviously.

GORDON: No, Barry. You're slow today. RA owns the opinion. Its entire case rests on that supposition. Effectively, it owns all of Folau's opinions. As in, has authority over their content and transmission. It has already claimed that.

BARRY: That is an absurdity.

GORDON: Indeed. It is utterly absurd. What is more absurd is that we have reached this point in a supposedly sane society. Yet the blinkered superciliousness of the hyper-opinionated class cannot recognise its own hypocrisy when rejecting the opinion of one of its own. Orwellian, or just stupid?

(HE SIPS HIS DRINK)

I say stupid, because stupidity shadows the corrugations of political correctness like a jackal shadowing a kill.

BARRY (AS IF TO HIMSELF): Kanakas.

GORDON. Precisely Barry: Kanakas. I wondered when you'd twig. The Shorter Oxford: 'A South Sea Islander, esp. (hist.) one shipped to Queensland, Australia, for forced labour on the sugar plantations'. Take away the sugar and you've got Rugby Australia and its slave class, the players. RA has turned Folau and his Pacific Islander friends and relations into a new Kanaka class, moral slaves to their overlord's views. This was proven dramatically and ridiculously last week by one of RA's timorous little acolyte sponsors, who bullied Folau's wife, purely because she had the nerve to support her husband. Imagine that! (READS FROM A NEWSPAPER)
"We do not support the views of Silver Fern Maria Folau and have made our views known to her employer, Netball New Zealand," (ANZ) spokesman Stefan Herrick told the New Zealand press.
BARRY: So the sin is visited upon the wife.

GORDON: Indeed. See the pattern? The 'employer' is now the new inquisitor. The 'sponsor' is the new avenging angel. Perhaps even the new judiciary. Perhaps even the new God. Sponsor a rugby club – or the entire organisation – and get a league of moral slaves who must agree not to contravene your prescribed set of beliefs: each individual who is 'the property of another or others and is bound to absolute obedience, a human chattel; a servant, worker, or subject ... '

BARRY: Yes, the new God. To paraphrase the words of The Who, meet the new God, same as the old God.

GORDON: Which would be ironic given that this whole thing started with a quote from the Bible.

*

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song.


- Pete Townshend, 1971

27.6.19

Tolkien. Not Theoden, Peregrine Took, or Treebeard.

Having lost his father at three and his mother at twelve, the breach of a close familial circle would always weight heavily on J. R. R. Tolkien. It is the theme of Tolkien, the movie.

The young Tolkien is placed in foster care under a Catholic priest who later bans his girlfriend Edith, insisting the student go up to Oxford. There, Tolkien bonds with three fellow poets, the quartet calling themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The scenes of their poetry meetings at the Barrow are realistic and are devoid of the slow-motion filmic tics and posh-Brit characterisations typical of the genre.

War ensues. The company is burst asunder. In scenes of blood and death in the Somme, an injured, fevered Tolkien staggers through mud and gore in a fruitless search for two of the members of TCBS. Delirious, he thinks he hears the voice of one who is already dead calling desperately. As soldiers and horses are cut down and fire burns and blood pools into small dams of red, walled by the dead and dying, a horse momentarily transfigures into a black rider, and a tongue of fire resembles a shadowy dragon, its eyes embers.

But these scenes that fleetingly telegraph Tolkien's fictional characters amidst the fire and the craters of death are too subtle; too little for the film critics, clearly dulled by a hammering popular culture that wants a juvenile heavy-handedness and overt literality that kills any sense of foreboding or anticipation.

Suffering trench fever, Tolkien is repatriated to England, where Edith is waiting. The film ends with Tolkien's pen poised over paper, about to write the words you know he will write:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Herald Sun reviewer Leigh Paatsch, under the headline 'Flawed of the Rings', complains that the cinema patron got " ... no bang for (his) Middle Earth buck ...". He should have noticed that the film's title is Tolkien, not The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, nor The Return of the King. Those films tell those stories.

Dome Karukoki's revelatory direction brings the sense of family and fellowship - we call it mateship - to the fore; the creation of bonds, the loss of them due to chance or evil; the horrors that live alongside human dignity; and at last, the theory as old as humanity itself: that good triumphs over evil.

Usually.

13.6.19

Lunch in a northern town.

The sun was out but a cool late-autumn breeze was just enough to put jackets on the golfers scuttling down out of the green hills and heading greenwards. I locked the cabin and pointed the car south, back alongside the river through shopless Kelso, tiny timber houses either side of the road, and past the dock at Beauty Point where the estuary is still deep enough for a 100-berth marina.

A right turn just before Beaconsfield brought some low mountains into the middle distance. We wandered through high farmland and tree plantations that were partly-logged, leaving mohawks of forest on otherwise bald hills. Then the road went around a high spot and after a long curve, a mountain moved out of the way to reveal the sea down below. A town appeared, crouching on a long low hill that faced the water.

Ulverstone sat in the sun doing nothing as we approached. The road went through several roundabouts full of no cars, and suddenly we were in the main street. Unusually for a coastal town, it wasn't beachfront, but arched instead east to west over a kind of plateau, with a southern backdrop of lurking dark hills, and giving a high view over terraced roads winding down to the sea. I u-turned the car, parked facing east in the shade of the northern verandahs of a row of shops, and looked for somewhere to eat.

*

Growing children don't like smashed avocado on grain bread. The volume just isn't enough. It's a simple matter of fuel. Nor are they satisfied with those rolled-up flat bread things with rocket leaves inside. So we went into a café that looked like it did volume, or something approaching a reasonable return on investment, a term that the inner city stock market investor often forgets when it comes to lunchtime. The waitress had a smoker's voice and an appreciation of customer appetite. She would know: later, after the boys had eaten themselves silly, she told me with a wistful note in her voice that her own boys had grown up, in their twenties now, gone away from home.

The burgers were the size of the plates so the chips had to have their own bowl. A few kinds of sauce bottles were on the table with salt, pepper, vinegar, I forget what else. Toasted sandwiches landed on the table 1980s style, a wicker basket holding eight points yielding red, pink and pale yellow melting middles. Ham, cheese, tomato. There is only one toasted sandwich filling. All the rest are phonies. Scrambled eggs on toast fed about four of us and we ordered something else that I've also forgotten. I had a coffee first, extra strong, the first of the day. It woke me up. I must have got here somehow.

We were at a front table in one corner, overlooking the street. A clutch of Japanese tourists was about three shops away when two scouts shot out, reached the café and stared in. One gazed at the menu inside the window and then the main phalanx arrived and they had a debate. Mid-conference, some dissidents broke away and kept going. The rest crossed the road, except for a middle-aged man wearing a white baseball cap who pushed open the door, took up a seat in a corner, ordered, and dined alone. Close by was an older woman who looked like a regular, conversing throughout with an unseen person behind a screen to the kitchen.

*

The burgers had been followed by 1960s-era sundaes the size of submarines. Later, the teen and two pre-teens slumped in the car, spent. They would doze through the next stage of the journey, moving with the curves like larger versions of the caged love birds on the back seat behind Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in The Birds.

The road out of Ulverstone swept around for endless afternoon silent miles, dodging more hills. Villages slid past with English names. But they're not English. Northern Tasmania is loggers, farmers, footballers, truck-drivers, miners, grocers.

*

Deloraine is a vision set in middle north forest and farm, a diamond in the pale sun, a country town that used to be farm central and church bells ringing out on Sundays. I drove through it once years ago and the main street that cascades down from west to east was all hay bales and live sheep in the back of utes. These days the road sign at the entrance to the town reads Creative Community.

I rolled down the cascade and pulled into the pocket park at the bottom end, near where the old railway that used to haul logs and hessian bags full of everything crosses the river. The three in the back of the car roused themselves out of post-gluttony sloth, and one of them mentioned snacks while looking into the westering sun, figuring it was around afternoon tea time. He was right. I left them and their mother in the park stretching their legs and wandered back up the hill to where an IGA supermarket was set back behind a butcher shop and an RSL club: '$12 steaks' on a sandwich board out front. Halfway up the hill was a cluster of cafés and new age craft shops. They used to be called haberdasheries, shelves running the length of the store and up to the ceiling holding enough wool to knit jumpers for ten armies. Now they sell aromatic candles and rugs that have already been crocheted and coloured rocks that glow. Inside the cafés the customers frowned at their devices, perfect coffees in front of them, with sharp grey haircuts, geometric earrings and lipstick as red as the Stop Adani signs in the windows.

*

Late in the afternoon, back in Green's Beach, the golfers were going back into their doors in the hill like tired hobbits going home to Hobbiton after a day of fighting orcs.

*

Gloria's Cafe
31 Reibey Street
Ulverstone, Tasmania


Kitchen Hand rating: forget Hungry Jacks, the burgers are better here. Or whatever their slogan is.

20.5.19

GetUp chief self-congratulates.

(GetUp chief lobbyist) Mr Oosting ... said the campaign in Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton's seat of Dickson had been partially successful because the swing to him was weaker than the swing to the Coalition across the rest of Queensland.
The Greens' road trip to re-educate outback Queenslanders also went well:
"The Stop Adani convoy in particular reminded locals about everything that's wrong with elitist politics. ... (they) decided to get in their petrol-fuelled cars and drive thousands of kilometres to a place in central Queensland to tell them they shouldn't have a job."
Well done, everyone.


3.5.19

Green's Beach.

The road had ended in a short curve that wound into itself at the entrance to the caravan park. The only movement we had seen last night in the utter blackness on those last few kilometres had been hundreds of small hopping shadows reflected in the headlights. Some kind of marsupials jumping like abandoned soccer balls in an earth tremor.

I had finished Deliverance some time after midnight on the deck of the cabin under the yellow light of a single globe. This remote place is probably the best place in the world to read the book if you exclude the actual Chattooga River. Far off, a muffled crash of distant surf carried in on the wind. I went inside.

Now it was morning and the sun had jerked the black curtain back to reveal a bay washing onto a shore that curved around to a point at the western end and a lighthouse the other way. Directly in front of the cabin a pathway broke through scrub and led down to the water, probably fifty steps away. The children had stolen out of the cabin earlier and gone that way. Behind the row of cabins, a green swathe stretched across and up a long hill. The hopping pandemelons or potoroos or whatever they were had gone and the place was crawling with golfers.

Further around a bluff hung over the bay. The hill was tumbled with summer houses, mostly white, the kind that was common on the mainland about four decades ago: simple brick and timber with sun decks set in neat unassuming lawns reaching down through the wooded areas to hidden pathways leading to the beach. Some had grander picture windows or two or three stories commanding a higher view but the whole effect was of a village at peace with its own timelessness and simplicity. No reality TV look-at-me renovation madness here. Yet.

Buggies loaded up with golf club bags that looked like giant tool kits in case they broke down were zigzagging down out of the hills towards the green. In the bowl at the end of the street the sole shop had opened and a man was setting up trolleys of goods and A-frame signs and tables and chairs and stands of hats ready for the throngs of beach-goers that wouldn't come at this time of year. After a while the children came back looking like they had discovered another planet, and needed breakfast.

Green's Beach is at the top of Tasmania and the end of the world. A refuge for the overwrought, where doing nothing is productive, where green is a colour that you can see, and where the rumble of the world's most treacherous passage of water steals in your open window at night and the glitter of the stars is so bright you could read Ts and Cs by it. If anybody ever did.