Wednesday, November 5, 2008

May Your Hope Give Us Hope

Barack Obama stands in the torrential rains of Chester, Pennsylvania, addressing an 8000 strong crowd that has stood ankle deep in mud for hours waiting for him to appear. It is one of the great moments in the American election campaign, and a confirming symbol of the Democratic candidate's seemingly assured place in history when those elections are decided today.

If John McCain had appeared during that same storm he would have looked a sodden loser, an old man down on his luck as the election slides from his grip. The Republican candidate wisely decided to move his appearance indoors once the pelting rain settled in around Quakertown, while Obama electrified a similar scene just a city away in Chester.

That all the same circumstances were in play, yet one man could seize the day while another was overwhelmed is a case study in the way symbols work.

What those symbols say is that Senator Barack Obama is ready to lead the USA through the stormy weather that has befallen it, and that people are willing to follow him. The stormy weather is, of course, the current economic crisis and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars that have so scarred the nation's spirit, its reputation and its confidence worldwide.

It is now clear the war machinery of George Bush's administration harnessed post-September 11 sympathy as a stalking horse for imperial ambitions which have proved fatal for the regime. Broad analysis would have it this hawkishness has also been fatal for America itself; that the nation is on its last legs as an empire, rotting from within and assaulted from without.

One could refer to all manner of indices and stats to affirm the bleak prognosis, but none have struck me more powerfully than recent information that approximately 1000 suicide attempts a month are being made in the USA by returned serviceman from Iraq. This lemming-like urge towards self-annihilation among veterans goes beyond a phenomenal case study in post-traumatic stress syndrome, and on into a mass trauma at the heart of the nation.

In truth, America has been behaving in a traumatized way ever since September 11 struck. Osama bin Laden, a man with a well developed taste for symbols, made sure the event date on the American calendar matched the numbers for phoning 'emergency' when you're in trouble - '911'. It's rare a culture gets to see such a grand blow delivered right between the eyes, an event whose script assured America it was, like all the empires before it, terribly mortal. Go ahead and call for help, you ain't gonna make it.

Yet for all the devastating power of those planes sliding into the Twin Towers and the buildings tumbling down over New York, other symbols sustained themselves by association: the couple who leapt to their deaths holding hands; the police and fireman who went up the stairwells into the smoke and fire against all the odds before them.

This is the human thrown up against the monumental, and the human is not forgotten or diminished. Indeed it's the human that grows in nobility all the more, a sentiment greatly celebrated in Bruce Springsteen's Into the Fire, which conjures up an image so religious the song becomes a prayer and the men involved ascend a staircase to heaven rather than hell on our behalf:

"May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love..."

It would seem to me we similarly perceive the human and heroic scale upon which Barack Obama must act today. And that this is why we admire him so much, and why we pin so much hope upon him. Satirists with a taste for the caustic agree it's exactly the right time for America to elect a black man president. And yet there remains a deeper, truer feeling that a change in government and more especially a change in leader can transform things for the USA, even in its eleventh hour.

Is it right then to say the big game is over for the United States of America? Despite pundits by the pound leaping upon phrases like "the end of the American century" I see no desire for us to witness an end to our love of rock 'n' roll or jazz or blues, or great American films, or TV shows like Entourage or The Wire, or even the apocalyptic 'frontier' novels of Cormac McCarthy. Whether it's McCarthy's book The Road or Paul Thomas Anderson's punishing film There Will be Blood, there's a thrill to American culture even as it examines its own damaged and insanely titanic spirit.

The feelings of hope that Barack Obama kindles worldwide indicates we are no great hurry for the so-called 'American century' and its influence to come to pass. Indeed Obama's looks and youthful dynamism - along with the fact he is the product of a white mother and a Kenyan father - exude a JFK meets Martin Luther King charisma that make us feel history might yet be in the making rather than the breaking.

In these symbolic convergences he personifies not just new hopes in this time of confusion and pessimism, but lost hopes from another era as well, right down to the foiled assassination plots around him. Yes, it is true: Barack Obama is the epitome of a second chance, of something reincarnated in America's vision of itself. He is a kind of living fairytale, and for all our doubts and fears about its veracity we want to believe in that story still.

- Mark Mordue

* First published at 'Unleashed',, 4th November 20008
Photo by Jae Hong / Associated Press

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Food for Thought

Of the almost four million people living in Sydney, it’s estimated some 1.3 million are now celebrity chefs. They can be seen everywhere from the front of the Sydney Morning Herald and its various supplements through to the covers of this year’s White Pages (Residential and Business & Government), not to mention a plethora of high-rating television shows, signed air flight menus with a choice of Thai chicken or lamb curry, best-selling $150 cook books that make the Bible seem shabbily produced, and of course the social pages, where they are usually snapped embracing each other and laughing like drains.

I have been observing this phenomenon for some time – though a word like ‘observing’ does undue credit to the obviousness of being stampeded to death by a herd of men and women in white hats and clogs shouting ‘f-you!’ and ‘lovely jubbly’ as they pass over you in clouds of money, sweat and flour.

Of course I assume it is flour. I come from a prehistoric era when chefs were lesser known and most likely to be red-faced old hands with a 3-bottle-a-night wine habit and a dubious approach to hygiene, or young turks prone to snorting a blizzard of cocaine at 2am once their kitchens had closed before going off to party into the daylight hours. The chef back then was not so much a high profile social figure as the very acme of dysfunctional humanity and workaholic chaos, their private lives a shambles held together by little more than a knack for frying up chops with a dash of rosemary.

Those were the days. And, if you will indulge me in a little bragging, I did party among these aspiring caterers du jour before their stars ascended. But no more guest appearances on morning television with Bert Newton and his ilk looming over them cracking jokes (as if to suggest they were not interesting in their own right!). No more struggling in the shadow of Margaret Fulton. No, the chefs were slowly clawing their way centre stage via an assortment of reality television shows, preparing to take over the media arena, and now of course, the city as well.

This has put enormous pressure on the rest of us common folk, especially when hosting intimate events in the home. Just the other evening I had a few friends over for a lazy Sunday night viewing of Australian Idol. Everyone seemed to be ironically enjoying themselves at this casual soiree when I brought out my piece de resistance – spaghetti with tuna sauce. I quake at even telling you this, the memory is so vivid and painful to me, but among my friends was a celebrity chef who stood and threw their bowl against the wall, roundly abusing me in language that would make a rugby league player blush, before sending me back to the kitchen to cook the meal again – and again – and yet again – oh God, have mercy on me please – “Until you get it right!”

He was doing this for my own good, I know, and as I offered him my last effort at near midnight and he smiled, it was as if Jesus himself had blessed me. Accepted! Embraced! A part of Sydney society at last! My spirits rose like pastry!

I am sure other non-chefs among you have noted this seismic shift in Sydney culture. My book case, formerly dominated by Patrick White and Fyodor Dostoyevsky is now occupied by the complete works of Neil Perry and Greg Doyle. I try to fit in, you see! I say all the right things at parties like “mmm” and “delish”; I avoid subjects like literature and art in favour of my latest pilates class or an interesting tempura prawn canapés I have tried recently. And yet somehow the takeaway pizza, salt n vinegar chipped, Coca Cola swigging side of me is visible to all – and people turn away.

As a consequence I am becoming more of a loner in this city, my face pressed to the fogged window pane of exclusive restaurants and cafes where whippet thin people with fake sun tans and a sprinkling of grotesquely fat bon-vivants gaze down at huge white [sometimes square] plates upon which main courses the size of a minor doodle reside.

Kandinsky, Pollock, Miro? Bah! The chef is the real artist, the Zen calligrapher upon the palette of our contemporary souls.

Me? I shuffle off to a Lebanese take-a-way for a schwarma, or linger at children’s birthday parties stealing party pies and dipping them in a plastic bowl filled with tomato sauce. A barbarian in this city of celebrity chefs, not even worthy enough to be a ‘foodie’, let alone a restaurant critic. The shame and sadness of it all, caste out a world so refined and ‘f’in’ lovely jubbly.

- Mark Mordue

* A Melbourne accented version of this story appeared today (Sept 25th 2008) in The Age under the title 'Starved: the lament of a failed foodie'. The Sydney Morning Herald did not opt to use the piece, but I hoped Sydney friends might equally appreciate it. Link to The Age story runs below -

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Hughes' The Idea of Home

Giramondo Publishing; 224pp
Sydney, Australia 2004
ISBN 1-920882-04-9

I know John Hughes. Or rather the boy near man he was when he first entered the University of Newcastle (in Australia) and an academic clamouring grew around him. A lithe, slightly bitter-tongued idealist, his dark Ukrainian looks and ascetic taste slotted in perfectly with the cold waves of post-punk music breaking over us at the time, English bands of the late ‘70s like The Fall and Joy Division whose bleakly romantic influence would refract through local groups like Pel Mel, Swami Binton and an entire scene of work-shirted students and their amphetamined associates.

In The Idea of Home, Hughes writes that in his own imagination, “I was a character Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky had created, I lived in their novels as their characters lived in me.” Despite the black burning energy he emanated it always seemed there was actually something much lighter, kinder, and more open, if finally shielded away about him: the Cessnock country boy wildly in love with art, music and literature; the individual who didn’t really fit the scene.

Now through this book I meet him again, and the missing pieces of an old puzzle are put before me. Hughes would go on to win the University Medal and the Shell Scholarship that would take him from Australia to Cambridge in the U.K. But it all went awry. Hughes writes of finding his life in Cambridge fraudulent, of how he turned down the opportunity to complete a PhD on Coleridge and ‘the life in letters’ that should have gone with it.

Once feted as the young genius about town, Hughes became a self-proclaimed failure and proud of it. He washes back up where he started at the University of Newcastle, a disenchanted tutor who knows he has let the home side down. Eventually even that insult to his promise loses its negative glow, and Hughes leaves for Sydney. There he spends a few years obsessed with writing a novel about a serial killer who murders only academics. It’s a faintly comical obsession, as Hughes well knows, though he never tips his hand to say so. It’s also a sign of how intense Hughes can be. A whole unpublished novel borne on spite and anger! That’s a lot of exorcising, man.

What do we make of failure in our lives? How much of it is a choice? What do these choices say about us as a human being, about our existential metabolism, the forces of family, history, place and culture that have shaped us? What do we remember? What do we forget? And which of these energies, remembering or forgetting, is the more vital?

Hughes dives deep into himself for genuine answers. And as the title to his first published book, The Idea of Home, suggests, he mulls over that cliché ‘home is where the heart is’ to look at his migrant family background, his childhood growing up in the valley mining community of Cessnock, and the rise and fall of his academic star at Newcastle and then Cambridge. What emerges, strangely, is actually a love story, perhaps best summed up by an epigraph from the poet Carlos Drummond De Andrade that Hughes uses to launch his book: “the strange idea of family travelling through the flesh.”

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and his line about “a chain of flashing images” when I read Hughes. The author has a way of conjuring up moments from his life with a vivid intensity - then brilliantly reflecting on them, as if his mind were playing on them as a guitar player might tease out themes around a single chord.

Hughes is beautifully clear and logical yet there are moments when the rationality feels unconvincing, as if the depth to his analysis (causing me to re-read some passages at least two or three times) doesn’t really matter. It’s just what he feels. It’s stuff he can’t know. And all the thoughts he has about whatever happened to him aren’t nearly so strong as the intensity of those moments and how he conjures them in words. This can lead to an opaque quality. A contrary power that smudges his great writing with meditative considerations that are just very, very good, and finally no match for their mysterious source, a schematic tension that probably goes to Hughes’ own conflicted identity: writer versus academic, Romantic versus essayist.

An excerpt on what he inherited from his father, a much quieter presence in his life, compared to what he gained from his grandfather, who stalks the pages of The Idea of Home’s as well as the backyards of Cessnock “like a tiger in a cage”, shows how remarkable Hughes can be when he is on:

“While my father talks I say nothing. The beer has made us close and I remember a school night in Maitland, or perhaps in Singleton, watching his greyhounds race and eating a pie and shaking vinegar on my chips. The dogs sleek and steaming in their wire muzzles, the mechanical rabbit they never caught. I remember the cold and the rings around the floodlights and the men shouting the dogs names. I remember being carried into the house, the warmth of my father’s body, his sports coat itchy against my face. Why do such things stay? I loved my grandfather but his influence was intellectual; he talked to me and I learnt about things: ideas, politics, history. The things I learned from him [my father] you couldn’t get from talking (how do you teach openness, responsibility, curiosity, loyalty, respect, integrity, attachment, temper?). They were inherited bodily, transferred like rubbings: his mannerisms, gestures, actions, values. The things I do whose origins I cannot see. That I have to clean my shoes, for example, whenever I return home from a trip while my father cannot leave the house without doing the same.”

In passages like these, and they are numerous in The Idea of Home, Hughes suddenly shakes your heart as well as your head, and sends you back into your own family past, or perhaps towards it, shouting I love you and I miss you and I owe you everything. This is a great book, part of peculiarly modern genre that seems to mix memoir, essay and poetic style into something altogether fresh, contradicting the academic heritage of detachment or aloofness we might normally associate with the essay, while profoundly deepening the shallow waters of the modern-day confessional. You won’t really know yourself without reading it.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this review was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on December 4th, 2004

Monday, September 8, 2008

Holly Throsby: When Darkness Falls

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t easy. Holly Throsby, long, black-haired, long-handed and feminine in this particularly intelligent way, seems to open up and close down, enthusiastic at one moment, then politely, decisively, no.

Her record On Night might well be mistaken for one of a slew of female singer-songwriter releases now about, but hers is a real achievement: lyrically way ahead of the pack, warm but grievous in its celebration of a love ending, and a social scene going to the dogs along with it.

The melancholic drive of Nick Drake springs to mind in some songs, along with the plaintive restraint and textural shading of early Beth Orton with a certain Australian containment. If one could define the style it night be called something like ‘contemporary acoustic realism’, keeping in mind the vaguely cinematic sense of watching the songs unfold.

On Night was recorded near Saddleback Mountain on the east coast of New South Wales, in the country home and recording studio of producer Tony Dupe, who has built a reputation as a Downunder sound texturalist, taking the folk spirit out into earth and sky. To put it another way, Throsby and her fellow musicians worked with the windows open. “You can hear lots of birds, crickets, and a dog too,” she says. “I wanted to let that in. But it’s not just those sounds, it was something about the pace of the recording there. There’s a real domesticity to it. I see my record being very concerned with mundane domestic things.”

At 25 the maturity of Throsby’s lyrical vision wouldn’t be out of place in a Richard Ford novel of betrayal. On Night - as it’s self consciously literary title might suggest - is not just a love lorn set of acoustic songs, but a larger portrait of an endangered community of feelings dissolving into darker places. The social sense of it is really surprising.

I tell Throsby it reminds me of a bunch of people in their mid 20s with their trainer wheels on for adultery. Having fun for now, even finding something beautiful in their pain, but in danger of being in some deeply unhappy place if the same bad habits stretch into their mid 30s.

“Are you telling me we should be careful of our frivolity?” she asks sardonically before confessing there’s some truth to the insight. She doesn’t try to discuss it, however, though she does admit, “None of my friends like to talk about the record. The people closest to me just do not listen to it.”

Does she think she is a harsh observer in the songs?

“Harsh.” The word is weighed up, not right. I know that, she does too. I feel like I have laid it on the table like a slightly unpleasant pebble that should probably be moved.

It’s true that the booth where we talk at Badde Manors Café in Glebe, Sydney, its upright narrowness, the noise around us, accentuates a mood of having been pushed too close together for comfort. Maybe, too, she’s learnt something of the art of resistance from listening her mother, the elegant ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio announcer Margaret Throsby, at work. Telling all is not Holly Throsby’s desire, at least not in this situation.

She gets a little irritated, or maybe distressed, and asks me “if Nick Cave has to put up with questions about his personal life?”

I tell her lines about “dead birds on the stairwell, some ugly morning, fell from their nests, no, don’t tell your parents when we start sharing each others’ beds” (We’re good people but why don’t we show it?) and a male friend who “can’t see where his friends stop and his lovers begin” (Things between people) as well as injuring fragments like “the wings of birds and the arms of girls” (Don’t be howling) keep surfacing to grab you powerfully and invite that curiosity. That she doesn’t necessarily have to answer anything; that philosophising about it might do. And that maybe, finally, it’s just hard to know where she ends and the songs begin.

“I don’t really have an interest in talking about my personal life in plain speech. I really like making records. I’d talk about this stuff to my mates,” she says, easing off, then adding with a quirk, “but it’s kinda hard to discuss it with someone who is taking notes.”

She takes the CD off the table and shows me the artwork (her own design), four simple primary images: her head turned away as she lies on a bed, her face not visible; an owl; some mountains; a midnight sun reflected on water. “I didn’t want any redundant imagery anywhere - in the lyrics or the artwork.” I feel as if she is trying to share something with me as she does this, to include me with her actions in a way that half makes up for the edges in how we have communicated.

It’s not surprising Throsby tells me she is reading the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson, “a Ted Hughes transcription from her original papers.” She explains how “her poetry is written in this olden days style, but you can tell it’s in the vernacular of how people spoke then and I really like that a lot.” Dickinson’s story interests her, “how she lived in a room all by herself and separated herself from the world and just wrote. And was, I think, completely uncelebrated in her life.”

She also talks about another American poet, Walt Whitman, and his robustness; of the singer Morrissey and how brilliantly he deals with sadness as a theme, especially with The Smiths. “Those records with The Smiths are so cheeky. More cheeky than overwhelmingly sad, and he’s very matter of fact about his pain too. That’s part of it.” These energies matter to her.

“I don’t see my record as a sad record,” she says. “Maybe some of the songs are sad, but putting them all together on an album is slightly triumphant. I respond to sad things,” she confirms carefully, “but also the things that go with it like longing and wanting, which I don’t see as negative things. There’s something ceremonial about turning all that into art. And it’s not the end because after doing it I like to have a good dinner, get drunk with friends and watch TV.”

As Throsby gains momentum - not unlike the record and the way it seems to zero in on you as you listen - she says, “I don’t want my sense of humour and chaos to be drowned out by the sadness.”

Throsby certainly knows how to involve you in a scene, how to create a mood impressionistically and pull you very close. Almost as an aside she observes, “The more honest you are about your experiences the more universal they become. I used to think specifics would make things more esoteric but I’ve found the opposite.”

What’s clear in her mind, and she says this like someone who really means it, is how she was “very conscious of wanting to make a whole album for one, and to make it themed in a sense. That’s why I called it On Night. I wanted it to be clear I was thinking a lot about that. It’s not an accident images appear again and again across the record.”

“It’s funny when you put songs together and a weird, accidental narrative comes up,” she says, in as revealing a way as she willing to be. “It’s like having a dream – the fact you are able to decode it means you knew what it was to begin with.”

- Mark Mordue

* First published in The Big Issue, Australia, 2005.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dirk Wittenborn's Fierce People

Bloomsbury Pbk, 335pp.
ISBN 0-7475-5680-6

Bret Easton Ellis loves it. So does Jay McInerney and Susan Minot. I guess that makes me suspicious straight away. I mean, all of them? You just know they must go to the same cocktail parties and laugh at each other’s literary jokes like a bunch of goddam phonies.

To be honest the back cover H-Y-P-E comparing it to The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby and Less Than Zero isn’t so untrue. If only someone had mentioned it was going to turn into I Know What You Did Last Summer about mid-way through, with a murder, a fire, an anal rape, and worse still. But you don’t wanna hear about that now.

You might think I hate this book, writing it up this way. Being sarcastic and all. But I don’t. Honest. Truth is till all that junk started happening (like the guy writing Fierce People was frightened I might get bored of the real story) I wanted to be Finn Earl, who is the main star of this here book.

Finn’s 15 and he lives in New York, but his mum takes too many drugs and some shit happens that means they end up living in this ultra-rich community called Vlyvalle. Once they arrive Finn falls in love with Maya, this heiress babe with a scar on her face. Then Finn starts nursing all these secrets going on behind the scenes till he’s just one big knot of lies he can’t get out of.

Maybe that sounds corny, but I couldn’t put it down - and truth is I was kinda in love with Maya too and felt like I must be 15 again or something dumb, which is loony but that’s what books do to you sometimes. Then this Wittenborn guy spoils it. I can see them making a movie of the whole thing now - with Tobey McGuire starring, or his kid brother since he’s too old and everybody thinks he’s Spiderman now anyway. Just being able to imagine that makes me so mad! Like I am being cheated of my own fantasies. As if Wittenborn had already sold it off by design, you know what I’m saying?

Wittenborn wants to be the J.D. Salinger of the class system in America. He even uses the words ‘phony’ and ‘goddam’, just like J.D. used to. The French call that a ‘homage’. Wittenborn’s real funny too, and he says these wiseass, sad things sometimes that hook you right in the heart, like the way he describes Finn and his mother talking: “It was sweet and spooky how a lie my mother wanted to hear could light her up inside. Like a candle in a jack-o-lantern, it made her seem hollow.’

Don’t ask me why but when I type that sentence out I just about feel like crying now. But I dunno whether I’m just crying for me and Finn - or for the book this could have been. Goddam.

- Mark Mordue

* Book review first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, August 17th 2002.

~ Fierce People was turned into a film directed by Griffin Dunne and starring Donald Sutherland. It went out on limited release in the USA and has gone straight to DVD recently here in Australia.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008: Half awake in a fake empire

One of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of the past year came from an American group called The National. It was called ‘Fake Empire’. A romantic sounding tune marked by a quiet declaration that “we’re half awake in a fake empire,” it married the lonely guy blues of a New York night to a veiled critique of American imperialism. In short, it expressed the feelings of being lost inside a dream.

The song could just as well serve as an anthem to the 2008 Beijing Olympics today: for the quickly dispersing illusion China has sought to construct of a harmonious Games – as well as just how much we in the West have been willing to cling to such lies, out of misguided idealism or a greed for business opportunities in the jaws of the Chinese tiger, not to mention a little fear about how strong that tiger is becoming.

There’s no doubt in my mind these Games are the most significant and politically dangerous since the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Hitler and the Nazi Party sought to use those Games as a propaganda tool for resurgent German nationalism and racist notions of Aryan superiority, and with it Germany’s right to rule the world.

Historical equations, of course, are always crude and lack nuance. But the parallels between Berlin 1936 and Beijing 2008 remain odiously apparent. Chinese nationalism is rampant, the poison by which the so-called Communist regime sustains its right to govern today.

Underlining it is the racist Han Chinese sensibility that Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities are lower-grade humans and ‘barbarians’. This kind of thinking includes us Western ‘long noses’. Talk to any semi-educated Han and you will hear all about China’s phenomenal 5,000 years of culture; dig into that talk and you will understand how the last hundred years of Chinese turbulence and misery are the fault of the West, which is still trying to hold China down today. Not for much longer. They’re the natural rulers of the world and they soon will be again.

Arguments in favour of a Beijing Games have always been related to liberalisation and democratization, as if exposing China to global influences would assure humanitarian and political progress. A similar hope has underlined long-running business interactions between China and the West ever since Deng Xiaoping opened the doors on a period of economic liberalisation in 1978 and encouraged everyone to “jump into the sea” [of money].

Unfortunately self-interest and greed now motivate most ‘political’ thinking in the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of the coast. People there gluttonize themselves in endless banquets, celebrating forms of conspicuous consumption that would make Donald Trump blush while the rest of the country continues along in its peasant miseries, hobbling under exploitation, corruption and environmental abuses. Coal miners work in Dickensian conditions, dying ten a day in some of the most unsafe and polluted corners of the planet. Ironically enough the worst of these mines were re-opened to help power developments behind the Olympic ‘dream’.

Western interests are no better. Time and again we have prostituted our ideals to Chinese wishes. One simply has to examine a case like the continued imprisonment of the journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for ten years in 2004 for revealing to an overseas website how the government planned to deal with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shi Tao was caught out because his email details were handed over to Chinese authorities by Yahoo, a company that took comfort in complying with Chinese law and sustaining their business interests on the Mainland.

A 2001 speech by News Corp’s James Murdoch denouncing the Falun Gong as “an apocalyptic cult” is another such moment of modern dialogue. Murdoch’s observation has a grain of truth to it, but the eager-to-please shrillness of his speech failed to justify the widespread detention, torture and death of Falun Gong members. All for the greater good, I’m sure.

In the meanwhile don’t put your faith in the younger generation of Chinese. The one child policy has bred a generation of ‘little Emperors’, selfish and spoilt by the adoring focus of their parents and grandparents, the recipients of what is what is known as a 4-2-1 inverted pyramid of family worship. These are the same youth who were bussed in to support the path of the Olympic flame across the world. As events in Canberra showed, they are vocal, organised and aggressive.

Almost a quarter of the Chinese population is now under 30. At home in China the more extreme among them are known as the fen qing or ‘angry youth’. You can see them gathered in McDonalds and Starbucks, in sneakers and baseball caps, bitching about how much they hate America. Brought up in a post-Mao era and a system that blanketed out events like Tiananmen Square, talk of such historical moments is as tiresome and vague to them as Woodstock and Altamont are to Western youth. Indeed young Chinese regard Tiananmen as the ultimate in sentimental Western fantasies, a cliché we hook ourselves on to slight their country’s ascendance.

It’s unclear how much the government will be able to ride the nationalist fervour of this new generation, and how much it has the potential of creating instability even for them. As China’s global public relations took a nosedive in the wake of the Tibetan riots and ugly protests and counter-protests around the progress of the Olympic flame, officials were forced to appeal for “rational patriotism”. Ironically the younger generations’ zeal is a by-product of the censorship and propaganda they have been suckled on. Many of these same youth could not understand why their government did not come down harder and sooner in Tibet. The thought these will be the leaders of tomorrow is chilling.

No article can come close to summarizing the complexities of China today. But the appeasements the West has surrendered itself too out of a desire to avoid upsetting ultra-sensitive Chinese feelings, and through downright opportunistic business interests, bodes ill for the future. Kevin Rudd’s recent bid to be seen as “zhengyou”, a friend who tells you the truth even if you don’t like it, was a brilliant diplomatic move. It remains to be seen how much that perspective becomes another way for China to let the West blow off steam while it moves coolly ahead.

The fact is these Games are not about China opening itself up the world. They’re about symbolically launching the Chinese Century to come, as well as affirming ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ upon the current rulers, an almost mystical form of nationalism updated to present-day needs: propaganda reshaped as marketing to launch China Inc. upon us all. Watching the Opening Ceremony I nonetheless found myself caught up in their beauty, and in the larger Olympic notions of unity and nobility that seem capable of enduring the ugliest of political spin jobs. As if in the end some grain of hope and communication might still be broached. As if a mere gesture might wake us all to something better.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this article was published under the title 'Crouching tiger, hidden dragon' on the Opinion page of The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia), August 11th, 2008 along with the above powerful illustration by Andrew Dyson.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Kashgar Case

At few years back the Byron Bay Writers Festival I was invited to speak on a travel panel called ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’. We were asked to describe how we translated exotic images into stories, and what this meant for both the writer and the reader. Did something substantial occur, or was it just armchair travelling?

By dint of that latter observation, I felt were we also being asked something much less flattering: whether travel writing was doing as much to remove us from the world as a disengaged news report, rather than bringing us closer together. And if that were true, whether it had become another form of careless western consumption. This idea depressed me.

Despite having written a book that was full of global travel stories from which I was supposed to draw anecdotes and wisdoms, whatever I started to write down for my speech felt fake and forced. By the day of the panel I still had nothing prepared. The impulse to wing it was fast disintegrating into something more despairing: a travel writer with nothing to report from the world at all.

That uneasy morning I found myself looking at a slim, small briefcase my partner and I had recently bought in the bustling town of Kashgar in Xinjiang in far western China. The briefcase was a souvenir from our travels, nothing more.

And yet the longer I looked at it the more I thought about that particular trip and what it meant for me now. How, like every other city in China, Kashgar was being refashioned in the generic style rabidly popular across the nation: with vistas of obliterating grey concrete roads and endless cheap apartment blocks shrouded in a brownish atmosphere of decay.

The old and legendary Kashgar, a place of ornately decorated wood and creaking donkey carts, medieval secrets-and-shadows and hard clay homes, seemed to be shrinking by the moment in the face of such changes. Soon, I felt, the exotic turning point of hundreds of years worth of travel diaries from Marco Polo on would no longer exist. With that loss went, of course, a people and their history: the Uighurs of Central Asia.

Aware of this imminent erasure, we ventured into the old quarter of Kashgar where Uighur architecture and customs still predominate despite the relentless Chinese fondness for ‘development’, a part of which involves a long-running program of Han population re-settlement into the area.

Our grieving felt premature, however, as we stood there watching hundreds of heavily moustached men playing pool on badly torn felt, their lopsided tables lined up like racing cars on the grid at Le Mans; starting right out front of the Id Kah mosque and surging on into the middle of the Friday night markets. I was surprised by this brazen rub of entertainment, commerce and worship, though no one else seemed to mind a bit, least of all the men, smoking and shouting and cheering around the clacking tables.

Nearby a wall of ghetto blasters roared an artless musique concrete at full ranting-and-wailing volume from an area set aside for selling electrical goods.

An ice cream stall had a small television wired to a loudhailer system that was belting out the soundtrack to an Indian action movie — attracting another solid crowd of hundred or so people, sighing and groaning to the action at hand.

The life force here was certainly intimidating in its vitality and heckling energy — I could see how it might worry an occupying power. Even in such impoverished circumstances, these were not a people to take lightly. They exuded energy like an electrical charge.

Everywhere we looked this aliveness roared through the commerce of their community. There were Uighurs selling clothes, wooden bowls, lamb on skewers, ornately decorated rocking cribs for babies, more lamb on skewers, knives so sharp they shaved the hair off your arms in one clean stroke (look! See!), all manner of shoes, proud hats, sad fruit, even more lamb on skewers, lamb stew, lamb with lamb, tasty flat bread with bits of stone from the walls of wood-fire ovens stuck to the base (easily picked off with those sharp knives or simply crunched on with a bitter jolt), and a variety of animal skins including that of a large wild wolf.

It was that faint time between twilight and night itself. At first we could barely see them as they sat, crouched over and poor looking, on the periphery of the main square while the market thronged wildly away from them: a Uighur man and his family, with a few belongings scattered in the dirt. It was the pencil-sketched faintness of their presence that actually attracted my eye, the fact that they hardly seemed to exist at all.

As I looked closer it seemed to me they had raided what little of their lives might be of value: a maroon brown briefcase covered in dust; a badly dented soup ladle; the snapped pedal from a bicycle; some other bits of metal and wire that were like things, curiosities, you might see lying by the roadside if your eyesight was good and you were traveling on foot. I was amazed they were even trying to sell these scraps.

The look of the family in the encroaching darkness, their meagre offerings, tugged at our hearts. So we asked how much for the briefcase and the soup ladle. The father looked up and held all the fingers in his hand out towards me. Five yuan was equal to one American dollar. It was like asking for nothing.

It’s normal in markets like these to bargain hard, but we gave them the five yuan without argument and left, while other traders in the square laughed at me, pointing at the absurdity of a westerner walking around with an old soup ladle in his hand.

We had hoped the man and his family might ask for ten or even twenty yuan. We didn’t need the soup ladle, and the briefcase didn’t look like it was fit for any document I would value. We just wanted to give them something, and this was a way to do it with dignity left intact: the age-old process of barter-and-exchange at a market on the Old Silk Road. Much as I wanted to hand over more money once the deal was done, I knew it was not the right thing to do. That our soup ladle and briefcase and the five yuan now in his hand were the best things that could happen for everyone that strangely pulsing evening.

The condition of this family summed up, for me, everything happening in Xinjiang while I was there: how poor and oppressed Uighur people are under Chinese rule; the ragged, brutalised flavor to their lives.

Famous for their fighting spirit and their flamboyant, emerald-studded knives, the Uighurs are surrounded by wild, stunning mountains along their west and south-west borders with the former Soviet republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet; while the Taklimakan Desert (which translates roughly as “you go in but you won’t come out”) to the east further serves to isolate the region from the rest of China. Despite these natural barriers and their own unruly spirit, the Uighurs have seen their beautiful countryside invaded and reinvaded for centuries.

At first it was the Arabs, Mongols and Chinese who flooded back and forth on missions of conquest and trade. Then the region became part of the push and pull of Russian and British influences in that imperial chess match of nineteenth century geo-politics known as ‘The Great Game’. Chinese and Soviet forces continued to vie for dominance in the area, the latter triumphing in support of a brief Islamic regime called the Eastern Turkestan Republic that began in 1944 and fell in 1950. Since then the Chinese have ruled with an increasing iron fist, renaming the territory the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Beyond concerns for regional security and the long-running imperial claims that it has always been a part of greater China, the fact that Xinjiang is fabulously rich in oil and tin makes it an even more desirable asset for the Chinese.

Given its physical extremities and extreme isolation, Xinjiang remains a volatile zone, prone to internal instability and disruptive external influences. The Uighurs have looked on enviously at the breakaway Soviet states across the border, and Islamic extremism continues to filter through as an influence despite the essentially moderate faith of most Uighurs. Small bomb explosions from Kashgar to Beijing have gone off in the name of various terrorist/independence groups, while most Chinese associate displaced Uighurs across the country with a culture of crime that ranges from black market money exchanges to drug smuggling — a not entirely unreasonable stereotype.

Since September 11, 2001 the Uighurs in Xinjiang have been more shat upon than ever before by the communist government. The west’s panic to maintain the ‘war on terror’ has given the Chinese licence to do as they please in remote regions like Xinjiang — and to make sure that the independence dreams of Islamic Uighurs stay ground into the dirt. As the Chinese propaganda against ‘Uighur splittists’ so neatly puts it, “they shall be beaten down as a rat crosses a road”.

Once I got back to Sydney I cleaned up the briefcase and polished it and found it wasn’t in such bad condition after all. I imagined it might have served as their child’s school satchel. Along with everything else about my memories of that day, this lone speculation made me feel intensely sad for this thing now in my hands, for all the miles it had travelled and who might have carried it before me, dreaming of better days.

And yet when I first came to the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I had bought the case along for no grand reason other than the fact that I thought it made me look good. I liked the fit of it under my arm as a fashion item. It was cool.

Only when I began to think about what I would say for this literary panel that had so troubled me, how I would deal with the phrase ‘Evocative Images from Around the World’ and the moral dilemmas it provoked, did I really look at the case again and decide that it was worth dusting off, opening up.

The theme ‘evocative images from around the world’ invited the idea that travel writers really are just walking, talking postcards, delivering the world, pleasantly, to our readers’ doors. There is nothing wrong with that, I guess. But I’d like to think it is possible to do more and I said so on the day in much the same way as I am saying so now. I said that it’s possible to bring back images and feelings that contain some humane and deeper relationship to a place or a people, no matter how fleeting the connections might seem. As one might unclip an old, beaten briefcase to reach inside and see, suddenly, despite its emptiness, another kind of story, travelling silently in your company, waiting to be opened and finally heard.

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in Spinach7 (Australia) and Bad Idea (UK)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flying Over Tiananmen

Goldfish. Dragon. Grasshopper. Butterfly. Eagle. What do you want to be?

“50 yuan,” he says to me. It’s the going price for the metamorphosis in Beijing. Though when the man declares the cost in English, it’s more like a bark I can barely understand - but for the wild spread of his palm, the splayed demanding fingers. 50! Understand!

I lean back in the wind. “50?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “20 yuan.”

He eyes me up and down. Then he says, “Okay.” He’s obviously not in a mood for bartering today. I’m taken by surprise. And half-aware I am probably being ripped off anyway. Otherwise why would he agree so fast?!

Creatures are spread in front of me, half-discernible forms clustered in clear plastic bags. They are all eagles. I’ve gravitated to this salesman for that reason. Across Tiananmen Square, amid a sparsely scattered few thousand people (a million stood here in 1976 to farewell Mao forever), he catches my eye with the first glance. He knows I want to deal with him, not the others. Not the dragon man or the fish man or the grasshopper man. No. He’s the eagle man and I belong to him.

He passes me my bird of choice and an old flat-winder hand-reel made of wood with some green string bound around it. Then he’s gone, back into the crowd. Barely leaving me before another woman is tugging at my sleeve with a more sophisticated hand-reel for sale. It’s vaguely fancy and modern looking, a white plastic spool with a small handle and a metallic bail arm to help feed out the shiny dacron line. “10 yuan,” she says to me like there’s not much time left for a bargain like this. Hurry, hurry…

I lean back in the wind. “10?!” Then I spit out air, trying to laugh. “5 yuan.”

“No!” she says, wrenching the reel from me with disgust. I try again to offer her 5 yuan but she starts walking away. And so I surrender apologetically, hoping no one nearby has noticed what a low-down dirty bargainer I am. “Alright, alright,” I cry out. “10! 10 yuan!” I call after her, waving my money pathetically. She snatches it, passes me the plastic spool, marches off haughtily.

I now have two hand-reels and an eagle kite I am yet to put together.

It’s a Beijing Spring day, early in the season, fresh and blue, with an icy zero bite to the breeze. But the sun is out. The early afternoon is beautiful and clear. It’s the best kind of breeze, unlike those summer winds from the Gobi desert, all sand and heat and bad light and nasty, gritty moods. Yeah, today is… today is perfect for kites.

I pack the wooden hand-reel away in my backpack, never to be used again. Set my more sophisticated reel – which I notice is looking a little tangled – down on the re-paved concrete surface of Tiananmen Square. Flat and wide, it spreads out forever, the ground marked out in big, cold square blocks that remind me of anonymous gravestones. It is the largest civil square in the world, doubling as a once-a-year carpark for the black Audis and BMWs so favoured by Communist Party cadres meeting at the annual National People’s Congress.

Just over the road is the Tiananmen Gate, or ‘Heavenly Peace Gate’, which acts as the southern entrance to The Forbidden City. Above it is a large imperious portrait of Mao Zedong looking back over the square towards the enormous mausoleum where he now lays in state for sporadic public viewings. A 36 metre obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, stands dead centre in the square itself, with bas-relief carvings of revolutionary events and calligraphy from Mao and Zhou Enlai. Either side of the crowds in the square is the Great Hall of the People and a furiously renovated Chinese Revolution History Museum netted in green.

People are everywhere, taking photos, laughing, meeting up. A great social weaving, full of joy. It’s infectious and I’m excited as I start unpacking my kite. Predictably, the eagle is not easy to assemble. I rack my brains over this physical mystery of wings, bamboo and wire clips, which also includes yellow attachable claws. But… um… er… this is a conundrum fit for a Zen master!

By some miracle I spot my kite salesman. So I chase after him, trying not to lose all the flapping pieces of my eagle in the strong breeze. The salesman is less than helpful. In fact he is downright antagonistic, having expended all his English language skills on the sale. And though I cannot speak Mandarin or whatever minority dialect he does speak, I know the language of his body and tone well enough – you paid what you wanted, now you can work it out for yourself you cheapskate! Get lost!

I fall to my knees. And begin fiddling again with my aerodynamic puzzle. I may as well be assembling a Concord with my bare hands for all the effort I am putting into it. Fortunately a young Chinese woman comes to my assistance. First, to show me how to attach the wings to the spine of the kite. Then when I fumble some more, to demonstrate how they unfold for an enlarged flying span. And when I can’t quite figure it out, how to finally add those bright yellow claws to the eagle’s belly. In other words, she has done the whole thing for me.

“You buy postcard now!”


“You buy postcard now!”

She smiles and thrusts a set of ugly postcards in my face. I look at her twice. And suspect she is the woman who sold me the tangled hand-reel, but I’m not really sure. I could swear she was her sister though. I really could. “Postcard. Good. You buy now!”

I stand with the giant eagle kite in my hands being pulled away by the wind. Feeling a little guilty as I say, “No thank you.” I nod to her in appreciation for the help and walk off. All the time I want to run back to her and buy that set of postcards now! I’m a little ashamed at my habitual resistance to a local salesperson, by the way I conduct myself automatically - at the same time I am sure the whole square is thrumming to the stings and dodgy deals craftily worked out by the kite and postcard Mafia of Tiananmen Square.

With my supposedly spiffy hand-reel, I begin trying to get my eagle air-borne. The kite goes well, delicate and firm in the air. But my hand-reel becomes an ever more obvious and sloppy tangle as I try to unfurl it. The eagle climbs but I can barely enjoy its rise. Down on the earth I am jiggling with the dacron line, seizing knots free and slowly realizing that the whole reel is coming apart in my hands.

Eventually the spool cover completely rolls off, which solves my problems with knots as the string just slips crazily off the open side of the reel. The eagle shoots up into the sky and suddenly I have a runaway kite on my hands along with a busted reel – which feels something like flying without brakes. While my bird careens sideways across the sky like an angry bullet, then madly down over peoples’ heads, I try to reach to the ground with my right hand and pick up a fallen nut and bolt as well as the other half of the reel. I frantically maneuver the bird back upwards with a jerk of my left hand, forcing a gust of wind up under its wings, my right hand grasping for all the lost pieces. I’ve managed to slip off my backpack in the process as well, freeing me totally to concentrate on what I am doing. I’m fighting for my life here. Reassembling the entire reel while the bird continues to dip and climb with every loss of concentration and refocusing of attention.

To my great relief the entire handline is now played out. No more knots! No more string left! Problem solved. The eagle is way up, up, up. I screw the reel cover back on along with the metal bailing arm that catches the string and helps it run smoothly like a fishing line. I screw it in extra tight. And quickly start adapting my kiting style to the reality that this handset comes apart constantly. Eternal vigilance on that vital, ever-loosening screw is required. Yes! Yes, I’m flying!


A less masterful kite enthusiast than I has driven a giant butterfly straight into my guts. No great pain, but a definite shock to the system. I stand there stunned, then look to see my bird going down again fast, straight for the crown of a little old lady’s head. I stumble back wildly, running and pulling, colliding with a couple but not daring to take my eyes off the eagle. They move on as if it’s nothing. Another hard jerk of the line secures my eagle’s place back up into the sky, then I start looking for my bag – camera gear, passport, the whole deal, all inside of it. Oh hell… but then I see it some ten yards away, safely on the ground – lucky me! - so I slowly shuffle and jiggle my way towards it, keeping the eagle aloft, slipping the backpack on with a deft motion that pleases me ridiculously.

I’m really on top of my kiting game now. But I can see something affecting the flight of my bird. An odd, angular bend to its flight pattern whenever I try to get it moving. An old man who looks like a Chinese Picasso storms over, grabs the whole contraption out of my hands, flips his reel and mine over each other a few times, untangles both of them, then gives me back my line without a word.

I try to move away but the kite has a life of its own. I get caught in the old man’s line again immediately - and I make matters worse by trying to move backwards away from him. He rushes over to me again, repeats the process of moving the lines over and over one another, then moves off sharply muttering something under his breath. Amateurs!

I suspect he is one of the great old kite flyers who competes annually in the international competition at the nearby coastal city of Tianjin. And I feel rather humble after the lesson he has given me. Later I will find out that the kite or ‘fang zheng’ is a Chinese invention, some 3000 years old. It’s said that Marco Polo brought it back along with the pizza and spaghetti (noodles) to Italy in the 13th century, and from their the kite spread across Europe. The Chinese passion for kites is life long, and steeped in stories and tradition. The city of Wiefang calls itself ‘the kite capital of the world’, while Tianjin, Anhui and Beijing all have their unique forms of kite making and flying styles.

Untangled and free at last, I feel like I am now the Master’s Apprentice – albeit with his somewhat cranky blessings. But at last I do completely control my kite. It’s a relief, I must say. I can enjoy what I am doing – and revel in what is around me for the first time.

There’s a sudden and deep pleasure in being with everyone in the square – the lovers, the children, the old men, the parents, the tourists from all over China and a few from overseas. Moving my eagle among the other birds, dragons, fish, grasshoppers and butterflies that pull us ever upwards. All of us watching the changing wind, all of us thrilling to a warm Beijing sun. Something good is going on here. Something unexpected and subtle. The qui (air) dances with creatures. Tethering us to the sky. A celebration of people’s spirits rising from the earth, lifting each of us up with a tiny shiver in the breeze, joining our eyes and hearts over beautiful Tiananmen Square. Reminding us of free things inside ourselves. And people who have flown here before.

- Mark Mordue

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler
John Murray Paperbacks, 402pp.
ISBN 0-7195-6480-8

Travel literature today is the drained province of ‘rad’ snowboarders, contemplative chefs in Tuscany, gimmick artists with a story to grind, and a horde of d-grade wits who bring us snapshots of the world with plenty of yuks per page, conquistadors of irony devouring cultures in the name of their one true god, the lifestyle magazine.

Its authors are usually all men whose final report is there’s nothing new under the sun but themselves. It sells by the truckload, and given the oddly talented exception - outstanding figures who are so imitated they begin to imitate themselves as badly as their copyists (P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson spring woefully to mind) - it is all niche marketing crap.

And yet there’s another side to the genre re-emerging: a melding of classical discipline and poetic natural observation in the grand line of Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez, along with evolving literary voices that hybridize memoir, history, reportage and a serious reflective ambition for what travel writing can do. This more committed groundswell – and there’s no other word for it but ‘committed’ - puts the best travel writing at the forefront of a renaissance in non-fiction storytelling just when it felt like the world was being horribly plundered all over again for the so-called Information Age.

Peter Hessler is certainly one of those writers who restore your faith in the travel genre’s revelatory potential, even its nobility. His book River Town documents the two years he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching literature at a teachers’ college in Fuling, a small “by Chinese standards” town of some two hundred thousand people in the Sichuan province.

When he arrives in late 1996, “No Americans had lived there for half a century.” By story’s end he has won a local marathon race, mastered Mandarin, had a student commit suicide, been assaulted by a mob, struggled through classes on everybody from Shakespeare to Helen Keller and a Marxist version of Robin Hood, dealt with the bureaucratic absurdities of censorship and learnt a few things about “the Chinese smile” and the life that underlines it under Communist rule.

Subtitled ‘Two Years on the Yangtze’, Hessler’s book does this all quietly, assuming a detailed authority and flow that finally sweeps you away, whether he is dealing with local characters, Chinese history or the natural landscape and the many ways they intersect and impress their identity upon him. There’s something reasonable and true about Hessler’s subdued tone that grows on you page after page as he does this, an unhurried and precise quality to his prose, with subtly poetic turns that surprise you when they emerge.

In noting that Fuling is located at a junction between the Wu and the Yangtze Rivers, one blue and clear, the other a dirty brown, Hessler describes them as meeting “like two slivers of painted glass”. In discussing their pace and character he goes on to say, “The Yangtze in its size and majesty seems to be going somewhere important, while the Wu in its narrow swiftness seems to have come from some place wild and mysterious; and the faint forms of its distant hills suggest that the river will keep its secrets. You can fish all day long and the Wu will give you nothing.”

Hessler grieves for the damming of the Yangtze and the coming changes to Fuling life, let alone the drowned cities and landscapes that are all upriver from the monumental Three Gorges Project. But he also recognizes the strength of local needs (“Cold was like hunger; it had a way of simplifying everything”) and a stoicism – both impressive and frustrating - born out of “the ashes of the Cultural Revolution” and a century of constant, savage change in China. As Teacher Kong tells him when Hessler asks what people in Fuling think of the Three Gorges Project, “Well… the boats will all float, so they will be fine.”

In resisting a waiguoren (“people from outside the country”) tendency to see things in black and white, Hessler colours his book with a self-critical voice that opens up issues of how we engage with other cultures. Even so, the damming of the river finally lurks as a metaphysical crime in his imagination: “to turn the river into a lake – for some reason that bothered me more than anything else… I couldn’t explain it other than that they [rivers] were meant to rush forward; that was their essential nature.”

This feeling imbues River Town with a vaguely elegiac character. It is, of course, a diary of his time, and as such it also has the flavor of remembrance, of the past as another country. And yet its freshness and intimacy signal China’s unique vitality, the human torrent that can inspire or overwhelm. With this book Hessler gives the torrent a face, the history a meaning and a heart one could almost call ‘home’.

- Mark Mordue

* First published SMH Spectrum, August 31, 2002, then (USA) in late 2002.

Friday, June 27, 2008

M Ward - Live

@Newtown, Sydney

So you ask what magic is? And the roof above you has lights like long red teardrops hanging from it, splashing down stars into the green curve of my beer bottle as I think it over. Magic is light in the night, I say to myself as I look at them glow in the glass and spin them round and round. Like real stars when they come down to you from the real night sky and the truth is they died a long time ago, but they’re still shining, sending out messages in long waves from the times of Christ and Rembrandt and Keats and cowboys and Robert Johnson and way before them all and us.

On stage M Ward is starting his strum and all of a sudden we’re deep inside Bowie’s Let’s Dance – he’s playing it so slow, so spooky, it’s like this poem to a dying thing, not just a love, but what feels like the end of the world.

As it finally passes into silence, people turn to each other and nod. “That’s the best version of that song I have ever heard.”

Ward’s cap is over his face, typically hidden. He has a few hieroglyphic moves, some contrary tendencies - like someone half entertaining and sidestepping us at once - the vaguely arrogant politeness of an early Dylan and a similarly withdrawn quality that goes well with such a big comparison.

It could be The Gaslight, New York, 1961, here, now, tonight. But it’s Newtown RSL, or @Newtown (sick) in Sydney, 2004. Ward knows the dates, both of them. He’s like some bridge in our minds.

Pursuing such greatness is not easy - and as Ward swaps between acoustic guitar and piano there are moments when the night submerges between his dream of history and some big sleep that can’t be conquered. When you just want him to turn the flame on a little brighter. It’s when I see how much of a purist he is, dead set on his path.

Before you know it, though, as he seems to slip and nod, some enchantment or other is suddenly upon you again. Helicopter: the surreal tale of a man escaping through a hole in a wall, a child in his arms. Going To Carolina: which could be about a two-timer getting his comeuppance or a Rimbaud of the American road trying to decide where to call home. Outta My Head: Ward’s own near-hit song, which comes on so sweet and smooth you never want it to stop. Story of An Artist: by the American songwriter Daniel Johnston (to whom Ward pays great tribute), a kooked-out and funny-but-broken song about what it means to live creatively. And It’s A Wonderful World: the title lines so precious and ghosted by Louis Armstrong’s greatness Ward doesn’t sing them - he just goes quiet and gives us the melody like someone or something has passed away but might come back one day (he prefaces it by talking about how hard it is to stay optimistic in America right now, and then says, “this might possibly be the greatest song ever written”).

There’s plenty more: a song where he wants to be a bird; another about a friend who could make his guitar string buzz like it was 1989; notes on Ward’s own guitar that literally run and always make me think of Nick Drake; strokes where it sounds like his thumb has hit a bad place, shaking us from the wooden, shivering fret, back from some acoustic trance into consciousness. Then the piano that goes all dark and silvery when he touches it, delicately, hesitating, like his thinking his own songs over as his plays them; then an old style rag feeling when he gallops and rolls across the keys like the saloon is calling ‘time, ladies and gentlemen, time please!’

And yet in the end this is not a great night for M Ward. No. He’s too slow, too thick in the honey of his own mysterious history: the cracking voices and whispers, the hoarse-but-private confidences and their drowsy wit that colours everything he does in shades of blue and smoky reds. But then Ward’s chasing greatness and greatness doesn’t always come when you call. All of which still makes him the most marvelous company on a cool summer’s night in Sydney when the world is not so right and getting wronger and Matthew Ward is your strange little radio star dreaming of another time.

- Mark Mordue

* Story published in Drum Media. Australia 2004 and Plan B Magazine, UK 2004.

+ Photos sourced from The Rum Diaries,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nicolas Rothwell's Another Country

Another Country
Nicolas Rothwell
(Black Inc., $32.00)

“As I drive past a wrecked, burning vehicle from some military convoy, or the remains of an IED attack along the Baghdad International Airport Road, or as a roadblock manned by dubious-looking paramilitaries looms ahead, my fingers close around a little piece of ochre I always carry with me as a guardian charm, deep in my coat’s inmost pocket – it is white, with pink hues shot through it, like a constant mineralised, Kimberley dawn: and I see Freddie Timms leaning towards me, handing me this piece of country and murmuring, ‘We’ll be coming with you in your head – you won’t be lonely. Just remember us.’”

Passages like this are littered throughout Another Country, glittering with the same force as the Aboriginal artworks and Pilbara diamonds of the Kimberley region with which Nicolas Rothwell is so powerfully familiar. When it comes to colour, metaphor, historic detail and mysticism, you don’t get better in Australian non-fiction than Rothwell. And yet something is missing.

The above riff from ‘Jirrawun: Beyond the Frontier’ appears late in Another Country. It pinpoints a yearning central to this collection of stories and essays and portraits: to belong, and to feel this belonging through what might be termed ‘a calling’ from people and country itself.

One of Australia’s most fluent and intelligent journalists, Rothwell made his reputation decisively for The Australian during his twenties, reporting from Europe as Cold War divides fell away in the 80s and 90s. His work in America, the Pacific and periodically in the Middle East has only consolidated this reputation and the kind of stellar newspaper grooming that lays the world at your feet.

For him to return in 1996 and ask to be posted to Darwin as The Australian’s northern correspondent shows a uniqueness of character that must have surprised contemporaries. It was not the most obvious career move.

Of course the Territory houses some of this country’s finest non-fiction writers, a reflection of its frontier appeals. Among them the self-styled Hunter S. Thompson of the Top End, Andrew McMillan; Paul Toohey, who Rothwell calls “The Bulletin’s cunning northern correspondent”; and “the wraith-like, anarchistic Chips Mackinolty, sometime stringer for the Fairfax press and a current media svengali of the Labor government of the Territory”. All are members of the wryly named Darwin Foreign Correspondents Association.

Rothwell calls Darwin “the capital of the second chance” and captures a little of what Mackinolty calls “the lotus eating quality about the town”. But he’s better at watching rather than joining in, and it’s the eerie journeys into Aboriginal country and his own isolated reflections that really stun you.

A heady analyst of the world around him, he’s overly fond of flashing his intelligence forward in the odd word certain to send you to a dictionary. His sense of other people’s voices also jars, as if everyone is gifted with the Queen’s English and a perfect philosophical riposte. One senses in these Chatwin-esque flaws how hard he finds it to let the human world permeate him. How much more comfortable he is with landscape and dreams.

Rothwell opens this collection with a statement about “a dream that afflicts the writer and correspondent staring out across uncharted terrain: the dream of total coverage, a kind of Borgesian dream that one’s words will spread out and relate all the stories, all the nuances of landscape and every momentary thought and yearning that has ever been felt by those within it.”

He claims to refute this ambition, to be looking for “another way… the way of chance: a life path that is fragmentary, spasmodic, full of erasures and forgettings, of mirages and missed encounters.”

It’s a manifesto, of course, for a collection of articles like this. But Rothwell, a Romantic, is still bound up in the Borgesian project he claims to reject. He does want to sum it all up. Somewhat detached essays on everything from Aboriginal health to alcohol, violence and social dysfunction dominant the middle of the book: they’re important but they don’t advance the Kapuscinski-like dimensions of Rothwell’s earlier storytelling. His portraits of Aboriginal artists suffer even more by being lined up like so many same-shaped dominos, taking on the standardized hue of the 1000 word newspaper profile.

For all the hints of his inner self, the poetic grandeur, Rothwell is also oddly absent from the work. In a book with so much great writing, it’s as if the frontier he has yet to break through is himself.

- Mark Mordue

* This review first appeared in the Sun Herald Extra, 15th April 2007.

Monday, June 16, 2008

It Ain't the Cool Ones

It ain’t the cool ones
who know what it means to be free
it’s the prisoners of their own passions
hearts bursting through
the buttons of their corduroy jackets
slicking their hair back
through a night full of Bourke Street leaves

Yeah, it ain’t the cool ones
who kiss like the wind is whipping them
then serenity-in-a-breath
like a glimpse of a single star,
o to burn with you when you’re 26 years old
and walking home from the music of a late-night, Taylor Square bar

It ain’t the cool ones who will do that!
who will part on corners
like hieroglyphs in dreams,
who will taste Friday
night in the scent of soft street lights,
turning-on-a-dime straight after it all
then looking back
because they can’t help their ecstasy

It ain’t the cool ones
who will call sooner than they should
who feel their heads bursting with blood
by Sunday, not Monday!
who’ve spent the whole weekend as prisoners
in a universe of songs
that lead to you like maps,
like gravity against a bird’s chest

It ain’t the cool ones
who hand you their corduroy jacket
that Sunday night near 12
happy to breath with you once more,
a poem hidden in the top right-hand pocket,
pulling at their t-shirt after you’ve gone
just to taste the scent of you
again on their shoulder

- Mark Mordue

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lou Reed: Another Brick in the Wall

An interview with Lou Reed about Berlin

Talking to Lou Reed is like trying to communicate with a doorstop. The kind of thing you inevitably stub your toe on. Reed is, of course, notoriously difficult: testy, abrupt, contemptuous of journalists and prone, at best, to dead weight answers that refuse anything akin to conversation. Management demand to see all likely questions before the interview, ‘control’ is the dominant theme once we are actually talking. With a new stage production of his 1973 record Berlin due at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York (December 14-17) and the Sydney Festival in Australia (January 18-20), it was all the more pleasurable to be warned by Reed’s personal assistant just prior to our phone chat that it would be wise to avoid questions about his past. A little difficult, I tried to explain, when we’re supposed to discussing a show based on a 33-year-old recording. The PA sighed as if to tell me ‘don’t say I didn’t warn you’. As for Reed, he would convey a lot by his tone of voice too. Just before we began there was some noise in the background, then the PA said in a rising cry usually reserved for freak waves about to hit a boat, “Here heeeee comes!”

I wanted to ask the obvious question - why return to Berlin now?

'You know, it’s the one question I get asked. Susan Feldman, who runs St Ann’s Warehouse [an arts space in New York] - John Cale and I did Songs for Drella there - always wanted me to do this. I just said, “Yes. Why not? It might be fun.”'

When Berlin came out it in 1973 it got a lot of antagonism for being ‘the saddest record ever made’, for being an ugly record, so I wondered if you if you wanted-

'You mean from critics? Why would I pay attention to that?'

Returning to Berlin now, I thought there may have been a desire, somehow, to be more emphatic about the beautiful side of it in terms of the music and-

'Well it’s [the beauty] always been there. I can’t control what critics say. And I have no interest in it either.'

What about the team around Berlin this time? The influence of people like Julian Schnabel (direction and stage design) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting)? Is there anything-

'Bob Ezrin, the original producer [of the record Berlin], is arranging, and Steve Hunter, the original guitar player is playing. Steve Bernstein has put together the band. I just worked with Steve on a tour where we all did Leonard Cohen songs in Dublin – that was interesting, by the way. And Hal Willner, who I’ve worked with forever - he did The Raven and Ecstasy with me - he’s involved as a music director, him and Ezrin and Steve [Bernstein]. Julian [Schnabel] is doing the sets and directing, and his daughter is doing visuals…'

I’m just interested if you can see any shift in the flavour of what you’re doing because of that team now compared to the original team on the record?

'It’s a similar team. Bob produced and arranged it, Steve [Hunter] played on it.'

How about something like the way Andy Warhol suggested you follow Albert Speers way of lighting Hitler-

'What, what, what, what, what?'

I read when you first toured in the wake of Berlin, Warhol advised you to use Albert Speers lighting techniques – the way Speers lit Hitler – extreme black and white contrasts, extreme spotlighting on you, etcetera. I wondered whether that might have affect what Jennifer Tipton might do?

'Err, wow! That’s an amazing statement. Who knows if that’s true? But it’s certainly not being told to Jennifer Tipton. She’s really accomplished person with the Wooster Group.'

Okay, so you never heard that comment before about the Speers lighting?

'Well I may have, but I certainly haven’t remembered it. You don’t find it funny that you’re asking me, thirty years after the fact - just because you read it somewhere - whether I remember if Andy Warhol said that I should use the same lighting as Albert Speers did? You don’t find that strange?'

No. I don’t find it unusual you don’t remember.

'You do. And that’s what you came up with to ask me about. That’s very funny.'

It’s good to keep you amused. But I was more interested in what Jennifer Tipton and Julian Schnabel might be doing now, beyond the fact they’re simply doing it.

'Well, you’d have to ask them.'

So you’re basically not taking an interest in the staging and lighting?

'(Pause) I pick people that I really love. Like on the records I make, I pick musicians that I like, and I don’t try to change them. I don’t get someone to do something they can’t do - it’s that I like what they do in the first place. I went over a bunch of the sets with Julian, and they’re pretty amazing – actually, it’s staggering.'

Are you able to describe it at all or-

'No. But we’re going to film it.'

What about your musical team? I know you said it was pretty much the same-

'We’re following the original arrangements. I loved them then, and I love them now. I thought Bob [Ezrin] did an amazing job.'

Why does thematic story-telling interest you so much? Obviously you’ve had Songs for Drella and more recently The Raven and-

'I’m interested in writing. Writing married to rock. I’m pretty simple. No big mystery in me. Truly.'

I ask because-

'I mean it’s like saying “Gee, A Streetcar Named Desire is a very depressing play” or “Wow! Hamlet is a depressing play.” Yeah?... You know, [rock ‘n’ roll] recordings are thought of at such a low level. Like “Wow! What’s that doing on a record?” It’s really odd.'

You referred to Hamlet in relation to Berlin when it first came out, and you just mentioned it again then. Why does that link attract you so much? You also used the phrase ‘Hamlet of electricity’ back in 1973 as something you wanted to aspire to.

'I just mentioned it because people think Berlin is depressing just as Hamlet is depressing. I’ll ask you, is Hamlet depressing?'

No, Hamlet is probably my favourite Shakespeare play.

'But everybody dies at the end. What do you think?'

Well one of the things that always interested me about Hamlet was the question of whether he’s neutered and procrastinating, or if he’s driving everything [towards tragedy]. I tend to think he’s driving everything.

'My teacher [the famed American poet and short story writer] Delmore Schwartz said, “One way to think about Hamlet is that he’s drunk.”'

That’s interesting-

'He was joking.'

Well I make a bridge back to Berlin because of the self-destructive themes that have characterised your music. Why that interests you so much, and what you were trying to explore in Berlin - then and now?

'First of all, I don’t think what you said is true. You’re just picking isolated things, for whatever reason. It’s a real potpourri that I do. Song for song, note for note, idea for idea, attitude for attitude, I like to think I have a broader palette than what you said.'

I don’t think I was saying it was the only thing you do, but it’s definitely a theme – sadism, annihilation, loss. Archetypal stuff really – but, focusing on Berlin-

'What about love?'

Love too, yeah. Love is very strong in your work.

'Love, friendship, survival, transcendence, spirituality – what about all of that?'

Yeah true. But what about in terms of the things you were trying to develop with Berlin in particular? Like this talk of wanting to bring Hamlet to music-

'It’s called ‘writing’. And the object is to make a reality with lyrics and music that someone can respond to and relate to. I wanted to tell a story. And I put it in Berlin because it was a divided city and I thought it was a great metaphor.'

That’s interesting because obviously you’ve been associated with New-

'I hadn’t been to Berlin [back then], you know.'

It definitely seems like a state of mind on the record.

'Yeah, well, ‘the Wall’. Of course the Wall is not there now.'

I thought the whole divided city theme wasn’t just a way of looking at a relationship - but clearly, because you’re the writer, it was also a matter of looking at yourself.

'I don’t know. Writing is writing. I never understood it, so if you do, you’re ahead of me.'

Listening to Berlin, I felt you were exploring issues to do-

'With everybody.'

With everybody, yes, and you can’t avoid yourself in these things, I mean-

'Everybody and everything is writing.'

Okay Mr Reed, thank you.

'You’re welcome.'

- Interview by Mark Mordue

BERLIN notes

When Berlin first appeared in 1973 it was criticised for its depressing subject matter and described as “the saddest record ever made”. After the glam rock success of 1972’s Transformer and its hit song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, Reed had hoped to make Berlin his masterpiece. Critical antagonism along with a mediocre commercial response all but buried the record and his mainstream career. No wonder. Berlin told the love story of two drug addicts in Berlin, using the theme of a city then divided by the Wall to explore themes of addiction, domestic violence, suicide and the destruction of family (‘They’re taking her children away”). Reed played the dark chanteuse - almost talking us through his vignettes at times – in a recording that seemed as close to Cabaret as rock ‘n’ roll. Berlin has since grown in stature to the point where it is now regarded as one of his finest recordings. It was originally produced by Bob Ezrin, then the whiz kid behind Alice Cooper’s School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies and much later Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Reed’s new stage production of Berlin brought Ezrin back to the fold as a music director, along with Hal Willner, best known for the Leonard Cohen tribute Came So Far For Beauty. It also utilised the talents of Julian Schnabel, the film director behind Basquiat and a famous painter in his own right, who worked on stage design and overall direction; and Jennifer Tipton, renowned for her lighting work with the experimental theatre company The Wooster Group. It was, in every way, a raging and incandescent success. Julian Schnabel has since turned the series of concerts that took place for Berlin at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn into a documentary, Lou Reed's Berlin. M.M.

* This story appeared in various edited versions in Rolling Stone Australia, December-January 2006-07, New York Magazine, USA December 11, 2006, and The Word, UK February 2007. None of the abbreviated versions quite caught the full affect of the unexpurgated transcript above.

Guy Pearce: Reverse Magnetism

He's walking through a shopping mall, the space around him strangely emptied. A movie star, unrecognised but still emanating a presence that isolates him from the crowd.

I look down from the mezzanine level above and immediately spot Guy Pearce. And then I quickly turn my head away. I guess magnetism has its inverted qualities too.

Pearce has a light walk, is slightly bearded and blazingly lean, as if freshly recovered from an illness. Dressed in sandals, cargo pants and a loose T-shirt, he could be a refined castaway just returned to civilisation, a little lucky to have made it back and not so sure of his place any more.

Today he is privately screening his film Memento for family and friends at a small theatrette in Melbourne, the town he still prefers to calls home over Los Angeles (a city he says he hates in almost every press cutting you care to read). It's an intimate occasion and a proud one for the 33-year-old actor whose career has taken curious turns since his first role as Mike Young "the dag in Neighbours" and that flash of international stardom that followed his role alongside Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.

An existential thriller, Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Pearce), who suffers a rare form of memory loss after being knocked unconscious during a violent attack that leaves his wife raped and murdered. Told though flashback and constant narrative rewinds, the film is presented as a fractured kaleidoscope of shifting meanings while Shelby attempts to track down his wife's killer.

Masterminded by the English director Christopher Nolan, whose script won the screenwriting award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Memento has been hailed as a return to the elliptical, sophisticated storytelling of British arthouse directors such as Nicholas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Pearce haunts the film with a dynamic that alternately chills and aches, an acting tour de force that imbues a sometimes disorienting experience with a much-needed emotional core.

After the screening, Pearce's intellectually disabled older sister Tracey makes her way through a crowd of friends who have gathered around him. They part like the Red Sea as she demands to know where her drink is.

Suddenly, he's the obedient younger brother, breaking his conversation to go the bar while she storms along behind him. "All right, love," he sighs good-naturedly. "It's coming, it's coming!"

The next day I ask him how his sister had coped with such a demanding film, and its portrayal of him as a psychologically damaged figure. "To be quite honest, when Mum told me she was going to come I kept thinking, 'Oh poor Tracey. She is going to be bored immediately. She's not going to like it.'

"I mean, I went to see Chicken Run with her and she had to knick out three times for cigarettes. That's my sister. So I thought, 'She's going to come to Memento, I'll have to sit up the back with her, and we will have to go out and just go for a wander around the shopping centre.' But she stayed in there the whole time.

"It's weird. I don't know what Tracey thinks. I mean, I remember years ago her being so confused when I rang her while Neighbours was on [the TV]. And it really spun me out for ages that it confused her so much. So trying to ascertain her perspective on things is pretty interesting. She didn't offer anything up to me about Memento, but she more than likely will in the next 12 months out of the blue."

When Pearce and I meet over coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, he has just been walking Zelda, a basenji, a barkless African hunting dog that likes to climb trees. Back home are two cats called Dudley and Gabriel and another dog who's "just visiting".

Pearce lives with his wife Kate Mestitz. They were married three years ago, inviting friends over for a housewarming party and surprising them instead with a wedding ceremony. They're now feeling peer-group pressure to start having babies and it's a pressure Pearce clearly resents.

"The thing is I have a lot of pride in is my ability to be responsible. But I must admit that as I get older I am wanting to be the 18-year-old I never was. Which is embarrassing: I'm 33, and now I want to do irresponsible things? As everyone else I know is getting older and becoming responsible, I'm going, 'f ... kids. I'm not having f ...... kids!"'

Yet the idea of family clearly means a lot to Pearce. His father was a test pilot who died in a plane crash aged 39. Pearce was just eight, and suddenly found himself the man of the house.

"After Dad died, Mum didn't say, 'Right, you have to be responsible, you have to be the man of the family, you have to be this.' She didn't say that. Instead she said, 'Oh it's great you are so responsible. It's so helpful you are so responsible."'

He dives into the memory of that conversation. "'Oh yeah, right, right, I am. I am responsible. She's seen something in me. OK, I will carry on with that."'

He pauses. "I'd hate to say something as corny as that being the catalyst for me going, 'Right, I have to act to save the situation'. But I just think in line with Dad being gone and me spending a lot of time in my room on my own just drawing and painting and singing and creating an imaginary world that was in some ways more enjoyable than this responsibility that I had that something was created."

I press him about acting and what it means to him in light of all this. His response is distinctly ambivalent. "I don't know. I think about acting every day: why you do it, what you are actually doing, and if it's some form of release or if it's just perpetuating some childish or childlike part of your personality.

"The funny thing is, this continual or perpetual anxiety that I feel about it which may just be about me and not about work makes me question the whole idea of getting out of acting. If acting is some sort of therapy or expression that is there because of a struggle in me, then obviously when I grow out of that struggle I won't need to do it any more. I'm curious to know what that happiness will mean.

"I also struggle with it because I know there are brilliant actors out there who don't have half the success that I seem to have had. I know they must be thinking, 'How can Guy Pearce even sleep at night?' I just feel embarrassed about my success."

It's rare that unease with stardom is anything but a cliche among Hollywood actors. Only the likes of Sean Penn and Gary Oldman spring to mind as personalities genuinely at war with their own charisma. But Guy Pearce is precisely that kind of figure.

"I actually had Gary Oldman tell me he was a big fan of mine," says Pearce, shaking his head in disbelief. "And I'm like, 'I don't know if I can accept this'.

"I just never thought, for some reason or other, that I would ever get that respect, let alone work with people like Kevin Spacey and Tommy Lee Jones."

He's not alone in that. When Pearce left Neighbours after four years on the show he was just 22, a former teenage body builder who had barely passed his HSC. Pantomime work and mediocrity, or oblivion, seemed assured.

Sure enough, the children's theatre and bad films followed, but so did something completely unexpected. He took on the role of a drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1996), against all the advice that a gay part could damage his status as a sex symbol.

It was a career-changing role. The film became his kitsch calling card on an Abba-obsessed world, and led to the part of Ed Exner, the conniving, overconfident young cop in L.A. Confidential (1997), a role that launched him as an international matinee idol opposite a seething, thuggishly fragile Crowe.

Since then, Crowe has trodden the highest ground imaginable in Hollywood, culminating in last month's Oscar win. Meanwhile, Pearce has made some odd choices: Woundings (1998), Ravenous (1999), A Slipping-Down Life (1999), all independent efforts, quirky stories, off-centre roles. Only last year's Rules of Engagement stands out commercially, but even then, Pearce was in the background in a character role.

With Memento, though, he's picking up some rave reviews. Suddenly, Pearce is back in contention as an actor with that elusive quality Hollywood power-brokers like to call "heat". He is currently slated to star in a remake of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by the writer's great-grand-nephew Simon Wells. The Count of Monte Cristo is also coming up for international release, a mainstream epic with Pearce playing "the bastard" opposite Jim Caviziel.

It's hard not to wonder if Pearce has been deliberately taking the hard road up till now. And when I ask him if he is simply afraid of stardom, he says "Yeah".

But, after a long pause, he adds: "I have to be honest and say my ego is saying go for it, to listen to what my American agent wants me to do. But I think the Neighbours experience and I wasn't even in the front line like Kylie and Jason were was really enough for me.

"If I can just find a line somewhere between the independents and the mainstream, I'll be happy. Quite often people will say to me that this or that is not a good career move. But the people who work for me know I will do what I want to do. And when I come across something like Memento and see that it takes me into another world, that it's original and innovative, well of course I will want to go there.

"It's funny, you know, a lot of people say to me, 'Oh God, you've obviously given up acting after L.A. Confidential. Russell went on, but you didn't?"' He laughs at this outrageously and responds to his imaginary interrogator. "'No mate. You've really got no idea why I do what I do, or how I operate at all'.

"I just love the idea of coming out of the woodwork, saying, 'Here I am, this is what I am offering: whammo!, Seen it? OK. Goodbye'."

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published as Making Pearce - Not a Mainstream Guy in The Age, Melbourne, 15th April 2001.

+ Photo of Guy Pearce at top of story by Ed Van-West Garcia

+ Following photo from Memento