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.