09 January, 2012

The old divide: 'Melbourne' by Sophie Cunningham and 'Sydney' by Delia Falconer

Publishers New South are producing a series of books, penned as memoirs or love-letters to the author's hometown. Having read Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne late last year, I was intrigued to contrast and compare her highly personal journey through the city, and its mix of anecdote and history, with Delia Falconer's homage to my former hometown, Sydney.

I read many reviews of Cunningham's book before I dived in myself. They uniformly fell into one of two camps: Melbourne reviewers loved it, Sydney reviewers felt excluded by it and commented on its narrowness.

The inside cover of the book features a hand-drawn map of Melbourne. It extends from Footscray in the west, with an arrow pointing to Geelon;, to Hawthorn in the east, this time with Camberwell represented on an arrow; and to Brunswick in the north. You can see then where some of the criticism around its blinkered perspective came from.

I didn't find it narrow. True, my six years in Melbourne have geographically coincided with Cunningham's experience of the city. It seemed clear that New South's brief to the author was to write her Melbourne. The book was a synedoche of the city: Cunningham's experience of Melbourne, seen through the prism of a select number of suburbs and interests, stands in for the wider, general experience of other suburbs and occupations.

I did find it strangely jumbled, however. Cunningham frequently jumped between personal anecdotes to issues of national history and culture via some spurious tangents. References to Meanjin articles were frequent; fair enough, given the author is a former editor of the journal, but it pushed the personal touch a little too far. It was fine for Cunningham to focus on her experience, but to mainly bring in support from within that personal experience was a little too inward.

Her account of Melbourne is reverent, loving and at times admonishing. More so than Falconer, she uses Melbourne as a springboard - or testing ground - for national issues. In a discussion on comedy, for example, she rightly points out Melbourne's strong comedy scene as host of the International Comedy Festival. She quotes Rod Quantock, who says he would 'never be a regular guest on Hey Hey It's Saturday', which provides a link for Cunningham to discuss - in a single paragraph - the show's re-emergence, the fact that the majority of its audience came from Melbourne, memories of her and her brother watching the original, and the psyche of homegrown humour inculcated under John Howard. The links are valid, but the execution is necessarily jumbled as she moves between the personal and the public without so much as a hard return.

Delia Falconer takes longer to warm her audience to Sydney. In the opening pages she says Sydney's 'fundamental temperament is melancholy'. In fact, while 'Sydney may look golden' its bright notes 'cast themselves out across a great abyss'. Her Sydney is more ephemeral than Cunningham's Melbourne. Perhaps this is where Cunningham's narrow-gauge storytelling has its strength. It is possible to make valid sweeping generalisations about Fitzroy; harder to make them stick to a full metropolis, which Falconer attempts. Her Sydney is a city with its own light, a city haunted by an erased indigenous history, a unique city in Australia with it origins in the conflict between prisoners and middle-class law enforcers.

Falconer's childhood memories seem to come from a further-off place. I was surprised when I checked to discover she is actually three years younger than Cunningham. Perhaps therein lies a truth about the two cities, and their eternal divide - maybe Sydney stayed in the past for longer, and the city's 'brashness', which Falconer both highlights and criticises, is in fact symptomatic of its desire to grow up quickly.

07 January, 2012

Butchering realism

I think Jamie Oliver should be knighted. Sure, he's long since lost the affability of The Naked Chef days, and his insistence on calling every woman he meets darlin', regardless of age or race, is annoying to say the least. But he gets food. And he gets that Britain has a wonderful food culture, both indigenous and imported, and has devoted his career to convincing people of that fact. I believe that's worth acknowledging.

For all that, I don't spend a lot of time watching him on the tele. I couldn't resist tuning in for Jamie's Great Britain last night, however, when I read this description of the episode in The Age:

This week's instalment...includes an unusually graphic and lengthy butchering scene...Jamie carts off a dead pig and hacks it to pieces with a saw. Only the most hardened carnivores will be able to sit through the bone-slicing scene.
Here's a link to a portion of the episode containing the scene:

The scene starts with an inspection of the breed of pigs in question, at about the 2 min mark, and the 'graphic and lengthy' scene is over about a minute later, most of which has been taken up with chatter.

It seems a particularly overwrought description for something you could see if you looked past the counter of my local butchers on any Saturday.

The journalist did go on to point out:

There are some who would say that it's about time we saw such realism in our cooking shows, that if we're going to eat meat, we should face up to where it comes from. Those viewers are probably right. But I challenge you to daydream about Oliver's crackling after you've watched a pig get sawn in half.

I agree with the notion of the first clause, and wholeheartedly with the second clause. I don't see how you can call for realism though and then be shocked by this scene. To do so seems the mindset of someone who thinks meat is manufactured, rather than grown, into steak-sized portions, shrink-wrapped and sold.

I do eat meat, and I do think about where the food came from and what the animal went through, and I can tell you it went through much more gruesome stuff than what this clip shows. In it we see Jamie meeting the pigs, talking to the farmer, bringing out a dead pig and then about 10-15sec of cutting it up, while he chats to the butchers. There's no blood, there's no noise, there's no skinning.

I absolutely agree we have to know more about where out meat comes from, but it seems to be disingenuous to be squeamish about this. We should be far more shocked by footage of a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) than by the posthumous fate of these hand-reared animals.

I acknowledge that for those against the consumption of animal products it would be upsetting regardless, but if a scene like this upsets any carnivores, I suggest they give up on crackling altogether.

02 January, 2012

'The True Story of Butterfish' - Nick Earls

Nick Earls writes what he knows. He's obviously learnt a few new things in recent years. The True Story of Butterfish introduces a new protagonist: rather than a member of the medical fraternity, Curtis Holland is a former rockstar. He's producing albums now and divides his time - and technical descriptions - between music software and cooking.

All familiarity is not lost, however. He lives in Brisbane. He has a persistent internal monologue. He's nervous around women, finds himself in unexpected and awkward situations, but has pop-culture funny lines at the ready.

I enjoy Nick Earls' novels. He writes genuinely amusing scenes, and underpins them every now and then with worthwhile bigger-picture musings. He's whimsical, sure, but there's a philosophy to his writing as well. And plenty of authors use their hometown as a touchstone or motif, so why can't Brisbane play that role?

And you really have to hand it to Earls for the aspirational quality of his work. In an earlier novel, his protagonist - in his thirties - admits that he'd only very recently given up serious hopes of playing cricket for Australia. His male characters (eventually) always ending up liking the girls who like them back, and who can give as good as they get when it comes to those pop-culture-laden one-liners. The protagonist in Butterfish played keyboards in a hugely successful rockband, and while the lead-singer has stayed true to the party-hard stereotype, Curtis remains the deep thinker, enigmatic, moody, lonely. All that fame has led him back to the Brisbane suburbs, and the happy fortune of moving in next door to a woman he comes to fancy (the aspiration works for her too - a highly recognisable rockstar moves in next door and they hit it off).

Some of the early scenes focus step-by-step on the process of making music, namedropping software and techniques. Then Curtis starts to cook, and it happens all over again in the kitchen. But once he really gets to know the family next door - and develops surprising relationships with mother, daughter and son - and the lead-singer returns to face family issues, the book gets stronger. Earls isn't scared to give us an overweight, almost-forty protagonist who is hard on himself and full of regret. True to form, however, his character finds redemption in new beginnings, new relationships and new choices.

Butterfish is more thematic than many of Earls' earlier novels. Its resolution doesn't come from neatly tied-up plot points, but rather from Curtis accepting his past, his choices, and how his actions affected others' choices.

Bimbo poster

I bloody love this poster, used at Bimbo Deluxe for their special needs pizza: