First Times

(Australian Education Union Magazine)

I  have been called in to cover English for a week at my regular CRT school.

Year 11 Literature. Yasmina Reza. Art. Check. Good (new) choice.

Year 10 English. William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew. Check. Know it well, but… really? One of my least favourite of his plays. How to teach nuanced gender politics to 16-year-olds?

Year 9 English. Peter Weir, The Truman Show. Check. Love teaching film studies.

All the students have work booklets asking them to list chronologically, chapter by chapter, scene to scene, what happens in the narrative. I tell them that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

They look at me like I’m nuts. I tell them to fill out the booklets for homework and tell them we’ll leave exploring different approaches to temporal structure, for now.

The Year 9s ask me to go through how to write an essay again. The Year 10s ask me if they can listen to music on their iPhones. The Year 11s want to talk about E.E. Cummings.

I decide to talk about Elena Ferrante instead. In a piece Ferrante recently wrote for the Guardian, she describes in her typically elusive style – a mix of self-revelation and self-protection – her ‘first times’. The first time she flew in an aeroplane; the first time she got drunk; the first time she fell in love: “an exercise both arduous and pointless”.

As an ice-breaker activity for the Year 10s, I get students to write about any ‘first times’ they remember – or think they remember, because memories can be slippery, unreliable things, after all.

I did consider the appropriateness of such an activity, particularly for a group I had not taught before, given any kind of life-writing has the potential to reactivate or uncover tough stuff.

Nevertheless, drawing from one’s life is central to so much good writing. As long as there is positive guidance, strong boundaries and a safe space – and students are discouraged from straight-out confession or diary-style navel-gazing – it can work a treat.

I told them about a couple of my less ribald first times. Watching my mother laughing with her friends and realising how relieved she looked about having another life apart from the one she had with me. The first time I stole something and how simultaneously guilty and elated I felt.

I also told them my ‘first time’ favourite book was Milly Molly Mandy. I remember that she wore a pink-and-white striped dress. I remember reading her as I travelled on a red double-decker bus in Sydney after having flown for the first time in a plane.

I gave the students 20 minutes and demanded they write in full sentences, because dot points are for corporate reports. I ruled out sex and drugs, because: a. that’s dicey territory; and b. also usually dull in the recounting.

Some standard responses: first crush; first day of school. Some more original ones: first time they saw the ocean; first time they felt jealous; first time their brother locked them in a front end loader and turned it on to spin cycle.

“So what do you really remember from childhood?” I ask my Year 10s.

“We just did this,” one of them protests. “We already wrote about our childhoods.”

“But how can you be so sure it’s the truth?” I ask. “Maybe you just think you remember something happened. For example, maybe your mum showed you a cute photo of yourself in a paddling pool in the backyard in the middle of summer, clutching your stunned and bedraggled cat to your chest with a demented grin on your face, and so you think you can remember this happening. But do you actually remember it?”

“Well, I remember when I went to the Show with my dad and got lost and hid under one of the rides for hours and he didn’t find me until it was dark,” one of them says.

Really?” I ask. “Hours? In the dark?”

“Well, it might not have been hours and it wasn’t dark, exactly, but it sounds better if it was.”

“It does,” I say. “It makes for a better story, that’s for sure.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Good Man (AEU Column June 2018)

Ask adolescents what their dreams are for the future and some of them are quick to respond and others will dart a look at the door for inspiration. Those fast on the uptake are likely parroting parents’ projected shattered dreams and the few who already know what they want to be when they grow up are single minded. Stand-Up Comedian and Rapper feature prominently. Others just want to get though their VCE.

Overall though most of them are pragmatic but not pessimistic. It’s harder to get a job these days and when I do it might only be casual. Even if you’ve got qualifications you might have to just find an unpaid internship before you get a real job. I’ll probably have a lot of career changes. It’ll be okay.

Most schools provide career guidance and a few of them devote at least half a day to ‘Myers-Briggs personality aptitude style testing’ to help students make ‘good choices’ about their futures. This is the ‘sell’ from a school I taught in last week:

The majority of people fit into one of two categories – those who take it as it comes, and those who take responsibility for their own choices. One path leads to accepting what is offered or suggested by others; and the other path provides you with the freedom to take control, to search for and dare to follow your dreams.

And what if a student with big plans spends half a day of her life only to be told she’s not suited to dreaming after all? Remember that Simpson’s episode when after doing one of those tests, Lisa, who’s determined to be scientist, is informed that she’s best suited to be a home maker. Lisa’s dreams are crushed. Now what?

Capitalism may be the best democratic model we have right now but Capitalist society encourages a hyper competitive individualism that has more and more of us pushing ourselves as brands rather than citizens. In our ‘goal-orientated, be your best, just do it, choose it, follow your dreams, selfies are us, you can be anything if you want it enough’ and where there exists a spurious correlation between freedom and choice, the message is that those who (God forbid!), simply ‘accept’ what’s on offer are not going to be as happy or fulfilled as those who ‘dare to follow their dreams.’

I’m as conflicted this as the next person.  I worry my Year 10 son doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do with his life so I do push him hard to work for As and not to accept the Bs or Cs because if he does an excellent VCE he’ll just have so many choices in life, blah, blah.

But then I tell him that I did a pretty good VCE and after faffing around for a few years and dropping out of uni, I went to drama school. Then I faffed around some more as an actress, a teacher’s-aide and a waitress. I then worked for a Community Radio Station and while there completed an underwhelming undergraduate and then a Dip Ed. I then started a Masters but after some more faffing got picked up by the ABC and had a shambolic ‘career’ with Auntie. I had good and bad boyfriends, saw lots of theatre, lived in too many group houses and drank too much Stones Ginger Beer. I taught full-time, part-time and casually, in state schools, private schools, TAFES and universities. And then I had a baby and then I started writing about theatre and books and parenting for street rags and magazines and got picked up by the Age and The Oz and had a shambolic career as a freelance writer. Still do.

And then, and then, and then… You get the picture.

If you look at the narrative (everything is a ‘narrative’ these days in case you hadn’t noticed), it’s non-linear, messy, incoherent, unplanned and rarely did I feel ‘freedom’ or ‘control’ of anything much.

So tomorrow morning when my son is preparing to sit for half a day in the school gymnasium with 3 sharpened black-lead pencils and an eraser, hunched over a tiny desk worried he has no dreams for the future, I will say to him.

‘It’s okay not to ‘dare to follow your dreams’ you know. Just dare to be good enough. Dare to be a good man.’

 

 

Trying It On:Solace in a Sex Shop

Published on Mamamia & Broad Magazine 

I always get undressed with my back to the mirror in dressing rooms and this one is particularly small so turning around to face myself will take some tricky manoeuvring. The 8-inch clear Perspex stilettos and the small but potentially fatal pile of discarded clothing at my feet will not make it any easier either. And pulling on the stockings, it’s hard not to get my fingers caught in the industrial strength fish nets. But it’s the low-slung, shiny, black vinyl shorts with their slightly wonky little silver buckles either side the front zip, that provide the ultimate test. I pull and squeeze and zip myself into them but can’t bear to look. I am ridiculous. I feel like crying.

‘How do they fit? It’s the young hovering shop assistant. ‘Come on don’t be shy.    We’re all women here.’

Pushy. And that ‘we’re all women here’, is not strictly true because there was that man behind the counter who looked like an elderly Eastern European haberdasher busily rearranging his display of trinkets and condoms, scarves and handcuffs.

‘Yeah, come on out honey!’ Damn. There’s another customer in the shop now besides me and she sounds pushy too.

I am like an actress waiting nervously behind the curtain in the wings about to get on stage. Rosalind Russell said that ‘Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.’ But I am a middle-age woman in a small darkish shop on a dusty street in Surry Hills, Sydney, on the brink of leaving her comfort zone to stand in front of a young shop assistant, an old haberdasher and some other customer who calls me ‘honey’. Most significantly, I am dressed like an ageing porn star. I part the red velvet curtain.

‘You look gorgeous!’ It’s her again: Honey Woman. But this time she doesn’t sound pushy but quite encouraging. She is tall. Broad shouldered. A dark bob. Chunky silver rings. Charm bracelet. I used to have one of those; a gold one I got when I was baptised. It had a tiny heart, a bull, an acorn, a bird in a cage and a caravan. A caravan?

I turn around and face the mirror. Slowly, so as not to fall over on the skyscraper heels. I am not me. I am another me. I do not recognise myself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

My mind goes into paranoid overdrive. I know what these women are thinking: Poor thing trying to resuscitate her relationship. She must be at least fifty. Women that age don’t care that much about sex anymore do they? Menopause kills the libido. As if dressing up is going to make him want her more. She’s still the same person underneath all the zips and shiny vinyl. It’s just embarrassing. Sad.

‘So who’s the lucky man? Or woman?’ It’s the picture-perky shop assistant.

We all giggle. The old guy behind the counter doesn’t. He says nothing and I’m relieved. He just opens a small silver case, puts an unlit cigarette in his mouth and heads out the back of the shop through another red velvet curtain.

I want to believe these women. They seem sincere. I mean, what do they have to gain telling me how good I look dressed like a pole dancer. Well, the shop assistant probably does have a vested interest, but unless Honey Woman is a shareholder in Erotic Divas, then she’s just saying it like it is surely.

Two hours ago I left my boyfriend at the hotel and went off alone to walk the unfamiliar streets. Our romantic weekend away was not going so romantically. Not in my mind anyway. Maybe he was enjoying himself. Maybe it’s just me and my self-esteem issues and self-sabotaging neuroses. ‘Self-esteem is a myth’, my father told me recently. Well if it is a myth then it’s an all pervasive one and the proliferation of self-improvement, be-your-best and wellness blogs, podcasts, magazines, books and media, are constantly giving us advice on how to improve it.

The last couple of days have been awful. I am dizzy with all the second guessing: I want to know what he is he thinking. What he wants. Does he think I’m boring? Why is so remote and withholding? If he really loves me or does he just likes having sex with me and with someone who seems to enjoy it too. I do. I do enjoy it. Most of the time. He is good at it. We are good at it together. But sometimes I do pretend because I think that if I do then he will never leave me for a younger, less crash-damaged model.

And on and on it goes, all the miserable, accusatory and unreconstructed voices inside my head that split my psyche to smithereens.

But he is not doing anything wrong. He is just who he is and I have known his tendency to introversion and intimacy avoidance for years. Why am I so surprised by it now? He is generous and smart and funny and friendly. This was to be a special time because it is a rare thing to have a free weekend when you are a single mother. We are staying in a hotel with a view of Sydney harbour and he is paying! But I can’t enjoy any of it. Well, maybe just those little bottles of whiskey in the mini fridge and the frozen Mars Bars.

So I left the hotel. We didn’t fight. We didn’t have words. I left him on a couch reading. And now here I am 6 kilometres, 3 lattes and 2 hours later standing in front of a long mirror in a clothes shop for strippers, transsexuals, pole dancers and hookers.

‘Do you like them?’ the shop assistant asks. ‘The shorts?’

‘I think so’, I say. Do I? I don’t mind the whole dressing up for sex thing. I have done it before and it can be lovely. Playful. Erotic. But today, somehow, it just feels desperate and ill-timed. I feel like crying again.

‘Excuse me. Do you have any butt bling?’ There is another customer in the shop now. Early twenties. Tracksuit pants. Thongs. Tee-shirt. Midriff. Pierced belly button. I don’t get the piercing thing. And what’s butt bling?

‘You look hot by the way’, she is looking at me now.

‘I’m on a dirty weekend with my boyfriend’, I say. ‘But it’s not going well and I’m nervous and lonely all the time and I think it’s all over and this will be the third time he’s dumped me in thirty years because we were teenage sweethearts and we have been in out of each other’s hearts and lives ever since.’ Why am I telling these strangers this stuff? Stop blathering. You sound nuts. Like they care about your love life.

The girl in the thongs has a tattoo on her ankle of, what? I can’t quite make it out. A worm? A snake? The Celtic symbol for ‘I love my body and don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks?’

‘But you need a good top to go with it’, says the shop assistant. ‘Not too slutty or try-hard though. I think I’ve got just the thing.’ And off she goes to rummage around in a bin marked BARGAINS. Great. I am a half-priced try-hard.

I look at myself in the mirror again. I don’t have my glasses on so the soft focus is very welcome.

I turn to the side. I strain my neck to look at myself from behind. Oh god! I want a smaller belly, higher breasts, tighter bum, thicker hair… I want. I want. I want! Stop already with all the wanting. The big ugly virus of capitalism depends on your wanting, so that it can stay alive. Do not feed ‘The merchants of body hatred’, as Suzie Orbach would say.

‘Take away lattes and cake anyone? It’s Honey Woman. Good timing.

‘Yes please!’

‘Two sugars.’

‘My shout.’

‘No chocolate. I’m allergic.’

‘Soy milk.’

‘Skinny milk.’

‘For god’s sake, darls. You don’t want much do you?’, she says.

Here now in this shop with these women I have begun to feel lighter, better, less anxious, supported. There is laughter and self-deprecating jokes. Honey Woman tells us how she is in transition and that her op should be next year all going well. The girl with the tattoo is pole dancing her way through a marketing degree. The shop assistant owns the joint! The old haberdasher is her Polish grandfather who she lets hang around the place so he feels like he has a purpose cause ever since his wife died he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Someone’s phone pings. It’s coming from the dressing room.

‘It’s him!’

YOU LOST?

WAS.  NOT NOW

OAKEY DOKEY

Oakey dokey?

‘You go girl,’ says the tall woman with the bob. ‘You don’t need him anyhow.’ And off she heads for the street. ‘Be back in a tick with arvo tea.’

Don’t I? Don’t I need him?  I’m no stranger to what David Foster    Wallace calls ‘the mundane psychosis familiar to anyone who has ever spent too much time alone’ and I don’t want to go back to that. Not again. But I am with him and I feel loneliness anyway.

‘Do you have any Naughty Nurse outfits?’ I ask the shop assistant whose name I have since learned is Cathy. I’m on a roll.

She starts to flip through the overstuffed rack of clichéd                                costumes. ‘Umm. No sorry. But I do have a Dominatrix that comes with           complimentary handcuffs and whip?

‘Okay. I’ll try that on, thanks.’ I draw the line at Sexy Schoolgirl.

I decide to buy the black vinyl shorts and industrial strength fishnets. I like them. Not sure if I will ever wear them but that’s not the point. But the stilettoes stay behind because they would wreck my back. The nurse’s uniform reminds me of hospital. The dominatrix ensemble costs too much, even with the free stuff thrown in.

I leave the shop and my new best friends two hours later after coffee and cake and a short black for the Polish grandfather.

Fun. It was fun with those women in that shop. My anxiety has dispersed and the desperate feelings of inadequacy have been shoved down deep into the BARGAIN bin.

Back on the street, the heat is less punishing than earlier in the day. I don’t want to walk anymore, too tired. I am tired of not feeling enough.

But now something has shifted in me, there has been some kind of subtle recalibration. As I raise my arm to hail a cab back to the hotel I know that I have to break up with my boyfriend. The knowledge hurts. The sense of failure smarts. But I know.

Sometimes even people who love each other just aren’t meant to be together no matter how much the prospect of being alone again scares the hell out of me.

I sit in the back seat of the taxi and weep for all the broken hearted and disappointed lovers and I thank the Goddess of Small Mercies for Erotic Divas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bryan Dawe: Tangier Illusions Exhibition Launch Speech

August 2017

 

Hello. I’m Elly Varrenti and thanks for being here tonight to celebrate the launch of Bryan Dawe’s Tangiers Illusions.

 

This stunning photo-montage series kicked off in Tangiers earlier this year after Bryan was approached by a local gallery to show the work.

It was his 6th visit to Tangiers.

 

Bryan Dawe is a classic student of the Aristolean peripatetic school – a man who does much walking and travelling, observing, listening and arguing, accompanied always by an open-heart and mind, and a boundless curiosity and desire to learn the new.

 

Yes, Bryan is a man of many and eclectic talents, and at times a hyper manic filigree of ideas and infectious creativity. Sharing a glass of red with Bryan is like jazz, but without the instruments.

 

It’s said that travelling to Tangiers is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to live another kind of life, experience an alternative identity, to embark on the next big adventure. So at this stage of Bryan’s creative, intellectual and dare I say, spiritual life, Tangiers is a damn good fit.

 

The history of artists who’ve been captivated by the city of Algiers reads like a literati’s shopping list made in heaven:

Writer and composer Paul Bowles, playwright Tennessee Williams, the beat writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. There was Mark Twain, Jean Genet and Jack Kerouac, the painter Brion Gysin, the Rolling Stones, George Orwell, Yves Saint Laurent, Edith Wharton and Barbara Hutton. It was after Delacroix that Tangier became an obligatory stop for artists. Matisse went there many times.

And they kept on coming back, so inspired and seduced were they by the city’s geographic beauty, its ethnic mix, expat community, its texture and colour, its mystery, it’s spies, it’s aristocrats, it’s carnival, it’s transgressivness, it’s ancient cafes, its clash and tumble of religion and dialects, its celebrities, its exotic ‘otherness’, its playboy and playgirl millionaires, its buildings with facades like ageing beauty queens, its bazars, its Kasbah, its people.

All of these things have fuelled Bryan’s conscious and unconscious imaginative engine. And he’s always loved the outsider: the rogue thinker, the maverick, the mordant and the satirical, the prankster, the artist. And of course he likes having fun too and watching the world close up.

Algiers has got opportunity for all that in spades

But it’s Bryan, the writer and narrator, who fully inhabits this gallery tonight.

‘Part of the magic for me,’ he says, ‘is that Tangier is a city full of story-tellers and tales. Stories and more tales.’

 

When Bryan alighted on these stories of Tangiers’ he understood what it was he wished to explore in his work but then he had to figure out how to technically make it as he’d not used montage and collage in his earlier work.

           

Illusions is a kind of travel essay in pictures –  they are playful and provocative, narratively layered and at their simplest, beautiful.

 

But what is the significance of the hot air balloons that keep on popping up throughout these pictures? Now the black umbrella, we’ve all seen before in those opening credits of Clarke and Dawe, Bryan holding up a black umbrella, the 2 of them standing about in a laneway, looking like they’ve fallen out of a Magritte painting.

 

Every piece here is a story. From a Woolworths heiress to an old man in a cafe, from circus performers to old spy movies, from Delacroix to Dawe.

 

With a nod to the Surrealists, a wink at the Dadaists, Bryan’s pictures resist homage and nostalgia but are of a style all his own. These pictures invite you in, to go deeper, to see what lies beneath and beyond.

 

Oh, and by the way, Charles Boyer’s apocryphal line in the 1938 movie Algiers, “Come with me to ze Casbah,” did not appear in the film, but who cares, it’s part of our collective imagination and that’s all that matters here.

So. Let’s all raise a glass and celebrate Tangiers Illusions.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australian Education Union ( AEU) magazine July Column

In the days before GPS and Google Maps told you where to go I went on a business trip to regional Victoria and got lost.

I’d always wanted to go on a business trip because adults with proper jobs go on business trips. So when my boss at the Victorian Arts Centre Schools Education Program asked me to visit those twelve primary and secondary schools participating in our pilot program, I went.

And I took my grandmother and mother with me because my grandmother loved an outing and my mother worried I’d be lost without her.

So there we were: three generations of imperfect mothers on a road trip.

My mother did the driving –  she was the boss of us. My grandmother did the navigating – she had the sense of direction. I sat in the back like a kid trying to make out what her parents were saying in the front seat.

When she migrated to Australia, my grandmother was the first to get a driver’s license in her community. Mum says it was unheard of for an Italian woman of her generation to be getting around ‘with those long dark curls of hers, sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. Outrageous she was. Shameless.’

I have no sense of direction. Really. None. I get lost going to the bathroom.

This trip involved lots of country driving on the wide open road, plenty of animals that looked like they’d come straight from Central Casting, and insufficient signage. I used to hate the country, it made me feel lonely, so Mum and Nonna’s company seemed like a good idea at the time.

Our program at the Victorian Arts Centre placed professional artists who were at the top of their game – dancers, writers, actors, musicians and designers – into schools, where they’d work with students and teachers across all subject areas. The schools had already attended a theatre performance at the Victorian Arts Centre a few weeks earlier and so this was the second-stage follow-up part where the kids got to unpack the show’s various components with the arts practitioners themselves. Our program was the first of its kind in Victoria in the early-nineties.

Sometimes I’d need to visit three different schools in a day and once there I’d talk with teachers, students and principals about why imbedding arts education into the curriculum was not a luxury extra but essential to the creating of a well-rounded human.

And then there were the motels. We stayed in those anti-charm joints with their thin walls and little sachets of instant coffee and twin biscuits, and had to share a room. Although I occasionally slept in the car because of my grandmother’s snoring.

Every night they would brief me on the following day’s schedule with particular emphasis on directions on how to get to the schools. I went on my own the first day but got lost, so from then they came with me, and while I was working they’d go and explore the town.

At night we talked.  Well they did most of the talking. Stories about the old days in working-class migrant suburbs like North Melbourne, Fitzroy and Brunswick during the forties and  fifties. Who’d run off with whom. Who’d turned up at which Communist Party meeting and made a fool of themselves. ‘God, I loved those meetings at our place!’, said Mum. ‘I used to eves drop and think it all sounded so important and exciting.’ There were secrets I’d heard before and some I hadn’t. Stories against other people but mostly against themselves. Sometimes we laughed so much our sides hurt and my grandmother would have to rush to the toilet. ‘Don’t talk about me when I’m gone!’

I listened, and ate toast and honey. I was a grown woman, a teacher, an actress and now a professional on a business trip, but on those nights I just felt like a kid gorging on late night snacks.

It was a successful trip. Not that I had others to compare it with. I witnessed firsthand the impact of having artists working on site in country schools where most students had no other chance to ever meet a real, practicing artist in the course of their daily lives.

My grandmother always encouraged me to follow my passion because she thought that anything to do with the arts was romantic. Mum was just glad I finally had a proper job.

 

 

 

Review: The Australian Newspaper

The Hot Guy

By Mel Campbell & Anthony Morris

Published by Echo

 

Girl in Between

By Anna Daniels

Published by Allen & Unwin

 

 

Two novels penned by authors experienced in writing for film and television have hit the shelves recently, both of which could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit – their protagonists both funny, bawdy, 30-something women dedicated to finding ‘the one’. Yet between them, these novels prove this form of genre fiction is a broad category.

 

The Hot Guy, co-written by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 30s and 40s.

 

Adam, the eponymous ‘hot guy’ of the title, is an earnest and unwittingly handsome movie nerd trying to raise finance to direct his next short film – a work that delves unpretentiously into the ‘Dark Side’. Provisionally titled Metadata, it’s about ‘the essential asymmetry of the panopticon’.

 

Adam works at a multiplex cinema with his two sidekicks: Steve, a wannabe actor, and Renton, a film reviewer for blog BackedUpToilet. Just three nerds in a kiosk, riffing-witty on movies and girls, and making choc tops.

 

Cate is a self-identified ‘funny lady’ and publicity director for a sports stadium, despite hating sport. ‘I hate sport,’ she says to Dave, the car park attendant.

 

‘Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of twelve.’, and now she has been dumped by her uptight boyfriend over a joke. Dejected and lost, she debriefs with her own sidekicks, Vanessa and Kirsty, while hanging out at their kite flyer and drone club. There’s some nice fast talk in these scenes, too: swipes at vampires, zombies, cat videos, a particularly sharp jab at the current trend for all things ‘bespoke and, of course, plenty of no holds barred boy talk. Think Bridesmaids.

 

Egged on (and set up) by her friends, Cate picks up Adam at a bar – there’s lots of alcohol saturated prose in both of these books – for a no-strings one-night-stand: to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Trouble is, they actually ‘like’ each other.

 

So far, so genre.

 

But Adam isn’t just any hot guy, he’s The Hot Guy; unassuming and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, so gorgeous that there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the ambition of a ‘night-with-Adam’ – given that a night with this guy will allegedly cure whatever ails you – set up by Adam-obsessed women of the disturbingly named League of Icarus.

 

So when serial one-nighter, looking-for-the-gal-who’ll-be-there-in-the-morning Adam makes out with serial picker-of-wrong-guys Cate, assumptions and vested interests abound.

 

All of this makes for some entertaining and over-the-top set ups: a farcical hostage situation involving The League, followed by a road trip to Adam’s home town of Ladbroke – where the statue of the Unknown Soldier is of course modelled on gorgeous Adam – for the premier screening of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.

 

 

Characters like Adam’s recalcitrant but gratis director of photography are drawn in brisk and vivid strokes – ‘grizzled, inebriated druid shambling’ and some of the best writing is in the three-way shtick on sex and celluloid between the blokes at work, although it does feel like the authors are having just a bit too much fun competing for best-bad film titles.

 

 

Girl in Between, Anna Daniel’s first novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Vogel awards. It’s the story of Lucy, who, at 32, low on love, luck and life, is suffering an extended mid-youth crisis. She’s chucked in her TV producing job in Melbourne and come home to Rockhampton (aka Rocky, ‘Beef Capital of Australia’), moving back in with her parents to finish writing her book, Diamonds in the Dust, and generally sort out her life.

 

Mum is an African-drumming Cher acolyte (‘Remember what Cher says…’) who spends an inordinate amount of time poring over handy home hints catalogues with Lucy’s zany bestie, Rosie. Dad goes to the jockey club every other night, or so Lucy believes. In actuality he’s battling the black dog and hanging out at the Men’s Shed.

 

Daniels, herself a kind of latter day Bridget Jones, hails from Rockhampton and is a writer and producer known for her funny, quirky TV segments. ‘How Not to Interview Russell Crowe’, an edit of her potentially disastrous encounter with the notoriously volatile actor, is pure Bridget, and won the ABC Comedy Segment of the Year in 2004. The sketch is reworked in Girl in Between as an interview with a fading 80s rock star.

 

In Lucy, the author has created a heroine not far removed, seemingly, from herself. But the lightness and short -segment appeal of her earlier work does not quite translate here, where lots of heart-thumping, body-trembling, blood-boiling, stomach-lurching, pulse-racing clichés choke a narrative already weighed down with signposts as subtle as a Mallee bull. Nods to more serious issues – Mum’s cancer, Dad’s depression – feel tokenistic.

 

Aussie idioms and vernacular keep both novels tonally consistent, home-grown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniel’s novel we know we’re in Australia because we’re told we are, often, not because we recognise it. Rocky might feel like ‘a pair of Ugg boots – super comfortable, sturdy and secure’, but Porpoise Spit it ain’t.

 

What’s striking is the extent to which lists and labels (books, film titles) stand in for description or observation. Red UDLs, Rooster, KFC, Maccas and Subway are listed like product placements, standing in for character as if anything, anyone, can now be reduced to the brands they consume. It’s a short-hand, but a lazy one.

 

 

While both books are unapologetically populist and formulaic genre fiction and Girl in Between does contain some funny deft writing, it lacks sufficient irony or self-reflection to do more than simply fulfils the clichés.

The Hot Guy, written with relish and self-awareness; the authors’ playfulness with the genre smart, not smart-arsed, more homage than piss-take, fulfils the brief more successfully.

 

 

Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Melbourne.

 

 

REMEMBERING PLAYWRIGHT MICHAEL GURR (1961-2017)

May 4, 2017

 

A best friend for more than 30 years, Michael Gurr came to live in my street in the regional Victorian town of Castlemaine three years ago. He loved the place. Occasionally I would protest its arty-folksy-smallness and he would just look at me, proffer another piece of onion tart or tea cake or some such other Moroccan or Mediterranean thing he had just made, and say something like: ‘El, negative is easy; try positive, it’s harder.’ Or, ‘I hope you are not on some bloody nonsense diet again, because I have made French custard poached pears.’

He loved to cook, to garden and, most recently, to walk home from town carrying big-ish new things for the house: an olde-worlde record player so that he could revisit his millions of Dylan albums. A large framed drawing/collage by some local artist: ’Take a closer look’, he said. ‘There’s more to it, the closer you get.’

Once I arrived at his place – a daily or double-daily visit, generally – and he announced that he had bought three quail. ‘Yuk. I can’t eat quail,’ I said. ‘They are far too small and delicate and it just feels wrong somehow.’ ‘Not to eat,’ he said. ‘To admire. They are magnificent.’ And there they were outside the back screen door, all set up in their new little double-storey hutch replete with straw matting, tiny pot-plants and an ensuite bathing area.

He was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful.

His little weatherboard cottage opposite the footy oval was a comfort and joy to him, poised as it was in perfect perving distance from the parade of locals on the way to the pub or train station or Botanic Gardens or pool. He relished the crispy night footy training and Saturday matches. ‘I love the sound of it,’ he said. ‘It’s the sound of place and belonging.’

He always had something or other to give to my mother or to me every time I left – The Guardian Weekly, usually. My 85-year-old mother was always grateful. She loved him like a son – and got cross with him like a son, too – but she never was able to read those papers for the tiny print. She never had the heart to tell him, though.

Michael also gave her the latest political biography he had just devoured, and once insisted she read one of his beloved Elizabeth David cookbooks. Mum was not interested in the cookbooks but took the other stuff happily. Last week it was a jar of pickled lemons. ‘They are not ready yet so don’t open them, just let them be for a while. Some things do get better in time, you know.’

The pickled lemon philosopher sometimes gave me the shits. He could be opinionated, and obstinate too. But kindness and largesse… Mate, he invented those words.

From the moment I met him, when we were 21 and 22 respectively, I knew he was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful. The first time I saw one of his plays I experienced a sort of dwarfing awe. The second time I saw one of plays, I forgot it was a play, I was so immersed in his writing’s signature rhythms; the ideas layered and demanding; the wit, rude and shocking; the characters flawed and magnificently conflicted; and the politics searing and prescient.

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We lived together for five years in our 20s and they were… (really, no nostalgia here, because, ‘Nostalgia is a conservative impulse. A retreat into what seems knowable is dangerous,’ he reckoned.) They were five of the most creative, instructive, hilarious, vital, delicious, domestically secure and exciting years of my life.

In recent months, Michael became ill. He never complained, he never asked much of me or others; only for me to be kind-of around and to sometimes drive him places, because he had always refused, perversely, to ever get a bloody licence and walking even short distances had become difficult for him. Our time together began to change, the balance to shift, as his fiercely resistant yet increasing dependence began to take centre stage.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died.

I have loved this extraordinarily gifted (yes, an unfashionable word I know) man. His loyalty to his ‘tribe’, as he would say, was breathtaking, if not sometimes intractable and stubborn.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died. ‘Did you know,’ he said to me, while we sat in his favourite cafe in the old gaol atop the hill at the back of his house, drinking black tea and eating apple slices. ‘I dreamt a new play last night. First time in ages. It’s called Karaoke. Did you know that I have been spelling the word karaoke wrong for years?’ And then I asked, as I have asked every single time over the past 35 years, even though I always get the same answer: ‘What’s it about?’ To which he says: ‘I never talk about what I’m writing. Why would I? Once I speak it, then it no longer demands to be written.’

Michael’s work was his life, his life his work, his family his theatre, his friends his family; his sisters and brothers, his nieces and nephews, my son, his god children, his students, his former partner of 23 years, his comrades, his colleagues, his actors, his pollies, his barber, his fish monger, his books, his newspapers, his quail and his cat… these were his life. His death feels like an amputation.

Who is going to call out my whingeing now? Who in hell do I give my miserable first drafts to for a brutal but fair edit? Who do I now visit most days and wish to god he would stop smoking inside the house like it’s still the 1980s? Who do I care about and for, because he has always, always cared about and for me? Who has my back now?

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A memorial service for Michael Gurr was  held at the Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank in Melbourne on Monday, May 15. A standing ovation.