Trying It On:Solace in a Sex Shop

First published on Mamamia 2.1.2018

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LONELY PEOPLE ARE OTHER PEOPLE (per:The Big Issue)

Loneliness is for outsiders and shy people, curmudgeons and old people. Lonely people have poor social skills and don’t make enough of an effort. Loneliness is for alone people, sad people, unkind people. Lonely people are other people.

My mother used to say that if I could’ve had a career in friendship I’d have had a secure job for life.

I’m not lonely.

How can I be? I’ve good friends; old ones, new ones even. I’ve two octogenarian parents who can still muster the vigour to write pissed-off emails to the newspaper and argue with me about politics.  I’ve a nice son. I have no steady income to be speak of but I do have a good house in regional Victoria with a garden that’s survived three droughts, two floods and dodgy floorboards.

Nothing to complain about. Count your blessings. Get over yourself. Go for a walk. Get out more. Go help someone and stop lamenting what could or should or might have been. You’re not special.

I’m in mourning, that’s why I’m lonely. I’m still mourning the death of my sister seven years ago and my dear friend’s seven months ago. No one told me that grief can feel like fear. Like Ursula Le Guin says, ‘There is no company in grief. It is a burden borne alone’. No one told me that grief is lonely.

I’m not lonely.

And yet ever since I was a child, there has always been a sense that something’s not right.  I’m disappearing, disposable, small. That sense that something is always missing has been with me always. Just worse now in middle-age.

Charlotte Bronte said ‘The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.’

I yearn for a partner. I also don’t yearn for one. What if he gets too close and discovers I’m a fraud? Or worse, boring? What if I start to feel lonely in the relationship? What if I don’t want to have sex anymore after three or four years? What if it is I who is commitment phobic not him? What if he has an affair and it tears us to bits. Or I have an affair? It can lonely in a relationship. I want the earth beneath my feet firm and sure, not shifting about like the sands on St. Kilda beach.

Scientific research finds that loneliness is on the increase and there is evidence too, that lonely people are generally less healthy mentally (Tick) and physically. Loneliness has been linked to an under-achieving immune system, Alzheimer’s, early death, breast cancer, depression (Tick), insomnia (Tick) and eating and anxiety disorders, (Tick). Oh, and shame because of jealousy of those who look as if they have it all sorted. (Tick. Tick.)

I love David Foster Wallace on this loneliness business: ‘Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties – all these chase away loneliness by making me forget I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion – these are the places where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.’

Are we not all looking for ‘places where loneliness may be countenanced…’?

I look to books, movies, exercise, food, sex, sleep, good conversation and work. But I am still starving and I spend far too much time alone at home these days. I am a casual teacher but the university is only open 24 weeks a year. I am a freelance writer but the flip-flops of such work suck big time.

Some of us are more predisposed to loneliness. We may be genetically wired for it. We may learn loneliness from our family of origin. Is there a connection between childhood loss or separation trauma and adult loneliness? Probably.

Whatever gets you through the night. Do some vodka shots, have sex with someone you don’t love but fancy. Have a laugh. Go dancing. Seek out company. Join a club. Accept the party invite. Do meaningful work. Plan. Talk to your neighbour. Volunteer. Answer the phone. Call Lifeline when you find yourself in times of trouble.

I’m not lonely.

We should be living in a community, not a society. I can tell my son feels lonely: it’s harder to be a family when there’s just the two of us. We should be living with other adults and kids. The micro-nuclear family’s got bells on it.

But how to make community living 21st century style work when such life style experiments continue to be associated with grubby group houses of your 20s or failed hippie projects of the 60s and 70s? The fact remains that while so many of us yearn for company, we also covet a private bathroom, time on our own and the freedom to not see people we don’t get on with.

I’m not lonely.

Loneliness is a response to the need to belong. There is something inherent in the human brain that wants to socialise. We need people. But not just any people. We need to practice quality control when it comes to those we hang out with because the deeper the connection, the more authentic, the better we live.

Some days the noise of my aloneness is deafening. I catch myself watching myself move about the house doing what I do: the little rituals and repetitions of ordinary life. I am spying on my own life and sometimes it looks, well, sad.

My world is shrinking.

But am I lonely or just alone? I’ve never really understood the difference.

As the writer Emily White says in her book on the subject: ‘(Loneliness) can start to feel that there is just not enough of you.’

While depression is becoming less stigmatised, admitting you’re lonely is still hard and a bit embarrassing. White says ‘…you start to retreat from social circumstances but it’s what you need. It can become a habit from a disrupted sense of attachment.’ ‘(The feeling that) the only person (you) can truly rely on is (yourself).’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Book Reviews  per The Australian 25.May.2107

Both The Hot Guy and Girl in Between, by authors experienced in writing for film and television, could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit. Their protagonists are 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, by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom-com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 1930s and 40s.

The Hot Guy by Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris.
The Hot Guy by Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris.

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 wittily 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.

“Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of 12”, 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: 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 a lot of alcohol-saturated prose in both of these books — for a no-strings-attached 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 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 premiere of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.

Characters such as 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 schtick 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 by Anna Daniels.
Girl in Between by Anna Daniels.

Girl in Between, Anna Daniels’s first novel, was shortlisted for last year’s The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. 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 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 truth 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 cliches 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, homegrown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniels’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 Rooster, UDLs, 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 shorthand, 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 fulfil the cliches.

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.

The 3 Times I Met John Clarke -AEU Magazine

 Much has been written, said and broadcast since the recent death of writer, actor, satirist and polymath, John Clarke. Now this is my opportunity to add to the seriously sad, shocking and celebratory cacophony that Clarke has left in his wake. But Clarke would not have approved of that last sentence with its overwrought alliteration and hyperbole because Clarke’s way with words was never cheap and clunky, but always precise, dextrous and daring.

I first met John in 1998 when he was making the mockumentary The Games for ABC TV. We had a friend in common, and he, Bryan Dawe, had asked me to sit in on some early script readings. The Games ended up being a 13-week master-class in writing, performance style and direction.

You had to have been living in a cave not to know of Mr. J. Clarke’s very particular brand of satire and seeing John in action up close that first time was at first exciting and scary and then just plain fun. And hard work. John was a perfectionist, and did not stop until he got it right. No matter what it was. Whereas Bryan would nick out for a fag or a coffee- like the rest of us- John always seemed content just to sit and wait patiently until the rest of us mere mortals finished fluffing about.

Everyone in that cast was impressive, let’s face it, but John was just so special-smart.

The second time I met John Clarke was at Bryan’s in Phillip Island where they both had a house and it was then that I really got a taste of the intellectual promiscuity of the man.     A Socratic conversationalist, John could talk the leg off an iron pot sure, but he never forgot about you. He wasn’t a monologist, but a critic, philosopher, nature lover, poet, artist, social commentator, environmentalist, swimmer, writer, comic, and the kindest and driest and most seriously funny and curious bloke you could ever have the pleasure of sharing a bowl of soup with.

John was highly relational. He was excellent at friendship and very good at the fleeting more casual relationship like ours.

The third time I met John was last year when he and Bryan asked me to interview them at Fed Square at the release of their Special 25-Year DVD Box Set of Clarke & Dawe.

A quarter of a century is a long time to survive any kind of relationship but John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s, like any healthy partnership, had moved and responded to the times. Their particular kind of work with its simple no frills format belied the layers of meaning and its daring approach to social and political satire and commentary. They were there at the start; they were there before The Office, before Utopia.

Clarke & Dawe became shorthand for smart, subversive and a deadpan style of lampoon and Clarke’s writing and the pair’s collaboration was the ultimate gentle slaughter of the sacred cow. It’s a dirty (funny) job but someone’s got to do it.

John’s eyes – yes it’s a cliché but they were sparkly and cheeky– and his voice was not at all actorly or lovely, but samey and a bit nasally even. John was neat, trim, unadorned and pleasing in a nice bloke kind of a way. All this meant, of course, that when Clarke appeared as ‘himself’ with no attempt to resemble the figure he was parodying in the segments with Dawe, his appearance, in effect, never got in the way because there was a neutrality to it. John was a canvas. Not quite blank, but sufficiently un-distracting to convince us that he could be anyone, if the writing was good enough. And it was. Always.

Increasingly people have turned to political satire for the news – The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Have I got News for You, Shaun MCCallieff, Charlie Pickering – who offer up pithy, entertaining and often some of the sharpest contemporary commentary around. Perhaps fake news has replaced real news. Perhaps some people actually think John Clarke is Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison or Pauline Hanson?

Before we all did the Fed Square interview, John and I had a couple of conversations on the phone to discuss its possible format and content. The first conversation went for 35 minutes and the second for 80. After, my brain was in over drive. The dopamine and serotonin were wrestling for supremacy. I was on fire. Excited. Talking with John, following John along his paths of creative improvisations was like being in an intellectual labyrinth. We talked about so many things that I didn’t know I even knew anything about. Some of them I didn’t. Lots of them I didn’t.

With John as teacher and guide you experienced your best self. His generosity and subversive tutelage got you riffing in places you’d never contemplated previously.

During the interview a few days later at Fed Square I asked him at one point:

‘So if satire is an art in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself into improvement, is your work driven by cynicism or angry faith?’

‘That’s a very interesting question,’ he said. ‘But I would have to say neither cynicism nor anger. Faith, yes. Faith, and a fair amount of amusement.’