Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our June assignment: write a letter to a son or daughter, offering advice based on our own life experiences. Dear Tarquin, As you set out on a new phase of your life, equipped with your bachelor degree in Cultural Studies, your diploma in Political Correctness and a not quite fully maxed out credit card, I feel it is appropriate to offer some fatherly advice. Experience has taught me there is no correlation between salary and hard work: the toughest jobs with the worst conditions invariably pay the minimum wage. Executive positions always offer air-conditioning, longer lunch breaks and the option of delegating any risky decisions that are likely to back-fire. Think laterally when seeking out such appointments; a comprehensive CV might impress your friends but, like your gothic vampire novel manuscript, will probably remain beneath the slush pile. Good jobs usually come via word of mouth from good contacts. At interviews do not hesitate to use sensitive information, especially if it involves old flames of your mother. Rudyard Kipling famously offered a lot of sage advice to his son but never once mentioned having a good time. The Victorians frowned at anyone enjoying themselves so remember when wowsers don’t approve, you are probably doing something right. If the urge should come upon you to start a family, construct a mental balance sheet of the costs and benefits from our family experiences – and then note the bottom line. Life can be hard so if, despite your qualifications and unfathomable confidence, faeces do hit the turbine blades, your room will still be here for you. The nine illegal immigrants to whom we have sub-let it are accustomed to sharing. As one said to me this morning (through an Afghan interpreter): ‘we all deserve to start a new life’. I hope these words will be of help to you, Your loving father, Dave

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This is my 'Tooth Fairy' assignment - 500 words.

The Mafia used violin cases to disguise their sub-machine guns. I used a violin case to disguise my boxing kit.
“Orchestra rehearsal tonight!” I would call cheerfully as I left the house – and that would be enough to deter Dad. He’d attended one of our school concerts – once – and swore never again.
“I’m surprised the RSPCA didn’t turn up,” he’d said. “It sounded as though you were torturing small furry animals.” He’d snored through Hayden’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony until the crashing chord that gives the piece its name had caused him to fall off his seat. So my violin case was like a crucifix and garlic to a vampire.
If he’d known I was boxing for the school, he would have been there at ringside, offering unsolicited advice – and criticism. Some boys welcomed family support, they said it gave them a lift. I dreaded it; every slip, every punch I walked into would be noted and faithfully repeated in detail to visiting relatives for weeks to come. Perhaps he was genuinely concerned or merely amused, either way I found it excruciating so I kept him away – with the violin case.
Football wasn’t a problem; inter-school matches were played on mid-week afternoons when Dad was at work. And he had no interest in my evening badminton matches and yet ironically, it was badminton that caused the problem. I played in the school ‘doubles’ team and was a notorious ‘poacher’, diving around the court and stealing shots I should have left to my partner. To my mother’s consternation, I would arrive home with stitches over my eyebrow or a plaster over my nose after getting in the way of my partner’s backswing.
“Have you been boxing again?” she would ask anxiously.
One night, after tasting my partner’s racquet, I went home with a fat lip and a loose tooth. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time because I was scheduled to box at Walsall Town Hall the next night. This was before the days of mouth guards and head guards so I prepared to say goodbye to my loose tooth.
Amateur boxing at schoolboy level would not normally interest the local newspaper so there was little chance of my father or anyone else reading about it. The Walsall Observer, however, thought this tournament was a special case and had sent both reporter and photographer to follow the progress of one David Astley who the previous year had reached the All-England Finals at Wembley. This year Astley was hotly tipped to become All-England champion. Tournament matches were made by drawing names out of a hat, rather like the barrier draw for the Melbourne Cup: I had drawn Astley.
I lost the bout of course – and the tooth. There was no point in telling my folks I’d lost the tooth at orchestra rehearsal, walking into a trombone slide perhaps or the prodding bow of a double bass, so I just mumbled something about my careless badminton partner and went to bed.
Nothing was said over the weekend about the missing tooth but when I awoke on Monday morning, I found a newspaper clipping on my pillow. The fight had made headline news on the sports page, or rather, Astley had made headline news. I’d just been the fall guy, literally.
I went downstairs and saw Dad reading at the kitchen table.
“Who left this?” I asked sheepishly.
Dad just shrugged. “It must have been the tooth fairy,” he muttered and went on reading the remains of The Walsall Observer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This was a Writers' Group assignment about'FRIENDLY FIRE'. It was published in the Soapbox column of 'The Australian' newspaper on 16th of July, 2010.

There are casualties in every war and the most heart-breaking can be those caused to soldiers by their own side. This is usually referred to as ‘friendly fire’, one of those oxymorons beloved by the military, like military intelligence, military justice and military music.
Self-inflicted harm is not always physical; reputations can also suffer from well-intentioned but misguided actions.
I first visited Australia in 1980 with a Zimbabwean boxer defending his Commonwealth Championship. The promotion in Melbourne was well organized; we were met at the airport, taken to a comfortable hotel, introduced to the media and generally feted. Everything was professionally presented until the main bout was about to begin and patrons stood for the national anthem. A nightclub singer in a tuxedo and frilly-fronted shirt took the microphone and crooned ‘Australia Fair’ in a pseudo-American accent. I looked around the stadium expecting the police to drag him away! In Africa a national anthem is a moment of dignity. I’d heard that Australians were laid back and irreverent but taking the mickey out of the national anthem was surely going too far.
Some years later I attended the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Adelaide and, before the race began, the crowd of 100,000 was asked to be upstanding for the national anthem. A skimpily dressed young woman mounted the dais and began to warble ‘Australia Fair’ like a gospel singer from the Deep South. The deep south of America, that is, not deep South Australia.
And isn’t it self-defeating to sing Australian country music in a foreign accent? When a recent Australian of the Year was a country music singer he crooned like a Yank – yet when he spoke he sounded like a normal Aussie bloke from the bush. Would it be too much of a strain to sing ‘Strine?
Personally, I can do without chest-thumping nationalism; Samuel Johnson was right when he said “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. If it is deemed necessary to sing the anthem at international events then let’s afford it some dignity.
The latest affront was at the World Cup in Johannesburg when a football team lined up for the anthem before the kick-off. To a man they stood with their hands over their hearts like Good Ol’ Boy Americans. This was the Socceroos. Perhaps there is a case for bringing back National Service, just to teach young men how to stand to attention. If the soccermorons are so anxious to be accepted as Americans, they should do what thousands of others do – walk to the Mexican border and crawl under the fence.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Assignment: 500 words using the following - grateful, tunneling, golliwog, vice, aubergine, wichetygrub, meditate, paper.


Inspector Tubbs moved silently through the shadows cast by the flickering torches. He was grateful for the low cloud obscuring the early-rising moon as he moved closer to the open french doors. He was now close enough to see candlelight glistening on the silverware although it offered barely enough light for the diners to read the menu. Were they going to eat – or meditate?
“The suckers forgot to bring a torch,” Tubbs chuckled to himself then whispering into his sleeve he asked “Everyone in position?”
Disembodied voices in his earphones confirmed their readiness. “Stand by,” he muttered and he sniffed the air like a hunting dog, a final instinctive check. Garlic and cumin.
“Go, go, go!” he snapped into his sleeve and he sprinted the 20 metres to the nearest window.
“Stay where you are!” he ordered a middle-aged man with silly stubble on his chin, “And put down that knife.”
On the far side of the room Sgt Slim burst through the kitchen door but stopped to scrape something from the sole of his shoe (it was mashed potato drizzled with truffle oil). DC Stodge swung into the room like an Israeli commando on one of the drapes and crouched ready for action. After blackening his face and tunneling through the nearby shrubbery he looked more like a golliwog. Somewhere a wine glass shattered as it fell to the floor and a woman screamed. Pony-tailed waiters moved forward but Inspector Tubbs stopped them with a glare.
“Nobody leaves!” he commanded. There would be no hope of finding all those black-clad waiters in the dark. A man wearing a white tuxedo over a black round-necked sweater minced around the tables and confronted the intruder.
“I’m the Maitre D’, what’s going on?”
Tubbs took from his pocket a sheet of paper. “I have here a warrant to search the premises,” he said and thrust it into the man’s hand.
“The Vice Squad?” The Maitre D’ raised his eyebrows and glanced around at some likely suspects.
“No,” Tubbs corrected, “The Pretentious Food Squad,” and he produced a small digital camera. “Just look at this, sergeant,” he said indicating a huge square white plate. In the centre of it a neat pile of food teetered amid a puddle of ‘jus’. He leaned across the table to take a snap then turned to the next culinary creation.
“Roast aubergine stuffed with witchety grub au gratin: you’re not going to eat that, are you Madame?”
He took another snap as evidence but had to consult the menu to identify the twee construction masquerading as a meal. “Foie gras with toasted marshmallow, tamari-soaked powdered almonds and limoncello curd. And look at the price of it, sergeant. Who would –?”
Unfortunately, the sergeant had already seen the price and fainted, taking down with him a small but expensive serving of fried ginger chips with green onion and ponzu dressing…



August assignment: Earliest Memories


Our earliest memories are usually a collage of images, rather than a coherent narrative. Scenes saved on our personal hard-drive for so many years, surviving the ‘brown-outs’ and ‘crashes’ of an over-crowded and sometimes alcohol abused brain, imply a potent trigger for their initial capture.
A World War II black-out curtain features in my earliest memories. All homes in Great Britain were required to have them to deny assistance to German bombers at night. As a two year old I would invariably be in bed by the time the ‘black-out’ was installed so the only time I would be aware of the heavy black curtains would be during dangerously close bombing raids. My older sister and I would be wrapped in blankets, carried downstairs and placed on a mattress in a Morrison Shelter for safety. I came to associate those curtains with trouble.
No amount of soothing assurances from caring parents could fool a two-year-old snatched from sleep. If there was nothing to worry about, why had I been plucked from a warm bed? Why the frantic huddle down the stairway – and why was I imprisoned in a steel cage?
The Morrison Shelter was a crush-proof structure which doubled as a table. Covered with a dainty table cloth, it was barely noticeable, just another place for us kids to play or hide in during the day but a place of refuge on bad nights.
The night I remember most clearly, perversely, was a night of confusion. Thunderstorms which had been brewing all day, broke overhead as the air raid sirens began their nightly wail. Soon the sonic boom of lightning strike was competing with the thump of exploding bombs. The black-out curtain which prevented light from leaking out also blocked the flashes of lightning sneaking in, leaving only the terrifying sounds to distinguish the source of attack. A direct hit by a bomb in the neighbourhood was invariably followed by the sound of shattering glass and the clatter of slates cascading off a roof. Lightning strikes merely left thunder to bounce off the low lying clouds.
Cowering in our shelter, I discovered a method of distinguishing one agent of death from another: the black-out curtain billowed slightly from the blast of a nearby bomb. Lightning, no matter how close it sounded, merely made it shake for a second.
Fear, like a bossy sister, was relative.


Sunday, May 24, 2009


Our May assignment called for a short piece on 'The Whistle Stop'


It was hard to distinguish the beige from the brown
And I barely acknowledged the sepia plain.
With endless parched paddocks and no sight of a town
The landscape absorbed our scurrying train.

Whistle-stop stations occasionally slipped by
Like the punctuation marks spacing a page:
Platforms, place names, water tanks now dry,
The sole bleached reminders of a more prosperous age.

I had travelled this line four decades earlier
As a young man about to begin a career.
I was on my way back, balding and burlier
And smiling at the hopes of that innocent year.

I remembered the smile on a young girl’s face
At an unremarkable whistle-stop station.
Our eyes met in a gentle, mental embrace
As we shared the moment’s elation.

A discreet wave from both as the train pulled away,
Too soon the connection was broken
Yet the potential for love was there that day
Without a word being spoken.

So life has gone by and forty years down the track
I reflect on mistakes and misplaced affections.
There is time to regret, as the train trundles back,
What is lost through life’s missed connections.


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Perception is Reality


The multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry relies on the myth that perception is reality. If a woman of advancing years chooses to spend enough money and time, she can create the perception that she is half her age. The majority of high-performance sportscars are sold to over-weight, balding, middle-aged men who, for the price of an average house, can drive around creating the perception of youth and virility – right up to the moment they remove the sad but necessary baseball cap, climb with difficulty from the low-slung machine and reveal a belly overhanging the ill-advised jeans. All these illusions rely on omission of the indefinite article.
There is a classic sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which Dud announces he is to perform a song specially written for him by Cole Porter. There is clearly room for doubt as the song turns out to be no more than a comic ditty. Pete then explains that the song was written for them by a coal porter, not the Cole Porter…
So perception is a reality. Post-modernists can tie themselves in knots defining the reality but my friend Quentin had no qualms about such things – he always chose the reality with the highest profit margin. He boasted, with some justification and several probationary orders, that he could see financial opportunities where others saw only obstacles. A case in point was the artist painting portraits in K-Mart Plaza.: shoppers drifted by with no more than an admiring glance. A brave punter sat self-consciously having her portrait painted by the elderly artist while around them, displayed on easels were completed works. Most were of anonymous customers but some were of familiar ‘celebrities’ and there was even one of the Mona Lisa.
“Look at that!” Quentin gasped, “It’s the Mona Lisa.”
“It’s a Mona Lisa,” I corrected, “not the Mona Lisa.”
“But it’s such a good likeness, who would know it wasn’t the real thing?”
“Well, the fact that it’s being sold in K-Mart Plaza for 140 bucks offers a clue…”
Quentin was immune to sarcasm and before I could say Michelangelo Caravaggio, he was interrogating the bemused artist. Perhaps it was Quentin’s plummy accent or maybe it was the Cambridge tie (bought at an Op Shop) but the artist took him seriously and patiently explained how even the most accomplished copy can be distinguished from the original. Oils, canvas and varnish have all changed over the years, even the wooden frame on which the canvas was stretched can be carbon-dated to verify its true age. To illustrate the importance of brush strokes and technique, he produced from his case two more copies – ‘Girl with a Pearl Ear-ring’ by Vermeer and Frans Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’.
Quentin was impressed. “That’s amazing, they look so authentic. Why would anyone cough up millions when they could buy something identical?”
“A photograph would be identical,” the artist gently explained, “but it wouldn’t be an original.”
“I can’t decide which one to buy,” Quentin muttered, peering from one work to the other. I suggested he buy the smallest. I didn’t humiliate him by mentioning that he was currently living in a borrowed campervan and the walls of a Volkswagen Kombi were not conducive to a large canvas. “You’re right,” he conceded, “I’ll take the Vermeer. Lend me a hundred and forty, will you?”
As we sat drinking coffee in the mall, I saw the dollar signs blinking in Quentin’s eyes and I realized he was going to try and pass off the painting as an original.
“You won’t get away with it,” I said.
“I know where I can buy an old picture frame for a few bob – and I can doctor the canvas.”
“And where will you find a mug to buy this masterpiece?”
Quentin sighed at my naiveté. “There are people with embarrassing amounts of cash which the Australian Tax Office will never hear about. Their challenge is in converting it into tangible assets and greed can vitiate their judgment; I happen to know such a person.”
To say that I was sceptical would be an understatement yet when I met up with him a few weeks later he was ecstatic. “The deal’s done!” he crowed. “I asked for a hundred grand and he offered fifty; I said, make it fifty grand US, cash – and he agreed.”
“And you actually have the money?”
“It’s all here,” he said shaking the briefcase which usually contained sausage rolls and petite sandwiches he liberated from annual general meetings and book launches slipped into uninvited. “I’m about to deposit some of it into my bank account.” He was so excited he almost offered to pay back the loan.
The euphoria didn’t last long, by the next day he was looking decidedly gloomy. The bank had taken the $5,000 he had offered but declined to credit his account as an ultra-violet light test had revealed certain anomalies: the bank notes were forgeries. He’d been invited to explain how the illicit notes had come into his possession and he would probably be interviewed by the police.
“There’s another 45,000 dollars US,” he groaned. “US for useless.” We were walking through K-Mart Plaza again, the artist had gone and an Asian woman was selling socks. You have to be down at heel to be interested in socks.
“If it’s any consolation,” I said “some of the most famous works in the most prestigious galleries are known to be fakes yet people still queue up to see them. Maybe you should leave your money on display, just to impress, as if it was a work of art. After all, it’s the perception that matters.”
Quentin looked at me and shook his head in dismay. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel you have only a slippery grasp on reality.”