A FEW DAYS OFF

Argus is taking a few days of. Posts will resume around the middle of next week, which of course is Holy Week.

31 March 2012

CONTRADICTORY?

I have often been reproached (and reproached myself) for inconsistency. One day I think something, the next day the opposite seems to me to be true (this is an oversimplification but I'm sure readers know what I mean). It was therefore with the gratification of finding a soulmate that I saw cited these lines from Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

A reassuring and realistic statement indeed (the quotation is from Whitman's Song of Myself as probably everybody but me knew). I don't know whether I contain multitudes, but I do see things from enough points of view that it is a relief to take a leaf out of Whitman's Leaves, so to speak, and not feel embarrassed when someone points out that something one has said doesn't square with what one said last week. Facts can lead to different conclusions depending on how you view them. They are like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope. Rotate the kaleidoscope and you see things differently.

Neither is it only in the mind. Habits and practices can be at variance with one another in the same individual without insincerity. What may be interpreted as hypocrisy might really be complexity.

30 March 2012

AN EXEMPLARY RESTORATION

I find myself so frequently moaning about church interiors wrecked in the name of "liturgical renewal" (and I don't mention more than a tenth of the shockers I see) that it comes as a breath of fresh air to be able wholeheartedly to praise the restoration and refurbishment of a great church that might so easily have fallen into the clutches of the kind of "innovative" designer who pulls out all the good fittings and replaces them with something absurd, as for example the impractical font-ambo-altar sequence recently installed in another landmark Melbourne church.

St Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne is a lofty building in French neo-Gothic style. Standing high on its hill west of the city centre, it is like a junior twin to St Patrick's Cathedral across the city on Eastern Hill. If it had the tower and spire that shortage of funds deprived it of it would be visible from all over central Melbourne, and certainly from Port Melbourne, as its dedication suggests. Flagstaff Hill, the early signal station from which shipping arrivals at Sandridge, the port of the infant colony, were announced in flags, is actually slightly downhill from St Mary's.

St Mary's was built to accommodate 1200 and along with Wardell's St Ignatius, Richmond, also in Melbourne, is probably the largest parish church in Australia. St Mary's was designed by local architect Edgar J. Henderson (others had a hand in the interior) who also designed the Catholic cathedral at Sale in Gippsland and substantial churches in Gardenvale and Echuca. It was built between 1892 and 1900, although its internal fittings were not complete until 1925.

That, as it happened, was about the time its parish was ceasing to be residential. As population drained away from inner Melbourne the congregation grew smaller. By sacrifice and effort the building was kept open but there was no money for extensive maintenance and the fabric declined. In particular the soft sandstone with which the brick walls are clad deteriorated badly. Inside, colourfully painted and stencilled walls were covered over with a nondescript greyish wash. The shortage of money had one positive effect. It meant that in the years after the Second Vatican Council when so many churches were being "re-ordered" (a process I recently saw described, quite appropriately, as "wreckovation") St Mary's was spared. Though the standard plain versus populum altar of the period was installed, the high altar and towering reredos, side altars and marble communion balustrades survived intact.

Stonework, including an entire pinnacle, falling from the structure made it clear by the start of this century that St Mary's would have to be either restored or demolished. The then parish priest launched an appeal for $10 million. With government contributions along with public donations enough money was raised to begin a thorough restoration - roof, walls and all the essential things like plumbing and wiring that no one sees and cost so much.

The glory of the whole project is the restoration of all the brilliantly painted wall surfaces inside the church, with the reinstatement of the stencilling in the apse and side chapels. A vast mural of Christ Pancrator - Christ the ruler of all - designed for the original church but never realised, has been painted by the chief restorer George Giannis and placed over the chancel arch. Giannis has also painted and carved the rows of angels with trumpets that gracefully line the hammer beams of the roof. The church glows with colour. It is a magnificent sight and I urge you to go and see it, preferably during a service when the lights are on.

The restoration is not complete. There is still stonework to be restored and $2 million needs still to be found to bring the appeal (supported and administered by the National Trust) to its target. But what has been done is wonderful. If only all church restorations demonstrated the respect shown by the restorers of St Mary's to the integrity of the building and the intentions of  the original architects and decorators.

There are good photographs of the restoration on the St Mary's website, www.stmaryswestmelbourne.org.

28 March 2012

A FEAST OF REASON


Anyone who has attended an event at the Wheeler Centre (if you can find anyone who has) will tell you that this fascinating forum, whose purpose is "to foster broad public engagement in books, writing and ideas", adds nothing but lustre to Melbourne's already Areopagan reputation as a city of culture and debate. The centre was established, its website says, as "a recognition and celebration of Melbourne's passionate readers" (a description that ought to be drawn to the attention of the organiser of an event in its current programme entitled "Away with Cliche: Irritating Language I Want to See Banned"). It was endowed by the founders of Lonely Planet, a uniquely whingey collection of guide books in which much of abroad (and especially Great Britain) is implied to be inferior to what we have in Australia, so that the Australian user of the guide, travelling only to have his prejudices confirmed, feels a glow of satisfyingly smugness when home his footsteps he hath turned from wandering on a foreign strand.

Cultural jewel though the Wheeler Centre is, it cannot be compared in range and interest of events with the Finkelstein Centre in Burchett Hill, endowed by the Bromberg family to honour the eminent Australian jurist "whose name will be forever associated with the defence of freedom of speech and comment at any cost". Like the Wheeler, the Finkelstein Centre (motto: "I disagree with what you say and will oppose to the death your right to say it") deals in literature and ideas, but specialises in what its website describes as the "concretisation of writing and speech so that concepts might be actualised and put into effect to engender a total reality in the conversation".

How this works was explained to Argus by Finkelstein Centre director Mary Lou Cannold, an acquisition to this country from Canada where she ran the Medicine Hat Women's Refuge & Grievance Awareness Workshop. "Take the case of a recent debate on 'post-birth abortion'," she began. Dr Alberto Giubilini and Dr Francesca Minerva, who wrote that fascinating recent polemic After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? on the ethics of what seems to me this perfectly reasonable step forward in the liberation of women, were invited to enlarge on their thesis as part of our cultural interface. But since our audiences, though highly intelligent, and even though they have cast off their early Judeo-Christian cultural formation, might have residual problems in accepting the basic fundamentals of this social advance, I thought that it would be opportune to 'concretise' the issue by having a post-birth abortion performed during the conversation. We had no trouble finding a candidate. A social worker I know, a strict feminist who will not speak to men, had been artificially inseminated by mistake while in hospital for a beard implant. She sued of course but that didn't undo the damage. When the baby turned out to be a boy she didn't know where to turn - until she heard that I was looking for someone who would help actualise and put into effect the concept at the heart of our debate.

"We were all ready to roll, we had a volunteer from the local branch of the Marie Stopes Foundation for Maternal Mercy booked to perform the operation, when at the last minute Alberto and Francesca pulled out. They said that when they wrote it was all right to abort after birth they'd really meant it wasn't all right. It makes you wonder doesn't it? Just because a few fascist 'pro-lifers' raise a hue and cry they get cold feet. I don't want to sound racist but I suppose all those stories that RSL rednecks tell about Italian tanks having only one forward and three reverse gears must have some basis in lived experience."

The Finkelstein Centre is not afraid to address "the hard issues". When distinguished medical pioneer Dr Philip Nitschke, author of the bestseller Killing Me Softly, was invited to speak about his book he naturally wanted some assistance in actualising the concept of dispensing with oneself. Ms Cannold invited a number of residents of the Shades of Night retirement home in Burchett Hill to be in the audience. Some were reluctant to attend; one of them had heard somewhere that Dr Nitschke was unkind to dogs; but most were enticed along when the debate was presented as an evening with a bingo expert who would lead community singing as well. Dr Nitschke explained that the big prize for the bingo would be a free hook-up to his "dream machine", a streamlined apparatus he had stationed on the platform with him - "you just lie back and think lovely thoughts and the machine will do the rest," he added soothingly. The bingo winners, Jessie and Stan Snell, presented themselves to Dr Nitschke and were bidden to compose themselves in the "departure pods" of the machine. "Press the 'go' button, dear friends, or shall I do it for you?" asked the doctor, while a quintet from the Tallis Scholars, regular performers at the Finkelstein Centre, struck up "Silver Threads Among the Gold" for the community singing. All at once, just as the quintet had moved on to "Where Did You Get That Hat?", the auditorium was plunged into darkness. The machine had short-circuited. "You ignorant cretins," Dr Nitschke screamed at Jessie and Stan, "you've fucked my machine!" He was trying to throttle them both at once when Ms Cannold declared the event terminated. An examination afterwards indicated that the contents of Stan's colostomy bag had leaked into the machine, causing the malfunction.

The Finkelstein Centre has attracted some star guests. The writer Ayaan Ali Hirsi was to have taken part in a recent discussion about the Moslem habit of female 'circumcision' in which she was to put the case against this quaint cultural tradition. As it happened, she was unable to be in Australia after all, so the "no" case was presented instead by Ms Eva Mahjong, a founder member of the Women's Electoral Lobby. The case in favour was made by a local author, Imam Ibn al Choppa-hedoff Poofa whose major work is a "death list of infidels" published by the Burchett Hill Mosque. To illustrate his argument, Imam Choppa-hedoff had arranged for a young woman to be "circumcised" on the platform. Unfortunately she disappeared from the centre just before the debate (it was later learned that she had induced a cleaner to let her out of the room where she was locked) and no understudy had been engaged. Imam Choppa-hedoff, understandably put out, called for volunteers from the audience of mainly elderly book-lovers. When no one offered, he and his assistant, the muezzin from the mosque, leapt on Ms Mahjong and dragged her by her cropped hair to the "work table" they had set up as part of their presentation. Her shrieks as he flashed his scalpel carried well beyond the confines of the hall and a passer-by called the police who, seeing the imam in the midst of a largely Anglo-Saxon-looking crowd, assumed that "white racism" was rearing its head and opened fire on the audience with tasers. The debate was suspended. Police are considering charges against Ms Mahjong under "hate crimes" legislation for "offending the feelings" of the imam and muezzin by her disinclination to cooperate.

There is no doubt about the variety of topics for, as Ms Cannold puts it, "stretching the mind" in the Finkelstein Centre's programme.  For Gay & Lesbian Week, for instance, writer Christos Philthopoulos, author of Australian bestsellers Suck and Blow (his latest novel Cum is due out next month) and Lesbian activist Desma Bull, a lecturer in Queer Studies at Manning Clark University, spoke about their work. But instead of "just sitting there and talking shit," as Philthopolous put it, the two letterateurs boldly decided to concretise their concepts by offering free tuition to audience members in such quintessentially G&L pursuits as "cottaging" and "scissoring". One elderly lady commented afterwards that she would never have believed she could have enjoyed herself so much. Philthopoulos refused to apologise to seven male members of the audience who were arrested for indecent behaviour in the Prince Albert memorial public facilities opposite the centre while actualising the concept of cottaging because, he said, "that's all part of a gay's reality".

So of course is marriage equality, which came up the following week. Instead of a literary debate it was decided a gay marriage should be celebrated in front of the audience. The happy couple were a centre researcher, "Gavin", and his friend "Rodney" ("we didn't use our real names because it's not quite legal yet, is it?" said "Gavin"). "Rodney" was particularly impressed with the high standards that prevail at the Finkelstein Centre. "The main auditorium looked just gorgeous," he commented. "There were masses of pink stephanotis and swathes of white satin." It is a pity that the occasion was spoiled by an unseemly spat when a third party, "Donald", a prosperous-looking older gentleman, arrived and claimed to be already "partnered" with "Gavin". "It's like bigamy!" he cried. At this point Ms Cannold intervened. "As the next campaign after marriage equality is achieved," she announced, "bigamy will be the subject of a future debate. Let's not jump the gun."

Other forthcoming highlights in the Autumn Programme at the Finkelstein Centre include:

6 April: "Why censorship is never an acceptable option", with speakers from Liberty Victoria. The evening will include the burning of Bibles, works of climate-change scepticism and other "poison that enslaves the mind", the destruction of which, says Ms Cannold, "is not censorship but the fundamental human right of liberation". Friends of the Finkelstein are being asked to donate a Weber barbecue for the occasion.

13 April: To coincide with the Global Atheism Convention, Professor Richard Sneer from Oxford will launch his book Why Only Morons Believe in God. Professor Sneer will debate the existence of God with Johnny Hallelujah, a young trainee for the Baptist ministry in Papua New Guinea, who speaks only pidgin ("we pride ourselves on balance in our exchanges of ideas," says Ms Cannold).

20 April: "An Evening with John Clarke" in which the gifted satirist and mimic from New Zealand, a favourite on the ABC, will show how to create a whole gallery of hilarious characters using only one silly voice and pulling one stupid face.

Bookings are necessary for all events.

26 March 2012

IN MY GARDEN

WITH "EDNA"

What should a garden be if not a green oasis of peace and tranquillity? Pests in such a haven are the last thing you want. Pests come in two categories: bugs and birds and suchlike and other people. The latter are far worse than the insect and avian pests, and take far more trouble to get rid of.

My garden is a very beautiful one and quite well known and therefore is at constant risk of infestation by the most persistent kind of human pest, Hortum amans or "garden lover". This species tends to attack in fine weather. There is a whole colony of Hortum amans in the district where I live and from time to time they will appear with requests that I open my garden "to the public" in aid of some alleged charity. Recently I decided it was time to deal with this nuisance once and for all.

On an appointed afternoon, which was on one of those lovely and still-warm days we get in Autumn, I opened my gate to a coach party of Hortos amantes (as they are known collectively) from a local senior citizens' club. I hurried them along (one tripped on her frame and fell into the goldfish pond) to see the new highlight of my garden, a beautiful solar-heated greenhouse. When they all crowded in to admire my exotics I locked the door. "It's sweltering in here," I heard one pest say, and of course on a sunny day solar panels really pay for themselves, don't they?

I keep an old electric fan in the greenhouse in case it gets too hot when I am in there potting or whatever and I called out, "Anyone too warm?" Although I couldn't decipher the squawks in response I activated the fan at the fuse box outside, having earlier set it to blow directly over a heap of specially rich blood-and-bone maturing in a corner of the greenhouse. Then I turned on the overhead sprinklers. You should have heard the pandemonium! When at length I opened the door it was like the scene my sister-in-law in New Zealand described to me of the flour mill in Christchurch where her husband worked when it was struck by the earthquake: garden-lovers caked in blood-and-bone, gasping and coughing, stumbling blindly through billowing grey clouds of fertiliser. And the language! - from respectable elderly people who should know better. I was quite shocked.

Those who could walk left at once and ambulances collected the others. I think I can now consider my lovely garden well and truly free of Hortum amans.

                                                         * * * * *

What gives garden shade more delightfully than a leafy green upas tree (Antiaris toxicara)? It gives privacy to a garden as well and my readers will know how much I value privacy!

Upas groves are a pretty ornament to a garden and cultivating a upas orchard can make a relaxing hobby. When picking time comes, enlist a party of friends to harvest the upas fruit. The juice can be squeezed and used for preparing all sorts of cups, cordials and syllabubs. Like eucalyptus against a cold, fresh upas juice is rich in vitamins. Best of all, it has an instant effect on all sorts of irritants. A glassful will work wonders with tiresome friends or difficult business associates. Make sure you dig them in near the upas for abundant growth next season.

Happy gardening!

23 March 2012

SAVING THE GRAND PRIX

The Melbourne Grand Prix has come and gone again. Everyone wonders how it survives but it does. The "gate" each time is apparently down on the one two years earlier, but the coyness of successive Victorian governments in disclosing the balance sheet means we shall probably never know whether this dreary orgy of noise and speed costs the state more than it "earns". The one thing certain is that spivvy Bernie Ecclestone, the race's owner, never fails to get the vast sum he demands each time for allowing Melbourne the privilege of holding the event -  $55 million or thereabouts and not a penny less or else, as the cocky little squirt warned just before this year's Grand Prix, he takes his business elsewhere.

If audiences are falling, there's a ready explanation, according to prominent motor enthusiasts' group the Friends of Exhaust Fumes. It's because the Melbourne Grand Prix "is confined to a pathetic tiny circuit hardly big enough for a tricycle race", booms Merv Klaxon, FOEF president and leading car dealer.  "The present course is so short that the race has hardly started and it's finished," he yells. "There's no scope for spectacular driving or the kind of pile-ups that look good on TV. Let's face it, it's a Clayton's."

The FOEF has drawn up proposals for a vastly extended Grand Prix circuit "to take the race to all the people of Melbourne". The new course would run from the Shrine of Remembrance along St Kilda Road via Federation Square to Bourke Street, through the pedestrian mall and back again, up the steps of Parliament House and in the front door, through Queen's Hall and out the other side into the Fitzroy Gardens. All principal roads required for the event would be blocked off to traffic, trams and the public and widened to take twenty lanes of racing cars. There would be "pit stops" conveniently located in the nave of St Paul's Cathedral, the cosmetics department of David Jones and the parlour of Captain Cook's Cottage.

In addition to the designated city-centre course, the FOEF envisages "alternative raceways" through the leafy streets of prosperous eastern suburbs. These could be chosen "spontaneously" by competitors to lend "an element of surprise" to the race. An "alternative raceway" would necessitate the removal of all "street trees and other obstacles - and if a lot of front gardens have to go too, well that's the price of progress," bawls Mr Klaxon.

The FOEF proposal calls for houses and other buildings along all "circuit options" to be compulsorily acquired, and if necessary demolished. Those not impeding the route would be adapted for use as corporate boxes and grandstands or as ambulance stations and mortuaries for emergencies. "Of course," bellows Mr Klaxon, "hi-tech amplification equipment will need to be installed along all routes so that even up to forty kilometres from the race everyone can thrill to the sound of classic virtuoso driving."

FOEF describes its plan as "an imaginative means of achieving greater public involvement in the Grand Prix while at the same time ensuring that individual NIMBY interests are now allowed to override those of the motor-racing professionals." Mr Klaxon admitted that he had not yet "discussed the matter with Bernie," but "would not be surprised" if "an extended race" prompted the diminutive Formula One boss to ask for more money. "This could easily be found out of all the savings the Victorian government is making by its current spending cuts," blared Mr Klaxon in his foghorn voice. "In fact it would be an excellent investment." He called on the Victorian government to give "top priority" to developing the new circuits in time for 2014 or run the risk of losing the Grand Prix "and all the many benefits it brings to our state."

22 March 2012

DIES IRAE

Margaret Whitlam  has died at 92 and in the nature of things St Gough is unlikely to be far behind. When he leaves us the "quality" media will go into meltdown. It'll be worse than Pravda and Stalin. The ABC is quite capable of declaring a week's mourning with solemn music playing continuously and a crepe-hung portrait on screen of the man who, until the Gillard came along, was acknowledged by all but Labor fanatics as Australia's worst prime minister. The front pages of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald will be edged in black and with a bit of luck there'll be a silly Spooner caricature. But the Dismissal, dear Lord, spare us the Dismissal. Endless rehashings of what a crime against humanity it was from ageing true believers stoking their failing rage. Sir John Kerr traduced over and over again ad nauseam. Interminable reruns of that booming flatulent voice blowing into the wind outside Parliament House: "Well may we say God Save the Queen because nothing will save the Governor-General!" An avalanche of cloying tributes from the flower power generation and from the arts also-rans who stayed at home to accept Whitlam's largesse (courtesy of the taxpayer) rather than go abroad to measure themselves against the rest of the world. It will be a good time to escape to a hermitage.

18 March 2012

DINING OUT

Last night I dined at an establishment in Daylesford, Victoria, which has been awarded some sort of prize as a top country restaurant by the Australian Good Food & Travel Guide, whatever that is, and is described as "iconic". It wasn't a country restaurant at all in any sense beyond its location in a country town; it was a metropolitan restaurant with the usual tricked-up food and pretentiousness (there were credits on the front page of the menu to those who had "created" the food - "God?" suggested my brother). Metropolitan prices too. Is there any country restaurant that still serves genuine old-fashioned country cooking - soups and stews and pies and roasts and puddings? It's a style of food that I fear is as dead as a doornail, unless it survives in some homestead kitchen somewhere. There was a hotel at Violet Town run by a Miss Murphy years ago that used to make a speciality of proper country cooking, but no longer. As for the Daylesford icon, if it is among the best in country restaurants in Victoria one shudders to think what the worst must be like.

17 March 2012

IN THE WILDERNESS

Sometimes I wonder why I write this blog. Ostensibly the answer to that, as I rather over-confidently state in the "About Me" blurb on the right of this page, is that one "writes to be read". But the statistics show that one isn't, except by a loyal few. Mutatis mutandis I feel like Father McKenzie "writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear" in "Eleanor Rigby". But one perseveres in the faint hope that some day someone will hear. Or is it because one likes the sound of one's own computer keyboard?

17 March 2012

LIFE IMITATES ART

Well not Art perhaps but Argus, and not Life but the culture of death that obsesses the modern enlightened thinker. Here is something I wrote in the original Argus column in Quadrant in October 1996 under the heading "Lobby group demands 'no restriction' on abortion".

With its preferred government no longer in power [the Labor government had just been de-elected] the Women's Electoral Lobby is on guard against any erosion of abortion "rights" (surely the old bags who run the Women's Electoral Lobby have no need of abortions). It seems that there are more "pro-life" MPs in Federal Parliament than before, and, warns a WEL official in a radio interview, they'd better not start tampering with a woman's right to choose.

Jenna Curettenberg, chair of the controversial pressure group Friends of Abortion, agrees. In fact, she goes a step further and demands that the Howard government demonstrate its "commitment to women's welfare" by extending the scope of abortion legislation "beyond the absurdly restrictive nine-month limit now imposed - a limit which unfairly discriminates against women who discover that they don't want a child only after the foetus is born".

And I thought I was writing satirically. But lo, along come bioethicists Dr Alberto Giubilini and Dr Francesca Minerva, two deracinated ethnics connected with Melbourne and Monash Universities, to assert that what we call 'after-birth abortion' (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

Further,

having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus. This could happen in the case of a woman who loses her partner after she finds out that she is pregnant and therefore feels she will not be able to take care of the possible child by herself.


It's taken sixteen years but Jenna Curettenberg would be delighted, although I think she deserves some acknowledgment for coming up with the idea first.

Unfortunately, in the wake of a less than favourable public reaction to their proposal, the two doughty bioethicists backtrack. Jenna would never have done that. As the Monash Weekly reported:

In an open letter published on the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva said the paper was meant to be "a pure exercise of logic".

"The article was supposed to be read by our fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments. We expected that other bioethicists would challenge either the premise or the logical pattern we followed, because that is what happens in academic debates," they said.


"We never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal.


"What people understood was that we were in favour of killing people. This, of course, is not what we suggested.... We are really sorry that many people who do not share the background of the intended audience for this article felt offended, outraged, or even threatened." (Would this last reaction be that of newborn infants who can read?)

Alberto and Francesca are absolutely right in their contention that post-birth abortion or infanticide is logically consistent with pre-birth abortion, although I should have thought that was a two-edged sword that could be used not only by abortion enthusiasts such as themselves but by opponents of abortion at any stage of pregnancy or after.  Whatever, the whole affair made poor Dr Giubilini so upset that his university had to provide him "with counselling and personal security advice." I don't know about Dr Minerva, but perhaps, as "the female of the species..." she can look after herself. When Italy was under assault by the Red Brigades it was always the women commandants who were the most terrifying and ruthless.

By the way, in their paper the two bioethicists follow the silly American-originated convention of using "she" as the inclusive pronoun in the way "he" used to be generally used and by good writers still is. Presumably this is to avoid the cumbersome "he or she" or inelegant "they". "He" of course was perfectly acceptable to everyone until feminism came along, when it was condemned by people without much sense of language as sexually discriminatory. But by that measure so too is "she" when used inclusively. I suppose there's some tit-for-tat rationale circulating in the pussy-whipped world of universities to the effect that "he" in this sense has had a good run and it's only fair that "she" be used, so that if anyone feels discriminated against, it's no longer women but men. Payback time you might say. How very mature.

Let the last word be from Jenna Curettenberg's lobbyists in 1996.

Friends of Abortion are demanding that all women receive "an adequate annual abortion grant" from the Federal Government. "This could easily be funded by imposing a tax on declared 'pro-lifers' as a penalty for creating division in the community and advocating the oppression of mothers." they say.


I think President Obama might have picked up on that one.

15 March 2012

SOME CHURCH OBSERVATIONS

I haven't posted on church matters for a while (since 25 February actually) but a couple of things worth recording have come to my notice. One is the enormous change for the better in the liturgy and furnishings at St Francis Xavier's in the Melbourne beachside suburb of Frankston. This late 1950s cream-brick church, not everyone's favourite style but very good of its kind, has suffered sorely at the hands of sundry re-orderers, all no doubt filled with the spirit of Vatican II, or supposing themselves to be. When I first saw this church it was all of a piece, with a handsome marble high altar in the "contemporary" design of the era, rather a rarity. The next time I looked in the altar had gone, leaving a big ugly empty space on the floor, though the gradine that had been behind it remained. The niche where the tabernacle had been was now blocked up and the sacrament reserved in an aumbry to one side with a silly coloured door bearing a "primitive" image in baked enamel of the kind VCE students produce in the art room at school. An ironing-board altar stood at the sanctuary step. A year or two later there had been a further change: a wholesale reordering for which I suspect (though I have not checked) that those architectural serial offenders Prism Designs were responsible. An altar, ambo and font, all circular and on circular legs, were distributed around the chancel on different levels, the ambo highest. They were perhaps the most hideous church furnishings I have ever seen, though from the finishes (lots of blondwood) I daresay they were hideously expensive too.

The altar component of this group has now been removed and a simple altar of proper shape and proportions, with crucifix in the "Benedictine" position, substituted. That simple change has immensely improved the appearance of the church. There is still much more to be done but it's a good start. And the former altar would make a nice round dining table in what I believe is termed a Mcmansion, which would recoup some of the cost.

The liturgy at St Francis Xavier's was as awful as the furniture. The last time I was there the priest (an episcopal vicar no less) celebrated the Mass in a highly informal style. His vesture left quite a lot to be desired. Last Sunday the celebrant, the curate I think, was wearing a handsome traditional chasuble, lined and orphreyed. As I approached the church through the car park, a little late, I could hear chanting. Chanting, in a church alive with the spirit of Vatican II! It was the celebrant chanting the collect and he did it exceptionally well. So perhaps little by little, decent standards in Catholic liturgy are reappearing in the archdiocese of Melbourne. The church, by the way, was packed.

Another step in the right direction has come from a very unexpected quarter. Father Bob Maguire, the former parish priest of South Melbourne who, aided and abetted by the Herald Sun, refused to go quietly when he reached retirement age, has never been noted for his concern for good liturgy. But he of all people is now celebrating an Extraordinary Form Mass every Sunday evening at seven in the church where he served, St Peter and St Paul's. The one I saw was an impressive performance, correct in every detail as far as I could tell, though with a little prompting from the server, but without the elegant faultlessness of the Latin Mass community's celebrations in Caulfield. This, I thought, is what it must have been like in most Melbourne parish churches when the Tridentine Mass was the norm, a liturgy celebrated by a normal old Aussie chap, a bit grumpy in his manner, rather than by smoothly expert specialists. There was no music during the rite, which would also have been the norm. For all his good works Father Bob has never seemed to me the most appealing of personalities - too much self-promotion among other things - but this Mass showed that his heart is very much in the right place.

15 March 2012

AN UNRECOGNISED TREASURE

The National Trusts of Australia have nominated a further collection of what they call Living National Treasures to add to the ho-hummery of names (everyone you'd expect, from Bart Cummings to Phillip Adams to Cathy Freeman) already on their list in that capacity. Argus looked in vain among the new nominees, most of whom he had never heard of, for one of his favourite Australian female legends, but sad to say she's been overlooked again. This is a crying shame. If anyone deserves to be in a pantheon of living national treasures it's Wyn Pendlebury, actress and gracious stage personality extraordinaire, whose professional career is like a mini-history of Australian dramatic art across the decades.

This veteran trouper, known to a whole generation of television viewers as Bev, the tough warder with a heart of gold in Channel 9's iconic series of the 1980s and '90s Cell Sisters, is still working long past what most people would regard as retirement age. She is currently appearing with Sydney's Tosser Street Theatre Company as the crone who turns out to be Joan of Arc's grandmother in Angel Girl, a ground-breaking tour de force described by its director and writer, Australian playwright David Snark, as "a postcolonial re-interpretation of a play by Brit author George Shaw".

Pendlebury's career has been an exciting one. "I'd always wanted to be an actress, that is actor as they told me to say at the ABC," she confided over a gin, lime and bitters in the Ladies' Lounge of the small pub near the theatre where we caught up. "We lived out at Cowloolaboola in western Queensland and there was no theatre there so I used to cut up copies of the Bulletin and make costumes and give shows of my own to the shearers. I'd make them pay too," she giggles.

Her early talent for acting and singing stood her in good stead when Pendlebury hitchhiked to Brisbane ("some of those truckies should keep their hands on the wheel") to appear in a radio talent quest, impersonating Gertrude Lawrence. Her prize was an audition with Frank Lightfoot for his Mulga Minstrel Show on 4BX. It was the start of her dramatic career. Before long she was appearing regularly in the weekly musical programme Merchant of Music with baritone Hector Smallhorn and Arthur Schmaltz's Old Vienna Strings.

Pendlebury was soon on nationwide radio in a run of successes. "There was The Ovaltine Hour where I played Mrs Peabody. Then I was Marj in The Persil Girls. I was co-star with Lester Smale in Hello Cocky ("Australia's version of The Goon Show but years in advance") and I was poor wheelchair-bound Nurse Goodchild in Flying Doctor's Diary with Cyril Tripe as John Flynn. So many memories," she sighs, blowing her nose into a kleenex. "A refill? Well thank you, don't mind if I do."

The list of Pendlebury's acting credits doesn't stop there. She was Tom Pervis's long-suffering wife Merle in Peeping Tom on 3DB. She was Mrs Danvers in Crawford's production of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca for the Laxette Theatre Hour. And of course many Australians of a certain age will remember her as Trixie, the zany comptometriste in Macquarie Radio's Laugh Till You Bust with Harold "Happy" Olsen. The show ran for 600 episodes until "Happy" committed suicide.

In spite of her radio popularity, she always felt drawn to the legitimate theatre."My earliest role was as one of Mo ("Roy") Scunge's 'Naughty Babes' at the old Alhambra. That taught me a lot. Another? Oh well if you twist my arm."

Melbourne identity Frank Thring recruited Pendlebury in 1953 for his one-man show Well Get You, Darling, which was closed down by the Victorian vice squad after a single performance. She has been a strong opponent of censorship ever since. "Frank was a real gentleman," she says. "A bit you know" - she flaps her wrist and inadvertently drops her kleenex into my glass of Pine O'Cleen Creek Estate Victorian chardonnay - "don't worry, I've got another one in my bag - but a true genius. To close his show was a real attack on the integrity of art, as the editorial in the Age said - not that that made much difference in those days when Australia was pretty well a dictatorship under Menzies."

In 1955 Pendlebury "as a country lass myself" auditioned for the role of Jedda, the Aboriginal girl who meets a tragic end in pioneering Australian director Charles Chauvel's film of that name. The part went instead to Ngarla Kunoth but Pendlebury won the "consolation prize" of playing Flossie, the station cook. Interestingly, she returned to an outback role in the early 1980s when she was cast as baby-snatcher Hetty Johnston in Gillian Johnston's searing portrait of backblocks country life We Danced All Night at the Progress Hall, based on the 1899 children's classic Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel C. Pedley.

Television brought Pendlebury further fame with featured roles in landmark Australian productions such as Manslaughter Squad ("I was the Chief Commissioner's squeeze") and Wallaby Hill, where she was Miss Hotchkiss the schoolteacher ("not one of my biggest parts as Miss Hotchkiss retires with a nervous breakdown in Episode 3"). She still cherishes the dozens of letters she received when she was Wilma, the chatty tea lady in Grundy's Yawnington Street ("none of my fans were all judgmental when Wilma is revealed as a kleptomaniac," she remembers proudly). This was also a time when television drama was cuttings its teeth with some seriously thought-provoking productions. Pendlebury played Nellie West to Stuart Wagstaff's John West (code for crime boss John Wren) in ABV2's adaptation of Frank Hardy's controversial novel Power Without Glory (Buster Fiddess was Archbishop Mannix).

But the stage remained her first love and when Greta Smartacre set up her Old Soup Kitchen Company in 1973 Pendlebury signed on.

"We couldn't have done it without Gough," she recalls. "He was the shaviour of the arts in this country. I don't know where we would have been without those grants."

Smartacre directed Pendlebury in what became the actor's favourite role, Mrs Allardyce, the sadistic lady bowler, in Hannie Gallbag's biting anti-war satire Lamingtons at the RSL. "It was very intellectually challenging," she says. "It really pinpointed the underlying fascism of the Anzac myth." Other favourites? I loved playing Elma, the nosy neighbour in ABC television's award-winning Mum and Me with Ruth Cracknell - a wonderful performer, truly a grande dame of the theatre - and Gary Loser. Such witty writing."

Pendlebury believes Australia is "streets ahead" in the quality of its theatre. She went to London in the the mid-1960s but came home after a month because she felt she wasn't offered any roles that really suited her. "Our shtandards are mush higher here, and there are so many gifted people around who haven't been tempted by the lure of the so-called West End or Hollywood - you know, Ingrid Thornton, Frankie J. Holden and of course dear Geoffrey Rush, though I suppose he's a bit Betty Bothways in his loyalties since that film about George the Fifth, and Robyn Nevin, she's such a sweetie, and Reg Livermore and what's his name? - John Clark with his endless funny voices. So much talent."

Pendlebury says she has "no definite future commitments at the moment" though "just between ourselves" her name has been mentioned for her old role as Gertrude Lawrence in a possible Melbourne Theatre Company revival of Tonight at 8.30 opposite hilarious mimic Max Gillies as Noel Coward. Does she ever think of retirement? "An artist, dear, never retires," she declares, thumping the table for emphasis. Reflectively she mops up the gin with yet another kleenex. "I think, hic, I could go on forever. And what about if we have another, a double this time?"

What a larger-than-life character. Let's hope the National Trusts show more imagination next time they're nominating Living National Treasures.

11 March 2012

RETURN OF THE SHIPS

Ship-spotting on Port Phillip is back, almost as I remember it from my childhood. For ship of course I mean passenger ship. No one is interested in the ungainly profiles of cargo ships piled high with containers making their lumpy way up the bay. But passenger ships - apart from the Tasmanian ferry which doesn't really count - proper overseas international passenger ships, that is, have been a rare sight on Port Phillip since the 1970s, when air transport became the norm for travel abroad. Now, in the form of cruise liners, they are returning in numbers that make it worthwhile to look up the shipping arrivals and departures lists (in the papers but also online at www.portofmelbourne.com/expected.aspx) to see what's of interest among the vessels due in and out of port.

In the six months to the end of this month international passenger ships will have visited Melbourne 58 times. If most of those visits are by the same ships that's still 58 opportunities to see a big liner come up or down the bay. There wouldn't have been a tenth that number in a whole year in the 1980s and 1990s. Melbourne is no longer a passenger-ship destination in its own right as it was in the days of the gold rush and mass migration but it is at least once again established as a regular port of call.

To enjoy the sight of a big ship - and there have been some super-big ones in, such as the new Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary 2 and that Flying Dutchman of the rich and leisured, The World, on which elderly plutocrats in their own private "residences" permanently and somewhat aimlessly cruise the seven seas - you need to have a view over the right part of the bay. Close to Port Melbourne is good, Williamstown advantageous and on the eastern side as far down as Middle Park all right before the angle between channel and shore becomes too wide to see the ship in clear detail. The beach at McCrae is stupendous because it's right opposite the point where the South Channel, the main channel up the bay, comes closest to shore and where the ships turn sharply, from an eastern to a north-north-westerly course if bound for Melbourne, in the opposite direction if outward bound towards the Port Phillip heads.

An even better vantage point is your own armchair. There is a small number of fortunate souls who can enjoy ship-watching without having to go down to the beach. This privileged minority resides on the slopes of Arthur's Seat and Dromana. High above the bay, they can contemplate the arrivals and departures of dozens of fine ships in the comfort of their own homes. Domestic telescopes are very popular in this region, trained on the sea from a hundred balconies and sun decks.

Naturally, this being southern Victoria, the caprices of weather don't always help the ship-watcher. Rain on the water can create a curtain through which the ship is barely visible as a shadowy form. The Queen Mary 2, heading straight for McCrae recently, sailed into a cloud when very close to shore and was lost to sight as though caught up in the Transfiguration.

It is true that passenger-ship traffic is not quite back to what it was in the days when there were sometimes four overseas liners tied up together at Station Pier. That state of affairs lasted even into the 1960s when it was still cheaper to travel to Europe by sea than by air. Young people went Tourist, which was what Second Class (there was no longer any steerage) had been tactfully renamed, their better-off elders, setting out on the long-planned-for post-retirement overseas trip, luxuriated in the plushness of First. Ships were of all nations. The post-retirees preferred British - the Orcades, Orsova, Oriana, Himalaya - but there were also the Italian Achille Lauro and twins Galileo Galilei and Guglielmo Marconi, the Greek Australis and Ellinis and the Dutch Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Their countries of origin were the countries from which most migrants came, which explains why there were few if any French or German ships on the Europe-Australia run. The liners came out from Europe with Tourist filled with migrants subsidised by the Australian government. On the voyage back the youth of Australia making its obligatory pilgrimage to Europe took the migrants' place.

Until at least the 1960s prime ministers and cricket teams travelled to England by sea. Business executives didn't travel as much as today, when they will seize any excuse to board a plane, but they took the ship when they did. Time was somehow found in busy schedules for the three weeks the voyage each way took. Sea travel wasn't considered slow. It was fast compared to what it had been in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when passengers to and from Australia had to submit to voyages lasting months. The Italian line Lloyd Triestino actually described its Italy-Australia sailings in the 1970s as an "express service". All of which goes to show that speed and time are relative to what is possible. If some sort of instant travel as imagined in science fiction ever becomes a reality, planes that can get you to Europe in 22 hours will be as outmoded as windjammers. Unlike ships, which have adapted from line voyages to cruises, it is hard to imagine that they would have a future as a means of conveying anyone anywhere for pleasure.

But if shipboard life on the new cruise liners is about pleasure rather than using the sea as a means of travel that makes no difference to the view from the shore. For the ship-watcher it's the sight of a stately ship that counts, and even though nautical silhouettes have changed, the thrill of watching a grand vessel glide by hasn't.

9 March 2012