PLEASURES OF THE COUNTRY TABLE

In The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960, the architect Robin Boyd remembered a meal in a hotel dining room in Yass, New South Wales, served by "a waiter with arms bare to the pits dealing out soup bowls like playing cards round the packed table and responding to my circumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass of wine with the succinct phrase, 'I think you'll be stiff, mate.'"

If the book is ever reprinted - and it is among the best books about Australian life and culture ever written - one hopes the publisher will not allow this anecdote to stand unrevised. Everyone knows, thanks to publications like "Epicure" in the Melbourne Age and interminable television hash-slinging competitions, that Australia's cuisine has come of age, and that the sunburnt country's hotels and restaurants lead the world in culinary excellence, hospitality etc. Not only that, but they are awash with wine. Had he been travelling today Robin could almost have floated out the door on it. Whatever may have been the case in 1960 cannot be allowed to cast a shadow over the gastronome's paradise we enjoy on our lucky continent today.

Leading cookery writer and culinary authority Stephanie Swill has had the inspired idea of drafting a revised version of Boyd's story, suitable for inclusion in any new edition of The Australian Ugliness (which she feels should be retitled The Australian Beautiness). Substituting herself for Boyd, she writes:

"Motoring from Sydney to Melbourne I decided to sample one of the many five-star restaurants listed in my trusty copy of A Gourmet's Guide to the Hume Highway (ed. S. Swill). I turned off the freeway at Yass, where the historic old Mulcahy's Racing Greyhound Hotel beckoned with its celebrated menu, much praised by contributors to the Guide, of fresh local ingredients imaginatively presented with Provencal flair, Tuscan brio, Thai subtlety, Japanese politeness etc. and last but not least Aussie sophistication.

"In response to my quite uncircumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass - nay, two glasses, three, a bottle, two bottles - of wine, a beaming waiter with arms bare (and tattooed) to the pits and dark blue singlet with the legend "Say Yes to Yass" produced from the recesses of his khaki shorts a map showing all the "wine regions" into which the district is divided. Within a radius of five kilometres, he told me, there are no fewer than seventeen thousand vineyards, each producing wines that are the envy of the world. Indeed, so keen are locals on their "drop" that the nearby Botanic Gardens and the backyard of the hotel itself have been turned over to viticulture (my waiter particularly recommended a sparkling light white, "Chateau Gullytrap", grown, he told me, in the corner of the yard near the drainage facility of that name between the clothes line and the outside gents').

"For his part, the enlightened patron of the hotel, Phonse Mulcahy, has forbidden the serving of meals without wine and stipulated that as a condition of entry to his dining room all customers must sample a minimum of twenty Yass vintages. Very civilised.

"With a cheery 'there yer go' from the waiter, the menu arrived (a little stickier to the touch than I am used to) and I turned to the pleasant task of ordering from a veritable cornucopia of genuine Australian country dishes, from eucalyptus lasagne and Boston baked beans with sugar ants to "campfire-grilled" wallaby kassler, koala-mince moussaka and Moreton Bay fig tarte tatin. There was also a sumptuous list of locally made cheeses, from which the waiter suggested as particularly fine a double sheepdip-washed roquefort he said was ripening in the meat safe outside and the aroma of which I was sure I could detect even at my table.

"Gazing around the tastefully rustic dining room with its interesting framed photographs of 1950s football teams and in the not too distant background the traditional dulcet tones, so beloved of country folk, of a race caller on the huge television in the bar sounding as though he were about to have apoplexy, I reflected with pride how far fine dining in Australia has progressed from the days of bare-armed waiters dealing out soup bowls like playing cards.

"My reverie was interrupted by a dispute at a far table. An inconsequential little man, who looked as if he wouldn't know the first thing about good food, was raising his voice to the waiter. 'I said I'd like a cup of tea,' he cried. 'And I said you'll be stiff, mate,' replied the waiter. 'This is a gourmet restaurong. Tea, unless it's rose hip, wildflower or wattle, isn't part of Australia's new sophisticated international cuisine. Yer drink wine here and like it or yer sod off.'

"'Bravo!' I called to the waiter in my impeccable Italian, acquired on my many visits to that country with its wonderful history of food. 'It's people like you who are upholding the standards of hospitality and service which make Australian dining so unique. A cup of tea indeed!'

"The waiter looked across at me. 'Are you deaf or somethink? I said no tea here, grandma. I just told this dickhead. If you want to take the mickey why don't youse pay yer bill and piss off before I kick yer out, you old bat.'"

28 June 2012


HOW MAY I NOT HELP YOU?


A friend recently described her experience with a telephone company's call centre, which, for various reasons, she suspects not to have been located within the confines of our own fair country. There was some considerable difficulty in communication, she reports. By the time she had been passed here, there and everywhere and tried to explain her complaint about an unexpectedly increased bill at least twice in lengthy detail, she had been on the phone for 78 minutes. "It wouldn't have taken so much time if I'd been able to understand what they were saying," she said. "Why can't they employ people who speak more clearly?"

I fear my friend is deceived. Clear speech is not necessarily a desideratum in call centres, and the less clear it is the better some customers like it. For instance, inner-city municipality Burchett Hill ("proudly twinned with Pyongyang") recently selected a call centre to handle ratepayers' queries. The "key criterion" in the selection process was that nobody should be able to understand a word the "customer service consultant" said. The successful tenderer,  Babel World Communications, based in Peshawar, won the Burchett Hill account because of its "unique comprehension strategy" of never matching the language of the consultant to the language of the caller.

There is a logic to this in saving expensively remunerated council employees' time. "The most efficient way of handling a ratepayer's call is to have them hang up out of frustration," explains Gary Smarmer, Burchett Hill Council's manager for "customer relations". "Babel World impressed us by their skill in filtering out 98.6 per cent of calls in such a way that there was no need for them to be 'further actioned', that is, passed from the call centre to a council department. We thought it was just great, the tenacity with which Babel World consultants could keep customers on the line until they were screaming with rage. That way, those few that do slip through the net have used up all their energy for pursuing whatever trivial little time-wasting concern they rang up about.

"That is very valuable to us in strategising the workload of council staff and thus giving them more time to concentrate on providing a better service for the majority of sensible ratepayers who," said Mr Smarmer, "can look beyond their own selfish obsessions and would rather see council time spent on worthwhile community enhancement initiatives such as our current new reconciliation dance project."

Naturally, some people never being happy, there have been a few expressions of dissatisfaction with the difficulty of getting through to the municipal offices. Several more pertinacious ratepayers turned up at a council meeting to voice their protest that, in the words of one, "you can never get any bloody sense out of the Town Hall." "Just jabber, jabber, jabber," said another. Their objections were majestically dismissed by the Mayor, Councillor Les Rhiannon. "Council finds such racist attitudes highly reprehensible," he stated. "These rednecks want to put the clock back to the 1950s when Menzies was on the throne and everyone spoke English with a lah-de-dah accent. Burchett Hill is an inclusive go-ahead pluralistic community of today and our council  policy of encouraging intercommunity linguistic dialogue reflects this," he said.

Putting his feet on his desk in the handsomely panelled mayoral office with its life-size framed portrait of Senator Sarah Hanson Young behind him where the Queen used to be, Councillor Rhiannon explained that "Council is now contemplating the logical next step in the dialogue process of banning English from the Town Hall altogether". All municipal business, he said, could be conducted in any one of at least a hundred officially recognised community languages without the "perceived injustice of privileging a language associated in the minds of many of our Burchett Hill family, especially new arrivals, with 'otherist' exploitation." He added that an exception might be made for the council's expensive new range of rubbish recycling booklets with their intricate instructions on mandatory waste separation and even more intricate lists of fines and other penalties for "non-compliance". "We might leave these in English," he said. "Our surveys show that the biggest offenders against what we call here 'refuse justice' are well-off white householders," (demographically Burchett Hill is about 75 per cent Anglo-Saxon). "Because they all consume too much one bin is never enough for their bottles and other evidence of a luxury lifestyle so they chuck it into the dedicated garden waste bin instead. Such people," he said, "need to be told loud and clear that we don't tolerate garbage abuse in Burchett Hill but they would be too dumb to understand it if it's written in a second language."

23 June 2012

CARRY ON MARRYING

We have become a humourless society. Things that ought to be laughed at are taken far too seriously. Same-sex "marriage" for instance. The correct perspective on an issue as replete in humorous potential as this is, as it is with most things, the Ealing Comedy approach. Imagine what fun Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey would have going through a "gay marriage" ceremony. Or Hattie Jacques and Irene Handl. Imagine Sid James as the celebrant or best man. Instead we treat it as a serious issue with endless pompous rubbish about it on the ABC and elsewhere.

In the opinion of Argus, if a gaggle of queens and lesbians (there won't be all that many if overseas statistics are an indication) want to get "married", so what? It's not marriage quod semper quod ubique etc. but if that's what they think will make them happy, good luck to them. True, it's one more nail in the coffin of civil cohesion but our civilisation's pretty near washed up anyway. Anyone with a sense of the ridiculous might just as well enjoy it all for the laughs. There'll be tears soon enough.

When inevitably the happy couples get "divorced" the whole farce will open up new vistas of prosperity for the army of lawyers and "counsellors" in the "family law" industry already grown fat on the corpses of real marriages, the disintegration of which was so visionarily facilitated by the unlamented government of Whitlam and co. With adopted or surrogate children as props to dress up the illusion that gay "families" are proper families the lawyers and the rest will grow fatter still, as the erstwhile lovebirds snarl and bicker over custody.

In fact, how long before the first child of a same-sex union sues his "parents" for "disadvantaging" his start in life? Twenty years? Argus can hear it now - ridicule in the playground, singled out as "not normal", "two mums/dads" butt of peer-group jokes, inability to relate to one sex or the other, lack of confidence, propagandist upbringing, deprivation of child's natural right to father figure or mother figure for "balanced personal development" and so on and so forth. It is an amusing prospect to look forward to, in a grim sort of way.

21 June 2012

UPDATE

Argus has heard it suggested that we are not, as contended above, a humourless society. Just look, said someone, at all the wonderful comedy festivals that seem to be perpetually on. A humourless society wouldn't have those. Well, pace the platoons of stand-up comedians and the plethora of administrators who cash in on the enforced munificence of taxpayers to arrange and promote such events, it is an unfortunate fact that the one thing that is never funny in our otherwise fairly hilarious society is a comedy act at a comedy festival. Never. From Glasgow to Adelaide, from Seattle to Melbourne, never. Vulgar, meretricious, coarse, pathetic, disgusting, lame: yes, all of those. But funny, never.

21 June 2012

SCULPTURE PRIZE OPENS NEW HORIZONS IN PACIFIC ART

Pacific islands are not often associated with radical contemporary art but Argus is pleased to note that Fiji recently took a step in the right direction with the establishment of the Nadi International Prize for Sculpture. Sponsored by the city of Nadi, the prize is worth ten thousand Fijian dollars - a huge sum in this relatively poor country - and is open to all Fijian-born artists with one stipulation only, that the sculpture be suitable for outdoor display as public art.

The first Nadi Prizewinner was announced today. The sculpture chosen is cry for democracy, an assemblage of "found objects", the work of sculptor Wesley Fafalino of Rakiraki in the north of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. The sculpture is not only an artistic but a political statement, the title cry for democracy being intentionally ambiguous in a country where parliamentary rule is suspended.

Fafalino is an alumnus of the Rotorua College of Art in New Zealand - there are many connections between Fiji and the land of the kiwi - where he studied under renowned graphic deconstructional art theorist and critic Craig Faulkner.

It was Faulkner in fact who suggested he enter for the prize and who has written a "critical apologia" for  cry for democracy, in which he describes the sculpture as a "romanticised dream in material language". The work, Faulkner explains, "is a metaphor, an exploration in materials which though themselves inherently unsustainable, can yet express the concept of a sustainable whole, which in the artist's vision is democracy. While only inchoately present as a notion in the Fiji of today this concept can be realised by the transformation, through the artistic power of the imagination, of exploitative forces, represented by the objects randomly assembled in the sculpture - forces which have been shown to be historically unsustainable - into a sustainable political future."

Given the present political situation in Fiji, it is a brave idea and a brave award by the town of Nadi, as well as a harbinger of the quality of art we can expect from this nation when its young talents find their voice in the contemporary idiom.

The sculpture has been placed on display in a Nadi street. "We don't have many famous attractions here," said one local councillor, "and we hope that cry for democracy will attract a big share of the international cultural tourism market."

15 June 2012