Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Returning to school

I have my ten year school reunion this weekend. Most conveniently, I need to be in Canberra for work next week, so I get to travel up at someone else’s expense and catch up with everyone I didn’t manage to see in the course of the road trip of doom over the Easter long weekend.

I filled out my “what have you been doing for the last ten years” form yesterday. It seemed rather dry, and in some ways a little boastful. I stuck narrowly to what I’ve been doing in law: the big firm job, what I’ve been doing recently, the published article, competing in the international rounds of the Jessup Moot.

I did not mention writing at all, which will surprise some who will be present, I’m sure.

But beyond me (and this is blogging, so really, it’s all about me), I’m concerned I’m going to have forgotten the names of everyone not immediately on my table. Will I be bored by those who’ve stayed in Canberra and carved out lucrative niches in real estate? Quite possibly, if only because I have no interest in real estate at present. And also because if I have spurned the path to entrepreneurial wealth, it’s not as if I have any weighty publication track-record to back me. Which is what some may have expected I’d have done by now. It’s what my eighteen-year old self would have expected by now.

Still, I’m in no rush to try and make a career out of my writing. Law is at least interesting, and even at its lower rungs pays sufficiently well to fund hobbies and give me time to become a better writer with a novel worth trying to do something with commercially. That said, I wrote three (excruciatingly bad) novels in high school and a handful of short stories (I found the short form harder then, and still do) and quite a bit of poetry, some of it fairly readable in a school-boy vein. And people noticed.

Someone said to me recently: “Of all the people from school I’d expect to be working as a writer or something more interesting by now, you’d top the list.” He had the significant grace to add a somewhat less two-edged compliment: “But I guess that’s what happens when you’re good at two things.”

I went to a school that really did heap recognition on people regardless of their area of achievement. The key word though was achievement. My awkward bookishness could be overcome in that environment through being rather regularly and publicly recognised for achievements in creative writing, drama, public speaking and debating. It may have been a less kind place if you weren’t a clear front-runner in some field, or at least keenly interested in doing something. To be entirely honest, I wouldn’t know. It was a school that provided opportunities to be involved, and I took quite a few.

Anyway, a big part of growing up is realising that at high school you do have a chance to be a big fish in a small pond, and a good deal of your twenties is acknowledging the truth in the Waifs lyric: “I never thought I’d be quiet so far away from where I planned to be by now.” I am good at what I do, but so are a fair number of other people. Blogging, for example, has been incredibly kind to me – it does, however, prove there are a lot of other people out there who are extremely talented and not widely, conventionally, published writers.

But that is if one accepts the rather stupid idea you have to grow up to be who you thought you’d be in your adolescence. I am not bound to my vision-of-self as at age eighteen. True, I might have got further along one given path had I a blinding drive born of a narrow vision at that age, but I don’t.

Do I crave being who I was at school again? The sense that each year I was achieving more, doing better?

Absolutely not.

Never trust anyone who thinks high school was the best period of their life. Now, in Melbourne, is undoubtedly the happiest and most confident I have ever been. I like not being socially awkward, I like not having acne so bad it requires heavy-duty medication, I like having a girlfriend, I like not feeling an outsider (regardless of how many friends or how ‘in’ I actually may have been), I like that other people’s opinions matter less to me, I like the fact I do not have to devise strategies to avoid outbreaks of bullying on my school bus. So I am pretty confident that I am not going back to recapture something, or to trumpet my ‘achievements’ since.

I am on a table with friends I have stayed in touch with in degrees ranging from intensely to very poorly indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing them.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Your chariot awaits

I am without doubt an eco-vandal. This is almost the inevitable consequence of living in a first-world country, driving a car and flying anywhere by plane. I used up my fair share of the world’s resources aged 6, and on a strict resource allocation view should be dead by now.

Though it’s the plane travel that has really used up my fair share of global resources, I have been moved to ponder anew my car.

Not in any stupid, I’ll get rid of it for the good of humanity kinda way. I’m far too fond of it for that.

But what, as a key consumer good and the only substantial asset I own other than a wardrobe, does it say about me?

It is a second-hand ex-fleet-vehicle Toyota Echo that, on a cursory inspection looks close to new. Small, easy to park, and in the “smell of an oily rag” fuel efficiency category. It is a fairly neutral, though shiny, grey. Missjenjen thinks it a rather girly vehicle. (That said, she’s grown to admire its recessed instrumentation visible only to the driver and its significant grunt in accelerating away from lights. Yes, I let her drive it.) It has great speakers, but a bad cassette deck I’ve not yet replaced with a CD player (there are a lot of things I could do with a few hundred dollars before I bother doing that).

I am certainly not fuel-efficient. So right there, any metaphoric similarity between vehicle and onwer breaks down.

So to speak.

Still, the cabin - the bit most people see and in which I spend the most time - is neat, orderly and free of clutter. However, the pit of chaos, where things go that I have too little inclination to deal with, is the boot. Old stuff gathers there for a while until my tidy-mindedness builds to a point where I snap and do something about it. But some stuff, not all of it useful, lingers in a cardboard box full of old maps, spare water bottles, the tire iron and a heap of just-in-case, but really-fairly-useless stuff. I have this one area of inefficiency, cordoned off.

That makes sense to me: no ordinary observer would sense disorder, but it’s there - even if tucked away and limited.

My car has neither a name, nor gender - and is not washed frequently enough (mostly it has the grace not to show this), though I do have it serviced regularly.

I wonder what driving it round the inner north of Melbourne with the windows down on balmy days, blaring Oscar Peterson’s jazz piano through the speakers might say about me? (Sprightly right-hand piano work going through a Doppler shift must surely bemuse passers-by.)

I really will have to burn off some Eminem-torturing Monaro driver one day.

Do cars say anything about their owners?

Monday, April 28, 2003

P.T. Anderson, “Punch Drunk Love

I liked Anderson’s last film “Magnolia” a great deal: I felt its length, but the ride rewarded sticking with it. It was a series of salvation stories, really - and the use of the Aimee Mann soundtrack was exceptional. It also had a hefty dash of the improbable, a magical realism sensibility.

Punch Drunk Love”, written and directed by Anderson, has a similarly loose relationship with reality. Where “Magnolia” wove plots, it weaves two genres: absurdly colourful romantic comedy, and randomly violent grunge crime. It also proves, powerfully, that Adam Sandler can act.

From here, my review may contain spoilers. Be warned. I thought it was thoroughly entertaining and would recommend it heartily. I saw it with missjenjen who hated it and considered walking out. Her chief criticism was that “there was no premise” for the relationship. I can see the point, but for one key reason, that didn’t worry me much.

From the opening shot we are invited to suspend disbelief: we see Sandler in the corner of the screen, in a blue suit at a desk, framed against the blank, bare cream and green walls of an industrial space. It is so stark as to be almost surreal. He mutters meekly about a coupon deal into the phone, speaking to a call centre. (Phones are crucial to this film.) Hearing something, a high wire-plucking noise, he steps outside into the dawn, into an industrial anywhere lot beside a mechanic’s. He strolls with coffee to the front gate. All is quiet but for a tarpaulin strumming on chain wire.

Spectacularly, a panel van flips on the road. It rolls, crunching and scattering debris, breaking the silence. A taxi-van screeches to a halt and deposits a very small piano at the curb. Sandler watches in shock.

We are in a P.T. Anderson film now, and should not hold on to reality very hard.

Sandler’s character is more complex than the shy simpleton he seems. He has seven sisters: all awfully in your face, intrusive and obsessed with whether Sandler is gay, too alone, a recluse. With them, it is entirely apparent he has no privacy, no expectation of “confidentiality” - the one thing he seeks, a space where he can be himself. This meek, stumbling, self-effacing, almost transparent man has a flare for casual and disproportionate violence - outbursts that result from confrontation, or intrusion into his privacy.

Seeking someone to speak to “confidentially” about the fact that “sometimes I don’t like myself”, he makes an ill-fated call to a phone sex line.

Sandler soon becomes torn in two directions: between the awkward, yet impulsive woman (Emily Watson) who has shyly, stubbornly chosen him; and the nasty, grungy world of a confidence man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a lovely character part).

The cinematography is excellent, the use of ordinary sounds at slightly exaggerated volumes is effective (as is the almost merry-go-round soundtrack) and the use of colour is touchingly simple. The male and female leads, the two complex naïves, are usually in blue and red respectively - though each has a moment dressed only in white.

This is a story about how reconciling the different parts of who and what we are can make us strong, about how the shy can be bold and nice people can be violent. It is about how love or sex can marry these seemingly irreconcilable parts of ourselves. Its two potentially disjointed halves, like Sandler’s character, reconcile rather simply.

It is a fairy tale, and rather poignant.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Arrgh! I forgot Naylor day!

OK thanks to Jason for keeping me on my toes and reminding me, despite the long weekend and me being off work for a day with a cold, that Thursday has in fact arrived. The new instalment of Naylor is here.

"By the time I hit Lake George, thirty or forty minutes out of Canberra, the shadows stretched from the hills like thick purple scars. Car lights were coming on. I wanted to be in before it got dark enough I might have an accident, but the more I pushed myself the more likely it was."

No, I cannot claim to have written 1,000 words on demand in half an hour. I still have plenty of early Naylor draft before I have to start frantically writing every Wednesday night. Today's offering may be a little less edited than usual however.

I think I'm going to have to make Monday writing night, and start catching up on incorporating people's comments.

Thanks Jase. I need people on my case to keep this project moving.

*pant gasp pant*

Ian Rankin, “Dead Souls”

I’ve come rather late to the Inspector Rebus series for someone aspiring to write a mystery novel. With “Dead Souls” I’ve also managed to start at the wrong end - it’s the tenth in the series, and it’s extremely good. I’ll certainly hunt a good deal more Ian Rankin off friends’ bookshelves, out of libraries and - dammit - pay for it when I must.

In some ways this may seem a “typical” traditional detective novel (that is, one not solely concerned with serial killers and forensic science). It’s certainly bleak. It features a male detective, estranged from family and lovers, just about fending off alcoholism and haunted by dead friends. Rebus is short-tempered and a hard man who pulls some rather vicious stunts to get at those who breach his code. It also has that detective fiction staple: a strong sense of place. A bleak, parochial post-coal-industry Edinburgh rises from the page, the cliffs of Salisbury Crag and Arthur’s Seat brooding over the novel from the outset.

Rebus, though, is a good deal more than an identikit clone of the hard-boiled detectives whose stock has little varied or improved since Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Rebus, as his name suggests, is an enigmatic cipher. He has a certain emotional complexity, and if his motives and changes of heart are at times a little opaque to the reader, they are to Rebus as well. He grows in the course of the novel - something Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, already complete, would never have done. Rebus’ growth, though, is not a Hollywood revelation - it is incremental. He starts the novel effectively unable to communicate with his lover, by its end he is doing a slightly better job. His views on a convicted paedophile move from the visceral to a fractionally more sophisticated ability to see him as human, though still repugnant.

However, his rather homophobic treatment of a person who is probably an accessory to manslaughter complicates my sympathy for him. His actions though do not always receive the approval of his close colleague Siobhan Clarke, and her silent censure is sometimes implicitly that of the author.

The novel concerns a few of the age’s criminal preoccupations: runaways, multiple murderers, and paedophiles. It’s also prepared to take a fairly long hard look at those who abuse children (in any sense), and abusers who were themselves abused as children. Its themes are very much concerned with how we are shaped by our past, by our parents – perhaps even our genes. Still, this is very much a detective’s view of the world: historical, working backwards from completed events to discover causes.

With such themes it is hardly surprising that a sub-plot concerns Rebus’ attempts to locate the missing son of a high-school girlfriend, someone who represents the road not travelled. There is also a convicted multiple killer being deported from the United States back to Scotland, a man who is also seeking a brutal reconciliation with his past. Then we have the past sins of convicted paedophile being visited upon him again, while in the background a prosecution is under way into abuses committed many years ago in a children’s home. Rankin teases these plot lines along, letting them develop and tantalisingly crisscross as the book unfolds. It is deft, experienced craftsmanship, the effect is compelling and often sinister.

The hook that really caught me was the opening sequence: a first-person prologue from a suicide about to leap from the cliffs at Salisbury Crag - a man with an unparalleled and final view of the city which Rankin and Rebus know well.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The plague-doug has entered the building

So, I’ve hauled my expectorating carcass back into the office.

In all fairness, miss jenjen is presently suffering much more and did not get to cower at home yesterday with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus for company (expect the review tomorrow). Whereas I, after calling in sick in the morning, got a call from the office in the afternoon saying that unless I was really confident I was fit to come back, I should just rest up.

Office: “Don’t worry, there’s nothing happening tomorrow we can’t cover.”

Doug: “I really think I’ll be back in -”

Office: “There’s no point being a hero. If you don’t get over it now it could linger for weeks.”

I love my workplace. Sometimes I think they’re trying to just nice me into submission.

I hate it when the universe turns my tactics against me.

Still, despite the open invitation to take another sick day, I’m back. I’m still not 100%, but I’m clearly over the worst of it and as a consequence (I hope) I should not be contagious and a further risk to productivity.

Still, I don’t think I behaved terribly well once we got back to Melbourne on Monday night. I was fine through the drive, probably the chirpier of the two of us. I was OK when we stopped so Jen could get groceries, it was a good opportunity for me to stock up too. But once we’d unloaded at her place, I came over dizzy. I think it was just tiredness and lack of eating. Rather than stay and fix myself anything to eat, I insisted on going home so I could be abed by 10. I was too tired after getting in, unpacking and eating to call her and thought she might be asleep anyway.

Not good form on my part, really.

“Honey, I’m too dizzy to stand straight, I’m gonna drive home now and not call you when I get in, OK?”


There are days I’m a moron.

Here’s hoping today isn’t one of them.

Anyway, I have only two real regrets about the Canberra trip of doom and plague. One is that I didn’t get to see a friend during his two-week tour of Oz before returning to Washington DC. The rather larger one is that I had hoped the road-trip would be a bit of a life-affirming reclaiming-Canberra experience for Jen, as it has not really held happy memories for her. As opposed to a sequence of minor disasters and wretched ill-health.

Still it was good to see the Canberra people I did get to see, and kinda nice that Jen and I have each survived the other being sick. And that she survived my taste in driving music and rather bizarre taste in compilation cassette labelling.

Still, I am never driving any place that takes six to eight hours to get to again unless I’m staying a week. Minimum.

The next challenge: our trip to Sydney.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Oh god, I’ve broken her
(a report from the road trip of doom)

There are moments when you should just give up and turn back. Sometimes even before you’ve started.

More disastrous first holidays are conceivable. We could have broken up. Someone could have lost a limb. War could have been declared.

No, wait, that last one really happened.

So yes, Jen was right. The stop-over in Albury on Thursday night was cold. And noisy. I booked a place right on the highway, not just off it as I’d thought. (Note to my stupid self – the Highway becomes “Wagga Road” within Albury’s town limits, it is not a separate road.) The fact that we were in our own separate cabin helped not a jot. Nor did the fact that Jen was too polite to wake me at 3 am and ask that we turn the fan heater on. I would have welcomed its cheerful drone, it would have drowned out some of the baritone rumbling of trucks interspersed with the wailing of semi-trailer brakes.

And I have been sick. Keeping someone else awake at night coughing sick. Kinda delirious and not always fit to drive sick. Boring, dull, not much of a host sick. Moving into the spare bedroom in a belated attempt to keep from infecting Jen sick.

Unwell, even.

So, Friday we got into Canberra. That night we managed to see some friends of mine for scrabble and drinks and had dinner with Marissa. We were road-trip tired and home by 9.30 or 10.

Saturday we were still tired, flopped about the house and went out to meet Canberra bloggers Monkey, Mattay, Monkey Monkey Monkey (and her charming partner) and Babelicious. They were cool. I was incoherent. We met at Canberra institution Tilley’s, which I normally like. But it seemed terribly cold.

After we had a friend of Jen’s now based in the ‘Berra over for dinner and had a lovely evening of wine and Scrabble – but perhaps stayed up a little too late for tired, possibly not-well puppies.

So far so good? Other than me hacking and spluttering? Well, no.

Yesterday Jen was seriously not well.

This was not apparent in the morning when I was feeling somewhat better and bundled a slightly subdued Jen into the car. We packed a fair bit into our morning. Took in some sights around old and new Parliament House, went to the National Gallery to see Pollock’s “Blue Poles” – it’s purchase has to rate as one of the enduring legacies of the Whitlam government. We walked behind Geoffrey Robertson QC on the way in. For anyone from foreign parts, he’s the Kylie Minogue of Australian lawyers: started in Australia, now permanently in Britain, hugely well-known everywhere in the English-speaking world except the US. (I guess that makes Ken Starr the Madonna of lawyers.) Anyway, Robertson is a legend in human rights circles and is now on the special international court for Sierra Leone, I believe.

We did some sights. We drove by Jen’s old place. We did the compulsory “yes, this is Fyshwick, porn capital of Oz” side-trip (it remains seedy, unimaginative and kinda off-putting rather than sexy or naughty).

By lunch it was evident Jen was sick. I got her home. When her afternoon nap lasted three hours and she then went back to bed again, it was evident she was really sick.

I had planned to have over some friends I’d not seen in over a year as well as some other old uni friends. For various reasons that plan was already in chaos. I wasn’t about to have anyone over while Jen was that ill, or leave her in an empty house while I went out. Also, I wasn’t confident I was well enough to drive into town and back in the dark. So I worked the phone to cancel drinks and to help organise a substitute catch-up dinner in the city which I then couldn’t go to.

Anyway, Jen seemed a little better in the evening. We were both so tired Steve Martin’s “Sgt Bilko” actually seemed really funny.

Realistically we either drive back today, which will mean starting early and take our time doing it, or phone in sick long-distance tomorrow. If we leave early today (which I think we probably should if Jen is up to it) I’ll have to miss the catch-up drinks this arvo for my friend who is briefly back from Washington DC, which is a pity as I’ve not seen him in two or three years.

All up, we shoulda flown, we shoulda never left Melbourne. Twas not in our stars.

Strangely though, we haven’t killed each other and I’ve really liked her company – as well as the chance to look after her for a bit.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

I chose to whine unattractively now

I’ve gone and done it. I’ve gotten sick just in time for what should have been a long, debauched and generally inebriated long-weekend in the ‘Berra.

“Hi guys, I have something I want to share with you!”

Hack, cough, splutter.

Excellent. Thank goodness I should only be working a half-day today.

I may or may not blog over the Easter break, normal blogging will resume on Tuesday. Meantime, I present a veritable bento-box of micro-blogging.

*sound of boy running out for strongest over-the-counter cold and flu drugs legally available*

I’m desquamating at my desk

Yes desquamating. Mayhap with this cold my humours are out of balance.

I have a little patch of skin between my eyebrows that flakes irritatingly. Sometimes, if the weather’s against me and I have a shaving rash, my neck does it to. And that little crease where the side of your nose joins your face.

On a bad day, all may flake a little. I must be the only male lawyer with emergency moisturiser in his desk. I need it all the time when I’m travelling.

Also, I cut myself shaving all the time. I try to shave as little as possible over the weekend to let my skin recover. I do find, though, if I shave before I shower (yes, I do bathe my face in hot water first anyway), then shower and use a facial cleanser, that my neck comes up looking just about human.

What irritates you about your skin?
Oh, here’s one of those quizzes

you suck, and that's sad
you are the "you suck, and that's sad"
happy bunny. You’re truthful, but can be a bit

which happy bunny are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

This is cool, but I stole it from Caz, so you may have seen it.
Naylor, Naylor, get your fresh Naylor

… and get it here for the latest in up-to-the-minute net-published crime-fiction (and hyphens!).

“A look of genuine concern spasmed onto his face. It looked uncomfortable, as though it belonged to someone else. He waited a moment before speaking again.”

A slightly shorter instalment this week, but last week’s was longer than usual. Also the breaks in time and sense in the draft meant … OK, I’m just a little lazy all right?

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Satan’s microwave

Inspired by Marcus’ recent reference to an evil pink oven, I thought I’d recount the adventures of Satan’s Microwave.

While Marissa and I were sharing a flat in Canberra, we had a lot of half-derelict appliances. It was the first time we’d each moved out of home. My recently-widowed grandfather had also decided to move to Canberra and dispense with a lot of furniture and appliances – to me, that is.

Come to think of it, every appliance I inherited bore some spectacular inherent defect. (The video went kaput early on and its rewind button hadn’t worked to begin with.) Also just about all of the appliances came in fake 70s brown wood veneer – the type that looks like Contact™ school-book-covering material. Even the two “ugly chairs” (which were very comfortable) were that brown.

Still, by far the worst of my dodgy semi-functional appliances with bodgy brown Contact™ adhesive fake wood veneer, was Satan’s Microwave.

I think my parents picked it up for $20 at a home and contents auction. No-one wanted it because when you opened the door no light came on. My parents bought it and replaced the defunct light bulb.

This thrifty act did not cure all its defects, however.

Sure it worked at first, but slowly it became more and more erratic, its 70s LCD screen suddenly coming alive with random patterns like a computer that’s just achieved self-awareness in a forgotten 80s sci-fi thriller. Then its screen would go dark, and silent and sulk.

Sometimes it would work again briefly if turned on and off at the wall. This repeated shock therapy, however, gave it some kind of stroke and even when functioning (in terms of heating things up) its LCD display continued its silent, idiot, hieroglyphic gibberings. Then it would cease all functioning for a while.

I did the only sane thing, I left town for a summer job in Sydney.

Marissa would call to regale me with tales of my Evil microwave, how it was ruining her life, and taking up too much space in the kitchen. (It was the size of a small European car.)

But around this time it became actually demonically possessed. It refused to work at all, but the LCD display resumed its alien signalling. And a spider moved into the inside of the control panel. You could occasionally see an eerie rippling across the eerie green flickering hieroglyphs of the display as the spider marched over the liquid crystals.

Obviously, this radioactive mutant spider was using the microwave to communicate with Cthullian powers from Beyond.

It was Satan’s microwave.

Finally Marissa told me its number was up. She would replace it at the Christmas sales while I was in Sydney. Disposing of the hideous half-tonne object was to be my responsibility.

Proving its demonic powers, the microwave heard the threat and resumed perfect and normal functioning throughout the sales period.

The collapsed again, never to utter another eerie green flicker.

So I persuaded two friends, editors of the student paper, that they’d receive far more by way of voluntary contributions if they had a novelty contributors box. They took the microwave and parked it outside the office. It took two of them to get it down the stairs to our flat.

But at least I didn’t have to pay for it to be exorcised and carted away.

The faux-wood panelled blender I got from my grandfather, though, is still going a treat and makes great smoothies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

"If it weren't for you meddling aid agencies ... "

This site rules, go support it now!

(Like the war, your support as a citizen of the free world is mandatory. Unless you are French. Bah.)

A US empire? I doubt the US can afford it …

Okay, it's beginning to look as if the war may be over and a number of US Hawks in the Bush administration (notably not Colin Powell, the only one it seems left with a clue) have been saying there are lessons for the rest of the world in the defeat of Iraq.

This is a little scary. As the NY Times has put it:

“Some hawks inside the administration are convinced that Iraq will serve as a cautionary example of what can happen to other states that refuse to abandon their programs to build weapons of mass destruction, an argument that John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, has made several times recently.

The administration's more pragmatic wing fears that the war's lesson will be just the opposite: that the best way to avoid American military action is to build a fearsome arsenal quickly and make the cost of conflict too high for Washington.”

It does appear, though, as if “regime change” in Syria is now on some Bush advisors’ agenda.

But is this at all realistic? As Paul Kelly has put it:

“Just examine the "axis of evil" realities. The US can invade Iraq and succeed for three reasons – because Iraq is now a depleted and weak state; because its regime is discredited worldwide as evil; and because there are no regional or global powers to dissuade the US by making its actions prohibitive. Each condition is critical for pre-emption.”

Weak, isolated and without allies willing to back it – Iraq could be invaded on terms acceptable to coalition forces: a swift (not cripplingly expensive) war, little anticipated resistance from conventional forces and low casualties.

Fears of a new American empire are greatly exaggerated. For a start, it could simply not afford to be on a permanent war footing. The bill on Iraq looks like coming in at about 1% of GDP – there’s only so many times you can sell wars that expensive to the public while simultaneously cutting taxes. And, for all the reasons Kelly puts forward, this war is at the low end of the monetary cost of stoushes with the axis of evil.

But what about the more insidious forms of Empire? Is the US the new Rome? The Guardian sees military garrisons in over 40 nations, a network of client states, an invisible empire of trade and cultural dominance.

I’m not convinced. While the US may dwarf in might, military spending and the size of its internal economy the next four major powers combined, Rome never faced a series of well-organised states with different agendas and access to equal technology.

We live in a world where power is a lot more decentralised than we appreciate. And North Korea for one appears to appreciate that nuclear capability is an ace in the hole that will cause “the new Rome” to falter. Quite simply and bluntly, the “opportunity cost” of mounting a full-scale invasion of any other supposed rogue state will be too high. We may see limited operations against specific targets, or states that are laughably poorly armed in comparison to the US, but balance of power diplomacy is alive and well and the US has now aligned Old Europe and the Arab states against it.

A new age of first strikes? I rather doubt it.

A postscript

Then again, perhaps I’m just not paranoid enough about who’s really running US foreign policy. At least, however, hard-left-wing opinion pieces like this make the point that the Bush war cabinet do not necessarily represent mainstream US sentiment.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Monday, Monday

Maybe it was the Saturday micro-roadtrip to Williamstown (above) with the girlf.

Maybe it was lolling about Saturday evening and watching “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (as a coming of age film, did this wow the critics for anything other than its cinematography?) and “Made” (which was a watchable exercise in the a-small-guy’s-perspective crime genre).

Maybe it was a Sunday of yoga, errands, and getting caught in the rain trying while trying to help someone with her laundry and rustle up enough dollar coins for the giant tumble dryer at the laundry.

Maybe it was my fit of envy at watching a couple sign a lease for a flat over a bookstore on Rathdowne Street.

Maybe it’s that it’s a short week, followed by a roadtrip to Canberra (where I’ll get to see The Ruminator again, and meet Monkey).

It’s certainly not the erratic Melbourne rain, which I adore. Nor is it the prospect of non-stop socialisation the next few nights where I'll be juggling visiting friends, drinks functions around the Commonwealth lawyers conference, and the blogger meetup.

So. It must be Monday.

I can’t get motivated.

Low down, two-timing double agents

Why do stories of double-agents continue to shock and amaze us?

If key figures of the British establishment like Philby, Burgess and MacLean, the famous Cambridge University Soviet spy ring, could be recruited in post-war Britain to spy for the Russians and one of them even rose to become the head of MI-6 Russian counter-intelligence, then surely failures of patriotism should be a little old hat?

The latest double-agent scandal unfolding in the US is that surrounding Katrina Leung, a Los Angeles woman paid over 1.7 million US dollars for information on China as an FBI infomant. It appears she had an eighteen-year long affair with her “handler” who covered for her when suspicions were raised.

It does seem a little odd that foreign intelligence gathering institutions, based to some extent on the assumption that people will be prepared to lie to or betray their own country (or at least a foreign power with whom they are connected) are surprised when their own “assets” turn against them or are found to have been playing both ends against the middle.

And while we think of double-agents as being engaged in the height of duplicitous and mercenary behaviour, once you are persuaded to sell information to a foreign government what better explanation for your close connections to that government in the eyes of your own than to start spying for your own government as well?

Perhaps the thing we find most fascinating is the extent to which national security might be jeopardised by mere human fallibility. What we are dealing with here is basically that age-old conundrum, the workplace affair gone badly wrong. It seems that despite the security implications, the whole mess was something of an FBI open-secret in the LA bureau. Just to heighten the sense of scandal, it seems there are allegations Ms Leung also had an affair with a second FBI agent, one based in San Fransisco.

She was betraying not only two countries, but was two-timing her “handler” as well. Romantic and political betrayals seem to abound in this spy-thriller in the making, and it’s all set in the heart of Hollywood.

I wonder who has the movie rights?

Friday, April 11, 2003

Bookclub by relay

The bookclub of intestinal fortitude (BCIF) rode again last night.

Well, almost.

After my apparently terrifying review, only one other member bothered reading Gould’s Book of Fish. So we languished without a book or a proper meeting. We met over beers to come up with a kick-start formula four weeks ago.

We decided the novel of “Fight Club” (on which the film was based) would be an easy one to get started on, a confidence builder, and if we didn’t like the book we could compare it with the film.

The meeting date was set, after negotiations, for last night. No one had read the book. Beth could not start early, the member who joined during the cocktail hour of madness could not start late.

Under such conditions many would give up. Not us. We had BCIF by relay. I drove to North Melbourne, into the midst of new member’s packing hell, where member three was already present – helping to stuff clothes and bric-a-bric in boxes. We drank white wine and ate fish and chips.

Member three and I then drove to Beth’s new Secret Life of Us-style pad in Richmond. Beth’s new place has a spectacular balcony view over the rooftops of inner Melbourne out towards the MCG and the city. It’s a great place to watch the light change. (Beth, we’re all waiting for the moods of Melbourne webcam.) Or to drag armchairs from the lounge room and flake about eating chocolate and pikelets and drinking beer.

It felt like a boarding school midnight feast from an Enid Blyton novel.

Other than the beer.

So, we talked books in general. What we’d liked recently, what we’d not, what we disagreed on (opinions varied on Tim Winton’s “Dirt Music”, which I’ve not yet read).

I talked about “Perdido Street Station” and how I found the ending disappointing, most of the characters metaphorically declaring their job done and riding off into the west, while one experiences a less-than-compelling revelation and trudges back into the heart of the city. Ho hum.

This lead to the big question of the night: what novels have really great endings?

We could only all really agree on A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” – which does end in a brilliant, complete and happy-yet-sad heart-rending manner.

(I also put in a pitch for Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen”, but explaining why it’s ending worked so well to two non graphic-novel readers was not, perhaps, the wisest use of everyone’s time. In the same genre I should have mentioned the conclusion to Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”.)

Anyway, what novels do you think have great endings?

(Oh yeah, we’re reading Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” next – don’t blow the ending for me, I think a Radio National panel discussion last year already has … )

Thursday, April 10, 2003

China Miéville, “Perdido Street Station”

I commented yesterday on my love of genre fiction, and my ability to appreciate works that do not transcend their genre but are excellent within it as “peak genre experiences”. In that category I put China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station”. Do not expect to like it if you do not like science fiction or Victorian literature set in London or Gothic horror. This has elements of all those, and I ate it up.

All right, first a few criticisms and failings. The characters are not always brilliantly drawn. Those representing the criminal underworld could just about be interchangeable cardboard cut-outs. Pretty much ever character (and here’s the Gothic element) has one major character trait they remain true to throughout. They confront adversity, yes, but do not necessarily grow much as a result. The character who is meant to undergo the most profound inner journey, Yagharek, remains in many ways distant and unempathically engaging.

Yes, his name is Yagharek. If you don’t like the names in fantasy novels, this one will irritate you.

The plot starts off with nice divergent strands, but by two thirds of the way through the book - most of them have converged. Certainly, there are twists and turns left to fathom, but a number of these operate by withholding information from the reader. The tension has ebbed before the final switchbacks in the ride, though you still want to see how it turns out. As genre plotting goes, this is not William Gibson.

The novel’s towering strength is exactly what I always fall for: atmosphere, a richly thought out and complicated world, a narrative that constantly hints at a scale and architecture that the reader will never have fully explained but which feels consistent throughout. His Victorian-gothic-steampunk city of New Crobuzon is richly baroque in its imagining. Indeed, there are passages and sub-plots - largely redundant from a strict narrative point of view - that seem included for no reason other than to heighten the strangeness and complexity of the author’s imagined world.

And having panned the characterisation somewhat, there is one central relationship which is, at least at the outset, touching in its complexity. That is the relationship between the scientific outcast Isaac and his lover Lin. Lin is Khepri – a race whose females appear human (if red skinned) to the neck, but whose heads appear to be giant scarab-beetles. Their relationship is taboo, and as Isaac acknowledges, “I am a pervert, but so is she.” Over the course of the first half of the novel, the delicacy of their affair is examined – and as the crisis deepens around them, they become increasingly “out” about their love. However, as the monsters crawl from the novel’s shadows and Lin is abducted, the relationship sub-plot is resoundingly sidelined.

I would also contend that for all its “steampunk” backdrop, structurally this novel is a classic nineteenth century vampire tale (despite the fact that the only literal vampire in the story turns up dead in a mere sidebar detail, a throwaway to emphasise the dangers posed by the real monsters). By the mid-point of the novel, we have a nightmarish threat terrorising the city and it is up to an unlikely collection of otherwise scarcely related individuals, lead by a renegade, uncategorisable, mad-thinking scientist – and, oh yes, the most significant woman in the narrative is abducted by a hostile power. Mr Stoker would find its rambling, detailed byways entirely familiar.

Still, the great achievement of the novel is it’s dizzying invention and grotesquerie. In this manner the novel owes a clear, and acknowledged, debt to Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy – the enormous, rambling city with its strange institutions and promiscuous proliferation of characters, alien races, subcultures and technologies is full of the baroque imagination that makes the Gormenghast novels interesting.

Among his more bizarre (and nasty) concepts is one that is hinted at before it is explained. There are references to “the Remade” and “Punishment Factories” before the link is explained. This is a society without much by way of prisons. Criminals are mutilated by surgery, magic or engineering in a manner that reflects their crime, or merely the perversity of the sentencing Magister. Deformed human-animal/human-machine hybrids wander the streets seeking what employment they can, branded forever with their crime. Ick.

On the lighter side, the city is home to a wide array of religions, including a god of knowledge represented in religious paintings as a fat man reading in a bath. All his worshippers are effectively librarians and teachers.

He also manages to imbue his monsters or god-like beings with a genuinely sinister and compelling aspect. His presentation of the Ambassador and the Weaver are particularly well-imagined.

For all these creative leaps, it is hard to consider his fictitious city as other than a re-imagined Victorian London. The map of his city is littered with English-sounding anachronisms – Aspic Hole, The Splatters, Griss Twist. His sense of Victorian atmosphere is heightened by a deliberate use of arcane spellings (“chymical” for “chemical”) and vocabulary (“thamaturgy” for “magic”). As the Ruminator will attest, I am a man unused to being sent scrambling for the dictionary, but on over 40 occasions in the course of 710 pages I felt obliged to make a note of a wholly unfamiliar word, or a familiar one I couldn’t be 100% sure I knew. My list included:









and etoilated.

I am now on top of all of these except “desquamating”, first correct definition wins a prize.

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Thursday with Elliot Naylor

The opening of Chapter 4 is now up over at Naylor's Canberra.

"... Stephen came to collect me. He’d adjusted well, shoulders and smile firmly in place, like his politely expensive suit and brash white-collared banker’s shirt and candy-striped schoolboy tie. ... I put my hand in his, my face adjusting to mirror his confident, commercial smile."

Oh, and can anyone help me with a query? The term "Elliot Naylor" has been returning up to 40 hits a day from Google UK since the weekend. The peak was Monday, but it appears to have tapered since. Anyone know what might have happened to a real Elliot Naylor over there?

Regular blogging to follow soon.
Can a blogger dream of the taste of "Blade Runner"?
(or, my odd relationship with genre fiction)

I have met a number of women who have a strong relationship with their physical sense of taste. People who can, years later, remember how a great meal tasted or even dream of it.

My sense of smell is quite limited, and I suspect my palate may suffer a commensurate impairment. Certainly, I am occasionally struck by that most powerful of memories – the memory of how a person, thing or place smelled.

Far more common for me, however, is to be struck by powerful sense of how a work in a genre felt. This is a difficult thing to describe. Do you remember watching cartoons as a child? Not just the frisson of excitement when the theme music played, or a little tingle of anticipation in the spine, or even the moment when you suspended reality and forgot you were watching the show and were just with the show.

Do you remember not just “Astro Boy” but the Astro-boyness of “Astro Boy”? How that cartoon felt viscerally? Does it have a sensation for you that is like taste or smell? Is it a palpable sensation in your head?

For me it is. I often recall in the same way I recall a smell the feel of a work in a genre. The sensation of another world opening to me, one with its own rules and internal consistencies, an architecture more hinted at than apparent, but in its own terms – complete. In fact I recall such sensations far more often than I can recall a taste or smell. For me, this feeling is a taste or smell. My favourite vampire novels, a great episode of “Aeon Flux”, the way it felt to watch my first episode of “The Goodies”, or the mysterious world that opened the first time I saw the director’s cut of “Blade Runner” on the big screen - all have a distinct taste in memory.

Maybe I'm alone in this, maybe not. But I mean here something more complex than remembering whether a book or film or cartoon scared me or made me feel sad or happy for the characters.

So, what do I mean by genre? A key feature of works in a genre is that they use a series of conventions and conventional signifiers. Stereotypes, devices, tropes or patterns. But, you might say, in many respects so do works of "literary" fiction. That's true. "Literature" and "genre" are not hard categories, or even opposed categories – and as a lover of genre I am not privileging one above the other. However, literature for me can be identified by a certain personal reaction it evokes – I feel like I have had real insight into an imagined character, or I have been left with “big” things to ponder, or the sheer artistry of the prose (or cinematography, or whatever) has knocked me sideways.

Genres (and sub-genres for the connoisseur) are recognisable by their attributes, props, settings or conventions. We can speak of historical novels, detective fiction, science fiction despite the fact that these are fluid categories that may blur into one another. Often works in genre have a fantastic sense of atmosphere and location, but limited characters - and as a whole do not transcend their props and formulas to do anything more or different than the bulk of loosely similar works.

Can one have “literature” that is also a work in a genre? Certainly. The easiest to point to is Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, commonly seen as the foundation work of science fiction. I would also think of genre works that transcend their setting, in effect exploding a genre and showing how much can be done with it literarily. In a similar vein would think of what the novels of Raymond Chandler did for detective fiction, or the way the work of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman changed English speaker’s perceptions of the possibilities of comic books as a literary medium. They use the tool-box provided by a genre to do something radically different or better than what has gone before, something that does leave you with other things to ponder than the sense of a marvellous adventure completed.

But below that level of literature-in-a-genre-mode, I am quite capable of having "peak genre experiences" - things that are great, the best of what can be done within a genre, without transcending it. What has always captivated me at this level is the architectural sense of an imaginatively complete world, only fragments of which can be glimpsed in the book, movie or cartoon.

Anyway, I raise all this by way of a preliminary outline to my review of China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station”, which I hope to post tomorrow. In the meantime I imagine my obscure rantings and categorisations may draw the odd comment from those versed in literary theory.

It appears I just can't help myself ...

I've done it again.

I've now completely crashed my old comments system completely by republishing my archives. The new comments system has effectively over-written the old one, and there's no way I can pluck the old comments back out of the ether without paying their site-host for the privilege.

But my archive sidebar was stuffing up and it was the only way to fix it. Damn, all those undergraduate comments about sodomy lost forever ...

Farewell, first four months of comments - including the marathon comments on sodomy and modes of anti-war protest. You will be missed.

Still, victory is sweet for those who continued to put entries in the less vulnerable guestbook.

Some war links

Worrying. American missiles hit the Al Jazeera Arabic-language cable network TV station in Baghdad. From the NY Times:

Al Jazeera, the most watched television channel in the Arab world, is generally considered by the Bush administration to be hostile to the war in Iraq … Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi Television were the only international media organizations to operate in their headquarters in Baghdad … Since the war began, Al Jazeera has given close coverage to Iraqi civilian casualties, and generally refers to them as "martyrs."

Intriguing. Do our intelligence analysts know what they’re listening to? Radio National’s Background Briefing had an excellent recent program (audio stream available, transcript soon) on the issue of language, culture, intelligence and translation. It highlighted some Pentagon failures to understand Koranic references and context in the speeches of Osama Bin Laden, and also the cultural nuances and references that may contain vital information that will be missed in literal translation. It’s an interesting issue to think about. How often would what we say to our friends be so littered with shorthand phrases and Australian cultural allusions that they might be almost incomprehensible to a foreigner who spoke English, without any effort to speak in code? The “intelligence gap” is as much an issue of culture as language.

The show also raises interesting issues about how dependent (rather than dominant) we as speakers of the supposed “world language”, English, become on others to give us information if we do not speak the local language.

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Dreaming of comics, sorry "graphic novels"

I often have terribly vivid dreams. While sharing a flat with the Ruminator I’d often regale her with vaguely disturbing and convoluted tales of my dream life over breakfast. The only way I stood any chance of remembering them was to tell them to someone.

So, I forgot to take a book on the train this morning and found myself recalling three of my dreams of last night.

I was at a restaurant that I’m fairly confident was Betollucci’s in Curtin, Canberra. I am not certain who I was with, but there was a long table nearby where a birthday was being celebrated. The birthday girl appeared to be a uni girlfriend who was there with her current partner who I’ve met in passing a few times. They’ve been together some years now. She came over to say hello, and was very visibly pregnant. I an uncharacteristic gesture for me, I laid one hand on her bulging stomach.

Don’t touch the baby! she cried.

That was by far the most disturbing, principally because of her reaction. In another I was at my parent’s property outside Canberra. Except that it wasn’t. It was a replica of their property at the bottom of the ocean, the sea-water held at bay by a cracking dome. Somehow I was convinced that I and my sister’s only chance of survival was to float away in a bathtub. Yet the water was gushing in in such waves that to just get into the tub on the ground was not going to be any good. We had to haul it to the top of a barb-wire fence and balance there, then get in as a wave caught us. I knew it wouldn’t work.

The prospect of drowning seemed much less traumatic than being yelled at by a pregnant woman.

In the third dream I was reading bound anthologies of some of the greatest comics ever printed. I recall nothing about them, other than that they concerned golden and silver age super-heroes who have never existed, in any form, anywhere. I was captivated.

So, yesterday missjenjen outed me as having a standing order at Minotaur. I don’t know why, but here in the nerdosphere of bloggers and those who read them I’ve been a little reticent about discussing my penchant for graphic novels. Probably just the suit side of me speaking ...

So, a self-outing. Presently I collect Mike Carey’s “Lucifer”, based on Neil Gaiman’s arch-bastard from the breathtakingly excellent “The Sandman”; Brian Azzalero’s excellent crime series “100 Bullets”; the interesting, but possibly not entirely successful “Fables” by Bill Willingham; and “Hellblazer”, the long-running (and sometimes patchy) misadventures of the cockney occultist and meddler John Constantine. (More links will follow as I find ones I’m happy with. Some of the official sites are disappointing.) The greatest drawback of “Hellblazer” at present is the regularity with which the writers change – making for an interesting, but uneven series of tales within an established genre, but limited continuing plot. Azzalero is, I think, a really impressive crime-writer, working in a different medium. Carey’s Lucifer may even deserve a blog review of its own sometime.

Anyway, the amount of money I’m spending on this potentially very expensive hobby has been contained by Darebin public libraries. In a refreshingly broad-minded approach to literacy, their adult science fiction section includes a wide range of graphic novels (though they also file Azzalero’s crime works as ASF).

The scary thing is, there are perhaps even more geeky hobbies in my metaphorical closet …

Monday, April 7, 2003

Thinking about his next drink ...

This photo was taken at a recent function by a sexy camera girl. Guess who it is in the cufflinks?

Yes, I had other photos up, but I've taken them down now. E-mail me if you want to find them.

Sunday, April 6, 2003

A series of unfortunate events

So, in my first real footy-watching exercise as a Melbourne new chum, I sat down with beer and chips to watch the Tigers v Bulldogs game yesterday afternoon with Miss Jen Jen. Her Team v My Team – where my team managed a pretty convincing imitation of a collapsing house of cards in the final quarter, after having maintained a respectable to slim lead through most of the game.

“It’s like they just lost their momentum and haven’t been able to find the confidence to pull it back,” I wailed – knowing little, but confident I could turn out commentary at least as useful as the official commentators. (“Well, all it needs is for one player, any player, to have a really exceptional quarter and the game could be anyone’s” – thanks for that Eddie, any suggestions as to which player, on which team? No?)

“At least you know what it feels like being a Richmond supporter now,” she grumbled, before bursting into the Tigers song. “You should learn your team’s song,” she added. “Not that you’ll ever get to sing it.”

Harrumph. True, but harrumph nonetheless.

Anyway, one of many good reasons to be at Miss Jen Jen’s pad was that the Gentleman Academic was repainting the bathroom in preparation for the upcoming auction that will evict me from my dream rental.

“It’s OK to have baths,” he said on my way out. “But I think steam from a shower will blister the paint at the moment. You might want to have a shower at Jen’s.”

These words were still in my head this morning when I rose early to take my car to the mechanic’s. My room, for reasons passing understanding, has a basin and taps. So I dutifully got up and shaved and sponged in my own basin thinking, It’s just one day.

While eating breakfast the Gentleman Academic called out: “Oh, it’ll be OK to have a shower this morning.”

Thanks for that.

Unfortunately, I was already suit clad and running late to drop off my car for a service prior to the upcoming Canberra road trip. No shower for me. Time to hit the road.

At 7.45 am you don’t expect tailgaters in Northcote on High Street. Not only was I slowing down to a virtual crawl a block from my mechanic’s garage (as I couldn’t remember where it was), I had my indicator on for most of that distance.

Admittedly, I did see the entrance a little late, but braked in plenty of time to make a smooth turn up the ramp.

So why did the breaks on the car behind me squeal, dammit?

What part of crawling along the curb with the indicator on is not sufficient warning?

Anyway, the number 86 freak-shuttle, runs right past the mechanic’s and, I discovered, runs very quickly if you get on it before 8 am. This fact, in its way, also proved to be a minor misfortune this morning.

In a wonderful surprise present a Very Kind Soul gave me Lemony Snickett’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning” last week – and I just wanted to read more of it before getting to work!

At least my morning can’t possibly be as bad as the Baudelaire children’s …

Friday, April 4, 2003

Which Genocidal Maniac Are You?
Brought to you by Rum and Monkey

First drawn to my attention by my self-appointed "handbreak".

The madness, the madness!

I thought I was organised for court this morning, I thought after yesterday's nightmare of paperwork and phone calls things were under control. This morning I am not only behind the eight-ball, but I have failed to bring anything in for the communal lunch in the staffroom later today.

Now the phone is ringing again and I'm due in court in an hour ...

Okay, I'll try and blog later, if I ever crawl out from under this mountain of paper.

My life is normally charmed, I'm sure it'll be back on the rails by lunch ...

More later.

Meanwhile, here are some recent google search hits to this site …

xena buffy the vampire slayer lara croft analysis

Korean pecs

"iraq war blog"

australia de mines harbour to deliver supplies to Iraq

rebuilding Umm Qsar port

Julian Rhind-Tutt is heart broken

"George Bush" speeches "War has started"


dilbert and disaster

ella fitzgerald rascal

pictures toblerone cocktail

Iraqi bikini

Thursday, April 3, 2003

God no, they mustn’t breed!
(or, why lawyers should not date lawyers)

Yesterday I was at lunch with colleagues, and the subject of dating came up. Most there were dating, or had dated, lawyers.

I cringed. Nay, I cavilled.

I soon found myself on my soapbox expounding my theory that - while I support other people’s choice to do it - I can imagine little worse than dating another lawyer. Not that I have any stake in proposing that lawyers should date a non-lawyer, not me - no siree.

The rest of this entry could get ugly. For form’s sake I will put all law jargon in bold. (Which also goes for “cavilled”, above.)

Now, stale line that it is, I can honestly say some of my best friends are lawyers.

Of my regular commentators, four are lawyers in lawyer-lawyer couples. They are the inspiration that maybe it can work, maybe it isn’t hideously doomed, twisted and awful. But also, as they should know, they are the distinguishable case. They are in lawyer-lawyer couples who knew each other as uni students and shared interests outside law, such as debating or student publications.

Anyway, let it be understood this blog is not about them. Matches made outside the commercial firm environment do not count. Besides, I don’t want success stories here, I want anti-firm bitterness.

Right, back to the rant.

Over time, I have had a lot of arguments put to me about why lawyers could, should or do date other lawyers. One is, “Well, at least you have something in common to talk about.” Frankly, I’d hope there’s more to life than pillow talk about the scope of the constitutional prerogative writs given the winding back of statutory judicial review, and what exactly is the content of procedural fairness to be afforded migration applicants in the context of the Hickmann clause? Or whether a bankrupt can recover overpayments made under s 221YHG of the Income Tax Assessment Act, before the Commissioner of Taxation uses them in satisfaction of pre-existing tax liabilities.

Bored yet? You betcha. Sure, law can be intellectually interesting. It would be hard to justify it as a pursuit otherwise. But 24/7? Please God, no. I really hope lawyers can manage something beyond shop-talk for conversation.

But frankly, why lawyer-lawyer pairings tend to happen is lifestyle. There are two limbs to this next argument.

First, lawyers understand the hours lawyers work, and don’t take being constantly stood up personally. Non-lawyers tend to see working until 9 every night as some sort of sick choice, putting the job before the relationship.

Which, frankly, in part it is.

You could always get another job. Probably not one that pays as well or better unless you're numerate and become an investment banker. But most lawyers are lawyers coz maths wasn’t their strong point. As a couple of people have put it to me, those outside the profession (or comparable crazy industries) don’t understand that lawyers aren’t in a position to commit to anything socially. I don’t mean relationships, I mean stuff like dinner at 7 pm, two weeks on Tuesday. Commercial lawyers may, if they’re lucky, leave the office at 6.30 pm most nights. But they know there will be nights when they don’t finish until - whenever. (If they finish. I saw dawn twice. Yes, I’m still bitter.) And they have no control over when those bad nights fall.

The second limb to my argument is a consequence of the first. Working in a law firm, your social life dies by attrition. Your non-law friends get culled out. Hell, you may stop meeting anyone outside the firm. Lawyers are the only people who will tolerate in a partner the lifestyle of most lawyers.

So most lawyers see it as inevitable that they will only meet other lawyers, possibly only other lawyers at their own firm.

The vice in adopting this position, as far as I’m concerned, is it cuts off any external reality check. It deprives law-types of anyone on the outside who can say, “Um, excuse me? This is, like, nuts? You know, seriously not worth the money?” Wanting to maintain a social life with “real” people is a pretty worthy goal. No firm actively encourages its pursuit. It would be bad for productivity and team cohesion. Next thing you know you’d have lawyers with work-life balance. That’s just crazy-talk, despite what it says in the graduate recruitment brochure.

The other thing that scares me about dual-corporate marriages is just the combined level of fatigue. These really are the class of people for whom it must seem that “sleep is the new sex”.

Although maybe this is the only way to stop lawyers reproducing …

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Conversational fragments

Sunday: the world and the war

Yoga instructor: “How is everyone feeling about the war? Do you find there’s more aggression and tension in the world? That people are reacting to you differently?

"What is happening in the world does affect our lives as people.”

Fellow student 1: “I just feel so helpless. What can any of us do?”

Fellow student 2: “People are a lot more aggressive. There’s a lot of tension.”

Me: “Um – actually – I’ve had a really good couple of weeks …”

Last night, on a train after the comedy festival: styles of conflict resolution

Me: “So anytime anyone has issues they want to discuss with me, I tend to listen and feed it back. ‘I’m hearing three things from you: point one, two, three. On the first I agree with you, the second is really important, and you’re right on the third but I’d add – ’ You know, that sort of thing.”

Work colleague: “Don’t you find that as a lawyer? You start paragraphing and outlining people’s words in your head. Breaking it up into points.”

Me: “Um – yes, yes I do.”

Naylor day arrives early this week

"I don’t recall when I fell asleep, or when Danielle set me up on one of the mattresses, but I do recall waking in the dark – Danielle’s soft arms about me.

There was a whimpering: mine."

Okay, for anyone new to this project, my crime-novel in the writing goes up over at Naylor's Canberra at the rate of 1,000 words a week, usually on a Thursday. Anyone curious about how the whole thing begins, should start with the first installment, or my introductory notes.

To those who have provided comments, yes I am behind on incorporating them. I blame having a functional social life at present. Maybe I'll get some editing work in this evening with luck.

This had better not become a matter of too little too late …

“A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long.” - Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, talking of the crisis in Basra, southern Iraq.

“[The war is being conducted to] minimise the suffering of the Iraqi people.” - Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Basra is Iraq’s second largest city. It has 1.5 million inhabitants. The Red Cross has had a role there for twelve years, trying to improve its water supply. The only way Red Cross workers have been able to maintain Basra’s water supply has been to patch it up directly to the local river system - which is contaminated by sewage. Kofi Annan has made the obvious legal and moral point: the invaders are now responsible for the welfare of the civilian population behind the frontline of the conflict.

However the problem is emerging in Iraq is that hard line loyalists to “the regime” (including disciplined Republican Guard troops) are, predictably, not fighting fair. They are dispersing into cities which have nominally “fallen” to snipe at and harass the occupying forces. These fedayeen fighters have learned the obvious lesson from the first Gulf War – that guerrilla tactics may succeed where they could never win in a pitched battle. The Iraqi forces have prepared for urban warfare, and our military leaders admit to underestimating them.

This makes necessary humanitarian relief difficult to impossible.

Another problem for the relief effort is supply lines. It seems generally accepted that relief supplies will need to enter the country through Umm Qsar harbour – but not only is the port city itself “not “secured”, but coalition naval forces are still removing mines from the bay.

Last Wednesday Prime Minister John Howard said “massive humanitarian assistance - food, water and medicines - [will be delivered by the allies] to the Iraqi people in the next few days as the security situation, particularly in the south stabilises.” Nearly a week later, there is not much sign of that happening.

Part of the reason for the lack of security, is probably the same reason that US “liberators” are not being welcomed with smiles and open arms. Simply put, the Iraqi people do not trust the western powers. Why should they? When the Shiite majority in the South rose up against the Baath party twelve years ago after the first Gulf War their rebellion was brutally put down without a single laser-guided allied bomb falling in their support.

I think they can be forgiven for feeling a little jaded and wary. We abandoned them to their fate once before, and in their situation I’d suspect we’d do it again.

Further, like everyone else, they were promised a short war and the rapid provision of food, medicine and assistance. Another promise we’re not delivering on. The reports from inside Iraq are of a civilian population where hope is being displaced by anger towards the invasion force. These are not people, who following years of sanctions, have any adequate supplies to sit out the war. UN food agencies do not expect the civilian population’s food reserves to last into May. AFP wire service reports from Nasiriyah, north-west of Umm Qasar and Basra tell of hunger-inspired looting.

Also, to be fair, the coalition is hamstrung by its own morality. Trying to keep civilian casualties to a minimum works as a double blow against the allies. It allows the Republican Guard to disperse into residential areas and hide among civilians. The allied policy also encourages, inside and outside Iraq, the belief that the war was meant to be without civilian casualties - which is certainly affecting Iraqi support for the invasion, and in the longer run may swing public opinion in the UK and Australia back away from increasing support for the war.

But beyond this, a question has to be asked: are coalition forces stretched too thin? Do we have the troops on the ground to press on to Bagdad, but also to secure civilian centres adequately so relief can commence? The now famous New Yorker article suggests the Bush administration rejected up to six war plans on the grounds it could be done with fewer troops. (And Rumsfeld’s denials are far from convincing on this point.) Despite the fact that for some months yet, it will be the military that must supply relief and emergency infrastructure work (simply because they are the only co-ordinated force on the ground trained to operate under fire), there does not appear to have been any clear plan for military humanitarian relief. Nor can I buy the argument that it’s no job for the army. If we don't have the troops to do the job, and the humanitarian effort suffers as a result, we will be paying for it throughout the reconstruction in terms of continued Iraqi resistence to occupation and hostility to their "liberators".

And who is going to pay for reconstruction? In a sluggish US economy George Bush wants to deliver further tax cuts and ask Congress for $US 75 billion just to get through the next six months of the war. Apparently the Pentagon figure for war costs is about $US 100 billion, or about 1 percent of US GDP. The US wants to keep non-coalition, and possibly even non-US, companies out of the reconstruction effort, shunting the UN to one side. Jay Gardner, an old colleague of Donald Rumsfeld (and a former general) is tipped to head the reconstruction effort.

Britain is making noises about a UN Security Council Resolution after the war to legitimise the results and give the coalition primary responsibility for rebuilding Iraq. This is pretty much what happened, for example, with NATO in Kosovo. Except, of course, France, Russia and China won’t have a bar of it.

Overall, it is hard to see the US alone having the will and the resources to reconstruct Iraq largely unassisted.

It appears to be anticipated that Iraqi oil money will foot the bill, which should flow fairly readily when sanctions end. (Australia’s call for the resumption of the “food for oil” program is not entirely altruistic, as our own Foreign Minister has noted in public the Australian Wheat Board was a big supplier to Iraq under former “food for oil” trading. That said, we are apparently donating 100,000 metric tonnes of food.)

Personally, I agree with Chris Maxwell QC, now that our government has implicated us in this regrettable, improvident and illegal war - we are obliged to make a substantial commitment to reconstruction.

And this is why I cannot support a call for the Australian troops to come home. Like Macbeth, we are now so steeped in blood it is as easy to press on as turn back. Indeed, the moral imperative is that we carry on. I cannot see how, morally, we could advocate the withdrawal of our own troops without advocating the withdrawal of all forces from Iraq.

Now that the war has started, pulling all coalition forces out would lead to the worst of all possible outcomes: massive damage to Iraqi infrastructure, a humanitarian crisis commenced, and a repressive dictator still in charge of an even further brutalised, demoralised and impoverished population. The least-worst option now is finishing what we have started. Though I don't think the humanitarian argument was ever made out as a convincing case for entering the war, but now we are there it makes a convincing case for seeing it through.

If anything there need to be more forces in Iraq - not at the front line - but securing humanitarian relief works and food aid behind the front line, and sooner rather than later. Further, the odds of any reconstruction being successful if Iraqi civilians are left to die of hunger and dysentery in cities the size of Perth are slim. The amount of violent resistance, and even terror, the reconstruction transitional authority is met with will be directly proportionate to the suffering of the Iraqi people in the interim.

I never thought I’d say this, but there is currently a case for getting behind the war effort - admittedly in a morally limited way. The best hope for civilian relief at the moment is more military intervention, not less.

Further news on this issue

Apparently AusAID, the agency responsible for distributing Commonwealth government funds for international relief projects, has pledged $100 million to humanitarian action in Iraq - $73 million of this will be wheat distribution.

It’s a start. The Australian Red Cross has so far received $22,000 in private donations as well.