Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sweet mystery of history

What a strange position. Quite wonderful, but oddly unnerving. The National Library of Australia is touring an exhibition of Australian Treasures held in library collections - symbolising the way in which libraries are curators of the national heritage. I'd had an email from a State Library archivist alerting me to the arrival of an anonymously-donated scrap book containing clippings about the Ern Malley saga of the early 1940s - the famous literary hoax perpetrated against my father, Max Harris. The archivist invited me to have a look at the book, to see if I could help to shed light on it. As it happened, I had also been invited to the media preview of the Treasures exhibition so I liaised to see the scrapbook between the official Treasures speeches and the VIP lunch.

And so it came to pass that, while celebrating the way in which significant pieces of history survive the often inauspicious happenstances of time, I found myself with one such piece of history in my hands. A piece of Australian cultural history which also was celebrated within the context of the Treasures exhibition. Indeed, Ern Malley is even on the cover of the exhibition's big, glossy catalogue. And there I was, upstairs with the archivist, handling the fragile, browning pages of a 1941 clippings book, seeing reports that I had never seen before on that piece of history and, with Neil Thomas, the archivist, puzzling over where this thing has been for all these years, how it ended up in Angelsea, Victoria, why it was sent to the library anonymously and who on earth had compiled it.

This was a profoundly thrilling experience. With a rush, it made me realise that archivists have the most fascinating jobs. And for me, as the connected person called in to throw light on the find, there was a sense of love, sorrow, wonderment as I leafed very carefully through those fraying old pages which revealed, in unprecented detail, the dramas of my father's life. How painful they must have been for that very young man - all those screaming headlines, all those excoriating reviews.

At the same time, there was a sense of relief because so much of this history had been lost or in fragments here and there. My father kept nothing. He was a dedicated discarder. A biographer's nightmare. Yet here was a collection of clippings which encompassed media coverage in journals large and small, from all over the world. Beautifully collected and collated.

The tiny handwriting identifying sources was another mystery. It looked vaguely like Max's script, but not quite. So whose was it?

I phoned my mother and asked if there was any chance Max had ever made a clippings scrapbook. She replied that this would have been atypical. In all the years she knew him, he had never scrapbooked anything. She had known him from school days - so this, one could accept as fairly definitive. It was not he.

Puzzling at night with my mother, it was not until I had described the scrapbook's cardboard binding that some sort of penny dropped. "Mary did it," she said. Aaah. Mary Martin, my father's long-time friend and business partner, she who stayed in Adelaide and managed the Angry Penguins journal office while Max was in Melbourne producing it with John Reed.

And so the bits of jigsaw slip into place.

There is so much more to know.

How did this book get to Victoria? Was it among Mary's possessions, dispersed in her family after her death over 30 years ago? If so, why did the family keep it and now, why give it to history? And why do so anonymously?

Such are the mysteries we may never solve.

But at least the treasure is now in the right place - under the protective wing of librarians, the wonderful keepers of the cultural history.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Botox for blogs

I've finally done it. I have given angrypenguin a facelift, thanks to Blogger's upgrade-to-Google facility. I am pleased with the crisp, clean look.

Of course, I am having problems in this new, much-overdue template change. Blogger says one can access the original blog to get at template adds, but now I can't find it. Maybe this is because I made more than one change to the template as I moved over. Seeing my original choice in full-screen, I realised the column width was too wide for easy online reading and sought a narrower column - this template. That is a flaw in the preview facility - the small window gives a skewed perspective. The design looked dramatically different when I adopted it.
So, all my logos, my counter and illustrated links are gone - along with the link Blogger originally offered to my archived original blog. I've scoured the Help lists - to no avail.
One always dreads making any changes online - it is never problem-free and ends up being really time-consuming. I am a content expert, but never claimed to have much aptitude for the techie side of the WWW. So here I am, floundering.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

No fan of Duncan Chessell

As Willy Loman said, "attention must be paid". We all crave attention. Some demand it.
I am thinking of Duncan Chessell, "adventurer", who has just climbed the highest peak in Antarctica. Not alone. He had a satellite phone. He does not move without communications for, otherwise, how could he make the world pay attention to every move he makes? He has not been climbing Mt Vinson (4897m) for science. He has been climbing it because he wants a personal record of having climbed all the world's highest peaks. And he wants everyone to know that he is doing it. There are others climbing with him, but one barely hears of them. They are not media manipulators.
Chessell is an absolute expert. He is a better media manipulator than mountain climber, methinks. He has finessed reporters on various media, charmed them to bits. They all think he is their special friend. They all believe he is reporting exclusively to them. They will not hear a word against him. Of course, they do. From me.
This bloke does not have me fooled and I am appalled that experienced journalists have been suckered in. We of the media are always being wooed by people seeking publicity. PR people finess us all over the place. They treat us like good friends with the hope that we will think of them as good friends. Ingenuous young journalists make believe them - until their job description changes and they discover that they have been dumped like the proverbial in favour of the new journalist who serves the PR cause better. We jaundiced oldies know this syndrome - uncritically, since PR people have to serve their masters and getting through to us is a primary requirement.

Duncan Chessell is his own PR person. He has the media phone numbers on speed dial and he rings and texts his good media buddies daily, often many times. He even texted one colleague in the depths of the night to announce the birth of his child. The colleague was tickled pink thus to be treated like a member of the family, this celebrity family.

But Chessell is creating his own celebrity for his own selfish ends.
He is a man obsessed with his own thing - climbing bloody mountains and making a personal record. The old PB - personal best. The operative word is "personal".
Massive resources are required for the sort of PB he seeks. Delicate environments are trampled. Planes fly in to the fragile Antarctic to bring his crew in and out.
It is all spectacularly expensive.
The canny Chessell has tried to offset this by making his adventures a "charity" cause. He has called his expedition "The Centrecare Antarctic Challenge". It is like a sponsor's naming rights, but the sponsor is a church charity. I gather that we can donate to it in the name of Duncan Chessell and his challenge - hence, he can claim to be supporting its cause. But, of course, it is supporting his cause. His incredibly egocentric PB.
Come on. Who needs Duncan Chessell's name in order to donate to a church charity? If one wishes to donate, one simply donates. Chessell exploits its name for his own cause, not the church cause. How come everyone is suckered in?

No, I am no fan of this man.
I do not feel a wrench of the heart when I see him on television lamenting the fact that he is missing out on his baby daughter's growth because he has to be far away in Antarctica.
He does not have to be anywhere. He is simply putting his adventure above his family.
His wife does not seem to mind. She is getting a lot of attention, too.
In between his myriad media calls, he rings her, also.

Duncan Chessell certainly has achieved a world record of sorts, I think.
He may claim the pinnacle of media connectivity. The top of self-generated media coverage in the world today. Well, South Australia.
I am sure the rest of the world neither knows nor cares.
Until Chessell gets their phone numbers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Living in a drought

All because of a drought and severe water restrictions, my potplants have never been better watered. They smile up into the searing heat, their roots happily sucking up the "greywater" from my morning shower.
Having been conditioned by the urgency of our South Australian water crisis into acute awareness of water use and waste, I now keep a bucket in the shower. It is either full or half full by the end of my morning ablutions, depending on whether it is a hair-washing day or not. So, every morning I traipse out into the garden with my bucket and share the precious water out - on plants which, previously, were lucky to be watered once a week.
Recycling greywater makes one very conscious of just how much water slips away as oone performs the usual domestic tasks. I now stand over the laundry sink when the washing machine heads for spin cycle and catch the rinse water in my bucket. There are four full buckets to a full load of washing. Four! A lot of happy plants.
But not in the street. The street trees are starting to droop. I have tried sharing my shower water with them - but the earth is so dry, the water just runs across it and the next thing you know, it is heading for the storm drain. One needs to spend some time dripping it slowly in on the rock-hard suburban earth. Many trees are not going to survive this drought. Those that do will record it for posterity - a slim line of deprivation in their growth rings.
Meanwhile, we watch our water and each other. There are a lot of dirty cars on the road. A good sign. One is permitted only to wash cars with a bucket and sponge. No hoses. Or one may go to a water-recycling car wash. A dirty car now is seen as a good citizen. A lush lawn is seen as greed. One wonders when the abuse will begin - people turning on each other over water waste.
For there is one clear thing. This drought has made people realise that although they may have all the material possessions in the world, water truly is the most precious of all commodities. We must never take it for granted.

Monday, January 01, 2007

And another year...

The youthful badge of New Year honour. The hangover.
There are sad and seedy people all around me on this first day of 2007.
It has always bemused me that this is the way people choose to start a new year, wiping out the old year in a last night frenzy of excess and abandon, only to confront the first day in a fog of misery and regret.
Oh well, the year can only get better for them, I suppose.
Mine is not an attitude of age. It is a lifelong opinion and I can't remember ever seeing in a new year drunk. That I can't remember it does not mean it never happened. But the odds are against it, since I have always seen the passage of time in a melancholy light. I am not all that keen to let go of the years and it seems illogical to me that people are so keen to do so.

Then again, society needs its rituals and celebrations, its excuses for yet another fireworks display. The positive of new year as a celebration is that it is not encumbered by religion. It is a celebration which applies to one and all, whether it be the partying affluent young or the old alone in front of the television, waiting for the fireworks.

Beautiful as they are, fireworks are burning money. One thinks of the good causes to which those sparkling explosions of millions may be directed - causes which would really do something for a new year or many years. But now I am just too curmudgeonly.

Here's to hoping that this is a year of peaceful resolution and political restraint, that common sense and compassion will prevail and that a sense of consequences and care for the future will emerge where now there is short-sighted coporate greed.