Friday, 6 May 2005

Links and limbs

Listening to:

Dinah Washington singing Love for sale.


Playing netball on Monday night, I got the little finger on my left hand smushed (i.e., the ball sped into and hit the end of my finger). It hurt a lot, and has been going through a variety of interesting colours ever since. It’s now a lovely yellow-grey mix. I can wiggle it pretty freely now, so I’m confident it’s not broken. I could even type with it the morning afterwards, so it can’t have been that bad really.

The episode is a replay of what happened to me when I kicked the bed one morning a couple of years ago, and now that I’ve done it to extremities on hand and foot, I feel as I should be excused from all similar incidents in the future. (We didn’t even win our netball game either.)


Rather than attempt Jamie’s challenge (I will eventually, but it looks a tough one), I’ll sign off with a bunch of links I like:

Sunday, 8 May 2005

Samuel Pepys

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 12 in B minor.

Just read:

Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self, by Claire Tomalin.

This is an engaging biography of the famous 17th century diarist. Pepys provides the modern world with eye-witness accounts of the plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also provides a revealing window onto his innermost foibles and thoughts. This is quite a contrast with other diarists of the day, such as Pepys’s friend John Evelyn. This additional information about Pepys’s inner life means that his modern biographer can paint a much more rounded picture.

Even in the absence of his diary, Pepys would be an interesting historical personage to observe from afar. He was a great example of a self-made man: he pulled himself into a prominent position, exploiting connections with the high and mighty, but advancing because they valued his administrative skills. For all that nepotism got him a number of his positions initially, his success in the jobs he won makes Pepys an interesting example of an early civil servant. Pepys’s career soon came to centre around the Royal Navy, and the administration of its dockyards and provisioning arrangements. This makes for interesting reading in itself: Pepys was in the heart of things when England fought three successive naval wars against the Dutch. For example, it’s interesting to read about the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667. This coup for the Dutch saw them sail up the Thames, burn a number of ships, and capture the Royal Charles. Pepys was part of the civil service responsible for the Navy, and he had to take care that blame for the disaster did not attach to him.

Earlier in his life, Pepys had to negotiate the tricky waters of the Restoration, when Cromwell’s Protectorate was on the way out, and Charles II needed to be winkled into the nation’s top job. This called for some rather delicate judgement: it was important to time one’s jump into the King’s camp carefully. Too early and the existing government would have you up for treachery; too late and the new government would see you as part of the old regime and to be purged. Pepys was lucky in his benefactors here, and Tomalin describes this part of his career very well.

Tomalin’s biography is also very good on Pepys’s personal life: his relations with his parents, cousins, wife and servants. Pepys comes alive, and I felt I knew and liked him. That’s not to say that he was a saint, but the impression is that he was basically a fairly good-hearted man. When the story of his life comes to an end, and Tomalin describes his deathbed, I felt quite sad about the whole business. That’s surely the sign of a successful biography.

Monday, 16 May 2005

How not to be an Australian

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in B flat, D.960. Played by Alfred Brendel.


The Australian Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs is going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment. Earlier this year, it was revealed that an Australian citizen of German extraction had been detained in one of Australia’s desert detention centres for (“bogus”) asylum seekers. The citizen, Cornelia Rau, suffers from schizophrenia and was picked up by some state agency. She, in a confused state of mind, claimed to be German, and not Australian. The authorities (including the federal department, but also a Queensland department) had her locked up in this detention centre for 10 months. Someone then realised that she was mentally ill, tracked down some details and eventually got Rau released.

Within the last fortnight, another disturbing story has come to light. Another Australian citizen, Vivian Young, originally from the Philippines, got disastrously mixed up with the Immigration authorities. She was also mentally unstable, but it’s not clear that she necessarily claimed to be foreign. Indeed at one point, she definitely claimed to be Australian. Nonetheless, having been picked up from a hospital, where she’d been admitted after a fairly serious head-and-spinal injury, she was then deported to the Philippines. This happened in 2001. Later, in 2003, the department realised its mistake, but proved unable to find Young. This despite the fact that Young had spent all of the two intervening years in the same hospice. She was only found last week because another Australian in the Philippines saw something about her on the television.

Something dramatic really has to happen at the Department. The Minister, professionally unsympathetic Amanda Vanstone, could offer her resignation for a start.

Sunday, 22 May 2005

From rice to riches

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in C minor, D.958, played by Alfred Brendel.

Just read:

Jane Hutcheon, From rice to riches: a personal journey through a changing China.

This is an interesting book about modern China, from one journalist’s perspective. Hutcheon doesn’t try to generalise (probably a good thing), and sticks to the particulars of her experiences in China (definitely a good thing). She was there for a number of years as a journalist working for the ABC, and this means she has plenty of material. She also introduces her own background, including an interesting Hong Kong childhood.

While this book won’t necessarily give a total novice a very rounded picture of modern China, it definitely succeeds at conveying a substantial impression. Impressions of rural poverty and political dissidence combine with impressions of the riches and excitement of places like Shanghai. A good read.

Saturday, 28 May 2005

Shower power

Listening to:

Benny Goodman, Honeysuckle rose.

Plumbers are so important

We had an external tap spring a minor leak over the weekend, and we called the estate agents on Monday to let them know. They promised a plumber. On Tuesday night we noticed that the water pressure throughout the house seemed to be higher, and checked outside. Yes, the external tap’s problem had been fixed. We guessed that the plumber had turned the water off at the mains before making his repair, and had then turned it back on with increased pressure.

On Wednesday morning, we found our showers much improved! A shower capable of flinging its water at you with lots of pressure is definitely worth having.

(I don’t know if the water mains the plumber must have fiddled were just for us, or for the whole residential complex we’re a part of. If the latter, I like to think that we’ve played a small rôle in improving a whole slew of people’s lives...)

Sunday, 29 May 2005

A fine balance

Listening to:

Summertime, performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Definitely one of the best performances of this standard I’ve ever heard. Fitzgerald and Armstrong bring out a beautiful melancholy in the song.

Just read:

Rohinton Mistry, A fine balance.

This is a finely written, compelling novel about four disparate characters in 1970s Bombay. Mistry unfolds quite a saga, drawing the characters together, and gradually making friends of them. This makes for a satisfying read, and there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome as they get there.

Some of the obstacles are within the characters, but a significant number are caused by the deprivation, poverty and exploitation that are unavoidable parts of life in ’70s Bombay. Not having any experience of the time or place, I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but the depiction in this novel makes it seem very real, and quite fascinating. (Yes, a horrid fascination in some ways, but a fascination nonetheless.)

I read this novel with my heart often in my mouth, worried that the author was not going to let his characters have a happy ending. This is a sign of good writing, and it is a good novel. However, I finished it feeling annoyed that Mistry did eventually dispose of his characters in what seemed a rather callous and capricious manner.