November 29, 2008

The Novelist's Talent

Elif Batuman's rather delicious skewering (or shoveling, for those who've read it) of Elisabeth Roudinesco's "Philosophy In Turbulent Times: Canghuilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida" in a recent LRB does the near impossible by making me relish the thought of reading the book itself (a book I just know will send me into reveries of "how could they think that?!"). And all those incantatory titular names, so familiar from a world away, another century away (I mined the relatively-sane Canguilhem for ideas for an undergrad HPS paper a long long time ago, and Althusser was, for reasons that never made the slightest bit of sense, a bright star in the somewhat confused and distant philosophical firmament at Sydney)….

"Roudinesco has a novelist's talent for distilling the scattered nonsense of a certain sociohistorical milieu into pithy soundbites." Indeed. That novelist's sense (intentional or not) is just what's needed….

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November 26, 2008


It's one of those familiar little cultural rites for Britons and Australians in the US around this time; it happens to me every year without fail: some friendly well-intentioned American (usually a checkout clerk or someone like that) asks me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia or Britain. I'm always tempted to reply with something glib and unpleasant about how we all give thanks for not being American, but it's easier to just smile and give some sort of non-committal response and ask them how they'll be celebrating their Thanksgiving. It's just one of those things here that you learn to play along with, like the assumption on pretty much every official form that everyone has a middle initial (and only one middle initial), and that every address in every country has something called a "zip code", or that all phone numbers world-wide are exactly ten digits long…

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November 22, 2008

Game Day

In The Milano the radio's playing a glacial rendition of the third movement of the Brahms violin concerto; it's the sort of thing that gets called stately, but it sends me out early onto the street, where a surly-looking guy in a wheelchair is begging on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign saying "Family kidnapped by ninjas need $$$ for karate lessons chop chop". You do what you can, I guess; most in the red-and-gold crowd streaming up Telegraph for the Big Game just turn away. On lower Sproul the cheerleaders gather in the gleaming cold surrounded by beached sousaphones and trumpets; one day I'll finally capture the surrealism strewn around so casually here.

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November 19, 2008

Jonestown (Bringing It Home)

Thirty years ago this week more than 900 people killed themselves (or were killed) in Jonestown under the orders of the Reverend Jim Jones (who died along with his victims). Like most people, I guess, before I moved to the Bay Area it seemed a fairly abstract and distant event — classic Americana, an occasion for a cynical or even ironic riff on American religious and cultural delusion, a mostly-forgotten source for the phrase "drink the Kool Aid" — but around here it's hard to escape the human dimension behind the story, and the cynicism's hard to maintain in the face of the obvious and strong local connections and scars, even thirty years down the line.

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were intimately connected to San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California as a whole — the Peoples Temple had its headquarters in San Francisco (well within my memory you could still see it down on Geary if you knew where to look); Jim Jones himself was a larger-than-life and often-feted presence in liberal and leftist political circles here; and relatives of the dead (many of whom came from San Francisco and Oakland) are easy to find locally (my neighbourhood contains several people who had relatives who died there). Jackie Speier, now a high-profile local congresswoman, was one of the group of US congressional representatives and journalists shot by Jones's supporters at the local airstrip while attempting to leave Jonestown after a tense fact-finding mission (most of the other members of the party she was in, including local congressman Leo Ryan, were killed at the airstrip); Jones's son (who wasn't at Jonestown at the time, despite being a then-Believer) still lives in the Bay Area, grappling well (by the sounds of things) with the personal legacy of a father he apparently hated for decades afterwards. What seemed like a typically American (or more specifically Californian) weird and distant story from the distance of London or Sydney turns out to have a human dimension — imagine that.

Nine days after Jonestown, Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in City Hall, sparking off another long-running thread in local history….

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November 14, 2008

The Big Country

The grandly-named Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (actually a nook in the mall at Orlando Airport) sells (amongst a large array of other merch) plush cuddly little official NASA space shuttles. I buy one; it'll go nicely with the friendly over-fed knitted pink and white Dalek I have back in Oakland.

At Denver we land in the teeth of a bitterly-cold strong northerly wind that's sending tumbleweeds rolling across the runways and ramps; it's snowed here earlier this morning, but it's blowing dirt and sand and stray bits of scrap paper right now. The crowds hanging around the gates waiting to board West Coast flights always seem visibly different to the rest of the vast mass of people that flows through this huge airport every day (this has often been the first sign of home for me over the past decade). At the western end of the long concourse you can see the beginning of the Rockies through plate glass picture windows; at the other end there's no view at all of the Great Plains sloping invisibly back through the haze towards the Mississippi and Back East. It's a state of mind, I guess, along with the "Tornado Shelter" signs pointing to the reinforced toilet structures every few tens of metres along the way.

Later, Boulder, the Front Range, snow-covered oilfields, the scoured scarred badlands of Western Colorado (a place with unlikely family connections for me), mesas, the Wasatch, Great Salt Lake, the endless sharp ranges of the Great Basin desert, snowcapped against a desert of rilles, craters, dry lakes, power stations, and mines in the middle of nowhere, Mono Lake and the Sierras (at last!), Mighty Modesto, State Route 99, Interstate 5, Mt Diablo and the Bay… we land into a very dry but mild mini Santa Ana that's turned the twilight bright orange and purple and the brush fire danger to bright red. Back to reality, I guess.

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November 13, 2008

The Natural

Fierce sun, hard rain, towering clouds, dark shades, Caribbean accents, sandy soil, scrubby trees, standing water, filmy lakes, sprawling malls, thrusting resorts, empty plazas, big food, ubiquitous obesity, unsustainable lifestyles…. Outside — somewhere — Natural Florida, a place I suspect I'd like a lot, a place I've never visited in twenty years of having to come to the Real Florida for conferences and business.

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November 11, 2008


So you fly a few thousand miles non-stop across the country to a smallish city in the middle of what seems like a very flat nowhere and approach the rental car counter at the airport. You can't help noticing that on the wall behind the counter there are three large posters, one from each of what you think of as your home towns — London, Sydney, and San Francisco — enticing you to travel to these distant locales (and rent cars there, presumably).

It all seems so exotic. Especially when the guy behind the counter cheerily greets you with a thick Brummie accent.

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November 10, 2008

Soundtrack For A Future Short

Click here for a lightly-edited and only slightly mashed-up mp3 I did of an Ivesian short stroll around Sproul Plaza last Saturday while the University of California band warmed up for a game (listen to it with headphones and loud to get the full effect).

I take my surrealism where I can get it, I guess.

(There's a much larger and higher-quality audio-only Quicktime version here for those of you with the bandwidth).

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November 06, 2008

Scott Reilly At The Compound Gallery

Scott Reilly, an artist friend of mine in Oakland, is having a show at The Compound Gallery on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland November 1 through December 1. I went to the opening last Saturday — it's a small deeply-affecting set piece on his brother's death as a young child in a car accident, quite unlike any other bits of Scott's stuff I've seen over the years — and if you're local, drop in some time (The Compound is worth a visit even if you don't get to see Scott's stuff). That Man Fantastic will be playing there this Friday (November 7) at 7pm as well. You may (or may not) get to see this fake Jimmy Little there behind the cameras….

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November 05, 2008


Much is made of the shameful fact that forty seven years ago, when Obama was born, his parents could not have legally lived together in Virginia (or a large part of rest of the US) because of anti-miscegenation laws. Virginia in many ways redeemed itself last night by convincingly voting for Obama as the president; but last night, in a deeply shameful act, Californians voted to remove the right for same-sex people to marry. I'd like to believe that's the last gasp of Boomer and older bigotry, and that in decades to come we'll all ask how people could possibly have thought it right to ban such marriages in the same way we now wonder how mixed-race marriage could possibly have been considered both immoral and illegal, but I'm not holding my breath. True Belief, after all, is about civil rights for you and yours, not them and theirs…

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November 04, 2008

Morning In America

Rarely have I felt so good about being so publicly wrong (and rarely have I ever felt as much a part of — and as energised by — an American election). I think I kind of twigged yesterday when I saw a huge gleaming new American SUV parked in front of our building covered in Army and Infantry and NRA stickers… and a bunch of Obama / Biden stickers covering its back bumper. It seemed too good to be true, but there it was.

But what now? There's a world out there beyond the Bubble that hasn't changed at all… (and, in something its hard not to take quite personally, California's populist attempt to stomp on gay marriage, Proposition 8, appears to be winning, a real tragedy).

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November 02, 2008


That might be the word on the street around here (especially up towards East 14th), but even with all the loose pundit talk of landslides and crossover states, the reality on the ground beyond the Bay Area's cozy self-absorption is difficult to judge, and I still have bad forebodings…. It's not so much that I distrust the people (I don't put much store in the supposed applicability of the Bradley Effect, for example), it's that I distrust the pundits and the polls and their ability to see beyond the incestuous news cycle bubble. We shall see.

(One of the most interesting things about this campaign has been how two politicians I once rather admired, or at least thought interesting in their own ways — Hillary Clinton and John McCain — were for me both irreparably soiled by their own words and actions in this campaign. It's difficult to credit just how poorly both came off compared to what I expected from them, and just how effective and even subtly tough Obama has been made to look by comparison. That took some doing…).

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