Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!

12 albums that made an impact on me

I was tagged in one of those “list 12 albums that made an impact on you” memes doing the rounds on Facespace. Not necessarily the best or your favourites, but albums that made an impression that stuck. Presented below in chronological order.

1. Garbage: Garbage
In 1998, a family friend noted that I had No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom in my record collection, and suggested that I might like this band called Garbage. I happened to have a couple of their remixes lying around – one of ‘Milk’ from that year’s Hottest 100 compilation, ‘#1 Crush’ from the then-ubiquitous Romeo + Juliet soundtrack – and became instantly obsessed with them. One day, I marched into HMV and asked to listen to Garbage at the listening station (remember when that was a thing?). The album opens with four seconds of clattering cacophony, before dropping away to silence. I thought the CD was scratched, but then the music returned, before dropping away again. I was blown away. Of course, loud-quiet-loud is the oldest trick in the music producer’s book, but I didn’t know that then. This album changed everything I’d learned about music from watching Rage and Video Hits. As anyone who knows me knows, this band has cast a long shadow over my life. I’m still a Garbage fanatic (embarrassingly enough, we called ourselves Trashers around the turn of the century), and flying to London to see the band play this album front-to-back for its twentieth anniversary was a highlight of my life to date.

2. The Cardigans: First Band on the Moon
I think The Cardigans get short shrift. They’re a very smart, constantly evolving band. The core of the band met through a love of metal, but turned their abilities to creating a 60s pop pastiche sound. They then paired it with subtly devastating lyrics: “We’ll never have the guts to discover/We’ll choke on it and die,” Nina Persson sweetly sings to her lover on my favourite track, ‘Choke’. Since then, they’ve released albums built on genres as diverse as electro and Americana. But before they did that, they released this oddball album, catapulted to prominence by the success of ‘Lovefool’. My friend Freya lent me her copy, and I remember talking to her about it outside our music classroom one day. “I can’t quite figure it out,” I said. “It’s not quite pop, and it’s not quite rock.” “Yeah,” she said. “It’s alternative. Duh.” Well, this little genre descriptor blew my world wide open, and I began to seek out music that didn’t fit in on the charts, or on the  Offspring-dominated airwaves of late 90s Triple J.

3. Kylie Minogue: Impossible Princess
I received this for my twelfth birthday and abandoned it shortly thereafter. Discovering Garbage had led me to Hole and Marilyn Manson and The Smashing Pumpkins. I was way too hardcore for Kylie fucking Minogue. But I came back to it several years after, and was really amazed by it. Not only was it a brave move – turning her back on a lucrative pop career to sign with an indie label – it was a fucking great album. Stylistically, it’s all over the shop – the album’s Wikipedia page mentions drum and bass, indie rock, trance, Motown, trip-hop and “tribal-Celtic pop”. But that’s what struck me then and sticks with me now: it’s the sound a woman looking everywhere and trying to find herself, creatively and personally. Kylie put her whole self into this album, and you can hear it.

4. David Bowie: “Heroes”
One can only read so many articles about Garbage or Placebo or any of the other bands I was listening to before coming across a reference to Bowie. So I trundled down to the library (remember when that was a thing?) and borrowed this on CD. It was more than 20 years old at that point, and it still floored me. The sturm-und-drang of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the demented groove of ‘V-2 Schneider’, the deeply weird hymnal ‘Sons of the Silent Age’: I’d never encountered music which so gleefully eviscerated the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song format. I immediately set off on a journey through Bowie’s catalogue which continues to this day.

5. Veruca Salt: Eight Arms to Hold You
Goddamn, I love this album. I will never go into the fray to defend it as an important or even especially good album, but this album rarely leaves my phone. (Same goes for Rebecca’s Empire’s Way of All Things and Deadstar’s Somewhere Over The Radio – I’ve got a lot of love for albums that everyone else forgot about long ago.) Its bubblegum-grunge gives me great joy. Special mention to Skulker’s Too Fat For Tahiti, an album in a similar vein that was much-loved by my group of friends at the time.

6. Tori Amos: Under the Pink
The turn of the century was all about singer-songwriters for me: Fiona Apple, Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush. Tori Amos was the first of them, though. It’s worth mentioning that I borrowed my mum’s copy of this album. That was a pretty tough pill for an adolescent to swallow: perhaps my parents weren’t total losers who had no idea about what was good after all. (Future records pilfered from Mum’s collection include k.d. lang, Enya and The Corrs.)

7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell
I felt so out of place when I moved to Bathurst for uni: a gay kid in a country town; an introvert with loud, attention-seeking tendencies; a weirdo at heart who could passably masquerade as a normal. I’m so glad I met my friend Steph in the first few weeks. I felt like she and I were on the same page, and she made the next three years a whole lot more bearable (and, at times, even fun!) We shared a love of PJ Harvey, and she introduced me to heaps of music. First up was Peaches, who taught me that you could turn your anger into fun instead of fury. (Plus, nothing makes you feel like a grown-up like blasting a song called ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ and not having to worry about your parents giving you a lecture on appropriate content.) However, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have had the most lasting influence on my taste in music. Before then, all of the music I liked had a glossy sheen – when listening to Marilyn Manson and PJ Harvey, I gravitated towards their polished late 90s albums, rather than the early lo-fi stuff. Yeah Yeah Yeahs gave me an appreciation for scrappier, rougher-sounding music. Putting on this album takes me straight back to 2004, when I’d walk to uni while listening to the tape (!!!) I’d made from Steph’s copy on my Walkman (!!!). It’s worth noting that for the next three years, I was so broke that I think I bought just 10 or so albums the entire time. A lot of my ability to discover “new” music depended on browsing Steph’s collection.

8. The Knife: Silent Shout
This album is still creepy as fuck. I discovered it just before moving to Sydney, at the height of the Bang Gang/Starfvckers electrobatshittery. There are lots of albums I associate with that time, but this kicked off a lot of the music I got into over the following years: the electro-industrial of Ladytron and Angelspit, the Gothic melodrama of Emilie Autumn and The Birthday Massacre, and of course The Presets, Cansei De Ser Sexy or whatever else they were playing at Club 77 on any given night. I still get a kick out of listening to those bands, but this album holds up incredibly well. It was also the start of my real love of electronic music: before The Knife, I was a piano-or-guitars kinda guy (with the notable exception of Jesse McCartney).

9. Lo-Fi-Fnk: Boylife
This amazing Swedish electro-pop duo never get the credit they deserve. I always keep their three albums on high rotation, but it’s their first that sticks with me. I discovered it just after moving to London, and I connected with the album’s lyrics, which come from the point of view of two boys stepping out into the big bad world for the first time. Listening to this album now brings back such clear memories of walking through the streets of London, terrified and excited.

10. Jenni Vartiainen: Seili
Jenni Vartiainen was part of Gimmel (“sparkle”), a trio who won the Finnish equivalent of Popstars. She then went solo and released a ho-hum piano pop record before going all Kylie on us an crafting a relatively dark and damn near flawless masterpiece. Vartiainen and her producers blend traditional Finnish folk instrumentation with modern pop production to great effect. The album is named for an island in the Finnish archipelago to which lepers were banished to die. The apocryphal story is that they rowed there in a boat, which they had to break apart to build their own coffins. Isn’t that a delightfully dark image?

11. The Sound of Arrows: Voyage 
A flawless pop album, from start to finish.

12. Ulrik Munther: Allt Jag Ville Säga
This album hit me for six when it came out last year. Munther was a pleasant pop pixie, having competed in Lilla Melodifestivalen (essentially Eurovision for kids). He released a couple of catchy English-language albums, produced in tandem with pop songwriters from around the world. For his third album, he sang in Swedish, collaborating with a Swedish playwright who’d never written a song for the lyrics and wrote all the music himself. Like Impossible Princess and Seili earlier on the list, this was a risky career-changer that paid off. Songs like the ‘Nån Gång’ (“someday”) are straight-up toe-tappers, but the album also has some of the sweetest, saddest songs I’ve ever heard. The title track (“all I wanted to say”) breaks my heart every time.

Advertisements

Filed under: Uncategorized

Supervixen

Shirley Manson is walking towards me.

Shirley Manson is walking towards me. My brain can barely process this fact. This woman, the striking singer in alt-rock outfit Garbage, adorned my school books, my bedroom walls, my fridge doors since I was 12 years old. I packed all my posters up when I finished university, but Manson and her bandmates – Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and super-producer Butch Vig, the man behind Nevermind – still have a special place in my heart and record collection.

So when Manson extends her hand and says “Hi, I’m Shirley”, I have to take a deep breath to prevent myself screaming “I KNOW, I LOVE YOU” at her.

After nearly 20 years in a consistently successful group, she could well be a bit of a diva. However, in interviews, she always seems thrilled and privileged to be in her position. After a seven year hiatus, the band released their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People, last year, and the band’s reasonable fears that their audience had forgotten them proved unfounded. In person, Manson is a delight. Sure, it’s her job to be personable in this pre-show meet-and-greet, but she goes beyond being polite and perfunctory. She tells us about the tour (this was their last night in Australia), the band’s upcoming plans, and so on. I wish I’d mentally prepared for it a little more like an interview – now I’m thinking, Guh, I’d love to know what her favourite Garbage b-side is – but I hadn’t wanted to make her feel like she was being grilled by a journalist. (We were ostensibly there as professional guests of the venue – this wasn’t a fan meet-and-greet.)

After five or so minutes of chatting, she signed our records and posed for a few cheeky photos (“You can ask me for more than a photo, baby” she joked, AND I DIED).

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

Not that it matters so much, but she’s also beautiful in person: taller than I expected (even accounting for her heels), great skin, a warm smile. She joked that a lady over 40 always wants the flash on, but she looks much younger than her 46 years. She did the rounds and we went to meet the boys. Duke was much chattier than he usually is, Butch was a mild-mannered but enthusiastic conversationalist, and Steve was very sweet but very shy – he was slowly moving away from us through the entire conversation until he was almost against the wall. Butch was looking for a Sharpie to sign our records with, and I mentioned that Shirley had walked off with mine. She heard from across the room and yelled “HEY!”, stuck her tongue out and pegged it at me, giving a big belly laugh as I flinched. Horsing around with Shirley Manson? How is this even happening?

Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your idols – one way or another, they’ll disappoint you. I’m thrilled I met mine – they couldn’t have been more pleasant. This was actually my third of four encounters with the band over the course of their tour, but it was certainly the most memorable. (An aside on the tour: the band nailed it. Shirley’s energy is incredible and her voice sounds better than ever.) I thought it would be hard to top the previous Wednesday’s experience: it was my birthday, and Garbage were playing in Melbourne, so of course I took myself down there as a birthday treat. By sheer chance, my friend Aaron was sitting next to Butch on the flight from Sydney to Melbourne, and Butch invited him (and, by extension, me) to the band’s soundcheck before the show. We waited outside the venue in the rain before being ushered inside where – holy shit – Garbage were standing on stage. Shirley chatted to us before playing a short set, even taking a few requests: she laughed when I requested Fix Me Now, a track that hasn’t been played live in over a decade, and jokingly told my friend Daniel to fuck off when he requested b-side Deadwood, but when Aaron requested Cup of Coffee, she said “Ooh yeah, I’d forgotten about that one”. They played the song for us in soundcheck, and again in their Melbourne and Sydney shows. After this incredible, intimate performance by my favourite band, they came down to say hello.

When it was my turn for a photo, I was too dumbstruck to speak, but forced my mouth to move. After apologising for gushing, I told them how much I loved their music, that I’d first heard them on my twelfth birthday and, what with that day being my twenty-seventh birthday, how special it was to meet them. (Yes, I was aware when saying all this that I had become a teenage girl.) Lo and fucking behold, Garbage then sang Happy Birthday to me.

I’ve got to say, I don’t envy the life of a touring rock star. You’ve always got to be prepared: Aaron ran into the band at Sydney airport, while I ran into Butch in Melbourne. Butch was super pleasant when I interrupted his coffee, and Shirley looked incredibly in her picture with Aaron, despite the early morning flight. But it shows, they’ve always got to be ready to run into an enthusiastic fan. The next week, when the band arrived at the after-party, they were swamped. Shirley spent half an hour posing for photos, and was pleasant and smiling the whole time. I was actually the second-last person to have a photo with her (couldn’t resist one more), and she still had the energy to exchange a few words and a smile. However, the entire time, she’d been slowly gravitating towards a roped-off area reserved for the band, and she never reached it. I guess she just decided to go up to bed and order room service before the 33 hour flight back to the States the next day. (They were flying home via Seoul – now that they’re not on a major label, it seems they’re more price-conscious.)

Also of note at the after party: they had deep-fried cheese. It was glorious.

As you may know, I’ve worked as a freelance music journalist for seven years, interviewing several of my musical idols, and even enjoying a casual friendship with some of them. Funnily enough, I just found a draft I wrote after I hung out with one of my favourite Sydney bands, Faker, after a preview of their then-upcoming album. I was a bit starstruck, but I now play Words With Friends with the guitarist, who’s a lovely chap, and sometimes run into the singer at the pub. I’m telling you this not to boast about my glamourous, celebrity-strewn lifestyle, but to demonstrate that I think I’m pretty impervious to the allure of celebrity.

That is demonstrably untrue when it comes to Garbage.

The reason I’m a music writer probably has a lot to do with Garbage. I’d “gotten into” music a few years before I heard them, – Alanis Morissette, No Doubt and, umm, The Corrs – but their music opened my ears to what one could do with a recording studio. I still remember hearing Supervixen for the first time, at a listening booth in HMV. The song opens with four seconds of discordant guitars and clattering drums, before dropping away to complete silence. No residual cymbal clash or feedback: silence. It was unnerving. I thought the playback was faulty until it happened again. Silence as a sound effect: it made a big impression on how my young mind understood music. To this day, I love a lot of music that some critics disparagingly call “over-produced”, who use the studio to really fuck around with sound.

The music aside, Shirley was (and is) a personal hero of mine. In the 90s, she was brash, even filthy in interviews. She said things that often shocked me (it may surprise you to know I was a little prudish when I was younger). She’s less alarming now, but I think that’s more about becoming older and wiser than for any fear of offending. Then and now, she’s owned her femininity and her sexuality; called bullshit on sexism, racism and homophobia; and been honest about her flaws . Growing up, I related to what she said about feeling ugly and weird throughout her youth. The fact that this strong and beautiful woman had doubts about herself made me realise that we all do; there’s no sudden level of beauty or success that will turn us into faultless and fearless individuals.

I related to her lyrics, too. That’s not special – just try and find me a teenager who doesn’t have personally meaningful lyrics scrawled across their pencil case – but that didn’t make them any less profound to me. Whether it was an emotionally-healthy crush (“I would die for you…I’ve been dying just to feel you by my side”, from #1 Crush), generalised angst (“Somebody get me out of here, I’m tearing at myself”, from Medication) or my impending loss of faith (“If God’s my witness, God must be blind”, from As Heaven Is Wide), there was a Garbage lyric for my adolescent self to cling to in any troubling situation.

Even now, when I run into school friends, they ask if I still listen to Garbage. They defined my youth in particular and, I’m surprised to realise, my continuing adulthood. I was so thankful to Shirley and the boys for being so generous with their time and energy when I met them. I’m not interested in meeting celebrities to tick one more famous person off the list, but after these four people made such an impact on my life, I appreciated the opportunity to put my hand in theirs and thank them.

So Garbage: thank you. You changed my life and I’m happier because of it.

Filed under: music, Uncategorized, , ,

National Bookshop Day 2

Wow, after going onto MySpace to retrieve my earlier post about Segways, I’ve been perusing the few entries on that blog. It sure deserves the title Mid-20s Malaise more than this collection of vaguely unsatisfied mutterings: what a pit of vitriol that thing is! Once again, to celebrate National Bookshop Day, I bring you the story of a sanctimonious bitch I had to smile at and be nice to back in 2007. I still remember the powerlessness I felt as she was mouthing off and I had to shut up and keep myself to myself. Try to remember stories like this next time you feel like hassling a young and underpaid retail lackey:

As anybody who has ever spoken to me for more than, ooh, twenty seconds will be aware, I work in retail and it crushes my soul. (Well, it would if I had a soul, but that opens can upon can of metaphysical worms that I don’t have time to deal with right now.) It’s mostly awful because it’s boring, degrading and you have to be polite to people who are incredibly rude because the company wants their money. I try to take it all in my stride, but occasionally I encounter a customer whose stupidity is so awesome that I must share.

Recently, for a reason unbeknownst to me, I have been rostered on to work in the children’s section. Normally, I love children, but I hate working in this section. The problem isn’t the children. It’s their parents. I realise that children have a limited understanding of right and wrong, and this is where parents need to step in, rather than using our bookshop as a babysitter which their children are free to desecrate as they see fit. Sure, I’m only 21 and have no children of my own, but I have frequently looked after six or seven children at a time, and successfully taken them on outings that haven’t resulted in them causing wilful damage to private property.

But enough of that. I have a story for you.

The other day, I was serving a customer and, while still chatting to this customer (you know, comments about the weather, the beautiful furniture on the cover of the magazine she bought, and other such pleasant, pointless natter), another customer comes up and starts talking to me without so much as an “Excuse me”.

“I was looking for a book for my twelve-year-old son,” she says. “And this is the second one I came across with sex in it!” She went on to discuss how it was disgusting that this was in the intermediate fiction section, how we should read and appropriately label every book that comes into the shop and so on. Firstly, I was mad because she was holding up The Messenger by Markus Zusak, one of my favourite authors. He writes beautifully and, as I told her, I believe he has many appropriate things to say about humanity. Furthermore, I told her (but not so eloquently), the book is very obviously shelved in the young adult section, designed for people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen (to which she declared “I would be horrified to think of my seventeen-year-old son reading this!” to which I thought “Well, sugar, prepare to be horrified, because your seventeen-year-old son is probably batting off to animal porn right now”). Finally, I said, if you read the blurb on the back, it mentions in the first sentence that there is sex in the book. Heaven forbid this woman take an interest in what her children are reading and discuss it with them! She claimed to be a child psychologist, and my heart went out to her poor patients: what kind of damage is this limiting attitude to sexuality doing to them?

I was reading books with sex in them by the fifth grade (the earliest one I can remember being The Dead Of The Night by John Marsden). Of course, his discussion of sex (and the emotions that went with it) dealt with situations I wasn’t familiar with, but the same can be said of the book’s wilderness-and-war storyline. There’s always a place for adolescent literature that deals with sex in a thoughtful and mature way. I mentioned to this woman that I know The Messenger is a Board of Studies-approved English text (a good friend will be using it with his Year Nine class later this year). So, not only has Zusak’s book gone through strict editing and classifying by his publisher, it has also been read, judged and deemed appropriate by dozens of teachers who are responsible for the intellectual and emotional health of teenagers.

Anyway, I could go on, but I’m already mad and probably boring you. But jeez, lady, you know what happens when you tell people what they can and can’t read? You get Nazi Germany. (Ironically, Zusak’s first adult novel, The Book Thief, is about a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals forbidden books. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and I suggest you all read it – preferably after buying it, so that Zusak makes lots of money and continues writing. That’ll make my crazy friend roll over in her emotional grave.)

Filed under: work,

National Bookshop Day

Today is National Bookshop Day and, in honour of this event, my friend Holly suggested I post a story that originally appeared on my blog on my MySpace profile (remember them?) way back in 2007. At the time, I was working at a bookshop. Now, bookshops are often wonderful places that deserve to be celebrated on a day like today. They are also cesspools of almost bottomless misery, usually staffed by capable and almost embarrassingly overqualified people. I have worked in bookshops and record stores, and rather than being a chance to connect with people through the art forms I love, these jobs always prove to be the same as any other retail job: boring and often demeaning. Nowadays, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry when I watch a show like Black Books, because it’s closer to reality than to sature. With that in mind, I give you the words of my 21-year-old self who was, surprisingly, even more bitter than the man I am today:

Working in the humiliating torture world of retail, I encounter a lot of idiots. And by that, I mean people who are rude jerks, and people who are actually mentally deficient in some way. Well, not officially mentally deficient, just dumb. We actually have one guy working in the stock room who is developmentally disabled, and he usually behaves better and understands faster than some of the fools I have to be polite to just because they have a black American Express card.

Anyway, just when I thought my hatred for humanity could not be increased, a man rolled into the store today on a Segway. Yes, a Segway. For the uninitiated, this is what a Segway looks like:

And this is what a person on a Segway looks like:

Fucking stupid, that’s what. The Segway’s official website is full of ridiculous corporate babble that tells you nothing, but somehow I managed to learn that the Segway contains two tilt sensors and five gyroscopes, as well as two computers which, based on what they learn from the tilt sensors and gyroscopes, adjust the motors thousands of times per second. All of this results in the Segway managing to stay upright, and the driver being able to move forward or backward by leaning forward or backward respectively, and likewise for turning left or right.

I am not the first person to point out that a small third wheel could have done the same thing for millions of dollars less.

Anyway, this dickhead comes rolling into the store and pulls up in front of the information desk, slowly rocking back and forth as he comes to a stop as though he were reigning in a horse. But he wasn’t. He was a grown man, riding a very expensive scooter. I was so flabbergasted to actually see one of these stupid things, let alone in a store, that I was dumbstruck. I imagine I looked like some dribbling bogan, bored and confused in an economics lecture. Fortunately, my co-slave Elicia stepped in.

“Can I help you, sir?” she asked, and didn’t laugh at all.

“Yes,” this man called down from his mighty chariot. “I have a book on hold.”

Elicia found the book, and the man slowly backed away on his jerk mobile and parked it between a table and a pillar, both of them displaying books. He briefly alighted from his vehicle, blessing the ground of our store with the touch of his feet, to make a phone call. He then got back on his Segway, and turned it around to leave the store. In doing so, he knocked an entire row of Lee Childs’ new novel Bad Luck And Trouble onto the floor. (The title of the book isn’t really relevant – I just wanted to include some facts to demonstrate that this isn’t all made up. Also, an entire row consists of twelve books.) He did this and kept on rolling, oblivious to the unnecessary mess he had created.

“Sir!” yelled my manager, Kristen. An assertive woman at the best of times, she was having a bad day and was in no mood to deal with dickheads like this one. “You can’t ride that in here,” she told him. He begrudgingly got off the Segway and walked it out of the store, having the nerve to shoot her filthies as she picked up the books he had scattered.

I understand that some people have trouble walking, due to disability, lack of limbs or gross obesity, but this man suffered from none of these (unless you count a lack of manners, a comb over and a beer gut). Why would you  you take this cumbersome device into Pitt Street Mall – one of the busiest areas in Sydney on a week day – and compete with buskers, shoppers, escalators, beggars, bins, benches, trees and rain? (N.B. It was raining today.) Not only that, but he was dressed in a way that suggests he works in an office. When I spent a day at The Drum Media‘s office, I look forward to going for a walk to the supermarket or the cafe to get my lunch. “Aah, a bit of exercise!” I think to myself. “Get some fresh air, move my muscles and give my heart something to do!”

Not for Mr Wankalot on his steely steed. In fact, Dean Kamen, the creator of the Segway, has been quoted as saying that “walking is a remnant of the Dark Ages, an unpleasant time-waster that technology need eradicate”. So what does Sir Shitfest plan to do to save his walking time? Run over women and small children to reach his destination faster? When you’re in a crowded shopping mall, you can only move as fast as the pedestrians clogging your path. In fact, I would say you go slower, seeing as you cannot dart around plodders as I can, being young and lithe (but decreasingly so).

At this point, Andrew P Street or Bronwyn Bron Jovi would bring this blog entry together with some devastatingly witty comment that made you ponder life and existence and purpose. Not me. All I want to say is people are worthless cunts, and my only hope is that, since this knob-jockey wasn’t wearing a helment, he will be thrown from his Segway and crushed and killed beneath a bus, a horse or a similarly sensible mode of transportation.

What a tosser.

Filed under: work,

Love And Light And Song

So long, my friend.
There must always be an end.
But all our love and light and song carries on –
I carry it on.
– Patrick Wolf, Eulogy, written for his late grandmother

My grandmother and my friend, Valerie Elizabeth, died on Monday.

She’d been ill for a long time, but not with cancer or anything in particular – just a series of ailments that together conspired to defeat her.

She was a wonderful woman – astonishing, really. One aunt commented “she lived an ordinary life extraordinarily”, and I couldn’t agree more. She was the most selfless person I’ve ever met. She didn’t have a lot to give, but she was generous with her time and her affection. She kept a list of people who were unhappy or unwell that was two pages long under her pillow and prayed for them every night. (I think we all know my feelings about the efficacy of prayer, but it shows how much she thought of other people.) She was thoughtful, and many people came to her for advice. She always gave me good, honest advice. (“Well, you can always wipe your bum with that,” she said when I told her I was thinking of doing an arts degree.)

She was funny – so, so funny. She had a love of wordplay (we’d often do crosswords together). She had a deadpan sense of humour, and would often play up to her image as a sweet old woman by saying racy or terrible things. (My favourite story told today is about when my brother got his license. He went to visit Mamma, who said “Reach into the front pocket of my dressing gown.” He did, and pulled out a twenty dollar note. “Bugger!” she said. “You were meant to reach into the other pocket.” He did, and pulled out a dirty hanky. They both laughed and laughed.)

She wasn’t necessarily the best cook in the world (she boiled her beans a bit too long), but she was certainly the most enthusiastic – whenever we’d arrive, there’d be something in the oven: a roast chicken if it was evening, or scones if it was afternoon. I think she enjoyed cooking, especially when cooking for others, something she’s passed on to me. Hospitality was very important to her. The maintenance man at the facility where she has lived the last eight years told us that, every time he stopped by to change a light bulb or tighten a door hinge, she’d have laid out the tablecloth with a pot of tea and homemade biscuits. She was as kind to strangers as she was to her own flesh and blood. Her generosity humbles me.

She loved people, but she especially loved children. She’d send birthday cards and Christmas gifts to my mum’s friend’s children, and to my cousins on my dad’s side. Even though she had dozens of grandchildren, she’d arrive at Christmas with a small but thoughtful gift for every single one. Visiting Mamma was a treat, not a chore for us. We looked forward to her coming to look after us when Mum and Dad went away for the weekend. I’d sometimes catch the train to Penrith to stay with her on my own.

(She didn’t seem to care for animals though. I remember her looking very sour – a suffering smile on her face – when our pet cockatiel sat perched on her head.)

All of these things made her a woman who was greatly loved and liked. Her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, all of those people’s partners and friends, her neighbours (even my neighbours – she and the woman who lived next door to us growing up became and remained friends), the staff in her nursing home all held her in special regard. When she arrived at family gatherings, she looked like a queen stepping out of her carriage to greet her subjects. All night, everyone clamoured to greet her, to sit with her and talk to her. When I last saw her conscious, a couple of weeks ago, she was still incredibly loving. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t even move herself in bed. But she’d reach out her hand to hold yours, and smile at you, and when you leant down close to her she opened and closed her mouth against your cheek in a crude approximation of a kiss.

I felt very sad holding her hand over the weekend she was dying, because it brought back happy memories, which are now just that – memories. We were both early risers, so whenever one of us visited the other, I’d climb into bed with her in the morning. I’d hold her hand for hours as she told me stories about her travels, her friends, her children. I’d hold her hand when we were sitting in church, too, all through my teens and into my twenties. And then, a few days ago, she lost the ability to even squeeze my hand.

One happy thing to come out of the last has been the time spent sharing stories about her with my family members. For example, she also used to play banjo in a band on the radio. Is that cool or what? We’ve laughed as much as we’ve cried the last few days. Every new story reminds us what a gift she was, and what a loss her death is to us and the world.

I don’t know how to end this. I could talk forever about how strong and wonderful she was, how much I loved and admired her. I will always miss her, and I’m so proud to be a branch on her family tree. What a woman she was.

Christmas with Mamma and my brother and sister, 2008

Filed under: family

Film: The Troll Hunter

Last week, as part of the Sydney Film Festival, I went to see The Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren in its original Norwegian iteration). I’ve not been this excited about a film since Let The Right One In was screened at the festival in 2008. Like Let The Right One In (Sweden) and Rare Exports (Finland) did with vampires and Santa Claus respectively, The Troll Hunter (Norway) puts an interesting spin on a creature of legend – in this case, the titular troll.

A group of three documentary students follow a man who they believe to be a bear poacher, only to discover he is a hunter of the mythical trolls, operating in a secret government department. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to create a solid science behind these trolls: there are many different specials of trolls, and the film is littered with tidbits about their eating habits (mainly rocks), gestation periods (ten years) and extra heads (eyeless and brainless, grown for ornamental purposes like a peacock’s feathers). In this sense, it reminded me of a wonderful book about gnomes I had as a child, which treated them as a real species and provided extensive anthropological-style information about them.

What surprised me most was the humour in the film. There were many tense moments when I hid behind my hands, but just as many scenes which had the audience laughing out loud. For example, in one scene, the hunter uses three goats on a bridge as bait for a troll (a clear visual joke about the story of the billy goats gruff). The three documentary students are also likeable and funny, teasing each other and mugging for the camera. (Speaking of which, the movie is shot on handheld camera. However, it’s rarely jerky like Cloverfield – the characters are documentary students, so there’s some semblance of professionalism.)

Special effects are used sparingly. They’re sometimes a bit dodgy, but they’re used to good effect. We rarely see the trolls up close, so they remain strange creatures at the edge of our imagination. Besides, special effects will always take a back seat to the Norwegian scenery. The travelling scenes reminded me of my bus trip from Rygge airport to Oslo – a good two hours – which went through the most stunning landscape of mountains and forests. I remember clearly coming down a mountain to a small town, and I very nearly got off there to spend a day wandering around to see what happened. The scenic shots evoked this for me, and Norway’s beauty bought a lump of longing to my throat several times.

See this film if you get a chance. It’s not without its faults, but its exciting, beautiful and charming. A Hollywood remake was announced the day the film was released in North America. I foresee a Let The Right One In/Let Me In outcome: a functional, enjoyable film that nevertheless lacks some of the dark, mystical awe that Scandinavia seems to produce in bulk.

Filed under: film

Recipe: Olive and rosemary focaccia

While I’m on a cooking-and-blogging bender, I thought I’d share this focaccia recipe. It comes courtesy of my friend Ellie, who bought it to a pot-luck dinner party at a friend’s place. I’ve always been quite confident in the kitchen, especially when it comes to baking, but I’ve always been a bit scared of breads, for some reason. I did once make a fairly successful Irish soda bread, but that’s not a real bread: it’s made with bicarb instead of yeast, so it’s basically a savoury cake.

Anyway, my fears were mislaid. This recipe is so easy. It’s a bit time-consuming, because the dough needs to rise three times, but that gives you time to clean up after yourself (or so my mother would have me believe). It’s tasty, versatile, and very impressive when you bring it to a dinner party. (I know, I was one of those impressed individuals.) Furthermore, it’s so satisfying to make something like this. It always seemed like the kind of thing I’d buy, its manufacture beyond my abilities, but I’ve mastered it! I often serve it to accompany my veggie meatballs, or devour it greedily on its own.

Olive and rosemary focaccia

1 1/3 cups grated or mashed potatoes (Don’t add butter or milk or the stuff that you add when serving mashed potato as a side – just boil them, peel them and grate or mash them. I’ve tried it with grated and mashed, and it makes no difference to the resulting texture.)
1 tsp dried yeast
2 tbsp olive oil (+ 2 tbsp for oiling the bowl and pan)
1 1/4 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups plain flour
fresh rosemary, kalamata olives, whatever you want, really: this would be nice  topped with finely sliced sweet potato, for example

Make sure your potatoes are ready to go before making the starter. Just combine the yeast with 1/2 cup of the flour and 1/2 cup of very warm water. Whisk it with a fork, cover it and set it aside in a warm place. (It’s winter and I live in a draughty apartment, so I put my oven on for a few minutes, turn it off and then put the bowl in there.) After 20 minutes, it will have started to bubble and look like this.

Add another 1/2 cup of warm water, 2 tbsp olive oil, the mashed potato, the salt and the remaining 3 cups of flour. Your arms are going to get a workout at this point! Once it’s all combined and looks doughy, transfer it to a floured surface i.e. a bread board dusted and rubbed with flour. Knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic. (I don’t know what kneading really is. I just punch and drop and massage and throw the dough around on the board. You’ll probably need to reflour the board a couple of times during this process.)

When you can roll the dough into a large ball without it sticking to your fingers, put 1 tbsp olive oil in the bowl then add the dough ball. Roll it around to coat it with oil, then put it somewhere warm for 20 minutes or so to rise again.

Oil a baking tray a further 1 tbsp olive oil. Once the dough has doubled in size, put it in the tray and push it to the corners. Let it rise again (!!!) and, when it’s fluffy, poke your fingers all over it, making little dents. Sprinkle it with sea salt and rosemary, stud it with the olives and you’re good to go!

Whack it in a 220 degree oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Let it cool, flip it out, slice it up and guzzle it like the greedy guts you are.

Filed under: food,

Recipe: Veggie Meatballs

It’s the Monday of a long weekend, and I’ve hardly left the kitchen. It’s been great! I’ve made ontbijtkoek (Dutch spiced breakfast cake), olive and rosemary focaccia (look out for that recipe soon), spinach and potato gnocchi, and this, my veggie meatballs. I used to make spaghetti bolognese a lot, imagining meatballs to be difficult, for some reason. They aren’t, and they’re much tastier! The meat becomes so tender. Oh yeah, the name is a little misleading: they aren’t a vegetarian alternative; rather, they’re crammed with vegetables.

I don’t like or eat a lot of meat. If it wasn’t for chicken and the gamier red meats (venison, kangaroo and duck), I’d gladly go vegetarian. I usually cook vegetarian meals for myself, and if there’s meat involved, it’s counterbalanced by plenty of vegetables.

Not so my boyfriend, whose diet is built around carbohydrates, dairy and meat. (That said, he recently introduced peas to his repertoire.) He’s a uni student, so it’s to be expected, but I do worry about his health. He’s been at home all weekend, working on his final major assessment for this semester, so I’m taking the meatballs to him for dinner tonight. It’s a recipe I’ll keep in mind for when I have nieces, nephews or kids of my own to feed, because the vegetables are well-hidden, so the kids don’t even know they’re eating healthy food! Mwahaha!

Another bonus is that the veggies make the meat go further, making this an economical meal. I get three or four servings out of the quantities below.

Veggie Meatballs

For meatballs:
Half an onion
A small carrot
A small zucchini
A handful of mushrooms
250 grams minced meat of your choice (I usually use veal and pork, today I used beef)
A small handful of grated cheese (parmesan or romano are best)
Two tablespoons breadcrumbs (optional)
An egg (optional)

For sauce (or use your own standard tomato pasta sauce recipe):
Half an onion
Two cloves garlic, crushed
One tin crushed tomatoes
One cup beef or vegetable stock
Two tablespoons tomato paste
Splash of soy sauce (optional)
Handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Two large bay leaves (optional)

Grate the vegetables and put them in a bowl. Add the meat. (It’s about half of a standard Australian supermarket packet. I know I should be a food wanker and only use hand-ground meat from an organic butcher or some shit, but it’s a half hour walk to anything like that for me, so fuck that noise.)

Mush them all together with your hands. At this point, you can add the cheese and/or the egg and/or the breadcrumbs. This helps the meatballs to hold their shape, and the cheese is just tasty. You can also add some fresh or dried herbs if you feel like it, but it’s not necessary: these babies really draw up the flavours of the sauce. Salt and pepper the mix, and mush it all together some more.

Take a half-handful of the mix and roll it into a ball. Repeat until you have a tray that looks like this.

Now for the sauce! Chop your onion, and saute it and the garlic together with a little olive oil. Add all the other ingredients, stir together and simmer for about five minutes. Give it a grind (or twelve, if you’re like me) of pepper. Then, drop the meatballs in like you’re poaching them. Spoon some sauce over them, cover, and simmer for about half an hour. Alternately, you can pop them in a casserole dish, pour the sauce over them and whack them in a moderate oven for half an hour.

Filed under: food,

Review: Bat For Lashes

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, but it’s not for want of trying (I have drafts full of delicious recipes and trashy pop videos lying in wait). I’m not a very self-motivated individual, but when somebody is depending on me to meet a deadline, I have no problems. So I am very lucky that my friend, former colleague and current music editor of Time Out Sydney asked me to review Bat For Lashes’ performance at the Sydney Opera House. (I was already going, but my best friend and boyfriend enjoyed coming along with the two media tickets, and I can now call them fans of her stunning, operatic pop.)

You can read it here.

Filed under: music

Camping and cancer

As evidenced by the title of this blog,I’m a man in his mid-20s who feels a little out-of-place at times. Usually, it’s because I’m a cynic at heart. This cynicism was tested this weekend when I participated in the Relay For Life. This is an event organised by the Cancer Council, who provide grants for research and support for those living with cancer and their carers. Having lost my aunt to cancer a couple of months ago (and my grandfather a few years ago – he was old, but it still wasn’t his time), it was a cause close to my heart. (I do consider myself very lucky, though – three of my four teammates have lost immediate family members to cancer in the last few years.)

At events like this, candles are always lit and “inspirational” songs are sung. I usually just roll my eyes (metaphorically, of course – to do so literally would be rude), but it was harder to maintain that icy exterior when your friends are crying as they remember the lives and struggles of their loved ones. Things with names like “ceremony of hope” always make me a little queasy, but as we walked around the relay track with candles, I couldn’t help bu feel a little moved.

The relay track I just mentioned was a muddy ring around the oval in Kiama, a gorgeous town down the south coast of New South Wales. The three friends who lost immediate family members to cancer all grew up in the area; one lost his sister, and his parents organised this event. The idea is that you walk all day and camp overnight, and get sponsored for your ordeal. We arrived a little late (we had to drive from Sydney) and set up our camp, and finally hit the track an hour after everybody else. We walked all afternoon, although the rain clouds rolled in and out, but by early evening, the rain was there to stay. The organisers closed the track as it was too muddy (plenty of kids were slipped and sliding through the muck, and having a great time of it), so we bunked down in our tent for the night with cheese, wine and a game of Uno Stacko!

Adam, Anna, myself, Mischa and Pam, ready to fuck cancer's shit up (in Adam's charming words)!

Hitting the track

Being the day after the royal wedding, a couple of blokes were offering pictures with Prince William for a mere $2! What a bargain, and what an honour! :P

Adam, Mischa and I settling into our tent

So it was a cold night. We didn’t know enough to lay a tarp beneath our tent before erecting it, so the damp seeped through the floor and our thin foam mattresses. But despite it all, it was fun. I’m a real city boy: although I like visits to more rural areas (like the place where I grew up), I always feel a little uneasy there. This was a very different experience for me, and I look forward to doing it again – hopefully with warmer weather!

The Kiama Relay For Life raised $100,000; my team raised $2,500 (which is $1,000 more than the goal we’d set!) If you’d like to donate, you still can at here. Don’t worry if you can’t – I’m sure to hassle you for it next year ;)

Filed under: Uncategorized