Summer (lions) reading: Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ and Nick Offerman’s ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve been getting my comedy reading on. A few months ago, I got hooked on Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen this show (now in its final season) because you live under a rock like me, it’s great; in the vein of the UK series The Office, it was initially meant to be a spinoff of the US version.

Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, it centres on super-positive public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), dedicated to kicking arse in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Parks and Recreation office – slowed right down by her deadpan boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They’re ably supported by a talented ensemble cast and the writing is brilliant – that great mix of crazy-funny and heartbreakingly poignant.

'"Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.'
‘”Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.’

Anyhoo: reading. I’d heard great things about Amy Poehler’s recently released book, Yes Please, and managed to get my hands on a copy before Christmas (bless you, Alex). I hesitate to call it a memoir, though it largely is. It’s also a bit of an advice column by the funniest agony aunt around, and part photo album/part scrapbook, which is lovely and adds a personal, candid touch.

The main narrative tracks Amy’s start in the world of improvisation through to performing in Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade and various other groups; she also covers her time on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec. This thread is intercut with chapters about other aspects of her life, such as childbirth (‘Is it too late to flood the hospital room? Or turn it into a really fun foam party?’), being a parent, and her experience of the entertainment industry (‘Hollywood is a crazy biz and I know the biz cuz the biz iz in my blood’). There are special-guest chapters written by others, such as her mum who writes about the day she gave birth to Amy; Amy then urges readers to seek out their own birth stories from their mothers (and even provides lined pages where these stories can be written – too cute).

Yes Please really appealed to me, for a number of reasons. Amy Poehler’s kiiind of my contemporary, though a bit older; she covers a lot about growing up that I can identify with (eg. Judy Blume, sleepovers, terrible 80s fashion). I really appreciate and am trying to apply her creative advice (about writing but could be applied to any art form): ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’ (That’s a shame because I’m a goddamn expert in the latter.)

I love Amy’s straight-talking style – she sticks up for aging, and takes well-aimed shots at plastic surgery (in haiku form, of course): ‘Hey, shooting poison/in your face does not keep you/from turning fifty’. (Now that I think about it, poetry is a wonderfully employed device throughout; the development of her friendship and comedy partnership with Tina Fey, her ‘comedy wife’, reaches its climax with an acrostic poem no less.) In a very classy move, she outright refuses to speak directly about her clearly painful divorce from Will Arnett, instead focusing on the lighter side by pitching a bunch of self-help divorce books, such as ‘The holidays are ruined! This book is one page long and just contains that one sentence’.

She writes warmly about how she came to be Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec AND THEN I CAN’T READ ANYMORE BECAUSE I’M ONLY UP TO SEASON 4 SO SPOILERS GAH. But she does have a list at the end of the chapter where she praises each cast member in turn and, like the rest of the book, it’s written in a down-to-earth, heartfelt, grateful way that’s just really lovely. The gushing is tempered with gems like: ‘Nick Offerman is someone I would run to when zombies attack because he can build a boat and is great company.’

'I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.'
‘I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.’

Speaking of whom, Nick Offerman brought out his own book in 2013 and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas from my partner, who searched all of Sydney’s bookshops during Hell’s shopping period. (Bless you, Shane.) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One man’s fundamentals for delicious living is a great companion read for Yes Please, for obvious reasons but also because both Nick and Amy place emphasis on their acting/comedy careers as art. They take themselves and their work as artists seriously. Not in a pretentious way or at the cost of having fun, but they work very hard at it and have a healthy respect for themselves and their peers. These books are also two parts of the larger story about the little show that could – Parks and Recreation was often on the chopping block but managed to survive and thrive, which is great news for anyone who needs laughter in their lives (ie. ALL OF US).

Along with drinking your fill of manly-man advice from the guy who plays arguably TV’s manliest moustachioed man, Ron Swanson, readers gain insight into Nick’s life from his birth in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois; growing up, working hard but also finding time to get up to no good; moving out to Chicago in a used Subaru to pursue acting; eking out a living building theatre sets during lean times; and working his way up oh-so-gradually from bit parts, to appearing full-frontally in HBO’s incredible series Deadwood, then *cough* Miss Congeniality 2 and roles in Sundance contenders, to eventually becoming the Ron Swanson you know and love.

While you’re being amused by Nick’s humorous anecdotes, you also reap the rewards of his varied life experience. He places emphasis on finding a hobby – nay, a discipline – and working away at it, whether it’s your dream to act or fashion a canoe you can paddle off in. (He runs the Offerman Woodshop alongside his acting career.) As a bonus, there is rich advice for wooing the ladies, and he pays tribute throughout to his talented actress wife, Megan Mullally – perhaps sometimes too eloquently (do I need to know exactly what they get up to in the woods?), but on the whole it’s adorable.

The main themes underlying Nick’s uniquely deadpan and wickedly humorous book are living life while holding true to good old-fashioned values, minding your manners and, like Amy, having gratitude for all that life has given you. ‘Paddle your own canoe’ is his variation on beat your own drum, and, if you have the opportunity, do literally make and play your own drum as well (or canoe – anything, really: ‘Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle’).

Both books are refreshing, positive, often laugh-out-loud antidotes to a lot of the . . . well, crap of modern life, celebrity, and traditional and social media at the moment (with the exception of Parks and Rec castmate Aziz Ansari getting all up in Rupert Murdoch’s racist grill on Twitter this past week – taking the Parks and Rec on-set ‘No Assholes’ policy and applying it like a blueprint for the world: beautiful stuff).

They are in some ways like a soothing balm. The message is to trust yourself. Create what you want to create. And, like Amy Poehler says, be whoever you are.

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The triffids are coming!!!

day-of-the-triffids

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

I recently read John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids for the third time. What happened was I casually picked up the book, opened it to the first page and read that first line.

Big mistake. Huge.

It was the end of October and I’d been thinking I would do National Novel Writing Month again this year (my second time) and how I want to write speculative fiction. So I’d started brainstorming and making a little reading list. Then I picked up TDotT and that was it for me. (I’d therefore like to personally blame John Wyndham for my lack of effort in NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don’t reread many books – seriously, who has the time? Plus working in publishing tends to make reading for pleasure a slightly less pleasurable experience (‘I found a typo!’ ‘Why the hell did they pick this font?’ ‘Hmm, I think the author used that adjective 100 pages ago’, etc.) But there are some books that once in a blue moon when I pick them up, I have to reread.

day-of-the-triffids-original-signed-script
Exhibit A: why this book can be difficult to adapt to the screen.

The Day of the Triffids is Wyndham’s ‘famous story of a world dominated by monstrous, stinging plants’. Okay, it doesn’t sound that scary (last time I read this book, I backed it up with The Road and yes, this book is nowhere near scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Cormac McCarthy). And the triffids would have remained a safe though ungainly feature of London gardens and parks, had some pretty lights not appeared in the sky one night and triggered a sequence of events that brings civilisation to its knees.

What is it about TDotT that I love? As mentioned above, right from the beginning it’s terrific. You can see how the opening’s influenced modern-day sci-fi/speculative fiction – 28 Days Later and Walking Dead are two examples that spring instantly to mind, where the main character wakes up in hospital and ‘while they were sleeping’ shit had got real. The waking up, not knowing where people are, the disorientation and realisation that everything has changed. For the worse. Oh my god for the worse.

Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love!
Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love. Run for your life, cowboy!

Bill Masen’s situation is intensified by the fact he’s recovering from an eye operation after a triffid-related incident. (This will become relevant later.) Sadly he therefore missed out on the spectacular comets that lit up the sky the previous night and everyone wouldn’t shut up about. Poor Bill.

He waits impatiently for someone to come and remove his bandages and reveal whether or not he can see but . . . nobody comes. (Go Wyndham, tapping into that deep-seated fear – what if the world ended and you were one of the survivors but with a disability that hugely increased the odds against you?)

Bill eventually carefully removes the bandages and ventures out to find desperate scenes – everyone seems to have gone blind overnight. A number have already given up hope, taking to the bottle or stepping out a high window (if they can actually find one).

Sometimes it is all about the triffids.
Sometimes it is all about the triffids.

It’s not all about the triffids. In fact, like a lot of speculative fiction, this book isn’t so much about the threat – the triffids, in this case – but about how people deal with the tragedy. And there are other threats here too: despair, hunger and that old favourite, man’s inhumanity to man.

This book is not fast-paced, wall-to-wall action, but is incredibly tense in other ways. And I love the quieter moments where the characters have a chance to reflect on the big picture of what’s happened and what it means. The moment where they have to face their dystopian future head on:

‘Quite consciously I began saying goodbye to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, facades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there . . . Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow.’

This novel is a perfect example of the genre known as ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I didn’t know was a thing. Bill and his new friend Josella spend a fair amount of time in an enviable position – firstly, they are two of the few people who can see, and secondly, they can see where luxury pads and gourmet small goods are. It ain’t all bad. Their last night in London is spent holed up in a sweet suite, dressed to the nines (well, Josella is – women, eh) and pigging out. Oh okay, it’s not all a walk in the triffid-filled park:

‘Night magnified the quiet of the city, making the sounds which broke it the more desolate. From time to time voices rose from the street, edgy and brittle with hysteria. Once there came a freezing scream which seemed to revel horribly in its release from sanity. Somewhere not far away a sobbing went on endlessly, hopelessly.’

Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.
Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.

Way to spoil the mood. Other passion killers for Bill and Josella include the time they’re starting over with a bunch of survivors and cluey Josella susses out how exactly they’re going to have to repopulate the earth. (Hint: Bill’s going to be a busy man.)

Bill Masen’s a competent protagonist – he’s a man of the times, a bit of an everyman who, luckily, has a lot of experience working with triffids and just doesn’t trust the damn plants. He’s not really an action man, but that’s alright; he gets things done. He also happens to have anti-triffid guns. He’s a guy you want to stick with when things go south in a triffid-related manner.

Josella is a woman of the 1950s but although a bit annoying at times she’s a pretty good heroine. She’s quick thinking, a tad feisty and she knows how to look good in ski pants. Bill indulges in a bit of quaint misogyny by describing her (she ‘prattles on’ etc), but it’ll be a few decades until Lt Ellen Ripley et al hit the sci-fi scene, so let’s take what we can get.

I happened to pick up half a dozen or so second-hand Wyndhams in the past year or so; looks like it’s time to get busy!Image1599

 

Aside from The Day of the Triffids, off the top of my head a few others I reread are: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m curious to know what books other people return to time and again.

Pop and rock

In a week of spirit-sapping humidity and daily thunderstorms, I (mostly) dodged the weather and got out and about regardless. In your FACE, rain! (I just sometimes had really, really wet feet.)

On Wednesday night I saw the Pop to Popism exhibition at Art Gallery of NSW with friends. I love galleries at night. There’s just an excited vibe that’s lacking during the day – it’s kind of like being allowed to go into a sleepy library and yell swearwords at the top of your voice or something. It’s like an art party.

I think it can be easy for your eyes to start to glaze over sometimes with pop art – the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell’s soup cans, the Lichtenstein comic-strip panels are so well known it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes. But imagine how unreal it would have been when they first popped up (eep) on the scene, in the face of the art establishment and everything it upheld. Must’ve been wild times!

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would - his hair is totally boss.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would – his hair is totally boss.

I loved Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol – who wouldn’t? We noted it would’ve been spectacular back in the day when the silver spraypaint was spanking new, but it’s still got it.

Really enjoyed the Roy Lichtensteins (because hell, it’s Lichtenstein) – especially In the Car. Not sure why; maybe because the guy looks like he’s on the verge of a murder spree and it’s INTENSE.

Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It's just about a delicatessen counter. Right?
Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It’s just about a delicatessen counter. Right?

My fave artwork was of course painterly – Wayne Thiebald’s Delicatessen Counter.

On first look I don’t know why I was attracted to it, I just liked it – that was indeed a fat, juicy-looking wedge of cheese, for example. And it seemed pretty straightforward and accessible. Thankfully I passed it again and was drawn to the electric outlines/underpainting leaking out between the smallgoods: vibrant oranges, reds, greens in a mostly white and blue palette. This painting, well, POPS. Sure it’s about meat and cheese, but it’s about So. Much. More. (But really, it’s just about meat and cheese, I’m pretty sure.)

Mister
Martin Sharp, Mister Tambourine Man (1967). Pretty groovy, baby.

 

In a movement dominated by giants like Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, et al, it was great to see a roomful of Australian pop art. Martin Sharp’s works appealed and I particularly liked his Mister Tambourine Man screenprinted on gold foil, plus Richard Larter’s The Hairdresser is decidedly cool and of the time.

Great to see the women representing too, as there were so few female artists in the movement to begin with and unfortunately most have disappeared from its history. Rosalyn Drexter’s Race for Time is hot-hued, action-packed and movie posteresque, and Bridgid McLean’s fascination with the testosterone-laden world of car racing is demonstrated in Untitled (1969) among others – the brushwork and tones are so meticulous and subtle the painting looks like an airbrushed work.

Race
Rosalyn Drexter, Race for Time (1964). Hottt.

AGNSW has ensured visitors immerse themselves in the pop era of the 1960s–70s – it’s about the art but also the origins, the events of the time, music, film and other cultural products. Beatles songs and other ’60s tunes serenaded shoppers in the Pop Shop. There are fun interactive elements alongside the exhibition. We joyfully partook of pop art Twister (putting hands and feet on Marilyn Monroe’s face, naturally); decorated soup can outlines; and when we sat down to dinner and wines in the AGNSW café later, we did so with pop art–related colouring-in and activity sheets. Okay, these all might’ve been for kids, but why let that stop you?

So I need a segue into Friday night . . . Speaking of 1960s music (!), my Friday night involved an impromptu trip to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville to see Dog Trumpet. I saw them this time last year with friends, but before that I had been largely ignorant of this rock band featuring ex Mental as Anything members (and brothers) Reg Mombassa and Pete O’Doherty, as well as Inner West institution Bernie Hayes.

Dog Trumpet: 'Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW'.
Dog Trumpet: ‘Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW’.

I can’t really classify myself as having been a fan of ‘the Mentals’ exactly, as their heyday was slightly before my time, but they were certainly a feature of my formative years – kind of like the familiar geometric wallpaper of my childhood home. On the night, Dog Trumpet played the Mentals hit ‘Berserk Warriors’. Instantly it transported me back to being five; for Christmas my sister was given the compilation ‘1982 with a Bullet’ featuring that song, and it enjoyed high rotation at our house throughout the eighties. So there’s sort of a special place in my heart for Reg and Pete to begin with.

They are damn impressive musicians. The music is a mix of 1960s influences, roots, blues and light country, and it’s earthy, lively and fun – despite some potentially heavy subjects – and they just have a great time on stage. Highlights from the gig include the tribute ‘Made in the World’, which lists off important global figures who’ve all made significant contributions somehow, many of them now dead. ‘With Good Reason’ has a happy, upbeat melody that belies the lyrics laden with the number of ways things are a bit shit right now: ‘Oh Lordy what we gonna do, if the world is going to end then so will you’. The brothers joked at the end how Tony Abbott hates that song and refuses to acknowledge its existence, and a couple of Abbott impressions ensued and were much appreciated by the audience.

And then they broke out ‘Little Red Rooster’, with Bernie Hayes on vocals and acoustic guitar, Reg on face-searing slide guitar. Woo boy, it was goood. ’Cos it’s not enough to be one of Australia’s most well known and beloved artists, the sinewy-armed old bastard can PLAY. The whammy got a workout on a couple of songs too – bloody brilliant.

ODoherties
Reg and Pete working away in their studio on their amazing art and stuff. You know, just knocking up some freaking etchings before going to play a gig.

So you might think it’s enough that Reg and Pete are such talented musicians, that Reg and, it turns out, Pete are prolific, successful artists. But no, they also seem to be two of the hardest working artist/musos walking around: ‘Equally successful in the visual arts as music, these creative dynamos were asked to produce a whole exhibition’s worth of prints and etchings in seven days, all the while also strapping guitars over their shoulders and playing a few gigs around town.’ Wtf, guys.

They’re also very funny, laconic men. For me, their warm, witty banter between songs is an integral part of the show. Reg has a dry cool wit; his Wikipedia page reveals he is inspired by ‘the wind, semi-professional birthday clowns, heavy machinery and the behaviour of domestic animals’. (Actually, he might’ve been only half-joking.) And they’re just plain nice and incredibly down to earth, as evidenced when I sidled up to Pete after the gig for a signature and he was only too happy to oblige, apologising for the fact that his brother had ‘buggered off – but you’ve got the most important one so that’s good’.

Oh and did you know that an artwork by pop artist Martin Sharp appears on the Dog Trumpet album Strange Brew? Me neither until right then. Aaand there’s my pop art segue. Bam!

Working the Dream

I’ve been lucky to work in three of my dream jobs and the second of these was in my late twenties.

photo
A bookshop you could fall in love with.

The dream job in question was at least fifteen years out of date. It was: bookseller. Like any book nerd, I’d read, thought and fantasised a whole lot about bookshops; been lost in, got high on, felt horribly lonely in, been intimidated by bookshops. I’d even fallen in love inside them – with books, of course. And Joe from The Magic Faraway Tree, Jim from Trixie Belden (amiright, girls?), probably some lame-o guy from Sweet Valley High, Rochester, Darcy – and, more importantly, with heroines like Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and so on.

Then recently I’d read this quote (yup, in a book):

. . . I liked the idea of living in a big city – any city, especially a strange one – liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings, and nobody knowing who I was.

What a romantic idea. I wanted to move to the big smoke and become a painter and work in a bookshop. LIVING THE DREAM. What a newb I was, both at cities and at working in bookshops.

But I made the big move to the Outer-Inner West of Sydney and I painted – if, by painting, I mean set up a little studio at our new urban flat and then procrastinated and, instead of painting, spent great swathes of time watching Six Feet Under (I had a lot to catch up on and it was very important that I did) and getting slightly (understandably) depressed. I didn’t have a job at first. For only, like, a few weeks, but at the time it was long enough to feel like I was chronically unemployed and unemployable, only boasting skills such as daydreaming and dabbling, and mostly only good for plonking down for a few hours in front of HBO’s most favourite funeral parlour family ever to grace our TVs.

But in reality I landed my dream bookshop job pretty quickly. The interview consisted of me, wide-eyed, sitting with the very poised bookshop manager in the food court that butted up against the shop, answering a handful of very easy questions about my employment experience – me thinking Wow, this is amaazing!, her thinking Wow, this overqualified person would be great as basically a second manager who I only have to pay as a retail assistant!

And then, suddenly, I  had my dream job. Well, my new dream job. Discounted books! Witty repartee with colleagues and customers! Reading and reading and yet more reading. Reading at work. Amazing author events. Meeting some of my heroes. Those are things that mostly didn’t happen.

photo (2)
An absolutely beautiful bookshop. At which I did not work.

This is what mostly happened:

  • I learnt how to use retail software, a book database, Eftpos and a pricing gun. Look out, world!
  • I vacuumed. (An unwelcome surprise, as I’d recently been an ‘accommodation assistant’ in an Irish hotel; when I left that job I’d thought if I ever saw another vacuum cleaner again I’d set it on fire and kick it out into the street.)
  • Balancing the books at the end of the day. (Me, doing accounts. How did that happen and how did anyone trust me with maths and, in turn, their business?)
  • Asking a hundred times a day, ‘Is that on credit?’
  • Telling many, many customers that we didn’t have that book they wanted but we could order it in. (Or they could go to nearby Kmart and get it 20% cheaper, is something I didn’t say. Unless my boss had annoyed me.) Like we were basically a hole in the wall where you could order books online. ‘Cos we kinda were.
  • Telling teenage girls that sorry, we’d run out of Twilight again but were ordering more copies in asap. ASAP. ASAP I promise, god!
  • Hearing ‘What do you feel like, what do you feel like, feel like a king, Donut Kiiiiing?!!’ piped into the shopping centre over and over to the point where hell yeah, I decided I was the Donut King.
  • ‘I’m looking for a book. Oh, what was it called? I don’t know who it was by. All I know is it was on Oprah.’
  • Watching events of Shakespearean proportions unfold in the foodcourt.
  • Starting to feel like I was going dyslexic or mad from poisons pumped through the terrible air con. Fearing Legionnaires’ disease like it was 1989.
photo (1)
Sadly, we did not have a handsome book cat.
  • Unpacking endless boxes of books until I started hallucinating about diving into the styrofoam packaging and swimming through it to Narnia.
  • Being a captive audience for local colourful characters who had interesting ideas about the lack of sex in the Harry Potter books (!), or who ran laps of the bookshop while coming down off their drug of choice, or who hid from their wife behind the shelves as she roamed the food court, calling his name.
  • Staring down would-be shoplifters (yep, that’s a bit rich for me).
  • Needing to go to the toilet the minute my manager left for the day. And then having to look after the shop another two hours. On my own.
  • Having two four-year-old girls feel sorry for me and come and help me pack up the sales tables at the end of the day. (Okay, that was pretty cute.)

You might be thinking, so what you’re saying is dream jobs are a total waste of time and impossible to achieve and why bother? Okay, it turned out it wasn’t quite a dream but I don’t regret it at all. I’d say to you that if you want to pursue a dream job, you should do it as soon as possible. Only months after I left the bookshop, the GFC hit – the shop was sold and last I saw had become a bargain basement clothing shop of the worst kind. That whole suburb is now lacking a bookshop. There are currently around 200 less ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops in Australia than when I was recommending The Time Traveller’s Wife to every second person to tread our worn but beautifully vacuumed carpet. If I hadn’t had that dream job then, I might never have at all.

I read the most books in those eighteen months that I think I’ve ever read (though sadly not at work). In amongst all the banal chitchat about Oprah books and undeserved bestsellers and . . . Twilight . . . there were numerous book recommendations made and received, and much appreciated. I met several local authors who were customers, I got to help out at author events; hell, I had my photo taken with the Cat in the Hat. And, in the end, that job led me semi-directly into a career in book publishing.

Also, I could visit the Donut King whenever I wanted. For my inner fifteen-year-old, it really was a dream job come true.

 

 

 

Underwater Love

Recently my partner and I spent a week in sunny Port Douglas. There were many highlights of the trip, but there was one in particular for me. I was extra excited by the prospect of ticking off one of my big life goals (I refuse to say ‘bucketlist’ . . . oops): to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies. Yes, that should read ‘before I die’, but at this rate it looks like I’m gonna outlast it.

What’s happening with the reef? Things aren’t looking great right now. The coral, for a number of reasons, is dying. The greatest threat is climate change, causing coral bleaching – this has already begun and is apparently going to become an annual thing as global temperatures rise. Then there’s pollution, primarily from runoff, chemical use, etc. in sugar cane farming and beef grazing.

The latest dredging plan has the dumping of dredge spoil happening not on the reef exactly, more like near the reef. It’s cool to dump in the wetlands, right? Well, not really, as it’ll end up on the reef anyway. That’s the thing about ecosystems, they’re pesky with their interconnectedness. Anyway, meantime the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority seems to be not listening to its scientific experts for some reason. Money reasons, maybe? Government money-loving reasons? It’s all sickeningly short-sighted.

Anyway, back to the holiday. We did a daytrip to the outer reef, snorkelling at three different spots on Opal Reef, and it was amaaazing. I don’t remember having ever snorkelled before, so that was a joy in itself. And on the reef? Pure, unadulterated joy. We swam only about 50 metres from the boat at most each time and saw loads of parrot fish, other . . . tropical fish, incredible coral gardens, sea cucumbers (gross), giant clams, and what we thought was a clown fish but turns out wasn’t a clown fish yet who cared, it was as exciting as seeing an actual clown fish!

We were swimming back to the boat at the end of our second snorkel when I saw a big fish underneath it – about a metre or so long. I nudged my partner’s arm and said ‘Holy crap, look at that!’ which sounded like ‘Mphfh! Mphfphnghmph!’ underwater, then surfaced and yelled something awesome to the boat like, ‘There’s a big fish under the boat!’  Marty, one of our guides, called back, ‘Yeah, that’s Angus!’ Haha, good one, we laughed.

We got back to the boat, pulled ourselves onto the back steps where we sat half in the water still, pulling off our fins and talking about our fish friend. Something bumped my leg; it was the freaking fish. I kind of squealed. Marty had been surreptitiously tossing bits of ham into the water while we were talking, so the fish was swimming right by, having a snack. Marty told us he was a roughly four-year-old Maori wrasse, and we were smack bang in the middle of his territory.

I got over my initial surprise and stuck my head underwater, looking at Angus as he swam right past. I got to see close up his weird fish mouth and his cool eyes – they reminded me of a sheep’s but more colourful – and give him pats. It was incredible. Other snorkellers came up, yet he wasn’t bothered and kept swimming in amongst us, catching the occasional scrap of ham, and generally being a happy ocean pet.

I have no idea what he made of us, but he was impressive to me. Nothing in my life compares to the experience of being eye to eye with a Maori wrasse on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Nothing in my aquatic life, anyway (hey, I’ve ridden an elephant). And he’s out there right now, probably hanging around another tour boat, making friends, getting some ham and pats and having his photo taken.

An artist’s impression of Angus and me getting to know each other.

After having our quality tropical fish time, we headed to the third spot where it was almost low tide, so there was only a metre or so at times between us and the coral. You could just float on the surface, face down, snorkel in, and float on over the top of the coral gardens, watching the fish going about their fish business, weaving in and out of the wavy coral in the filtered sunlight. And that’s exactly what we did.

I came back from the tour wanting to go back out every day for the rest of the week (sadly we didn’t, but there were loads of other things to do and see). I’ll always remember the absolute, sheer childlike joy of floating through the reef – it’s such a gift, and unfortunately it seems it’s going to be a fleeting one.

My heart hurts to think that other people, even the people charged with the caretaking of this beautiful wild place, are not looking after its best interests and still don’t get and probably won’t ever understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the fragile nature of this one, the impact of climate change, and that the damage that has been done and will still unavoidably be done can’t be reversed.

At a time when our country in general is not being looked after properly, when coal is king, when we’re being brainwashed by fear-mongering media, when fundamental human rights are being ignored and a whole range of injustices are taking place on our watch, the future of one of our endangered national icons might just slip through our fingers.

I definitely want to make semi-regular trips back there if I can, to remember what’s out there, see it while I can, to visit my new fish friends and remember the fantastic underwater world that exists out there every day while I’m in my office or on a busy city train or walking crowded footpaths or getting shitty with slow people on escalators. I’m telling everyone who’ll listen that they should do themselves a favour and go out there too. And soon.

Right, I’m off to sponsor a sea turtle or go sign a petition. This one looks good. For a better idea of the magical underwater wonderland we experienced, check out this Calypso YouTube video (a Maori wrasse, probably Angus, can be seen at 1:32).

Jo and Angus
Angus and me, new besties.

Free Art All the Damn Time!

Having recently moved house, I’ve been out doing some investigating round my neighbourhood – wandering about the backstreets of Stanmore, Newtown and Camperdown the past couple of weeks, spontaneously taking photos of street art on my phone. I knew there was a lot around, and I’ve seen much of Newtown’s and St Peter’s/Sydenham’s (May Lane, etc.), but turns out even though I thought I knew the area pretty well, there’s a lot more going on than I realised.

I love the idea of this whole secret language happening in the city that we barely know anything about, between people in the know and between street artists and the public. Messages to each other, some long-lasting, others fleeting, getting buffed off/painted over almost immediately. I also love the idea that it’s resistance against the concrete jungle, it’s an attempt to humanise the city, make it friendlier.

I did a stencilling class a couple of years ago when things were a bit shit for me. I also hadn’t done much art for years, long years. Street art holds a place dear to my heart because it helped me slowly get out of the place I was in and back to art, to the point where I was able to have an exhibition with my sister in May, our first in eight years. I haven’t done much stencilling this year but I did go to see the 2014 Stencil Art Prize a couple of weeks ago, which got me inspired, plus I’ve been seeing all this street art lately around me.

I think I’m developing an eye for finding it, like some private street art detective – it’s so weird. I’ll catch a hint of something at the corner of my eye, a lonely splash of colour down a likely alley that I then realise is the edge of something interesting (that on closer inspection turns out to be an amazing mural).

I also think street art resonates with me because it’s nostalgic. The first time street art ever really registered on my radar was when I was about sixteen and started coming up from my south coast hometown with friends to Newtown. The ‘I Have a Dream’ mural by Unmitigated Audacity Productions was pretty recent then and attracted a lot of interest, becoming a central point of Newtown, and there were others dotted around the neighbourhood, some that have been painted over or the buildings they were on have been knocked down (‘Idiot Box’ featuring Marcia Brady, and Miles Davis ‘On the Wings of a Song’ in Erskineville, South of the Border on south King St, Cat in the Hat, the Africa map on Whateley Lane which has sadly been redone), and some that are still around like ‘The Great Wave’ by Big City Freaks in south Newtown, the Sydney Morning Herald front page on north King St.

The Newtown area graffiti Wikipedia page is a decent place to find out more and even covers some of the now extant works, and also Juilee Pryor’s website (she was part of Unmitigated Audacity Productions, along with Andrew Aitken, etc.). In March I did a street art tour run by Melissa Vassallo during the Marrickville Open Studio Trail, which was a good introduction to the scene – she’s got a book out called Street Art of Sydney’s Inner West that I haven’t read but would like to get my hands on.

Newtown is a very different suburb now to how it was all those years ago when I was a fresh-faced teen, buying nagchampa incense, meeting so many ‘different’ people – sure, we had some where I came from but nothing like Newtown. It blew my tiny suburban mind. It was at the height of ‘alternative’, grunge was big, students and artists and musos were everywhere, living in big old terrace house that hadn’t had the guts renovated out of them yet. You could see arthouse movies there (wow – does not seem like a big deal now), cool bands at various (kinda rough) venues, eat Indian, African, Nepalese, you name it. Not a freaking froghurt bar in sight yet. Ha, there was a McDonald’s though, briefly.

Getting stuck in traffic on King St meant watching the broad spectrum of Newtown pedestrians pass by – an awesome, eclectic parade of punks, hippies, goths, rockers, burnouts, and – interestingly – homeless bums who I still see around now. Those were my people (okay, maybe not the bums), to an extent anyway – I felt most comfortable with the outsiders for some reason. Anyway, that’s what street art reminds me of, and transports me back to. It’s a vestige of, an homage to, a continuation of the Inner West of my youth.

Interestingly, I’m not seeing a great deal of politically charged art on the streets around here these days. I would’ve thought at this particular time, with things in government looking so dire and other world events turning a bit grim, this would be seeping onto the walls of the city. But not so much – there are a few, but maybe it’s still coming.

I know you can find countless blogs and Flickr streams of Inner West street art, but I’ve decided to begin keeping my own record, starting with the gallery below. Where I’ve been able to find out the artist (or ‘writer’, if I’m going to use the language of ‘the street’), I’ve attributed it to them. I’m starting to recognise certain people’s work as theirs and follow the path connecting various pieces as they’ve travelled the streets, making their mark. I’m beginning to decode some of it too, though until I get my own crew and start getting my own art up (haw haw, ‘White middle class lady hooks up with crew and starts painting all over town’) and getting super involved, most of it’ll remain a lovely mystery to me.

I do have a few stencils of my own in various states of completion. Not sure if I’ll ever get them up on the streets but maybe one day . . . It would be sweet to be able to contribute to the fabric of a place that I’ve observed with interest for a couple of decades – and, let’s face it, the place sixteen-year-old me fell in love with – and where I now live.

PS. Okay, news just in: I’ve re-enrolled in stencil class for next Monday, so you’ll no doubt be seeing some work from me soon . . . Stay tuned! Now I just need a rad street art name.

Art day out

At the start of the week I was lucky enough to have a day out in Sydney, seeing art with an old art school buddy I hadn’t seen for a long time. We ate, we drank, we got stoned (okay, I barely inhaled), looked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, old buildings, the underside of the harbour bridge, marvelled at Circular Quay and we saw art.

We checked out the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert, with beautiful, brightly coloured collaborative Aboriginal paintings from Western Australia, and the slightly underwhelming and very French retrospective show of Annette Messager’s work.

Then we moseyed on over to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Pop to Popism show. It wasn’t on – not on till November. No, I did not read the calender correctly – bummer! So instead we meandered around some of the permanent collection, then lost time in the book shop. I ended up on my own wandering through a European prints and drawing show and then the Australian collection.

Oh my god! There was a Clarice Beckett painting outside the book shop. A new one, acquired last year: Evening, St Kilda Road.

St Kilda
Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Evening St Kilda (c. 1930), 35.5 x 40.5 cm, oil on board

Clarice Beckett is one of my favourite Australian artists – her tonal approach and dawns/dusks really appeal to me. This one is so brief and gestural and flat, a spare impression of Melbourne in twilight. I just love it. What really does it for me are the cheery streetlights going up either side of the road, shining heartily in the smog or dusk. It also covers some of my favourite painting subjects: road, sky, romantic urban setting.

It must have been completed so quickly, and it’s only small. Clarice cared for her ageing parents and would duck out early in the morning and at dusk to paint en plein air. Which unfortunately, is eventually how she met her end – she got caught in a storm while painting the sea at Beaumaris, got pneumonia and died, aged 48.

So many paintings in the nineteenth-century galleries off the main foyer caught my eye with their skies. I’ve visited them a number of times but I like to see them again and again. You see different things every time. I’m suddenly having a love affair with W.C. Piguenit (who I don’t think I was aware of until this week), especially The Flood in the Darling 1890.

Darling
W.C. Piguenit (1836-1914), The Flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), 122 x 199 cm, oil on canvas

It is stunning, absolutely entrancing (also, the joint might’ve been kicking in).That is how to do overcast afternoons – warm purpley clouds and cool grey skies. The clouds are somehow comforting – sure, they’re rough, ragged-edged pillowy ones but the water reflecting them back up is calm and smooth. Kosciusko (1903) also took my fancy with its deep blue mountain shadows and misty ethereal cloudage.

I spent a good amount of time in front of Sydney Long’s Decoration – apparently also known as Sadder Than a Single Star That Sets at Twilight in a Land of Reeds, which is a bloody mouthful and I can see why it didn’t make it onto the gallery label, but I much prefer it.

Sidney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star...(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.
Sydney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star…(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.

This painting’s gorgeous and haunting – it looks like a quintessential art nouveau bookmark. You can’t see the woman’s face, just the moon like a halo behind her head, the shadows dark on her face and the sketchy marks of black in the lower half are a great contrast to the creamy peach skin of her decolletage and arms. The edge of the left arm seems to continue in a wavy line down her side almost to the hem of her dress.

I love how rough and expressive the background is, and also the exploratory squiggle marks over the dress, the nice rust patina, the blues within the olive of the fabric and the thin blue loosely tied ribbon. That ain’t no plain green dress; there’s a lot of colour and action going on there. I like the ‘unfinished’ look at the edges of the painting too, and the gaps of light where the background meets the subtle curves of her arms. Syd didn’t even really do the hands; when you look at them directly they’re just 2D suggestions. Crafty beggar.

I left this painting wondering ‘What is going on in this picture?’*

Other highlights were George W. Lambert’s radiant portrait of fellow artist Miss Thea Proctor (1903), resplendent in her blue gown and fetching hat.

George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.
George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.

They were so having an affair. Okay they probably weren’t, and George was seemingly happily married, but his relationship with Thea was ‘enigmatic’, she was ‘doggedly devoted’ to him, and they spent lots of time on the art scene together. Also, let me present Exhibit A (a charcoal portrait George did of Thea):

theadrawing

I don’t think you labour over a drawing like this, capturing your art pal’s exquisite likeness, without some underlying feelings, do you? Go George.

I enjoyed some of the works in the European prints and drawing exhibition as well; I wasn’t really in the mood for prints for some reason but I did find some old favourites of mine I had looked at many times but never seen in the flesh. Seeing Peter Behren’s The Kiss was a lovely surprise. Years ago I loved this image so much I did a copy of it in coloured pencil.

Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.
Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.

And I spent ages looking at Edgar Degas’ drawing After the Bath – it’s so raw and lively, and the linework is quite rough at times yet it works, gives it movement and keeps it alive.

Degas
Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1900), 74 x 60 cm, charcoal on tracing paper mounted on board.

Reminds me yet again that a drawing doesn’t have to be polished, perfect; it can be completely free, rough and gestural, yet still be finished and beautiful.

I emerged from the gallery after 4 pm, the day just about done. I was chock-full of ideas for holing up somewhere in the city or inner west sometime soon to do sketches on the go of places around me, trying to capture that freshness you can’t get from a photo. Time to get back to experimenting with cloud paintings too; there’s that lightness and depth – that cloudness – I haven’t nailed yet.

And I’ll be back to the galleries soon no doubt, to revisit my favourites . . . and finally see the pop art show.

*Just read something about Sydney Long being briefly engaged to Thea Proctor in 1898. Hello! A year before he completed this painting? Wonder if that’s what it’s about…