Walk a mile in my shoes

I’ve always loved shoes – most women in the western world do.  They’re a luxurious indulgence for sure.

But I do have a problem with people who wear the wrong shoes, or as I have come to term it, in appropriate footwear.  I know it sounds fuddy duddy, but our feet are really important.  And as we get older, they are even more so.  In Audrey Niffenegger’s wondrous novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, the wheels start to fall off for the time travelling Henry once his feet become so damaged by landing in different time zones, completely stark naked.  Sometimes, he finds himself in the snow, or in the woods, and he usually has to get up and run quickly before he is found, because he is inappropriately dressed (ie, naked). But his feet cop the most damage, and his risks increase significantly as his feet deteriorate.

Over the years I have become more and more puzzled by people who wear thongs in the snow, or high heeled mules on bushwalking tracks, or earth sandals to fancy weddings.  It’s just wrong.  I once saw a woman teetering down the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon National Park.  It’s described as a “… maintained dirt track.  Steep.  Well defined.” Well defined or not, wearing heels on a dirt track is stupid.  What was she thinking? “I’ll just pop down this major walking trail for a few miles.” And what was the guy with her thinking?  “It’ll be ok.  I can walk a couple of miles down here with her hanging on to me?”  I don’t think so.  But they were a fair way from the car park.

I am thinking of starting a website where shots of people in inappropriate footwear can be shared. Get your smartphones ready.


Dyslexia: An Amazing Discovery

I recently reviewed this book by Jacqui Vittles for the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite newsletter (that’s a mouthful).  You can read the review here.

Illustrated edition of The Handmaid’s Tale

Our book group, which has been meeting once a month for the past ten years with pretty much the same members, has just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood

It’s a piece of speculative fiction (not quite sci-fi but more what if?) that explores a society where those with power and money in the US have overthrown the government and have installed a very draconian, old testament set of rules for living.  Lots of things are outlawed for the general populace, including reading, and choosing who you live with, and choosing who you have a baby with.  But the ruling class members appear to be infertile.  So they have enslaved women who are able to conceive and carry babies to birth, let the women deliver the child, and then promptly take the babies away from the birth mother to raise themselves.

Severely disturbing, but nevertheless we had a far reaching and vigorous discussion, which is what you want from a book group.

I wish we had been aware of this new illustrated edition of the book, when we were discussing it.  Published by The Folio Society, the portrayal of the characters and certain scenes in the novel really bring it to life.  The Folio Society has been producing illustrated versions of classics since 1947.  Although I like the convenience of e-books, I also love the tactile experience of reading on paper, and think the quality and production values of these look amazing.  Can’t we have both?

It’s no crime to read

Barry Maitland is a writer of crime fiction, and very successful he is too. His second novel, The Malcontenta won the inaugural Ned Kelly Award in 1996 for best crime novel by an Australian author, and his Brock and Kolla series is into its 11th novel.



At the moment, Maitland is touring Australia under the Get Reading banner.  Get Reading is an Australian government initiative and runs through the month of August each year.  It is designed to promote reading, just for the sake of it, because it seems some people need more encouragement to read.

Maitland, who in his previous life was an architect and university lecturer, recently visited Canberra on the tour, where he shared some of his own back story, as well as insights into his characters and books.

His Brock and Kolla (or Kathy, ‘cause she’s a girl) characters are two detectives living and working for the Metropolitan Police in London.  Maitland has set all of his crime novels in different parts of the city, and as the story unfolds, readers get to learn more and more about each location, its residents and Maitland’s impression of how it ticks.  For this London-o-phile, it’s a joy to read his books.

He credits a young writer of television who came to talk to his school-boy English class as his first inspiration to become a writer. However it wasn’t until the 1989 earthquake struck Newcastle – where Maitland settled on moving from England to Australia in 1984 – that he perhaps realised that he had better get on with what he really wanted to do in life.

During his talk at Woden Library, Maitland referred to the changing tone and nature of crime fiction in the late 1980s, and the emergence of strong female detectives, such as V I Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) as having an influence on his decision to have a male/female team as his lead characters in the first book.  He was also fortunate enough to have a niece who worked as a forensic scientist with the police in London, and with her husband being a police officer, Maitland was able to learn a great deal by talking with them. 

“DNA science was just appearing,” he said, “and I was able to go out with ordinary cops in South London, getting a feel for the culture.”

Certainly, the grittiness of Maitland’s style and the exposure to real life policing come through in his books.  Brock is an old style detective who believes in leg work, the power of whisky, gut instinct … and using computers where necessary.  Kathy Kolla, who comes to work with Brock and his team at their headquarters at Queen Anne’s Gate (rather than New Scotland Yard), represents the change that was coming not only in policing, but also in society.  (Keely Hawes’ Alex Drake in the TV series, Ashes to Ashes is another brilliant exposition of the emerging role of women in the police in the 1980s).

By setting his novels in London, Maitland has a never ending canvass on which to paint his word portraits.  “London is a fascinating place, with all kinds of isolated districts and suburbs … I can explore a corner of the city with interesting characters who have their own stories.  And I can spin an idea for a murder in that area.”

Maitland thinks that over the life of the eleven Brock and Kolla books to date, Kathy has now emerged from Brock’s shadow.  “I’ve been growing the characters and seen how Kathy has developed.  She is stronger and I see her as the lead character.”

When asked about the links between his training as an architect and the crime genre, Maitland agreed that crime fiction was analogous to the “promenade architectural” as expounded by Le Corbusier, where the reader is taken on a journey through a set of circumstances until they wind up at the end or conclusion – somewhat like walking through a well designed building. “Both detectives and architects are faced with an amount of data.  The detective has to find a conceptual reason for why things occur, while an architect turns the data into a beautiful building.  Both have to have a concept.”

The public’s hunger for crime fiction saw Maitland’s publishers request that Brock and Kolla’s activities move to become a series very early on, and he appears to still be willing to meet that need.  He has also written a novel set in Australia – Bright Air too is a murder mystery, exploring the world of rock climbing, and the suspicious death of a young climber amongst a milieu of interesting characters, breathtaking locations (London it ain’t) and an unexpected ending.

Maitland ‘s books are definitely page turners, and it’s no wonder Get Reading was happy to have him be an ambassador this year.

From Danny Bailey to The Highwayman

I’ve been listening to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road


There are so many great tracks, with complex, lush arrangements to go with the Taupin lyrics.  A couple of stand out tracks – Grey Seal, Bennie and the Jets, and The Ballad of Danny Bailey.

The latter of course is a saga of “… a running gun youngster in a sad restless age”.  Not too many pop songs sing about historical gangster figures such as John Dillinger, the bank robber of the American mid west during the Depression years.  Mostly I love the introductory low keys intro heralding the bad guy’s entry, and the trills that Elton gets out of the piano towards the end, running up the keys as the song ebbs away.  Coming in at just under four and a half minutes, it wasn’t the kind of thing you heard played on radio in the 1970s.

It’s a good complement though to Billy Joel’s Ballad of Billy the Kid, (Piano Man) which is probably less successful in its execution and was perhaps influenced by the Taupin/John composition – although both albums were released in 1973. The Billy the Kid song is not an historically accurate account of Billy the Kid’s life and times, and the transference of the persona in the last verse is confusing with Joel reportedly denying that that Billy was himself.  Similarly, though, its arrangement is full on, with orchestral snippets reminiscent of the High Chapparel theme.

While Bonnie and Clyde, Desperado, and even Bon Jovi’s Dead or Alive run the same meme, the only other song of similar ilk and grandeur that I can think of is The Highwayman, by the wondrous Jimmy Webb.  He related in an interview that he dreamed the song up, but that it took years for it to be recorded, initially by Glen Campbell, and then by The Highwaymen – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  A rather esoteric story of four souls, starting with a bandit and ending with a spaceman, The Highwayman was recently recorded by Mark Knopfler and Jimmy Webb.  It’s a more pared back piece of music – a bit of banjo and fiddle – and it’s a long way from the Ballad of Danny Bailey.  The ballad is not so common any more – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane.  But that’s a very different kettle of fish best left to pick over another day.

Easy access to this year’s Archibald Prize for regions

This year’s Archibald Prize is currently touring regional galleries in New South Wales.  I recently went to see it in Newcastle Regional Gallery, where the locals have lost their fight against the Council’s plan to cut down historical Moreton Bay fig trees.  The argument was that the continual repair of pavements was too costly, and the roots were a danger.  While there is some sympathy in this argument, the loss of shade and coolness has changed the feel of the Gallery and the accompanying Library facility.  It’s a shame they couldn’t have kept one tree there, just as a reminder to the past.

Anyway, the Archibald paintings were a revelation this year.  There were several stand outs: I come from the “I know what I like” school of art criticism. 


(Photo – Art Gallery of NSW)

Benjamin Hedstrom’s painting of Boy and Bear’s band meeting, Annandale band meeting, was striking in its use of greens and yellows, portraying the relaxed atmosphere but formalised discussion that was taking place. 


(Photo – Art Gallery of NSW)

The faceless men, by Gary Smith and Frank Thirion, was also striking – with its twin blurred presentations of themselves and each other. 


 (photo – Art Gallery of NSW)

Jenny Sages’, After Jack, a self portrait of herself after the death of her husband was particularly moving and won the People’s Choice award.


 (photo Art Gallery of NSW)

But the winner of the 2012 Archibald Prize, The Histrionic Wayfarer (after Bosch) by Tim Storrier, was a deserving winner.  It’s a complex painting of a traveller carrying his baggage on his back – a man after my own heart with so much “just in case” stuff that he can barely move.  And although there’s no face on the head, Storrier has put a drawing of himself floating away in the breeze.  One foot in lace up shoes, the other in a boot, the explorer pushes forward.  The little dog, catching a ride on the back, is ever watchful.

Congratulations to the NSW Art Gallery for mounting the touring exhibition, which must be a sizable exercise each year.  The opportunity to see the paintings is not to be missed.


The Wayfarer, by Dutch artist, Heironymus Bosch, was painted in 1510 and is held in the  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. 



List of The Archibald Prize Touring Exhibition 2012 locations.