The dysfunctional family

MansonOf all the events that took place in 1969, two are remembered above others. In one, mankind reached for the stars, literally, during the Apollo 11 ascent to the Moon.

The other was a manic, depraved and craven series of homicides that made up what became known as the Manson murders. It was a descent into madness.

On August 9, 1969, maid Winifred Capman arrived for work at 10050 Cielo Drive in the exclusive Benedict Canyon area of Brentwood, Los Angeles.

Inside she found the body of Voityck Frykowski, a friend of film director Roman Polanski, whose house it was. Frykowski had been stabbed repeatedly.

Later, LAPD officers discovered the bodies of Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folger coffee estate; hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring; Steve Parent, who was a friend of the caretaker; and Sharon Tate, who was Polanski’s wife, and who was eight and half months pregnant.

“All had been stabbed viciously in what must have been a mad, brutal frenzy,” writes Gary Lachman in his informative tome The Dedalus Book of  the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind.

“PIG” was written in blood in the front hall.

The next night there was another series of murders, this time at 3301 Waverly Drive in the Silverlake district.

Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were tied up and killed with their own kitchen knives. There were many stab wounds. DEATH TO PIGS, RISE and HEALTER SKELTER were written in blood on the walls and fridge. The last reference was a misspelling of the name of a Beatles song.

The murders, as was soon discovered, were the work of sociopath Charles Manson’s Family, a hippyish cult in thrall to Manson and his self-styled teachings.

The Family was marked by its prodigious drug taking, enthusiastic orgies, poor personal hygiene, and viciousness.

Manson was convinced the Beatles had tuned in to his wavelength, and were sending him coded messages in their songs, particularly those from The White Album.

Helter Skelter was what Manson called the apocalypse he thought was imminent. He spent considerable time searching in California’s deserts for the entrance to a mystical underground city to ride it out.

Aged 34 at the time of the murders and a little over 5 ft, Manson had spent 17 years of his life at that point in prison. He had been a burglar, car thief, pimp, forger and wanderer. A hater of blacks.

Manson was so accustomed to life behind bars that when he was released from Terminal Island Prison in 1967, he pleaded with the wardens to take him back.

His visions, such as they were, were fuelled by frequent acid binges and orgies.

Known to some as “the Wizard”, Manson cosied up to players in the LA music scene. He got to know Beach Boy Dennis Wilson when Wilson picked up two of The Family’s young female devotees who were hitchhiking and took them back to his house.

Wilson later arrived home one evening to find that Manson and a dozen young girls had taken over his home. By the end of their stay they had cost him $100,000.

“Although Manson and the Family were officially charged with nine murders, privately Manson remarked to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi that the real figure was 35,” writes Lachman.

Bugliosi believed this to be a low estimate.

You’ve got a friend

The second instalment in your trusty correspondent’s reflection on the incidents, accidents, milestones and landmarks of 1969 looks at an erudite thinker’s simple premise: be a buddy to yourself.

Born in December 1969 in Switzerland to fabulously wealthy but emotionally distant parents,  Alain de Botton spent most of his childhood at exclusive boarding schools in England.

Eventually the bookish de Botton found his way to Cambridge University, where he read History and then Philosophy.

It is in this classic realm where de Botton has found his calling, having written about 15 or so tomes dealing with, related to or riffing on philosophical themes.

These have varied from modern reinterpretations and reframing of the old-school masters, to monographs on travel, architecture and work life.

One might be forgiven for thinking that de Botton turned 50 many years ago. And it’s not simply a long-bald pate that provides this deception, either, but a worldly sagacity and self-possession usually associated with those who have logged time on our planet, read considerably and travelled widely (both of which de Botton has done in spades) as well as made and learned from mistakes.

Truth be told, as the recipient of a considerable trust fund established by his financier father, de Botton need not (for financial reasons, anyway) have bothered with the workaday world.

Yet a seemingly genuine desire to have a positive influence on his fellow human beings and our “faulty walnuts” as he refers to our brains, has seen de Botton forge a reputation as a provider of eminently sensible advice for improving everyday living and happiness.

For instance, in reply to the question of just how you can forgive yourself for terrible mistakes (and possible move on, having learned from them), de Botton’s answer is that “we need to try to become an imaginary friend to ourselves”.

“This sounds odd, initially, because we naturally imagine a friend as someone else – not as part of our own mind,” de Botton says.*

“But there is value in the concept because we know instinctively how to deploy strategies of wisdom and consolation with our friends that we stubbornly refuse to apply to ourselves.

“If a friend is in trouble, our first impulse is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a shithead and a failure. We try to reassure them that they are likeable and that it’s worth investigating what might be done. A good friend likes you pretty much as you are already. Any suggestion they make, or idea they have about how you could change, builds on a background of acceptance. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving you a compliment or emphasising your strengths.

“It is ironic – yet hopeful – that we know quite well how to be a better friend to near strangers than we know how to be to ourselves. The hopefulness lies in the fact that we do actually already possess the relevant skills of friendship. It’s just we haven’t as yet directed them to the person who probably needs them most – namely, of course, ourselves.”

*Quote from The Kinfolk Entrepreneur, edited by Nathan Williams



















The 1969 files: Butch and Sundance

Butch and Sundance for blogIt’s perhaps surprising to think that in the same year marked by landmark events such as the lunar landing and Woodstock, that the most popular film was one of the most traditional and iconic genres of American cinema: the western.

In 1969 the biggest movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Earning US$100 million in the US alone, its takings more than doubled the two films that finished in second and third place (Midnight Cowboy and The Love Bug) combined.

If you consider that the astronauts who flew to the Moon were paid an annual salary of $17,000, you quickly realise the film’s ’69 tally must be worth many times this figure in today’s money.

With its charismatic stars in screen veteran Paul Newman and handsome newcomer Robert Redford, clever dialogue, beautiful vistas, and simple but propulsive plot, the film obviously struck a chord with mainstream audiences.

Though it might best be described as escapist, there is a bitter-sweet note as well, and a reminder of life’s impermanence. That’s evident in the film’s denouement, but also its very format. By 1969 the cowboy film and small-screen variant (Gunsmoke, Big Valley, Rawhide, F-Troop, Bonanza) had more or less had its heyday and moseyed off into the sunset.*

The plot is a fairly simple one: Butch leads the Hole in the Wall Gang, a nefarious outfit that, as the name implies, uses incendiary means to procure bank assets not their own.

What Butch lacks in firearms skills he more than compensates with guile, charm and pluck.

Sundance meanwhile is a crack shot whose legend precedes him; men shake in their boots when his very name is uttered.

After robbing a particular railroad one too many times, the gang earns the ire of its owner, who sets an all-star posse after them. A chase ensues.

I was surprised when I re-watched this film recently how many montage sequences there are – at least three, including a strange (for a western) interlude where Newman has fun riding around on a bicycle to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. Yet there is no rain to be seen.

Newman and Redford have undeniable on-screen chemistry, and exude effortless cool. Butch and Sundance is a bromance – Lethal Weapon with bank-robber cowboys, Ocean’s Eleven in the Ol’ West.

I first saw the film in the 1970s – about 1977, I think, when both the film and I were eight years old.

I can remember the thrill of seeing something I probably shouldn’t have, the Dillon family travelling from our summer holiday spot in Merimbula to the Pambula Drive-In for the occasion.

Located about seven hours from Melbourne on New South Wales’ south coast, Merimbula was – and is – a summer haven for thousands of Melburnians every year.

We stayed in cabins near Short Point Beach, and spent hours each day swimming, surf-matting and, well, playing.

Because there was no access to TV during our three-week hiatus, my brother, sister and I read books, tossed frisbees, played Totem Tennis and chasey, and contested epic sessions of cards, with Canasta the game of choice. We listened to the radio, collected shells, recovered from our sunburns, and played with friends we saw only at that time of year.

But I think at some point we craved access to pop culture – and if this jones was satisfied by a trip to a drive-in, even better.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was teamed with The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox that night in Pambula (the closest town to Merimbula). The latter film is about a sassy whore played by Goldie Hawn, who outsmarts and out-sasses a crafty old thief of thieves (George Segal). So like Butch and Sundance, totally inappropriate for an eight-year-old.

Films had longer lives in those days. We are talking about an era before video, before the internet, and obviously well before streaming services.

It could take many years before a popular, award-winning film reached TV, and often screenings of these classics were important television events.

I can recall movies such as The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, The Great Escape, and The Sound of Music – all made many years earlier – receiving heavily hyped TV screenings.

These were often introduced by avuncular enthusiastic experts such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins, who contextualised and rhapsodised.

These days, of course, a film is likely to be available for illegal download soon after hitting cinemas. A family would be unlikely to have the experience of seeing an older film together on the big screen – even one observed from behind a windscreen. And that is a pity.

Perhaps the last year of the 60s was ripe for escapist, traditional fare.

After all, the 12 months before, 1968, had been tumultuous indeed.

“It was a year of riots, burning cities, sickening assassinations, and universities forced to close their doors,” writes David Whitehouse in Apollo 11: The Inside Story.

Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated in 1968.

In Vietnam, 15,000 US lives – and many more Vietnamese and some Australians – had been lost in a pointless war that had cost US$25 billion to that point.

Little wonder, then, that in 1969 a likeable western charmed audiences into cinemas.


*That said, some fine westerns were made in the 70s and beyond, including iconic fare such as Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Silverado, Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, Tombstone, and Butch and Sundance – The Early Years (OK, I’m kidding about that one – great it is not).  Even in 1969 True Grit (the original version starring John Wayne) was released. The genre’s time, however, was definitely on the wane.



Briefing paper: Climate Change


Just the facts about the planet warming.

Global warming is defined as an increase in the Earth’s surface temperature caused by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The greenhouse effect, meanwhile, is a naturally occurring phenomenon that helps make life on our planet habitable. Without it, surface temperatures would be about 33°C lower than they are.

According to climate scientists, however, global warming (a term sometimes used interchangeably with “climate change”) is magnifying this phenomenon, increasing carbon in the atmosphere, and raising average temperatures around the globe.

Indeed, it’s estimated that average global temperatures have risen by as much as 0.8°C since 1880, when records first started. Although this doesn’t sound like all that much, the Earth is a delicate system, and the ripple effects of even small changes are profound.

These include greater frequency of extreme weather events such as cyclones, blizzards, hurricanes, wildfires, extreme-heat days and droughts; the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers; the rising of ocean levels; and the disruption of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, among other major impacts.

Using sensors located around the world, and comparing results with historical data, climate scientists tell us the evidence for the impact of climate change is clear and compelling.

“Cold and hot, wet and dry – we experience natural weather conditions all the time,” says Texas Tech University climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. “But today, climate change is loading the dice against us, making certain types of extremes, such as heatwaves and heavy rain events, much more frequent and more intense than they used to be.”

The 20 hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years. And only three years – 2016, 2015 and 2017 – were hotter than 2018.

2018 was the hottest year on record for the planet’s oceans, which are heating up more quickly than has been estimated.

Scientists have warned of dire consequences unless action is taken immediately to reduce our carbon emissions.

The Paris agreement, an international climate treaty, aims to limit global temperatures rises to less than 2°C. Scientists say that any more than this will see the planet experience dramatic, irreversible changes that make life for humans much less hospitable.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has confirmed that the summer of 2018–19 was the hottest on record. The average national temperature across the country was up by 2.14°C. It was also 1.28°C hotter than the previous record, set in the summer of 2012–13.

New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory all experienced their hottest summer on record. For Tasmania and South Australia it was the second warmest, and for Queensland the fourth warmest – partly due to flooding rains in that state during late January and early February.

Adelaide set a record temperature of 46.6°C. In Port Augusta, 300km northwest of the capital, it topped out at 49.5°C.

Different sites in NSW also new records, including Borrona Downs, which went through one night with a minimum of 36.6°C. Nationally, the average minimum temperature broke the record by 1.67°C.

“There’s been so many records it’s really hard to count,” says the BOM’s senior climatologist Andrew Watkins.

It was also the driest summer on record for parts of Australia. Dust storms from Central Australia affected the east on several occasions – one storm in mid-February stretched over 1,500km.

“Summer 2018–19 comes on the back of a string of warm months and warm seasons for Australia,” says the BOM. “This pattern is consistent with observed climate change. As the State of the Climate 2018 report outlines, Australia has warmed by more than 1°C since 1910, with most warming occurring since 1950. This means that natural climate variability sits on top of this background warming, and temperature records are likely to continue to be broken in the coming years.”

About the same time as the Australian electorate rejected serious action on climate change, scientists in the US detected the highest levels of planet-warming CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since records began.

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has tracked atmospheric CO2 levels since the late 1950s, detected 415.26 parts per million in early May. It was the first time on record that the observatory measured a daily baseline above 415 ppm.

The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained this much CO2 was more than three million years ago, when global sea levels were several metres higher and parts of Antarctica were covered in lush forest.

“It shows that we are not on track with protecting the climate at all,” says Wolfgang Lucht from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The number keeps rising, and it’s getting higher year after year. This number needs to stabilise.”

Levels of CO2 – one of three greenhouse gases produced when fossil fuels are burnt – are climbing at a rapid pace.

And 2019 is likely to be an El Niño year in which temperatures rise due to warmer ocean currents.

“All of human history has been in a colder climate than now,” Lucht says. “Every time an engine runs, we emit CO2, and it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t miraculously disappear; it stays in the atmosphere.”

Despite the Paris agreement the past four years have been the hottest on record.

“We’re on a runaway train,” says leading climatologist Dr Peter Gleick. “Scientists are blowing the whistle, but politicians are shovelling coal into the engine.”



The last days of Koala Video

It wasn’t a simple decision for Zeng to shutter Koala Video. He didn’t want to, that’s for sure, and the judgement call was made after months of agonising. Still, the door will close permanently on the Balwyn East business in a matter of days (or when most of the remaining stock is sold).

“It hasn’t been easy,”  says Zeng in his understated way, about winding up his 17-year operation.

Koala Video and Zeng are among the last hold-outs of the disappearing breed of suburban video dispensary. When I have let it slip to friends that I rely on DVD borrowing as the main method of viewing new films they are incredulous – at my old-fashioned habits certainly, but also at the continued existence of an anachronism such as a video shop. It’s like hearing about a strip-mall blacksmith, or horse-and-cart milkman.

There is no doubt that the DVD is a disappearing artefact.

Online digital streaming services such as Stan, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (as well as YouTube and illegal movie downloading) have killed the video store.

For the longest time Zeng didn’t want to admit this essential but unpalatable truth.

He argued passionately that articles in the Fairfax press about the demise of a classic suburban institution such as his were hopelessly compromised, since Fairfax itself (now subsumed into the Nine behemoth) was an owner of Stan, and therefore far from objective about the subject.

Yet the evidence was compelling, as all the nearby video libraries gradually went belly-up.

The Blockbuster in Balwyn (and then Mont Albert), the VideoEzy outlets in Hawthorn, Kew and Blackburn South – all now long gone.

It’s hard not to see this as an ineluctable trajectory. For a long time, though, Zeng chose to view this trend as an opportunity.

Customers determined to borrow their films in hard-copy form found their way to the Belmore Rd business, often through word of mouth. Liquidated stock from defunct businesses was absorbed into the Koala collection.

And truth be told, there are some advantages to having movies available in physical form. Families with young children made up a considerable portion of Zeng’s customers.

They could place an order at the fish and chip shop next door, and while they waited, wander around Koala Video and examine a large but finite (curated, if you will) offering.

Over the years Zeng had implemented a variety of generous offers, so that eventually it was possible to borrow a lot of movies for not much money (yet somehow still more than a monthly fee for Stan). Many customers often wound up being slugged hefty fines on their optimistic transactions.

The other audience that benefits from video libraries are the enthusiasts – the cinephiles and obsessives.

Online versions of films invariably don’t include the extras available on disc – the directors’ commentaries, making-of documentaries, and how-to guides.

Without these you might never learn that Ocean’s 12 was made from an existing script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. Or how Tony Scott used a hand-cranked camera for parts of Man on Fire, or that a mate of director Edgar Wright wrote the “Is He Slow?” track for the music-heavy actioner Baby Driver. Without DVD extras you might never learn the secret to the perfect toasted cheese sandwich (see the special features on Chef).

Zeng has an incredible work ethic.

Operating a video store means that it stay open for 70 hours plus per week. Ten years ago some of those could be worked by casuals. But as business tightened this became a luxury, and for quite some time Zeng was working all of these himself – 364 days a year. Good Friday was usually permitted as a full holiday; Christmas and New Year’s Day were open for business.

A couple of years ago a regular customer recruited Zeng to the real estate business. It made sense. With his incredible customer service, patience, determination, meticulousness, and drive – not to mention fluency in his native Cantonese and excellent English language skills – there are plenty of things the 48-year-old Zeng could do.

Since that time Zeng has been running the business in partnership with his wife.

During the day, Zeng focuses on real estate – the relentless “sell, sell, sell” of the national obsession. But you’ll find Zeng in the shop from about 6pm most nights, until the close of business at 9pm (10pm on the weekend).

This Herculean workload has taken a toll. Last year there was a health scare – a liver issue – and sometimes he simply looks, well, fatigued. Working a 12-hour day seven days a week will do that.

A few years ago Zeng took a few days off to spend it with a childhood friend over from China.

And this year the shop was closed on January 1 because Zeng’s three children had pleaded with him to take them to a waterslide park outside Geelong. Despite forgoing one of the best business days of the year, Zeng had no regrets. By then he knew that Koala Video did not have a future. The tricky balancing act of two jobs and family life was becoming increasingly precarious.

Attempts to sell the business, however, came to nothing.

One business broker even had the gall to ask for $10,000 up front before even thinking about taking on the assignment.

As for Zeng, he’s bitter-sweet about the business’s demise. And he says it will be at least six months before he feels emotionally capable of watching a movie. That’s a big statement; Zeng will cheerfully sit through any film a customer complains about (usually for technical reasons). A little while ago I caught him watching Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and seemingly loving it.

The local shops situated near the big roundabout at the intersection of Belmore and Union roads will miss Koala Video in the same way that Mont Albert mourned the demise of Pick-A-Flick a few years back, eventually taking with it the Silky Swallow Chinese restaurant on one side and the convenience store on the other. Having a variety of different shops is key to a shopping destination’s health; homogeneity (say, too many restaurants or coffee shops) usually spells trouble.

Koala Video is set to close for good on March 15. In the meantime there is a sale on, and everything must go. If you’re quick, you might even get to take home Herbie.



























The band of the hand

In February 1987 I was in a car accident that left me with a damaged hand. During the accident the car rolled several times, and somehow the metal watch I was wearing was dragged off.

I was “de-gloved” to use the medical parlance – all the skin on my left palm was torn off – and I lost the top two joints of the middle finger. The index finger is shorter than it should be, and is held together with a metal clip.

After the accident I was self-conscious about my injury, but in time I thought less and less about it. Now, 32 years on, I don’t often reflect back on that day, except to try and do something life-affirming on its anniversary.

I am still alive, six years older than my dear father was back then. Time plays tricks on you in this way.

One of the injury’s consequences is that it has made me both curious and vigilant about others who have endured something similar. There are a surprising number of folks getting around with at least one less digit than the standard 10.

A university lecturer whose classes I attended was missing a couple of index finger joints. A workplace accident took several of an uncle’s digits, and a former work colleague was absent all fingers on one hand save for a thumb, the result of a childhood mishap.

Well-known members of the Missing Finger Fellowship include Don Quixote writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose quill-holding hand was disfigured by a misfiring gun.

Humorist Dave Allen used his missing digit for great comic effect, placing the stump at the base of a nostril to make it appear as if the better part of his finger was shoved up his nose.

M.A.S.H‘s Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) was often seen carrying a clipboard or other prop on the show to camouflage a disfigured hand.

A grenade left self-styled Russian politician Boris Yeltsin’s short two fingers, while both Telly Savalas and Daryl Hannah forged decent acting careers despite missing a couple of fingers between them.

You would think that the absence of something as important as a finger would be an impediment to musical virtuosity. Yet it need not be.

Swing-era guitarist Django Reinhardt, bluesman Houndog Taylor, and psychedelic troubadour Jerry Garcia all became renowned axe handlers despite not having the requisite 10.

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen survived the amputation of his left arm (the result of a car accident) to play in the British soft metal band’s most triumphant era.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has established a successful career as a classical musician despite being born without a right hand.

Self-taught on a mini toy keyboard before taking his first lesson at age 14, McCarthy is believed to be the first single-handed musician to graduate from the Royal College of Music.

(When I mentioned McCarthy to a musician friend, Angus, he replied cheekily: “I’ve done some of my best work with one hand”.)

Still, in most of these examples the digital disability is little-known marginalia – a side note or asterix. A curiosity rather than a defining feature.

Either that or it shows incredible tenacity and persistence for an individual to rise above and achieve things even most fully-abled people are not be able to do. Some, such as one-handed NFL player Shaquem Griffin, provide shining examples of inspiration.

This is not the case for the film world’s band of the hand. In movies, a mangled hand often points to a troubled soul, or simply a very damaged individual.

Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook and Get Smart‘s Dr Craw (or is that Dr Claw?) are quintessential villains, their nastiness exhibited in everything from their lairs, to their henchmen, and of course, the prosthetic for which they have been named.

Both have weaponised their disabilities.

Like Messrs Hook and Craw, Poor Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) is also named for the implements at the end of his arms, yet in his case the fear engendered in the local community is shown to be misplaced. Edward is an artist, not a butcher.

File Logan Lucky‘s Clyde (Adam Driver) into the category of “pitied” rather than “feared”.

When we first meet him, we see a sad-sack bartender, his missing arm the butt of jokes. It is the family’s renowned bad luck that has cost him his limb in a war skirmish.

As the story unfolds, however, we see the Logans are not so unfortunate after all, and if there is cosmic intervention, it is on the side of good fortune as well as bad juju.

You could say the same for Moonstruck‘s Ronny Cammareri (Nic Cage), who lost his hand in an accident at the bakery where he works. Ronny blames the incident on his brother, but perhaps it was just misfortune.

Meanwhile, Ronny’s milquetoast brother Johnny (Dannny Aiello) is betrothed to the lovely accountant Loretta (Cher).

“I lost my hand. I lost my bride,” Johnny says. “Ronny has his hand, Ronny has his bride. I ain’t no monument to freakin’ justice!”

Whether it’s something lunar, Love with a capital L, the universe itself,  or simply a case of an unlikely attraction that won’t be denied, Ronny’s destiny is not to be thwarted by an injury sometimes used by writers as a symbol of emasculation or even dehumanisation. He will get the girl.

When Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) loses his hand in a light-sabre duel with Darth Vader, it is replaced with a bionic one.

Our fear is that Luke will go down the same path chosen by his evil father, and that this modification is a step towards the Dark Side. Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a high-tech fix for a significant injury.

For Game of Thrones‘ Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the loss of his right (sword-wielding) hand is both devastating and humanising.

When we first meet the “King Slayer” it is as a fully able villain: a man who has relations with his sister, and pushes a child from a window when observed in the throes of that vile act.

“Even if the boy lives, he’ll be a cripple, a grotesque,” says Jaime of the injury he’s inflicted on Bran Stark. “Give me a good clean death any day.”

Says his dwarf brother Tyrion in reply: “Speaking for the grotesques, I’d have to disagree. Death is so final, whereas life, ahh, life is full of possibilities.”

Of course, when Jaime lose his right hand, he becomes one of the grotesques he used to loathe. And perhaps by relinquishing his status as the kingdom’s most formidable swordsman he learns a modicum of humility and empathy in the process.

We see that while hardly a “white hat”, Jaime has some decent qualities too; he is not his sister.

Importantly, he may still be of use defending Westeros against its greatest foe. Indeed, perhaps some of his best work will be done with one hand.

The lists of life

Marketers, communications professionals and publishers understand the potency of a well-considered list, and its close contemporary, the listacle – a list in the guise of an article.

Consider, for instance, the examples of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, or “13 simple was to improve your self-esteem”, “Seven things that made Week 3 of the 2018 NFL season awesome” or “Six tips for future-proofing your child’s education.”

We have an unquenchable appetite for lists, it seems. There is something appealing about their finiteness and their definitiveness.

How reassuring it is to understand that there are only a few incomparable locales to visit to be thought well travelled, or admirable habits one need cultivate to be fulfilled and self-actualised.

It’s the limiting, boundary-drawing aspect of this form of writing that is its beauty. And of course, lists are practical. Our brains are better at processing and synthesising information than they are at recording mere data (which is why it’s preferable for your waiter to write things down then risk muddling an order). For the rest of us too, getting things down is the best insurance against forgetting.

There have been lists for as long as there has been civilisation, so you could say lists are synonymous with culture, perhaps even a defining feature.

The earliest forms of writing found in Mesopotamia were lists of the “taxes” paid by farmers in what was a pre-currency economy in 10,000BC. The taxes were in the form of grains and farm stock.

Because these ”taxes” created more freely available food, not everyone had to cultivate their own; time was freed up to develop other skills. Job specialisation flourished, paving the way for the experience managers, dermatologists and glass blowers of today.

The Bible is full of lists: items that it is permitted to eat, injunctions, transgressions, family histories, monarchical chains, ship manifolds, and sundry major and minor laws.

According to the Book of Exodus, God gave to Moses 10 (not nine or 11) specific Commandments (aka the Decalogue) that could not be broken, under penalty of eternal damnation. The list – what else could you call it? – was at the centre of a moral code by which to live. A set of values and priorities.

There are some recurring numbers around well-known lists that have resonance.

You’ll find there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (White, Pale, Red, Black); Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion, freedom of want and fear); and Four Cardinal Virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance).

Even more potent is the number seven. It pops up in the form of Seven Cardinal (or Deadly) Sins (pride, lust, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony and sloth); Seven Ancient Wonders of the World (the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pharos at Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens – and Walls – of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the pyramids of Giza, the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus, and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia).

The Bible refers to Seven Seals.

There are Seven Seas, Seven Sisters, Seven Dwarves, seven secret herbs and spices, Seven Samurai, a Magnificent Seven hired guns, seventh heaven, and a seven-year itch.

Beware the seventh son of a seventh son.

Successful people, according to the best-seller, need only but acquire seven carefully prescribed predilections.

Seven seems to be that “just right” number for a list – not too many or too little.

A list is an act of curation, of editing – of inclusion of some items and the exclusion of others. It is an expression, therefore, of opinion but also of taste and erudition.

In his book The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness, Robert Winder offers a comprehensive (but not exhaustive) list of traits associated with Old Blighty.

“Even the briefest summary would have to include tea, beef, gardening, beer, curry, cricket, Shakespeare, toast, royal pageantry, military bands, washing the car, banging on about the war, stiff upper lips, Chinese takeaways, whingeing, saying “sorry”, home-made jam, queueing, road rage, stand-up comedians, tabloid headlines, plastic bags in trees, post offices, Big Ben, pillar boxes, supermarket trolleys, Choral evensong, poppies, village greens, brass bands, football hooligans, carols, dog mess, broken umbrellas, chewing gum, “Order! Order” and a thousand other things.”

Well, yes, especially since Winder included two types of brass bands, but not the Beatles, or Britpop, Sir Edward Elgar, nor for that matter class consciousness, hyphenated surnames, poor dental hygiene, bowler hats, toffy schools, cucumber and watercress sandwiches, Rolls Royces and Jaguars, Swinging London, Martin Amis, chavs, pykies, the Goodies, Dr Who, kitchen-sink dramas, Savile Row suits, Empire, pubs, hedges, fog, Sherlock Holmes, calling soccer “football”, and the Queen.

Heretofore the lists we’ve been talking about have been in the public realm: registers of things for wide knowledge and consumption.

Yet lists can be private too, none more so than the to-do list, which, depending on your work habits, can be statements of ruthless efficiency or articles of unalloyed optimism.

Stanford philosophy professor and self-confessed procrastinator John Perry advises a combination of these traits.

In his delightful tome, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, Perry suggests a successful to-do list – that is, one that helps procrastinators lead productive lives – needs a few key elements.

There should be a few easily achievable tasks (such as “wake up” and “turn on a coffee machine) to help create the feeling of making progress.

And he also advises including some super-aspirational tasks such as “learn Chinese” or “write a novel”, which of course are difficult and prone to creating avoidance.

The secret is to have a few somewhat important and urgent jobs below this to do while avoiding those assignments that are considerably more arduous. It’s all about productive procrastination – curbing one’s worst instincts to delay while getting things done, all the while enjoying yourself, and not feeling too guilty for those tasks left unfinished. They can, after all, go on the next to-do list. Or the one after that.

And by getting a reasonable amount accomplished you’ll stay off hit (and sh*t) lists, and put aside more time for your bucket list, the things you really want to do.

Everybody wants to work

In sitcoms, the workplace can be another character. Though we don’t often see the barflies from Cheers at their places of employ, their professions featured in the occasional episode, giving us an insight into Cliff’s travails as a postman, Norm’s accounting firm, or Frasier’s psychotherapy practice (which featured in its own spin-off series).

Dr Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show or Tony from Who’s the Boss worked from home, enabling them to share in the high-jinks and general hilarity that constituted a half-hour episode. It also meant they were on hand to lend folksy wisdom and settle disputes.

(On the other hand, some workplaces just don’t help explain or embellish the character; there’s a good reason why we never saw Happy Days dad Howard Cunningham in his hardware store or the Fonz in his garage.)

Even if a show is set around home life, we sometimes get the occasional look at how characters earn their crust – it’s part of who they are. Think of Darrin (either version) from Bewitched, and his advertising firm, or Monica from Friends, whose chef work allows the action to sometimes move away from her strangely luxurious Manhattan pad.

The Simpsons regularly references Homer’s work life – as much as goofing off, quaffing doughnuts and causing nuclear meltdowns could be considered work.

Everybody Loves Raymond, a multiple award winner during its long run, must surely have had one of the least accurate depictions of the workplace in TV Land. Ray is supposed to be a sportswriter, but he’s like no one I encountered in the near decade I spent writing about sports for a living.

Consider that he rarely, if ever, talks about sports. For typical sportswriters, their career is their life. They life, eat and breathe it, and most seem to have an encyclopaedic mental compendium of results, statistics and folklore that they are more than happy to share with all and sundry.

Even though Ray’s a columnist who seems to split his work time between home and the office cranking out opinion pieces (rather than a beat writer covering a particular team) the trappings, accoutrements, conundrums and passions of a sports scribe are mysteriously absent from his days.

He doesn’t fraternise with his workmates. His boss – who is he? – is not present, either as ogre or buddy. Writer’s block has no place in his world. Like a hair shirt, this just doesn’t wash!

What sports does Ray write about? We don’t know whether he has a penchant for boxing, tennis, golf, lacrosse or underwater hockey.

One of the standard perks of a sportswriter’s job is a free seat at games. But for the most part Ray eschewed these in favour of staying home and arguing with his family.

Life on sitcoms, of course, isn’t meant to reflect the reality of the daily grind. You wonder, though, if the writers of Everybody Loves Raymond weren’t planning to mine his professional life for laughs or plotlines, why did they decide to make the guy a sports journalist? After all, Ray is pretty funny, isn’t particularly sartorially challenged, and shows no signs of addiction to stadium food.

They should have made him a stand-up comedian instead. Oh yeah – that’s already been done.

This article originally appeared in Good Weekend, January 11, 2003. 

And United is not a nickname

Sport maintains a critical position in Australian culture. Not only is it seen as a manifestation of our perceived defining values such as “having a go” “playing fair” and mateship, it is the lingua franca of our cities and towns; it’s how we talk to one another and express our fears and hopes. Our teams’ seasons help us measure out the years. And it’s big business, too. In short, sport is important to Australians.

That’s why it’s so confounding that the naming (or, if you will, the branding) of institutions to which we’re expected to dedicate our passion, time and money is often given meagre, unimaginative consideration.

Consider the case of Big Bash League franchise the Hobart Hurricanes, a name that gives the impression of having been conjured up as a last-minute replacement for something even less appropriate – the Hobart Hogwash, perhaps.

“Alright, how about Hurricanes, then?” you can hear a defeated marketing consultant ask.

We don’t, however, have hurricanes in this country – not in the tropical north (where such meteorological events are known as “cyclones”). And certainly not in the cold-climate capital of Tasmania.

Another sports sobriquet that rankles is basketball team Melbourne United.

Now, the NBL has some form when it comes to ill-thought-out monikers.

Indeed, apart from a brief period when the Townsville Crocodiles and Cairns Taipans came into being, franchises have tended to avoid proudly Australian nominative representation.

Perth (one of the competition’s most successful clubs) even selected “Wildcats” for its nickname. Though this is a popular choice for college sports teams (Kentucky, Arizona, Northwestern and Kansas State among many others), a wildcat is something of a pest – if not a scourge – in this country.

Adelaide’s “36er” nom de guerre refers to the city’s 1836 founding, but always struck me as somewhat derivative of the renowned Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA.

So, what’s wrong with “United”, you ask?

First, it’s a quintessentially English soccer naming device – Manchester United, Sheffield United and Newcastle United, for example.

Yet in each of these cases United is not a nickname as such, with these teams cheered on as the Red Devils, Blades and Magpies, respectively. Rather, the “United” component usually refers to the fact clubs were formed from the combination of others.

(Although it’s true that many NBL franchises have risen and fallen in the Victorian capital, United is the direct descendent of the Melbourne Tigers rather than a bastard child of multiple franchises.)

Plus, let’s face it: there’s a space where the club’s nickname should be – the Melbourne United Somethings.

For me, great team nicknames involve the tantalising combination of originality (although not at all costs – the University of California Santa Cruz Banana Slugs is a tad silly) and geographical, cultural or historical appropriateness.

“Celtics” is a successful name for the storied Boston basketball institution because it calls to mind the Massachusetts city’s Irish history, heritage and continued links.

The Ravens of Baltimore references the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, who called the city home.

Essendon’s Australian rules Bombers links to the fact the northern Melbourne suburb was home to the city’s only airport until the 1970s.

The Rabbitohs of South Sydney refers not, as you might think, to the pesky but cute myxomatosis-affected fluffy rodent but rather the men who captured and sold them during the Depression early last century. Standing on street corners, these chaps would shout “rabbitoh, rabbitoh!” in order to sell their wares.

Many traditional sports nicknames convey aggression – think Eagles, Tigers, Bears, Rams – but there are other approaches.

The Temple Owls, Harvard Crimson, New York Liberty (great logo too), Green Bay Packers, Manhattan Jaspers, Stanford Cardinal and Centenary Gentlemen (alma mater of Celtics great Robert Parish) are all cool without being in any way tough.

The passage of time can bestow a certain authority on the most benign of monikers – the LA Lakers (Minnesota, where the team was originally located, was known as the “Land of 1,000 lakes”, hence Lakers), Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans and Everton Toffees (also known as the Blues) all have a certain something about them.

In place of Hurricanes, I’m suggesting the Hobart Hat-tricks, Hitters, Hammers, Devils, or Islanders might be better options. No wait, I have it: the Able Tas Men!

What about the Melbourne United True Blues, Mob (as in kangaroos), Larrikins, King Browns, Kookaburras, Goannas, Mistrals, or Thoroughbreds?

Since I am on a roll with my self-initiated re-branding exercise for Australian sports franchises, I may as well continue on to two club names that rankle every time I hear them.

The North Queensland Cowboys of the NRL are one. Here’s the thing: We don’t have cowboys in Australia – it’s an occupation most closely associated with the Old West.

We do, however, have jackaroos, drovers, ringers, jumbucks, even Wild Colonial Boys.

I’m also not a huge (get it?) fan of Giants as a nickname for AFL expansion club Greater Western Sydney. It’s just so … generic.

How about the GWS Great White Sharks – that way the “GWS” does double duty.

There are many precedents for sports teams changing their identity. When baseball club the Montreal Expos moved to Washington they became the Nationals; the SuperSonics of Seattle transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thinking that his NBA basketball club’s nickname was not helping out-of-control gun culture in the US capital, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin changed it to the Wizards.

It’s surprising that in a world so focused on marketing and brands that the powers that be behind new Australian sports franchises don’t have much in the way of new ideas. Makes you wonder what became of the old team effort.


The show within a show

In a week of TV viewing, we’re presented with everything from vampire slaying to backyard makeovers; everything that is except watching TV itself. Outside of Gogglebox, that’s an activity largely restricted to cartoon shows.

In the animated world, “the show within the show” reflects the way audiences engage with the media while satirising it for laughs.

On 70s program Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the superhero show The Brown Hornet was used to distil the moral message of each episode into easily digestible nuggets for both the kids on the show (Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth et al) and the viewing audience.

But writers of contemporary programs know their audiences are too savvy and cynical to buy into such warm and fuzzy messages.

Their characters are more likely to watch programs that reflect the kind of society television has forged and manipulated.

South Parks’s talk show Jesus and Pals, for instance, is forced at one stage to compete in a ratings war with wildlife program Huntin’and Killin’. When Jesus’s message looks threatened by Huntin’ and Killin’s growing popularity, His show fights back with a trashy, Jerry Springer-style makeover, complete with an all-in-brawl that ends when Jesus calls for everyone to shut the f… up.

The show that does the best job of featuring television as a powerful force in the lives of its characters is The Simpsons.

Indeed, watching TV is a defining activity for Bart, Lisa, Marge and, especially, Homer.

In the opening sequence, the family races home from various activities to spend quality time in front of the box. It sets the tone for what is to come.

Now the longest-running American sitcom, The Simpsons is frequently scathing about its own medium, often depicting television as a negative influence, or simply a waste of time.

In one episode, Marge, the moral centre of the family, campaigns to water down the extreme violence of The Itchy and Scratchy Show (the bellicose cat and mouse duo who appear on Krusty the Clown’s program – which makes it a show within a show within a show).

When Marge succeeds, the children of Springfield, now freed from their TV trammels, actually leave their lounge rooms to go outside and play.

TV in the world of The Simpsons is a strictly lowbrow affair. In one episode we see bartender Moe competing on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-like quiz show called Me Wantee!, where literal wheelbarrows full of cash are up for grabs.

The local reality TV show, Bad Cops, highlights the incompetence of Springfield’s finest.

“Subject is hatless, I repeat, hatless,” advises Police Chief Wiggum in an APB as an offender speeds away.

In sending up their characters, the writers of The Simpsons also send up their audience.

In one episode, Homer is given 24 hours to live after swallowing a piece of poisonous Japanese fish. He decides to pack as much life as possible into what he thinks is his last day alive.

Later given a reprieve, he vows never to waste another moment. Yet in the final image, there he is, lounging in an armchair, munching a packet of pork rinds as he stares, fascinated, at his flickering TV. Just like us.


This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Good Weekend. I wrote it with input from Derek Agnew.