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.





Justified left


Don’t you think it’s time some order was restored to our footpaths?

“Golf,” renowned perambulator Mark Twain once remarked, “is a good walk spoiled.”

Twain’s disdain was focused on the game of birdies, albatrosses and bogeys. It’s fair to say the pastime did not rate highly in his regard.

Were Samuel Clemens alive today, however, I feel confident it’s not golf he’d be railing against for the disruption of his jaunts, ambles and constitutionals.

Rather, the monographer would doubtless be aghast at the frank paucity of manners and consideration displayed on our city footpaths.

A lunchtime stretch of the legs has become an obstacle-course negotiation.

Admittedly, I work in one of the city’s busiest and less salubrious locales, and in recent times foot traffic has increased considerably.

Indeed, it’s a jungle out there, full of pitfalls and minor predators.

Generally, if I can, I try to stick to the left, using our helpful road rules as a rough guide.

But I’ve discovered to my chagrin and consternation that often times I am not in the majority with this way of thinking.

One of the most common offences is committed by young students, strolling at an ever-so-leisurely pace, four or five abreast. They’re not going anywhere quickly, and neither are you. Time’s winged chariot is racing near, children. Tarry not.

Packs of young male office workers get my goat. In their too-tight suits, they strut, slink, or hurtle along in a contest to see either who can hold up the most pedestrians, or knock them out of the way, depending on the day.

Tourists choosing the most opportune time and place – here, in the middle of the footpath will do – to consult maps; pettifoggers dragging along steamer trunks full of homework; thousand-yard starers; high-heel totterers; distracted shufflers; general lollygaggers; graffiti-photographing Instagrammers; nicotine-addicted office rubes smoking in large groups;  and insistent right-side adherents. Collectively they are the scourge of our footpaths.

In a recent trip to Sydney I noticed the train stations have signs advising folks to stick to the left on stairs and ramps.

That’s a great start, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Let’s place those signs all over the city, and enforce guidelines around proper prescribed pavement practice (the Four Ps).

And I propose a citizens’ action group to enforce the codes of behaviour: the Walking with Purpose Collective will issue infraction notices, generally acting as stewards of sensible ambulatory behaviour.

It’s time, as Mr Twain would inarguably agree, to take a stand. To walk the walk.

The 10 essential assassin movies

The American blog“Killing’s a helluva thing,” says the eponymous character (Clint Eastwood) in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “You take away everything a man has, and everything he’s gonna have.”

As they are depicted in movies, professional killers – hitmen, mechanics, assets, cleaners; there are many names – can roughly be divided into two types.

There are those who revel in their lethal skills and the bounty it can yield – think Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, who sadistically asks his victims to flip a coin to determine their fate.

And then there are those who are greatly perturbed by the terrible impact of their deadly adroitness.

Jack (George Clooney) in The American is haunted by the innocent lives he’s taken, and a sense that his own days are surely numbered.

Although they usually work alone (accommodating others can have serious consequences for career and well-being), a common trope of the assassin genre is the notion of the guild – that, like printers or jewellers, cold-blooded killers belong to union-like collectives that boast rich histories, mores, and even apprenticeship systems.

Indeed, Assassins Creed and Ninja Assassin both suggest killers have been trained and mentored in hitman schools for centuries.1

Yet the apotheosis of this idea must be John Wick, in which assassins observe a clearly defined set of rules and even have their own currency, which is good for everything from after-deed clean-ups (aka “dinner reservations”), to chi chi hotel accommodation, and (of course) weaponry.

Though the weapon of choice for any pro killer worth his or her salt is a firearm – a rifle for long-distance targets, a pistol for closer work – the mark of a top-drawer assassin is the ability to improvise, to turn anything – a rolled-up magazine, a car door, a piece of luggage, an electrical cord, a curtain rope, even a pen or pencil – into an implement of lethal force and ultimate consequences.


John Wick
Little did we know that existing alongside our own quotidian world there is another milieu: that of the hired heavy hand, of whom there are legions from which to choose. Yet the crème de la crème is John Wick, a man, we are told, of singular focus, commitment and sheer will. A man who has mastered the tricky art of gun fu, who leaves his marks behind in piles, and whose grief for his recently deceased wife is matched only by his anger at the loss of his car (a ‘69 Mustang, sweet rides being another hitman movie calling card) and dog. Here is the assassin film recalibrated.

The Bourne Identity
Most decent films in this genre portray private contractors at work, exhibiting their elite particular set of skills for a specific price. In this film, we see the government version, in this case physically and cognitively enhanced, and boasting advanced linguistic, tactical, fighting and survival skills. A mystery even to himself, Jason Bourne is also damaged, a victim of the Treadstone program that created him, unleashed him, and now must suffer the consequences as it tries to rein him in.

Leon the Professional
He appears from nowhere, stepping stealthily from the shadows, and has but one rule: “no women, no kids”. On a diet of milk, intense abdominal training and the occasional Hollywood musical, New York’s peripatetic trigger man for the mafia doesn’t know he’s looking for his own family and for roots until he reluctantly opens his door to the last survivor of a bent cop’s (Gary Oldman in a memorable performance) mad, sanguinary free-for-all. A slow-building classic.

The American
In this moody, atmospheric film, there is no escaping “the life” for old-school assassin and gunsmith Jack (George Clooney). Like heist flicks, films centred on hitmen often have at their core a “last job”, one final pay-day before fading off into the dappled light. The trick for these assassin protagonists is in avoiding being the career-ending big score for a rival. Will Jack escape and find love with beautiful whore Clara? And how did the Swedes find him, tucked away there in the Umbrian mountains?

John Wick Chapter 2
Taking place only days after the original, we discover in this arty sequel that the world of the assassins is considerably more substantial than we might have imagined; it has its own (stridently analogue) accounts department; a Roman version of the Intercontinental Hotel; and is headed by the mysterious High Table. As for the titular character, well, he exudes what Esquire writer George Frasier coined “duende” – a combination of charisma, aptitude and panache.

The Mechanic
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) believes in planning; for him, each hit represents an “assignment”, and the method of elimination is only revealed through rigorous study and meticulous preparation. As is inscribed on the pistol of his mentor: amat victoria curum (victory loves preparation.) In this tight remake of Charles Bronson’s signature film, Bishop is pretty good at winging it too, when necessary.

As an ageing contract killer who has lost his nerve, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a teary, faltering mess struggling after all this time with his profession’s occupational hazards. He’s also a bit of a jerk – equal parts vain, annoying and self-loathing. Yet just beneath the surface is a charming, urbane soul (and of course, a crack shot). Maybe – just maybe – he and everyman adman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) can help each other out. A neglected little gem, boasting an arresting against-the-tide performance from Brosnan in the early days after his time playing that other suave killer.

La Femme Nikita
Some might argue that the career of iconoclastic director Luc Besson has been more pothole than road. But he had a brilliant idea that formed the genesis of this now (admittedly somewhat aged) classic. What if a teenage criminal was given the choice between a lethal injection or joining an elite unit of French government killers? And what if that teenager was a girl (Besson’s future wife Anne Parillaud) who Besson forced to shoot some scenes 28 times, only to use the first in the final version? Well, add Jean Reno as Victor the Cleaner and Tcheky Karyo as the first of many morally compromised bastards and you’d have yourself a cool (and hugely influential) yarn.

The Day of the Jackal
All that I really recall about this film are the black Citroens, the gun cleverly concealed in crutches, and the brilliant disguises of the titular hero played by Edward Fox. That’s enough, non?

Originally this musing was going to chart the 10 essential assassin films, but I came up one short. Certainly there are plenty of decent flicks to consider: the Kill Bills come readily to mind, The Specialist (exploding tea cups and Rod Steiger chewing scenery anyone?), Assassins (another Stallone vehicle), The Assassin, American Assassin, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hana, The Equalizer, Ghost Dog, Mr and Mrs Smith, Columbiana, Point Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank, two decent versions of Payback – but none that I felt like watching right now.

I suppose, yes, I could be persuaded otherwise. I mean, let’s not argue about it. There’s no need for violence. Wait, put that down …


  1. The notion that assassins belong to clans also hints to the word’s origin. “Assassin” with a capital A refers to a member of a secret order of Muslim fanatics who terrorised and killed Crusaders. The name derives from the Arabic word hashshash or “hasish eater” (originally referring to members of an Ismaili sect who took the drug before attacking their enemies).


Get yourself sat, Matt

Catching the bus is no joy ride.

You can pretty much tell what kind of bus driver you’re going to have from the time you get on board. If you’re greeting to the man (it’s usually a man) sitting in the big chair is returned, you’ve probably encountered one of the vast majority of these essential professionals: even-tempered souls who will very likely transport you to your destination without incident. Some of these might even wait for you if they see you heading towards the bus stop.

If your “Good morning” is met with a grunt, you’ve come across that selection of drivers who probably see their vocation as akin to the transportation of toxic waste: irksome but necessary.

Then there are those who don’t respond at all. Beware this small sample, and make your way to your seat as quickly as possible. The driver won’t wait for you (and secretly I wonder if there’s a competition among these thousand-yard starers to see who can take down the most passengers in a day), or perhaps they’re simply in a hurry. It’s best not to ask.

Of all the methods of facilitating getting from A to B, doing so via bus must surely be one of the least glamorous, for all concerned.

For suburban passengers, the convenience of having a stop outside your door is countered by the fact few routes seem to run in a straight line anywhere, very likely skipping down several side streets, stop every 100 metres, seldom run on the weekend, are usually late but sometimes frustratingly early (and of course don’t stop at all in this instance if no passengers are waiting), and frequently don’t run at all. Coordination with other forms of public transport is ad hoc.

Some routes seem to have little logic; from Box Hill in Melbourne’s east, buses issue forth to Altona, Mordialloc and Chadstone. If you so desire you can catch a bus from St Kilda to Sunshine, and from Hampton to Berwick.

It’s rare to ride a bus where at least one piece of equipment isn’t faulty or out of commission. There’s a very good chance the AC has stopped working. Early in the morning or late in the night, you’re usually riding in the dark, which makes it harder to read, and on those occasions, underlines the interminable time this form of public transport can grindingly consume.

For drivers, the hassle of dealing with traffic and misbehaving passengers is a constant. Little wonder they often look frazzled.

I suspect those who live in rural and regional areas might think of buses more affectionately than city folk, providing as they do an essential form of transportation in places where others don’t run at all.

My own relationship with bus travel has become far more intimate than I imagined it ever would. Having lost the use of my mostly reliable Magna sedan a while back – and taken some time to come to grips with the price of used cars – I’ve gradually (but not warmly) learned to accept (but not embrace) its usefulness.

I guess I should stop my grousing and either buy a car for those five to 10-minute trips to the local train station, or accept the reality of bus travel. And the truth is, we need our buses to take us where trains and trams can’t go.

Alas, the bus hasn’t earned the cachet of other transport modes.

For instance, its place in pop culture has never captured the romance of other forms of mass transit, such as submarines (The Hunt for Red October, Das Boat) ships (Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic); motorbikes (Easy Rider, The Great Escape); balloons (Around the World in Eighty Days); cars (any Bond film) or trains (Some Like it Hot, Murder on the Orient Express).

Planes, Buses and Automobiles lacks a certain something. Ditto for Throw Momma from the Bus or Runaway Bus – although of course, that’s basically what Speed is. And Speed is admirable, if not awesome.

The Italian Job (original version) made the bus pivotal (bad pun intended) to its plot.

Yet when I think of the bus on screen, it’s not in the depiction of a grand cross-continental journey, but rather the prosaic and the everyday: the bad jokes and casual racism of On the Buses, Otto’s suspect driving and social skills in The Simpsons, or Principal Rooney forced to ensure a bus ride with his students at the conclusion of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not by choice, but because it’s the only option. That’s how it rolls.

There is no Laburnum

They have no official status, but they exist anyway. They are Melbourne’s secret suburbs.

Recently I met someone who claimed to reside in Laburnum. Laburnum? He was having me on, surely. Having spent some of my formative years living in a beautiful rambling house at 42 Laburnum St, within easy walk of Laburnum Train Station and the Laburnum shops (Mum and Dad had also briefly considered sending my brother and me to Laburnum Primary School) I recognised this claim for what it was: a bald-faced lie. A deception. An inaccuracy.

As anyone familiar with the area knows, there is no Laburnum: that part of Melbourne falls within Blackburn, in the City Of Whitehorse.

If you glance at a Melways (a hardcopy version, preferably) you’ll notice that official suburbs are listed in capital letters. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Look a little closer and you might observe that some places are printed in lower case. Rather than official ‘burbs with their own postcodes, these areas are pockets, precincts, neighbourhoods and localities that for various reasons have had a different, individual moniker bestowed upon them.

Some of these are semi-official titles thought up, it seems, by some rather unimaginative government apparatchiks or construction company marketers. I’d put Beacon Cove, NewQuay, Waterfront City, Digital Harbour, Victoria Harbour, Batmans Hill, Kensington Banks and Yarra’s Edge into this category.

Other locality sobriquets are merely geographically descriptive. Epping North, Macleod West and Ascot Vale West fit in to this sub-group. Given how big some of these areas are, it makes sense to informally subdivide them.

Indeed, other locales seem to evolve in spread-out suburbs, where a modicum of differentiation is helpful. Bellevue, Deepdene and Greythorn in Balwyn; and Newlands and Merlynston in Coburg North could be examples of this.

There are a bunch of pockets based around train stations that are not named for suburbs. Hartwell, Jolimont, Newmarket, Syndal, Westgarth.  (I’d always just assumed these were all official stand-alone suburbs), Glenferrie, Merlynston, Macaulay, Rushall and Anstey are examples.

Mont Albert (originally just plain old Mount Albert) was a train station before it was a locality and then later earned official suburb status.

Part of Frankston, Karingal, meaning “happy home” or “happy camp” in an aboriginal dialect, was given its name in the 1960s when land in the area began to be developed, largely as an AV Jennings housing estate.

Merlynston had similar commercial origins. When in 1919 Donald Bain bought the 31 hectares known as Station Heights Estate west of Coburg North railway station, he subdivided it into housing blocks and renamed it after his daughter Merlyn. The station was subsequently renamed too.

Some Melbourne places seemed to have been unofficially sub-classified in an attempt to lift exclusivity; to redefine by their difference. Perhaps Gardiner (Glen Iris), South Kingsville, Glengala (Sunshine West), Westbreen, Westgarthton and Regent (Preston) come into this category. The name “Regent” simply exudes exclusivity, even if the locale itself may not.

Others have names derived from natural features; consider Mt Cooper and Coonans Hill.

So is there any harm in telling folks that you live in an area that doesn’t really exist – in saying Paisley when you mean Altona North, or Darling when Malvern East is more accurate?

Well, if mail or emergency services not being able to reach your abode isn’t an issue, then possibly not.

For many years before it was finally made official in 1999, the area south of Richmond Station bound by Swan St and Punt Rd was known and referred to as Cremorne.

We are talking about a small realm of some historical and cultural significance, home to the sprawling Cremorne Gardens established in the 1850s. Referred to as a “pleasure garden” (what we might call an amusement park), the area housed a menagerie of exotic animals, a bowling alley, cyclorama, and offered balloon rides.

Here was the official departure point for Burke and Wills’ infamously ill-fated journey. Cremorne existed as an entity long before the powers that be acceded to acknowledge it.

Perhaps by 2099 it might be Laburnum’s turn. By the way, did I mention that I grew up there?

































The 10 most enjoyable films of 2016

Not necessarily the best movies of the past 12 months, the following list of flicks are the ones that kept me most entertained. The list is roughly in order.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years
My introduction to the Beatles’ music was through hearing them on radio on family car trips in the 1970s and later through compilation tapes. Even as I grew to love the tunes, I don’t think I ever really understood the phenomenon of Beatlemania – 200,000 fans turned out to see the band in Adelaide in the early 1960s – or even the impact of the music itself until this clever (admittedly somewhat hagiographic) documentary. Assembled from concert footage, still photographs and a combination of archival and new interviews, here is a film that enthrals and informs. Good job Ron Howard.

Rosalie Blum
A sad-sack mummy’s boy hairdresser, a hard-smoking middle-aged grocery store owner, her drop-out niece and a slew of fringe-dweller associates doesn’t sound like the most encouraging cast of characters. Yet it all comes together in this cleverly crafted and beautifully executed small-town French dramedy.

The Accountant
This surprising shoot-’em-up could be described as “John Wick meets Rainman“, or as my buddy Derek Agnew puts it, “autistic Batman”. As strange as that sounds, it absolutely works.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best film of the long-running franchise hands down. Highlights were Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as an ambitious Imperial higher-up, the toughest blind swordsman since Zatoichi, and the most fearsome Darth Vader yet (even if James Earl Jones’ voice sounds a little off in a young villain).

Our Kind of Traitor
Adaptations of John Le Carre can get bogged down in the characters’ internal struggles and torments, expressed through interminable periods of waiting and anguish (for the audience). Yet this lively intrigue is expertly paced, and buoyed by great turns from Stellan Skarsgard as a whistleblower Russian mobster, and Damien Lewis as an MI6 operative bent on revenge.

The old maestro Clint Eastwood does it again in this telling of the day an airliner made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. It’s way more moving than that sounds. (Idea: I’d love to see directors sneak in a shot of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway into all future Tom Hanks movies, just for old times’ sake).

There is a small sub-genre of films (Music Box, High Crimes) where a character is made to look so guilty the audience thinks they can’t possibly be the culprit. Is the lovely Marion Cottilard really working for the Germans?

The Sweeney Paris
Gee it’s good to see the hangdog yet charismatic Jean Reno back on screen in this French (of course) police procedural, which features the best street gunfight since Heat. Zut alors!

The Secret Life of Pets
For this animated treat I found myself being that idiot who laughs loudest in the cinema. Enough said.

David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D
Part of the attraction was no doubt the free ticket and choctop, but my first trip to the Imax cinema was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Explanations and extras
Looking through this list, what stands out is the lack of depth, nuance and variety. I definitely was drawn to the escapist flick in 2016. And for this I do not apologise. Surely since the moment the Lumiere brothers showed footage of steam trains coming and going, the point of cinema is transport (no pun intended) rather than edification?

I have no doubt a good part of the enjoyment of the Beatles docco and Rosalie Blum was pleasant surprise – the sense of low expectations being easily exceeded.

The decision to see both movies resulted from sessions for other preferences being sold out, filled by the organised and well mobilised silver foxes of Cinema Como and Palace Balwyn, respectively.

After reading a glowing review on The Onion AV Club, I felt pretty let down by Midnight Special and its very silly cop-out ending. But the whole thing, really. Just dumb.

I had problems with Arrival too, the main ones being understanding how giant squid could build spaceships, and the deus ex machina of the aliens’ “gift”. What a come-down from Sicario for director Denis Villeneuve!

La La Land was quite good, but after it received a record number of Oscar nominations, I’m wondering if I missed something. Many of its tunes sounded like the forgettable filler in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And like the director’s previous film Whiplash, the conclusion was astonishingly discordant  with what came before.

I walked out on the creepy, exploitative The Witch.

Hell or High Water was a film I wanted to like more, but couldn’t (and didn’t).

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea were two films I didn’t get around to seeing before the Australia Day deadline.

I also heard Korean zombie epic Train to Busan was worth a look, too. The trailer makes it look like Snowpiercer meets World War Z. I probably won’t see that one. In 2017 I am going to be more discerning, I swear.

Same, same but different

Motion picture sequels don’t have to go through the motions.

Directors and writers who take over a movie series have two choices: they can continue to shepherd the franchise down the well-grooved path it’s been on – same tropes, characters, and narrative arc – or they can pursue a different route.

In the former category you could put Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Admittedly this is part seven in an epic series spread over 40 (Earth) years. So there’s an expectation that the storylines established in the first six parts will continue to unfold – and perhaps even satisfyingly conclude.

But still. As enjoyable as it was, JJ Abrams’ nifty effort was derivative in the extreme. So much so that it was basically a remake of the original Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), but with a female lead standing in for the young Luke Skywalker.

In the latter category could be placed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though set in the carefully circumscribed and increasingly self-referential Star Wars universe, it is a stand-alone off-shoot – something of a prequel to the George Lucas-directed 1977 film.

Like the original, Rogue One is a pastiche of a bunch of different influences, yet the action is considerably more propulsive, and the overall tone somewhat darker.

In a series that has had its share of misfires (Jar Jar Binks and little Anni Skywalker, for instance), it’s a stunning achievement.

The original Alien is admirable for its incredible production design, its masterful build-up of suspense, and for its ground-breaking use of special effects. (Who could forget the film’s signature scene of an extra-terrestrial bursting forth from its host?)

And yet I much prefer the visceral action of the James Cameron-helmed sequel, with its gung ho cadre of military specialists pitted against an icky foe.

Having made “tension” the defining feature of the original, the quintessential space creature feature, Aliens takes us on a thrilling head-long ride that barely lets up.

The Rocky series had taken far too many body blows by the time Creed stepped into the ring. Having stayed past its welcome, it was punchy, against the ropes even, and surely due for the figurative white towel to be tossed in.

However, with Sylvester Stallone relieved of directing and script duties, Creed is easily the best film in the series since the Oscar-winning original.

Featuring the most realistic depiction of the sweet science in the Rocky films, it boasts a charismatic lead in Michael B. Jordan, and a knock-out plot.

Can Adonis Creed fulfil his pugilistic destiny? Can trainer Rocky Balboa impart the essential ringside lessons to the son of his most worthy opponent while himself fighting the biggest foe of his life?

Boasting a stirring score and the essential training montage sequences, it’s a terrific yarn well executed.

Based on the books by Robert Ludlum, the Jason Bourne series appeared as if it had reached a logical end by the time credits rolled on The Bourne Ultimatum (with the best-forgotten Jason Bourne released a few years later).

No longer a complete enigma to himself, super-agent Jason Bourne had outlasted all the agents in the Treadstone program, discovered his true identity, and seemingly closed the door on a life of black ops, clandestine morally indefensible activities, and the ominous engagement of assets.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who had worked on the first few Bourne films, then put his hand up to deliver a side story.

In The Bourne Legacy, a frantic Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) must use all of his lethal training and enhancements to outwit and outfight a merciless government determined to erase all trace of him, going so far as to burn to the ground the Outcome program that provided Cross’s advanced capabilities.

In this intelligent actioner there is less emphasis on the protagonist’s inner journey and more on his determination to survive. And not only is it a worthy addition to the series, it seamlessly integrates into it.

Gilroy’s deft touch can also be seen on Rogue One, for which he served as co-writer.

Just like The Bourne Legacy, it involves the critical search for a MacGuffin.

Somehow it brilliantly references the universe from which it was generated – Darth Vader has never looked more lethal – without ever, er, forcing it.