Saturday, December 30, 2000
The other day I was at a friend's place looking through some shelves of old leather-bound books with gilt-edged pages and embossed titles. She collected these solely for decorative purposes, and had arranged them all by colour. One title on the red shelf caught my eye: My Novel by Lord Lytton. The vanity-press burblings of some long-forgotten member of the House of Lords, perhaps?
It turned out to be some of the most hilariously awful writing I'd ever read. A passage featuring a 'Professor Riccabocca' had to be seen to be believed. There doesn't seem to be a full-text version at Project Gutenberg, but you can sample excerpts in these scanned images of pages from the magazine in which it was originally serialised (scroll down the list for links to the My Novel excerpts, which continue here).
Lord Lytton turns out to be Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the author of the famous opening words 'It was a dark and stormy night' and the line 'The pen is mightier than the sword', and creator of the science-fictional Vril, a name that lives on as part of Bovril. And, of course, the inspiration for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
Such a giant of bad writing surely deserves a full-blown revival, like Spike Milligan's favourite poet, William McGonagall (author of such classics as The Moon, The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, and Loch Ness). A reissue of My Novel would make an excellent start. As its last line reads, 'Go forth into the world, o my Novel!'
Nilfun definitely isn't nil fun. It's Neil Finn of New Zilund, formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House. A satisfying web extension of the creative mind of a great musician, with archival material, samples for DIY mixing, Flash-based musical instruments, and a news page derict from Nil humsilf that looks suspiciously like a weblog.
Sunday, December 24, 2000
Amazing what a bit of weblog research turns up. Searching for those links below uncovered the amusing VinylCheese, the swinging Cocktail Nation, the dashing (through the snow) Christmas Reviews, and a daunting list of Alternative Christmas Albums.
No sooner do I write that it doesn't feel like Christmas than Jane makes me change my mind.
As mentioned below, when I was a kid the supposedly secular Tasmanian state education system had us singing carols for weeks before Christmas. Out in the playground we supplemented these with:
But I was never really a big fan of carols. Carols by candlelight held no great attraction; I wasn't Catholic (or very religious at all), so candles meant power blackouts, not acts of devotion. At home we'd always play the same Christmas album: Mum's old compilation LP (issued by Goodyear, of all companies) with tracks from Mario Lanza and Doris Day.
Then a few years ago an old friend introduced us to the wonderful world of lounge music. Over the next year we bought a stack of Ultra-Lounge and Karminsky Experience CDs and thrilled to the other-worldly sounds of Dean Elliott, Esquivel and Bridget Bardot. Somehow they seemed a lot more intriguing than the latest alterna-rock offering.
But once you're hooked on lounge, it's only one small step from there to the hard stuff: Christmas music.
It may in fact have been the Ultra-Lounge Christmas CDs that got us there. Or was it Switched on Christmas from the ultra-cheapo Rainbow Music label, a reissue of tracks from Disco Noel and Yuletide Disco with a swag of '70s session singers funkifying 'Jingle Bells' and 'Winter Wonderland' for the ages?
Whatever it was, it's now been supplemented with Woody Phillips's A Toolbox Christmas, the Kickin' Kazoos' Kazoo Christmas, the Blue Hawaiians' Christmas on Big Island, Esquivel's Merry Xmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Max Music's Navidad Total (worth it for the cover alone), and many more. All of them suitable for framing and scaring off unwanted guests.
Now all Jane has to do is put on the Italian techno of Xmas in the Mix, the barfly crooning of Christmas with Jesus Presley, and the psycho-tiptoeing Tiny Tim's Christmas Album—as she did this afternoon—and baby, you know it's Christmas.
You know how every city is actually several cities—that besides the main city everyone knows, there are others in its greater area with names you've never heard of? So the City of Canberra adjoins the City of Belconnen, the City of Sydney is down the road from the City of Parramatta, and the City of San Francisco is up the BART line from the City of Fremont?
Well, right now I'm staying in the City of Banyule. At Christmas time. How fitting. Because it just doesn't feel like Christmas.
The television is full of Christmas ads, the malls and supermarkets have sprouted thickets of tinsel like some plasticated Black Forest, and the thermometer has already hit forty degrees Celcius. All the ingredients of Christmas are there. Santa is packing up his sleigh, slipping on his shorts and heading for the surf.
But I feel like a tourist in a foreign land, watching preparations for some exotic local festival. It doesn't feel like my festival this year.
Partly that's because Jane and I told ourselves that we wouldn't really have presents this year, because all of that travel was our present. Partly it's because this year has felt like two, split into pre- and post-Madagascar halves, and I'm not ready for Christmas yet. Partly it's because I'm well past the age where I can expect to score some ace new action figures tomorrow. Partly it's because this will be my first Christmas without hordes of relatives in attendance. Even when I've been overseas at Christmas (a few times now) I've spent it with relatives or in-laws.
But beyond all of that, it isn't really Christmas without a tree.
When I was growing up, that one thing said it was Christmas more than any other. I would be primed in advance by television and carol-singing at school, but these were just the prelude. Christmas itself began one sunny evening after school in the week leading up to the big day, when Dad would wave my brother and me into the back of the Land Rover and drive us down the road to the local tip. There, down an overgrown track besides piles of rusting car-bodies, down almost to the Huon River itself, was a stand of perfect Christmas pines baking under the southern sun. Every year Dad would get his Stihl chainsaw out of the back of the Landy and saw off a branch to be our tree.
On the drive home the Land Rover would fill with the smell of pine needles and fat blowflies from the tip. We would wind down the windows and watch the blowies zip out into the wind.
Back at home, we would carry the tree through the back porch and hallway, past the cat box, through the kitchen and into the dining room. Mum would fill a bucket with bricks and water, and we would stand the tree in it in front of the empty fireplace. We'd tie a rope around the tree and onto the mantelpiece to hold it straight. Mum would bring out the cardboard box of tinsel and Christmas balls and we would decorate the tree, cursing every year the balls with the flimsy loops of string that would always fall off the branches.
It needed all of us to get our trees into place, because they were always big. Our house was an old one with high ceilings, and the room needed a big hunk of pine to fill it up. The biggest of all wasn't from the tip, though. It came years later, from our hedge.
Our house had a long driveway with a hedge alongside it. This wasn't any old hedge. It was planted sometime around the Second World War, and the genius responsible had decided to plant a row of pines. Big pines. Macrocarpa pines. By the time we moved there in the early 1970s, they had all joined up into one long wall of green, 80m long, 4m across, and 4m high. As kids, my brother and I would climb through a gap near the ground and clamber around in the tangled trunks and branches in near-darkness. Our own enchanted forest.
Keeping the hedge trimmed was a major headache, and although Mum and Dad were able to keep the sides under control (though over the years it encroached more and more on the driveway), the top grew taller and taller, until by the late 1980s it passed eight metres or 25 feet. Dad would glare at it and say 'That hedge is going to make me leave this place'.
That's when I decided something would have to be done, and that I might as well be the one to do it. Starting one winter I spent most of my weekends on top of the hedge with a chainsaw, sawing through branches 10 or 15cm thick and tossing whole trees over the side into our driveway or the neighbours'. I had to watch my footing carefully when I was up there; a few times I fell through the branches into the darkness, which was a lot less fun as a twenty-year-old than it was at five. I had branches twice my size fall on me, and a few near misses with the chainsaw. But over the next six months I advanced up the length of the hedge, chopping it back to a manageable height.
We made dozens of trips to the tip, carting trailer-loads of pine trees. As Christmas approached there was no question of going to the tip for our tree—we had an infinite supply right outside. I singled out one perfect branch and left it standing while I kept chopping my way up the drive; and a few days before Christmas I put on my gumboots, climbed up the ladder onto the hedge, and cut it down.
It was the biggest tree we ever had. Its tip touched the twelve foot ceiling and bent over slightly; its branches spread the width of our dining room, over the telly and the stereo. It took every bauble and bit of tinsel we had to dress it properly. Its origins gave a whole new meaning to 'trimming the tree'.
That was a Christmas.
Other webloggers are dressing their blogs up with tinsel and Santas; to me, nothing says Christmas like a chameleon. Actually, that's a complete lie, but I have to justify the new look somehow. We took the photo in downtown Fianarantsoa in Madagascar, where some of the locals made their living placing chameleons in the trees and charging tourists a few dollars to look at them.