One of the entertaining things about living in Australia is that there's always a scandal of some sort or other running in the newspapers. You can monitor the unfolding of these political, economic, criminal, domestic or whatever dramas the way you would watch a soap opera. You're just part of the audience, you're not involved ... unless you are.

Yesterday a story broke about Federal Treasurer Peter Costello's most recent appointment to the board of the Reserve Bank, Adelaide businessman Robert Gerard. Gerard was under investigation by the Tax Office when the appointment was made and evidently, subsequently, had to pay back a very large amount of tax - perhaps as much as $150 million - he had tried to avoid by claiming credits on money given by his family companies to an overseas insurer. The overseas company was in fact his own, registered in the Netherlands Antilles, and the money soon made its way back to him. Eventually, a confidential settlement was arrived at, where an undisclosed sum was paid on the basis that no allegations made by the Tax Office were admitted.

Gerard is a big contributor to the Federal Liberal Party - $1.1 million so far - but has never given a skerrick to Labor. He's a mate of John Howard's and was on the guest list when Little Johnny put on a barbecue for George W Shrub back in 2003, the same year Gerard joined the Reserve Bank Board.

The Gerard fortune - in 2004 he was said to be the 49th richest person in Australia - was made as Robert diversified Clipsal, an electrical accessories business founded by his grandfather, into a multinational empire, as they say. Gerard Industries, the business holding the family's interest in Clipsal, was sold to a French owned multinational towards the end of 2003, allegedly to pay the tax debt. Gerard retains ownership of Gerard Corporation, amongst whose interests is Adelaide publisher East Street. Yes, the same who are bringing out Luca Antara next year.

I knew about Gerard's Empire before I signed the deal in August, though I didn't know he was fiddling his tax, nor that he was on the board of the Reserve Bank, nor that he was a mate of Little Johnny's. If I had would it have made any difference? I don't know. Probably not. There was that advance, kept me solvent from September to November. Nevertheless, or consequently, I feel ... strange. Complicit. I think that's the word.


which painting ... ?

African sentiment. The arcade is here forever. Shadow from right to left, fresh breeze which causes forgetfulness, it falls like an enormous projected leaf. But its beauty is in its line: enigma of fatality, symbol of the intransigent will.

Ancient times, fitful lights and shadows. All the gods are dead. The knight's horn. The evening calls at the edge of the woods: a city, a square, a harbor, arcades, gardens, an evening party; sadness. Nothing.

One can count the lines. The soul follows and grows with them. The statue, the meaningless statue that had to be erected. The red wall hides all that is mortal of infinity. A snail; a gentle ship with tender flanks; little amorous dog. Trains that pass. Enigma. The happiness of the banana tree: luxuriousness of ripe fruit, golden and sweet.

No battles. The giants have hidden behind the rocks. Horrible swords hang on the walls of dark and silent rooms. Death is there, full of promises. Medusa with eyes that do not see.

Wind behind the wall. Palm trees. Birds that never came.

(Giorgio de Chirico: Meditations of a Painter, 1912, trans. by Loiuse Bourgeois & Robert Goldwater)



1 a puzzling thing or person; 2 a riddle or paradox; [L aenigma f. Gk ainigma -matos f. ainissomai speak allusively f. ainos fable


enigma of an autumn afternoon

One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square. I had just come out of a long and painful intestinal illness, and I was in a nearly morbid state of sensitivity. The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent. In the middle of the square rises a statue of Dante draped in a long cloak, holding his works clasped against his body, his laurel-crowned head bent thoughtfully earthward. The statue is in white marble, but time has given it a grey cast, very agreeable to the eyes. The autumn sun, warm and unloving, lit the statue and the church facade. Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind's eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable ...

(Giorgio de Chirico: Meditations of a Painter, 1912, trans. by Loiuse Bourgeois & Robert Goldwater)


... because if you go trawling the net for images of de Chirico paintings you quickly find yourself in a forest of illusions, where versions proliferate, seeming sometimes to be of the same painting, at others of another almost, but not quite, identical. And it is never clear if you are looking at a later version painted by Giorgio himself or one done by a fake master like Luca Buti or even something digitally altered for some reason or other. In other words there are many cuckoos in de Chirico's nest, some of them laid there by himself. To me one of the most disturbing revisions is Magic and Melancholy of a Street with the image of the child bowling a hoop and the looming shadow at the top of the picture, removed. This was done as part of a project at NYU called Artistic Multiprojection Rendering. The researchers are developing an interactive tool for creating such multiprojection images and animations. Not sure why I find this particular redaction disquieting. It may be for the same reason that de Chirico's Arrival as so far superior to the fake master's: it's as if a genuine enigma is replaced by a simulacrum that mimics its particulars while eliding the very quality that made the picture so resonant in the first place. 'Real' de Chiricos, especially those made before about 1915, when the mannequins arrive, have the feeling of antique, incommensurable things. They are, strictly speaking, inimitable, which is I guess why it is so disorienting to find them imitated. In his Enigma of Arrival that is Odysseus' ship whose sail can be seen behind the wall, we are in Ithaca; but in Luca Buit's the sail is just a bit of prettiness before a pretty blue sky. Which is perhaps to ask, if I know a cuckoo when I see one, why can't those whose nest it is in? Or is it that we are all more or less deluded and our so-called integrity based upon honouring our particular delusions as true? I don't know ... but if the sail was black I would think, not Ithaca but Athens and the ship Theseus's returning, sans Ariadne, from Crete. With Aegeus about to throw himself from the walls into the sea that will bear his name.


the coucou is a pretty bird/she warbles as she flies/I'm preaching the word of god/I'm putting out your eyes

So I was walking along Pembroke Street, where Mary Poppin's author used to live, towards Liverpool Road, when I heard the insistent repeated cry of a bird. It was just an arm's length away in the shrubbery near the corner, a buttery yellow and grey, barred and checked bird that was already bigger than its parents. Who were two more or less frantic red wattle birds:

real busy getting insects to drop into the maw of this mad cuckoo that would not let up, not for a moment ... a relative cuckoo, the pallid, is known as the brain fever bird because of this demented insistence. I was impressed to see the struggle for survival going on so close that it seemed I could literally have reached out and plucked cuckoo or cuckoo-ed parents from the branch, if I'd wished. Later, like, now, I've checked the images and it seems that what I saw was a fledging Common Koel:

which goes about in plaid while adolescent before adopting (but not entirely) sober blue-black as its adult livery. It too, as an adult, has an insistent cry, often I hear it before dawn and sometimes deep in the heart of the summer night. As if the rage for existence knew no relief.

(this post probably belongs in dérives, however, there's some kind of analogy with the real & fake de Chiricos, below, which is why ... I pursue it here.)


the return of the prodigal

Finding yesterday a de Chirico that eerily answered my (failed) state of mind tweaked an old memory. Rolled up on a shelf at the top of a cupboard under the stairs in the first house I lived in in Sydney was a reproduction, on stiff, high quality paper, of a pencil drawing called The Return of the Prodigal (1917). It was one of a number of intricate drawings de Chirico did at this time, others include The Mathematicians and Solitude. De Chirico returned again and again to certain images and the prodigal was one of them. A later painting

reiterates most of the main features of the 1917 drawing although the gibbet I recall is absent from it. Another was made in 1929, a closer view the two figures in more or less the pose above. It is bad, as are most, though not all, of the later works.

How did the drawing come to be there? The previous tenants were a couple of painters, friends, but it wasn't theirs. The landlord and lady were an art critic and a painter respectively, George was from Vienna and Mimi a Serbian-born 'abstract impressionist'. Berger was their married name. George had invented the movement of which Mimi was the only known exemplar and together they struggled to advance the cause of art in their world, which was not ours or even, realistically, theirs. They lived off rentals, which in our case and probably in others, if there were others, were always being raised: to compensate for the loss in the purchasing power of the Australian dollar, George used to say. It is hard to imagine a work more different than the de Chirico from Mimi's hectic acrylic washes. She is still alive, still working, under the name Mimi Jaksic-Berger, in a tradition now known as lyrical abstraction.

Not neccesarily but perhaps because of that coincidence Chippendale, where the house was, could put me in mind of de Chirico. The evening skies were sometimes green, there was a distant rumour of trains, the nearer presence of roaring traffic on Cleveland Street, people frozen in enigmatic attitudes (usually outside pubs) at end of day, most of all the facades and silhouettes of buildings in the warehouse district that seemed to exist, incontrovertibly but for no known purpose, in a darkness all their own beneath the radiance of that sky.

I found other things in the house. A commemorative badge, a relief of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932, mislaid at the back of another cupboard in the upstairs bedroom. Somewhere else, can't recall exactly where, a small metal anchor to be hung around the neck, which I still have, an antique symbol (it's on the Coat of Arms) of Sydney Town. And, in the garden which was a midden of black sand from an ancient swamp, a rusty old fob watch. When we moved out, for some forgotten reason I left the drawing where I found it, rolled up, creased, in the cupboard under the stairs.

Anyway ... the return of the prodigal: what is it about? At the time (1981) I thought it concerned the Great War and its aftermath, a flesh and blood father meeting his son returning from the Front as the mechanical or schematic man of the future. This can't be sustained in the painting, the suited man, if he is indeed the father and not the son, looks like he's made of marbled cloud, not flesh; while what I recall as an embrace in the drawing, in the painting looks more like two men bowing to one another so that, in faint absurdity, their foreheads touch. I see the horsed figure in the background as a conquistador and the low, flat building behind as some adobe compound from out of the new or old Mexico of Billy the Kid. But where was the gibbet?

There is no warrant for interpretation in any of de Chirico's work, it exists to confound interpretation in its infinite and possibly redundant suggestibility ... Robert Hughes writes: He could condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can try to dissect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere. ... Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est? (What shall I love if not the enigma?) - this question, inscribed by the young artist on his self-portrait in 1911, is their subtext.


The Profit

It is disconcerting the way screenplay writing seems to need to banish all other forms into limbo. I push everything back, both mentally and physically, file the files, shelve the books, clear virtual and actual desktop, leaving a blank anonymous space in which to entertain the dream ... and there it floats, not so far away that I cannot touch it, cannot reach in and change this for that, move such to here and the other to there, cancel a character, rename another, give the lines one speaks to someone else - but it feels like working at a remove, like operating one of those remote arms used to manipulate dangerous substances from behind a screen made of some impermeable prophylactic that prevents actual engagement, actual contamination, with the real. Maybe it is because a script is never more than a plan, a possibility, a map of a place that doesn't exist and may never do so. It is profoundly alienating, especially since I cannot see what else needs doing to this particular plan, but don't feel the unmistakeable sense of completion that would allow me to decide it is finished. So here I sit, like a monad on the wide bare plains of Forever and Not Yet, or, more exactly, like one of de Chirico's ghostly mannequins, frozen before a schema s/he may be the author of but is no less, and consequently, also blindly in thrall to. While someone out of the picture looms their shadow across the boards, promising - or threatening - what?


Sunday, I read in the Writer's Tent at the Newtown Festival. The event, Voices in the Park, has been going for a few years now, organised by the owners of King Street bookshop, Better Read Than Dead. My appearance there was a consequence of an earlier appearance at the Montanas in Wellington in July, where one of the owners, Derek, heard me speak and decided to issue the invite. There were three of us up there among the flies and the heat for the session, which was called Writing a Life : the Chair, Stephanie Green, a publisher at the National Library of Australia, myself, and Richard Glover, a well-known Sydney Morning Herald journalist, ABC radio host and author of nine books, mostly humorous. I asked to go before Richard, because of his higher profile and also because I was likely to come across as more literary. I read a section from Chronicle of the Unsung, about a job I once had writing pornography in New York. For some reason I was more nervous than I usually am before these events, so decided to speak my intro and outro from notes: always a mistake, I find, it's far better to work out in your head what you want to say and then just say it. However. After I'd finished my bit, an older man came out of the crowd and asked for my microphone so he could say something. I was a bit slow, I didn't immediately see the plastic cup of white wine he had in his hand, didn't straight away catch the whiff of alcohol on his breath. The mike was fixed and, anyway, there was another roving mike for the floor. Suggested he use that. There was a kind of tension in the tent now, no-one wanted some drunken idiot to crash the show; but Derek gave him the roving mike and he took his place in front of the crowd of about fifty people. He said he had something to get off his chest. He'd been in the British SAS, the anti-terrorism unit, and he wanted us all to know that they did fuck-all to prevent terrorism, then and now ... said he was 63 years old and ... dried ... I saw a woman over at the side of the tent, next to one of the open flaps, catch his eye and beckon him away. Someone in the crowd was smart enough to start clapping, everybody joined in and he took his bow and wandered off. He came back after Richard - who was very amusing - read and delivered essentially the same rap then lurched off again just like before. When the hour was over we waited round to sign books and I met Derek's wife, Maggie, who turned out to have known both my parents in Wellington in the 1970s. One of my mother's anthology pieces, Latter Day Lysistrata, was inspired by a production of Aristophane's Lysistrata Maggie directed at Bats Theatre in Courtenay Place. I didn't know that, and she didn't know how succesful the poem became. As for my father, she'd got to know him while working in the Education Department, where he had a desk job in the Curriculum Unit after a series of nervous breakdowns and his alcoholism had forced his retirement from active teaching and school administration. So that was all well and good. A friend had come to the reading, we went off to Kelly's Irish Bar for a beer and then, later, walked back through the fair to our respective cars. As we were going up some stairs into the park I saw the SAS man and his companion staggering along Lennox Street, very much the worse for wear. He waited, swaying, while she, who had seemed so together before, went towards an overflowing rubbish bin with their empties and stood there, also swaying, clearly unable to work out how to deposit them within - given that there was no within within. There's little point in expatiating further on the image, two sad drunks, it's familiar enough, however poignant/absurd/distressing it may also be. I just can't forget it. Don't know why. Something to do with righting a life perhaps.



... a photo of Gran. Didn't think I had one. Was actually, ostensibly, looking for my (excuse for) a will. It was taken in Hamilton sometime in the mid fifties. Out on the front porch of, probably, Gran & Poppa's house. They are central, sitting side by side in chairs. Their three sons and two of their wives stand behind and there are eight grandchildren gaggled along the steps in front; the third wife, my mother, sits next to Gran with my sister Rachel, a babe in arms. That dates it: late 1954 or early '55; possibly Christmas. Poppa is almost indistiguishable, a blur: domed head, round glasses, no discernable self apart from the attitude, a mix of his native aggression and a kind of repletion. Pater familias I guess. Gran looks so like Dad I caught my breath. Spose I should say that he, when old, resembled her. She's smiling in a crooked way, it's a genuine smile but there is also in it the shadow of lifelong appeasement. That could just be the false teeth. Dad always said she was not a happy person. Nor was he a happy person, not in later years. As I said, they were close. That physical resemblance. She wanted a daughter and chose him, the middle son, the dark sensitive one, as her confidante. She used to give him cigarettes and tell him her troubles. Things he probably didn't need to know. When he went into therapy, in Wellington in the mid 1960s (only ten year's later), Mrs. Christella, a Jungian who had studied with Carl Gustav, said untangling his relationship with his mother was the key to a successful outcome; but she was an old woman by then and died before they got very far. His first faltering in fact happened when Ada, his mother, Gran, died, 1963 I think, and he could not control his fear on the flight back to Hamilton for the funeral. He whose life until then had been an immaculate trajectory. Was suddenly unruddered. The severing of the subterranean bond between them was perhaps catastrophic. I don't know. What was she really saying the other night? I want to claw my way back into the dream and ask her. But these things are never really questionable. Or always. Questionable.


restoration of a dream

The main thing … my grandmother! Was in the dream. I never really knew her, she was no more to me than a small brown woman huddled in a big chair. It was Alzheimer's or similar, my father told me later. They looked alike, Dad and his mother, and were certainly close. I haven’t dreamed about her before.

It was a long and confused ramble but at the heart of it were three old wooden houses in Burns Street, Ohakune, where I mostly grew up. In the dream was a photograph of these three houses as they looked in their glory days, but now ours was ramshackle, falling down. It did not look like the actual house we lived in which, much changed, is still there—like the two others, it was smaller, one of those four room railway cottages that stand up at the Junction.

I had used my inheritance (from my mother but, ultimately, from both my parents) to buy back the ancestral home. I was still with my former partner and the incipient chaos and unhappiness we lived in and with for the last few years we were together was the atmos of the dream. Friends of ours, happy friends with happy families, lived nearby. They were restoring their houses.

Some kind of party was going on, there was lots of coming and going. I was, as I used to do, trying to conceal our unhappiness—futile of course but there you are.

Won’t go into all the events that happened, they were too many and would require too much explanation to relate sensibly, though I understand most of them. But, in the midst of all this, inside the (dream) house, just beside the bathroom door, was it? Or the pantry? I met my grandmother.

Her birth name was Ada Trevarthen. A Cornish woman, the family came from Truro. A piano teacher who gave up music when she married my (Australian) grandfather. She was bigger than I remember her in life, a larger presence, but still recognisable. She said to me that the decline of the house had begun with my father, that the tumbledown dereliction of it all started with him, he was unable to preserve or maintain it as it should and could have been maintained. This was said without judgement or criticism, sadly if anything—the sadness of fact. The implication was that my attempt to restore what he had let go was doomed from the start.

There something ungainsayable about her that was both reassuring and confronting. Wisdom I guess, perhaps the wisdom of the dead. She said what she had to say and passed out of the dream.

Later, my ex and I were in bed together, beginning to make love, when revellers in trissy masks burst into the bedroom where we were, insisting we join in the fun. Tried to make them leave, shut the door and go, but they would not. It was an exact recall, without the interlopers, of the last time we did try to make love.

There was more … after Gran, as we called her, and the unhappiness, the strongest trace of the dream is the actual physical place it was set. As the phantasmagoria faded I remember thinking that tomorrow, that is, today, I would go down through the back garden to the river, wade across and walk along the further bank, which I don’t believe I ever actually have done. Wild land then and perhaps still wild; there were herds of brumbies though they will have gone now.

The intense joyful anticipation of that walk was replaced by regret when I woke … but, as always, I feel redeemed by the grace of a visit to a place where I was always happy. More than that, more than anything else, I have a sense of wonder, indeed elation, that that connection back to Gran, howsoever it may be, is, unlike the house itself, restored.

[We moved away from Ohakune in 1962 and the house was put on the market; it sold a few years later. I lamented it for many years & later did look into buying another house there - as impractical as that was. What Gran is saying (if it is not just me talking to myself) is not that Dad wrecked the family but that decisions taken then can't be rescinded now. That the garden of forking paths is a dream garden perhaps. Though no less real for that. Perhaps.]


The Avatar of Venus

I was lonely that year. Read 256 books though I can’t pretend I looked at every word of every one of them. Remembered almost nothing of them except a few titles. Went to 43 movies. Remembered even less. Smoked 2,987 cigarettes. Drank 212 litres of red wine, mostly while sitting out on the veranda looking at the stars blurring up in the night sky. Mornings, my kidneys ached. That might have been the painkillers. Coughed less than you might expect. Liver? Don’t ask. My health stayed surprisingly good, perhaps because my mind remained active. Active? Frantic might be a better word. Slept occasionally, never enough. Someone was in love with me, I didn’t love her. Was in love with someone else, she didn’t love me. Such is life. Got to know all the passers-by, not by name, just by their looks, their routine passes up and down the street. Invented histories for some of them, others didn’t seem as if they had histories, just days. And nights. People are mysterious when you don’t know them, less so when you do. Unless you’re in love of course. Entertained many other phantoms, none of whom ever became quite real or never for long enough. One night Venus, the planet I mean, came down so close it felt as if I could reach out and touch—her? It? Whatever. Though it was clearly another delusion, extended my hand anyway then closed it to a fist. The feeling was indescribable but I will try. Like clutching incandescent mist. Like wet fire. Like a viscous bounteous mucous. When I couldn’t stand the heat any more, I withdrew my fist and opened it. In the palm shivered one silvery drop, I’d say mercury but that’s a different planet. Anyway this liquid was clear as water. I touched it with the forefinger of my other hand, it burned. No whorls left now on that fingertip. The little drop of Venus was undiminished. In a moment of recklessness, I licked it up and swallowed. It went through me like white lightning and nothing’s been the same since. I'd become her avatar. I was a tiny part of her, wherever she went I went. Round and round the sun. Sometimes I saw Earth like a single blue tear in space. And I remembered everything, every sip, every gasp, every image, every word. Every touch … it wasn’t enough. After that I slept even less and often found myself singing the old song: It’s never enough/it’s never enough/until your heart stops beating/the deeper you get/the sweeter the pain/don’t give up the game/until you’re heart stops beating ... I think that’s how it goes.


some words

... that W. H. Auden used in poems :

blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle, cagmag, hoasting, drumbles ...

(he used to scour the OED for curiosities then find a way to fit them in; but what do they mean?)


blog be my bog

It is perhaps not useful to think of a weblog as a site of publication but that's how it always seems to me. Not a notebook or a diary because those forms do not assume an immediate readership of more than one. On the other hand, I also feel a kind of pressure to post regularly here even when there is nothing urgent to say. When a week goes by, as it has, and I post nothing, I start to feel as if some essential activity has lapsed even though that's probably not so. It's a dilemma that could be resolved I suppose if I could learn to think differently about this site. So, in the interests of that resolve, what have I been doing apart from not blogging? A list, perhaps?

... totally absorbed by Peter Russell's Prince Henry 'The Navigator', A Life which I read a chapter of most mornings;

... listening to Cesaria Evora while studying the atlas so as to place the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and the Cape Verde islands with respect both to Portugal and the West African coast;

... trying to work out who the indigenes of the Canaries were: Berbers? Germanic peoples left there by the Phoenicians or the Romans? Some entirely other tribe?;

... getting my thoughts in order to redraft portions of my still untitled screenplay, which needs to be 'completed' by Christmas;

... spending much of the past month in intense email confab with a friend and colleague in NZ as we try to elucidate the mysteries and depths of Alan Brunton's book length poem Moonshine; re-reading Jessie L. Weston's epochal From Ritual to Romance as a part of that inquiry;

... feeling anxious about my publisher's request for a subtitle for Luca Antara but unable to resolve the anxiety with a magic phrase;

... wondering why the critics have been so kind about the half dozen Australian movies I have been to this year, all of which, with one exception only - Look Both Ways - are more or less bad; walked out of Wolf Creek, the most successful of them, the other night feeling sick and disgusted about two thirds of the way through;

... feeling anxious that my screenplay, if it gets made, will also produce a movie that is more or less bad;

... making random notes for the book I want to write next year; feeling anxious in case it dies on me;

... reading Robert Burns;

... reading a history of the Kings & Queens of England, because I've never quite figured out the succession;

... becoming more and more interested in the island of Halmahera, which, according to genetic studies of the Pacific rat, may be the point of origin for the Lapita dispersal;

... wondering how I might arrange to go up there sometime in the second half of next year;

... speculating about the possibility that a funding body will support my application for money to write a psychological thriller about cab driving next year (they will, I just got the phone-call; now feeling anxious about my ability to write it);

... smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo;

... feeling anxious about not blogging ...

I'm not really an anxious person - or am I? - but anxiety of the kind I mention is certainly an engine of my writing, ie the only way to dispel this anxiety is to write. It's a form of expectation perhaps. Once I post this - if I post it - I know I'll feel better at least about this bog, I mean, blog.


don't forget to remember ...

Consolidation is the progressive postacquisition stabilization of long-term memory. The term is commonly used to refer to two types of processes: synaptic consolidation, which is accomplished within the first minutes to hours after learning and occurs in all memory systems studied so far; and system consolidation, which takes much longer, and in which memories that are initially dependent upon the hippocampus undergo reorganization and may become hippocampal-independent. The textbook account of consolidation is that for any item in memory, consolidation starts and ends just once. Recently, a heated debate has been revitalized on whether this is indeed the case, or, alternatively, whether memories become labile and must undergo some form of renewed consolidation every time they are activated. This debate focuses attention on fundamental issues concerning the nature of the memory trace, its maturation, persistence, retrievability, and modifiability.

I knew that we revise a memory each time we access it, so that our record is not some kind of holy writ but a palimpsest; but had not realised (though in a way it is obvious) that every time a memory is activated, even a long term memory, it also becomes vulnerable to erasure. Remembering can thus lead to irretrievable forgetting:

Experimenting with rats we reactivated long-term memory and then, using the drug propranolol, blocked protein synthesis in the amygdala - one of the systems crucial for learning and consolidating memories of fearful events - and the rats were no longer afraid ... it was bizarre. It should have been a fixed memory ... the same process has been demonstrated in snails, honey bees, earthworms, crabs and, last year, humans ...

The humans in question were cocaine users and the technique of erasure was designed not so much to eliminate memory of drug-taking per se as it was to neutralise the emotional boost given the memory of a hit when it is recalled. There are clearly all manner of other possible applications for this process (=rediscovered reconsolidation), for instance in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; but, equally obviously, some of these applications have a sinister side.

These and other neuro-ethical issues are being monitored by the Centre for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, whose Director, Dr Wrye Sententia, predicts a coming boom in the production and consumption of neuroceuticals just like the industry that has grown up around plastic surgery. The genie is already out of the bottle, Dr Sententia allowed.

Guess we'll just have to wait and see what form(s) cosmetic neurology might take; I can think of a few ...

(The first quote is the abstract of a paper entitled The neurobiology of consolidations, or, how stable is the engram? by Y Dudai, published in the Annual Review of Psychology, 2004; the second from Choose to forget Sydney Morning Herald, Health & Science, 3.11.05.)


The Proposition

Nick Cave was in town recently, talking up The Proposition, for which he wrote both screenplay and score, boasting that the script was written in 21 days (one version) or a weekend (another). He said something to the effect that it was easy for him because he has what most screenwriters lack, that is, talent. Well, no-one could doubt that the probably tongue-in-cheek Mr Cave has talent. However, as was pointed out to me long ago in a graffiti in the back room of a club in Berkeley, below a dripping guitar hero drawn a la Rbt. Crumb complete with ejaculating axe: it takes more than talent ...

I went to The Proposition on Sunday with a friend who is a director. It wasn't as bad a film as I had heard but it wasn't that good either. It was, I guess, a missed opportunity. A great set-up was never really delivered upon, not through absence of talent but rather a lack of that staple of the screenwriter's craft, technique. The middle brother (Guy Pearce, in a fine performance) of three is offered the chance to free his younger, intellectually disabled sibling from death if he will bring in his rogue elder bro, who is psychopathically holed up in the hills somewhere, periodically visiting mayhem on the good and bad citizens of the lowlands.

A warning note for me sounded in the very first scene, a shoot-out in what turns out to be (didn't learn this until the credits) a brothel. The women in the brothel are Asian, presumably Chinese: not historically accurate, my director friend, who is Chinese, told me, there were very few Chinese women in Australia in the C19th and none in brothels frequented by white men, although there were some in Chinese-only brothels a bit later on. However, what bothered me was the wallpaper: faded versions of Japanese erotic prints from the floating world, Utamaro et al. The ahistorical or anachronistic doesn't concern me per se, it was the sense that this kind of cleverness signalled the primacy of style over substance.

The director of The Proposition, John Hillcoat, seems mostly to have made commercials and music videos since his 1988 film Ghosts of the Civil Dead, in which Mr Cave appears. While his direction is otherwise skilled, Mr Hillcoat shows a tendency, common in ad makers, to indulge in visual longeurs of various kinds instead of advancing the action. In like manner, the screenplay is more intent upon constructing vignettes, some quite powerful, than it is on telling a story. The crux of the matter is the relationship between the three brothers and the dilemma posed by the requirement upon the middle one to betray the elder to save the younger. Incredibly, this is never explored in any depth - an oversight which, given the strength of the set-up, strikes me as almost criminal.

Some of the quite trenchant local criticism of The Proposition has focused upon the self-righteousness of its judgmental view of Australia then, and by implication, now. The brothel scene might be a case in point: if there weren't such brothels then, there certainly are now and that was perhaps the point of opening the film where and when they did. Again, I don't mind if Mr Cave and Mr Hillcoat want to take contemporary mores to task by medium of a period film: why not? No, I'm offended by the laxness of the story-telling, the stylistic self-indulgence, the woeful dissipation of the energy of the premise until, by the end, there's simply no dramatic tension left.

That was a Western?