Monday, 24 October 2011

A Moveable Feast

I've been sitting on this one for a while. There are many reasons why I sometimes delay in writing up my thoughts on a book. Sometimes I don't know how I feel about a book until it has digested for a while, but that was not the case here. Sometimes I don't feel strongly enough about a book to be moved to write something, but that was not the case here. Here, rather, I suspect I was worried that by writing about the book I might lose some of the marvellous escapism I felt while I was reading it, that somehow in putting my feelings down on paper [sic], I might somehow lose them.

I loved this book. I really did.

Its a funny sort of book when I think about it structurally. Its basically a series of Hemingway's memories about time spent living and writing in Paris with his wife in the 1920s. The stories he tells are short, and are mostly centred about his interactions with other artists, poets and especially authors either living or passing through Paris at the same time: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Much like the other Hemingways I've read, I just felt so at home in his Paris. Its a city far removed from any I've lived in, and he fills it with activities far removed from those I prefer - betting on horses, in particular - and yet I felt such a strong connection.

That this was a book published later in his career shows through in the writing, which carries his trademark simplicity and economy of words, but with more mastery than he had shown in the other of his books I've read this year. What is lovely, too, is that much of what he writes about is his writing; he discusses his philosophy of le mot juste, and many of his practices, exemplified here by their very own description.

Ebert, or some other commentator of film, used to say that "No good film is too long, no bad film is short enough", but after reading a great novella like this one, it is tempting to suggest that a book this good is too short. We shall never know; all we have is what we are given, but like the food of the city it describes, it is a dish whose perfect flavours make any paucity of volume irrelevant. I will forever be indebted to Nicole for recommending it to me.

Next up on deck: continuing with Hitchcock/Truffaut, and starting on Pullman's His Dark Materials. Also, in a moment of weakness at Wellington airport in the early hours of Saturday, I picked up a copy of Updike's Rabbit, Run.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Ginger Man

Yesterday I finished the Ginger Man, probably the most distinctive book I've read so far this year, and probably the most difficult to review (if these little reflections can be called reviews). This was another book I'd come across via my late uncle Mick, but unlike others, one for which I had absolutely no context, in that neither title nor author were at all familiar to me (although I have since seen it in some lists of prominent books from the 20th century).

This is a striking and divisive book. The story, such as it is in what is very much an impressionist book, is essentially a year (perhaps) in the life of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, an alcoholic, womanising, entitled, 20-something law student living, for most of the book, in Dublin. For the most part, he's thoroughly dislikable. The women of the story - Marion, Chris, Miss Frost and Mary - are often fairly insipid characters, and although Sebastian does seem to genuinely love them, he treats them appallingly, leeching and stealing from them, beating them, neglecting his son, charming them into things they either don't want or shouldn't do, and moving on to other pursuits at a moment's notice. The other characters who drift in and out of Sebastian's world - O'Keefe, Percy Clocklan, Tone Malarkey, etc - share many of his reprehensible characteristics, and serve only to reinforce the reader's sense of Sebastian himself.

There is no denying, though, the really vital energy with which Donleavy tells the story. His style of writing reminds me of Joyce, in the pace and perhaps setting, or Thompson, or even Kerouac, in its stream-of-consciousness style, yet its somehow very different. The intensity and consistency of the style throughout the book's 350 pages is admirable - it never lets up, right through to the story's conclusion (inconclusive though it is) in London.

There were times when I wasn't sure whether I was liked the book or hated it, but it is certainly memorable, and at no point did any dislike diminish my eagerness to keep reading. As it moved towards its close, I genuinely didn't know whether it was gravitating towards a tragic but just come-uppance, a repentant redemption, or rescue for Sebastian's sorry soul, and to the author's credit, he steers clear of any archetypal resolution, and stays true to the impressionist style.

A book I won't quickly forget.

Next up: continuing with Hitchcock by Truffaut, and resuming my Hemingway journey with A Moveable Feast.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Continental Drift

I bought Continental Drift on a whim last year when I was starting to get back into reading. A bit over ten years ago, Russell Banks was one of my favourite authors, mainly on the strength of The Sweet Hereafter, which I picked up after loving the film, and Trailerpark, a book of short stories. I tried to read Cloudsplitter, but couldn't get through it. So last year when, in an idle moment, I was looking for something to read, I jumped online and ordered Continental Drift. It took a while for me to get to it (I actually leant it to a friend before I read it, something I've not done before), but it was worth the wait.

The story is written from two ends. The main character is Bob Dubois, who is a heater repair-man in New Hampshire with a wife and two young daughters, who has an existential crisis and picks up everything to move to Miami in pursuit of the American dream. The other end of the story is that of Vanise and Claude, two Haitians, also on a migration, from Haiti north towards Florida in pursuit a different, but more deeply held, American dream.

The story reminded me a little of The Grapes of Wrath - the families picking up everything, driven to migrate across the country (or the sea) in pursuit of prosperity and finding opportunity not as simple as the stories say. The text is at times intermingled, like in TGOW, with more general observations about the time and theme, here that of migration of people around the globe, and its analogy to the inevitability of continental drift.

Bob Dubois as a character is fascinating. He is deeply, deeply flawed, at once childlike in his spontaneity, and weary in his view of the world. He is difficult to love, with his superficially held view of himself as a good husband and father, his short-sightedness in his plans, and his fast temper. At the same time, though, he's difficult not to relate to, with his anxiety about where his childhood dreams have gone, and his restlessness with his life as it is. The Haitians are never as fully developed, which makes more sense as the book goes on - Banks is more concerned in their story with painting the shocking circumstances through which they push north in search of their false promised land of America, and the strange transplanting of culture that they take with them.

Having recently rewatched The Sweet Hereafter, I knew not to expect a happy ending, and the tragic conclusion of that book is true to form. Like The Sweet Hereafter (although perhaps not with quite as much veritas), though, the tragedy doesn't feel forced - Banks establishes the forces acting on the characters, and what befalls them makes sense, not in a shallow karmic way, but as a consequence of the world in which they find themselves. This, too reminded me of Steinbeck's masterpiece - there are no bad guys here, just people doing whatever they can to struggle upwards in the world, or at least keep from sinking below the waterline, and the societal forces that work against them. Like Tom Joad unable to find someone to fight over the loss of his family's farm, Bob Dubois isn't angry at his brother, or at his old friend; he's just angry and confused, all the moreso because there is no easy target for his anger and frustration, and that's what makes this book great. Writing a great villain is hard, but writing a story in which there is no readily identifiable villain, just the conspiracy of circumstances that work against you, is probably more impressive.

Next: The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy, in parallel with Hitchcock by Truffaut.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Between US Open wins - remembering 10 years ago

I had tentatively decided not to engage in the whole "Where were you?" thing today, but I'm having second thoughts. Over breakfast this morning, though, I was watching Sam Stosur's win in the US Open tennis, which took my mind back 10 years, for reasons which had very little to do with the day's more significant context. It was an interesting time for me, so I looked back to what I had written about it in what, at the time, passed for my blog. What I found was a very disappointing:
A two weeks that I couldn't begin to document. Being the reluctant photographer, I think my total picture count was 3 (all of the same thing), so I can't live up to Chris' example of lots of piccies. Suffice to say that it was an adventurous trip, being so close to the US during such a weird time.
I have to say that doesn't really do justice to what was, indeed, a very interesting trip, so I thought I might write it up here.

I left Australia, I guess, around the first of september, flying via Sydney, Honolulu and Vancouver to Seattle, where I spent the week at the EDOC 2001 conference, accompanied by Kerry and Zoran. I presented my first full conference paper, and made really good connections with people like Jean Bezivin, Xavier Le Pallec, and bunch of others. The following weekend I flew to Toronto for the OMG Technical meeting, getting in, I think, on the Sunday, and checking into the OMG meeting hotel near the airport. I remember I had a horrible room, all glass facing west, or perhaps south. The weather was hot in any case, and the room was borderline uninhabitable  once the sun hit it. I remember resolving all week to request a room change, but never got around to it.

I remember sitting in it, though, on Sunday afternoon, marvelling that I was able to watch a US Open Tennis final at a sensible hour, for the first time in my life. Lleyton Hewitt had had a storied run to the final, and played what was, at that point, the match of his life to beat Sampras in a dominating display which presaged his rise to number one in subsequent years.

I was watching Stosur's match this morning, partly via a tweet stream from Bethlehem Shoals, one of my favourite sports writers. For someone who, in his basketball writing, has always fought against "Homers", sports fans who blindly support their home teams, he certainly overly obsessed with the "Serena winning for America" storyline, and in fact failed to mention Stosur at all in his comments. This really rubbed me the wrong way. For me, Stosur's win has so many great storylines to it.
  • She's the first Australian to win a slam since Goolagong in 1980, a win which heralded a transition from the glory days of Smith/Court and Goolagong/Cawley into a dry spell that lasted so long.
  • It breaks the impression that so many, myself included, had of Stosur being someone who would crack under pressure. When I saw Stosur break in the second set, my heart went into my mouth as I wondered whether she would stay strong or go to water the way she seems to have done so often before, most notably in the French final against Schiavone.
  • Hewitt came from nowhere to win his first slam by beating Sampras, an American favourite who had won 13 slams already (he would win a 14th at the US the following year). 10 years later, Stosur wins her first by beating Serena, another American favourite, who had also won 13.
I had two purposes in Toronto. The first was the see through an uncontroversial vote to recommend my HUTN work for adoption, and the second was to be a technical expert for a very controversial vote on the EDOC spec. On Tuesday morning I gave my HUTN presentation. As I remember it, I think I was presenting either as or just after the towers went down. Suffice to say the audience was small and somewhat distracted. I can remember being kind of amazed. Not distressed, but very conscious that this was something pretty significant.

The rest of the meeting was kind of weird, but went on nonetheless - for the most part, people couldn't leave anyway. HUTN passed easily and I was appointed FTF Chair. EDOC passed fairly easily - I was stopped from answering technical criticisms of our submission by Kerry - "speak softly and carry a great big stack of proxies". UML Action Semantics got their semantics stripped out, and I can remember them being in the hotel bar at the same time as the EDOC group, the groups alike in size but not in spirit.

I have other memories of the week, less coherent. I remember a US$400 bill at an Outback Steakhouse, as I went with a big group and was surprised at what Americans think (perhaps) constitutes Australian food (blooming onions, Prime Minister's prime ribs). I remember catching a bus into downtown Toronto with Keith and Michi Henning and lying on the grass next to the lake.

I can remember worried exchanges of emails with DSTC about flights home, uncertain not only because of the closure of US airports, but of the demise of Ansett in Australia. Kerry's flight was re-routed through somewhere strange in Canada - Winnipeg or Calgary or somewhere. American OMG members paired up and hired cars to drive across the continent home to Florida, Arizona, California. As I went to the airport, I walked past hundreds or thousands of people sitting waiting for flights, anywhere they could, trying to get out of Canada and back to their homes, wherever they were.

Being an international trying to leave the continent, I was a priority, and my flight actually didn't change. Transiting through Honolulu, we were forced to collect our bags and walk outside the terminal along the road to check in again, but it was a pretty small imposition in the circumstances. As our flight finally touched down in Sydney, the passengers applauded, a show of nationalism I've never seen on an "Australian" flight. The Ansett drama was resolved without incident as Qantas picked up all their flights, and I was back to Brisbane as scheduled.

It was an interesting trip.Others will have reminiscences today which go on about how September 11 changed them forever. I don't think it changed me, either temporarily or permanently, but it was certainly a memorable trip.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

two of four

 Back in April, when I was preparing for and embarking upon my holiday through Europe, I read the first of the four tomes of Le Comte de Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. Recently, having read 7 very satisfying English-language books in the interim, I returned to the great task I'd set myself, and yesterday I finished the second tome. Having reached this half-way point (give or take), I though I'd reflect a little on the book, since its likely to be a number of months at least until I reach its conclusion.

Its length is significant not only in the period of time it takes me to read it. The length, and episodic form in which I assume the book was originally written, affords Dumas the luxury of going off on tangents at the slightest provocation. This leads to strange chapters for smoking marijuana in a cave, the life and love of a Roman bandit, ways to build resistances to poison, whose relevance to the main storyline range from minor to dubious to none. I have to say that I really like this as a change from my normal reading. Knowing that a book is a certain length gives the experience pretty reliable indications of how the story is progressing along the normal story arc, and that details that are included are likely to be relevant later on. The gun on the wall in the first act will be fired by the end of the third. This isn't true in a book as long as this. The gun on the wall might actually just be a gun on the wall, and there is something liberating as an experienced reader in not always having a clear idea of how things fit together, of just reading and discovering.

In terms of the language, everything is obviously contingent on the fact that I'm reading in French. I like to think I'm a fluent speaker of the language, but I would never claim to be a fluent reader, and the reading I've been doing has been accompanied by frequent consultation of a dictionary, and sometimes, in order to look up specific terminologies for 19th century French or Italian clothing, or nautical terminology, or consultation of Wikipedia for references to ancient Greeks and contemporary European authors, which might have been relevant to readers when Dumas wrote the book, but aren't to me. I probably check more than I should, on both counts - indeed, I still have raft of highlighted phrases where the dictionary proved insufficient, and which I will go back to at some point to work out what the phrases or references mean. The going is very slow, but I really enjoy learning new turns of phrase, or some obscure Greek reference about an obscure God or philosopher, or the leading authority on physiology from 19th century France.

So I guess that's some of the observations that I've had about the story so far, more meta than most of my reading, and perhaps missing reflection on the characters or story, but that can perhaps wait until I finish the book some time later this year or, more likely, next year. For now, I will return to reading English-language books, beginning with Continental Drift by Russell Banks, an author I got into a decade ago and put aside for absolutely no good reason.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Following a brief sojourn with David Malouf, I returned to Ernest Hemingway, to read For Whom The Bell Tolls. I bought this book in the airport in Paris, in anticipation of reading it on my Euro-Australian flight, but was, regrettably, seduced by in-flight movies. It was worth the wait.

The Spanish civil war is one of those strange historical events for me that floats indeterminately within my understanding of the 20th century. The Boer war, the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, are all conflicts with strong dates and context for me. The Spanish war, though, has no date that I could immediately offer, and features in my memory more for impression of the way it attracted people from other parts of the world to fight, on both sides, not at the behest of their governments (with some exceptions - the soviet union, perhaps), but for individual, ideological reasons.

One such person is Robert Jordan, Hemingway's protagonist, an American university teacher who has been in Spain fighting for a year when the book's story takes place. Remarkably for what is a substantial book, the story takes place over the course of perhaps 4 days, with only occasional flashbacks to fighting earlier in the war or to Jordan's time spent in Madrid. Jordan is sent to a small encampment of rebels in the hills to rally them and destroy a bridge in order to support an attack. The action sequences, mostly in the final third of the book, are detailed and compelling, but the reason they work is because Hemingway does such a wonderful job of drawing the characters and their relationships. We get a really strong sense of Jordan, and the small group of rebels with whom he fights - Maria, the damaged girl with whom he falls in love, the worn-out rebel leader and his fiery but protective wife, and the old man who accompanies him the camp. We learn how they each got to where they are in the war, why they are fighting, and when they do what they do in the combat sequences, we know why, and we care what happens.

Like The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway does a remarkable job of conveying a sense of place and the character not just of the individuals, but of the people as a group. He uses simple language, but the reader comes away really sensing the pine forests, the snow as it falls on them, the hills and the bridge. Once again he uses this wonderful device of writing in literal translation from the Spanish. It gives a strange impression at first - the text is littered with thees and thous - but it is distinctive and feels true, and I loved it.

Having read the book, I am no more able than I was before to tell you in what year it was set. I couldn't tell you details about major battles or the significant figures on each side. But I come away with a stronger sense of why some of the "little" people were there, and what the battles, atrocities and losses meant for them.

I'm on a bit of a run of Hemingway at the moment, but I'm trying hard to pace myself. I have A Moveable Feast in my pile, but before getting to it (or the other 5 or 6 books awaiting me), I have returned to Le Comte de Monte Cristo. Because it is such a massive endeavour - because of its length, and because of the extra difficulty of reading it in French - I will probably post some sort of rundown when I finish my current sprint on it. The French version is presented in four tomes, and I will soon come to the end of the second, which hopefully will precipitate a half-time report. It certainly bears discussion.


After finishing The Sun Also Rises, I read an Australian book which had been recommended to me by a friend. Johnno is a partly autobiographical novella beautifully written by David Malouf. To be honest, I'm not sure I've read anywhere that its autobiographical, but it has a strong feeling of truth, and a description of Brisbane that came across as very personal. Having said that, although the depiction was very personal, I should stress that the view of Brisbane is quite different from mine. Partly this is because the book is set 30 or 40 years ago (Brisbane has changed fairly dramatically in that time), and partly its because I came to Brisbane for university, rather than growing up here. Its perhaps because of this latter distinction that Malouf, or at least his narrator, seems to have a very conflicted view of the city, sometimes, implicitly, seeming very fond of it, but at other times quite explicitly expressing his disdain of the town and his longing to get out to see the real world. I certainly held that view of the town of my adolescence, Mareeba, for a long time, although in recent years I've softened my view.

So I've spent a long time talking about the way that Brisbane is presented in the book. That isn't by accident - its certainly the strongest opinions I have about it - but there is a plot nonetheless. The story is told by a sometimes passive narrator as he reminisces about his relationship with Johnno, an extroverted character from his school days whom he follows through adolescence and youth, including meetings during travels to Europe. Many of the traits of the characters and their friendship are closely tied to the place and time in which they live - particularly their diversions in Brisbane, and some of the revolutionary things in Europe in the 60s. Others remind me of some of my experiences, meeting college friends in Europe and taking in the different perspectives we have on the world, reflecting on the pilgrimage so many Australians make to live in Europe (usually the UK, much to my disdain), and the paths that we take through our teens and twenties.

Monday, 8 August 2011

distance, disappointment, distinction

I ran my first half marathon yesterday.

I started running regularly late last year, and a few months later, I resolved to build up to a half marathon. Specifically, I picked the Brisbane Running Festival, and over the last 3-4 months I have been building up my distance, from 5km to 8, 10, 12, 15, to 20, in order to be confident about being able to do 21.1km for the actual event.

I woke up early, in order to get to the race start at the Riverstage in time to meet my friends Meg and Tom for the start. With 3000 or so people signed up to run, the start was chaotic, although nothing like my bad experience with the Bridge2Brisbane a couple of years ago. Starting with 2 laps of the botanical gardens made things very crowded, particularly once the front-runners started lapping people. I had intended to try and follow the 1:50 pacerunner, but by the time we were over the Goodwill Bridge, I had long lost sight of him. By the time I did catch a glimpse of the bobbing red balloons, I was 4km into the race, and it was 8km until I actually caught him.

When we turned near the West End ferry stop, and I passed Meg and Tom, who were both running nicely behind me, I felt good, and was well ahead of the 1:50 pacerunner (and could even see the 1:45 runner, which should have rung some alarm bells). Over the next few kilometres, though, I flagged badly, and I essentially cracked at about 13km. For the remaining 8km coming back through Southbank and around the base of Kangaroo Point cliffs to the Storey Bridge, I was reduced to a mix of walking and jogging, all the while being very frustrated at myself1, for not having the fitness and/or not having judged my early pace better.

The many supporters along the route, either manning drinks stations or just standing by the course calling out words of encouragement, helped me to run more often and longer than I otherwise might have, and did much to lift my spirits. The occasional photographer also gave me a lift, as I dug deep to avoid being photographed walking, but despite these things, I probably walked a couple of kilometres, on and off. Meg and Tom caught me coming back past Kangaroo Point with a shade over 2km to go, and I got a bit of a lift, running with them for a few hundred metres before I soon flagged and had to walk a little longer.

I eventually crossed the line in a "gun time" of 1:56:20 or so, and a "chip time" of 1:55:13.6 (results are here). Before the race, I had really struggled to set myself an aim, hovering between "just get across the finish line" and the dream of challenging Lee's time of 1:48 when she ran her first half. To be honest, I'm still hovering. I feel like I had a pretty bad run, walking a lot more of the race than I wanted to, and cracking much earlier than I had hoped. I feel like with some better judgement, I could have run somewhere close to 1:52 or even 1:50.

To be honest, one of the things I've learnt while building up my distances is that I probably get more enjoyment out of a 10km run than I do out of a 22.1km run. That might be down to my level of fitness, but I like the idea that I can push myself a little bit. If I was to be asked whether I'd do another half, my reaction before the race would probably have been no, that I'd stick to shorter distances. Having run it, though, and not run it as well as I would have liked, my competitive instincts would probably make me lean towards doing another, just to prove to myself that I can do a better job than I did this time.

As a final word, I should give a huge qualification to what probably comes across as a bit of a whiny post. I am very proud of having done the race. Even if it wasn't my best run on the day, when I started running last year there was no way I could have done a run like this, and I'm really satisfied at the dedication (which has never been my best attribute) I've been able to sustain in running regularly to prepare myself. I didn't break any records, but its not everyone who can run a half marathon in under 2 hours, and I'm proud to be able to count myself in the group that can.

1: As Emily very astutely pointed out earlier this year, getting annoyed at myself is something I do a lot. I very rarely get angry at others, but I quite frequently get angry at myself.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Sun Also Rises

I was walking with Chris and Anjum in a small satellite suburb of Basel, when we came across a small table selling old books and knick-knacks outside a house. On a whim, encouraged perhaps by Anjum's enthusiastic pickup of a cutting board shaped like an apple, I grabbed a copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (published in the UK under the title Fiesta), putting 2 euros in a letterbox by way of payment.

I had intended to keep the book for my voyage home from Europe, but in the end I made a start on it as bedtime and bus reading while in Rennes. Still, I reserved the bulk of the book for the train ride between Rennes and Charles de Gaulle airport on Saturday, finishing the last 20 or so pages on a bench in the airport (when I probably should have been queueing for checkin).

Hemingway is one of those 20th century American authors who really should have been on my to-read list a long time ago, given how much I have enjoyed American literature from the period in which Hemingway operated. Its never to late to start, though, and I'm glad that I started with this book. For one thing, it was one of his first successes, and for another, its short; at about 200 pages, it falls under that delightful appellation of a "novella", probably my favourite format.

The story is told from the perspective of Jake Barnes, an American journalist, and moves from Paris down into Spain as the book progresses. The characterisations are quite good - Barnes is left fairly blank (I think deliberately - he's almost certainly a projection of the author), but I really felt a familiarity (albeit not always an empathy) with characters like Cohn, Mike and Brett (who is essentially the antagonist, as well as the love interest of the narrator and of various other characters throughout the book).

The writing is strong and to the point, but not without distinctive style. He uses the trick of translating French and Spanish (I think) very directly, which renders foreign phrases into strange English concoctions that only really make sense when thought of in terms of their original language. "How are you called?" and "a species of woman", strike oddly to the ear in English, but are much more natural in French. It was serendipitous for me, I suppose, that he uses this convention first in French, for which I was able to understand the technique, before using it in Spanish. Had it happened the other way around I would perhaps have simply found the wording strange, rather than appreciating the intent.

Having started the book, it quickly became apparent that it would not last me very long, so I spent some time on Saturday, both in Rennes and in CDG, looking for my next book. As chance would have it, what presented itself was, marooned amongst a sea of Dan Brown airport novels, a copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls, by the same Ernest Hemingway. I made a start on it, and had intended to give it strong attention on the flight from Paris to Dubai to Brisbane, but found myself distracted by films (Paul, 127 Hours, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Player), so have only gotten a little way in.

The other book on my horizon is a promised loan of Johnno, by David Malouf, a prominent entry on the list of Australian authors I should read.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Brothers in alms

Like so many things in my life, my relationship towards charity has been haphazard and characterised by chance rather than anything that might resemble a "plan". Rennes was awkward for me, as it put me face to face more directly with poverty, and a culture with a much greater culture of "direct" charity (less euphemistically called "begging"). It's possible, though, that being confronted in that way made me more conscious about giving, and I think since returning to Australia I've become more conscientious about it. The other factor influencing my increased philanthropy, of course, has been the continuing spate of charity-supported sporting events in which I or those close to me have participated. I know some people who aren't big fans, but I think they're probably pretty constructive in terms of stimulating donations and awareness for different causes. They've certainly had a significant effect on broadening my awareness and engagement.

Anyway, this year I resolved to be a bit more systematic about my donations. One of the contributing factors was a very vague awareness of a commitment (which I can't find) of developed countries to increase their foreign aid budgets. I remember the target being 1%, but I can't say of what, and I can't find any reference to it, so its possible I'm wrong. Regardless, I felt like as someone who is fairly well off by any reasonable measure, I should be prepared to make a comparable commitment, and that 1% of my income was a reasonable target to aim for. It turns out other people have the same idea, although I only found that site while looking for the foreign aid one.

So, without further ado, these are the charities to which I have donated this year.
  • Red Cross Australia: In the past I've given to their specific event appeals (Haiti, Victorian Bushfires, etc). This year I gave to the Pakistan Flood appeal, and to their general Australian fund.
  • Premier's Disaster Relief Appeal: I wasn't personally affected by the dramatic Queensland floods and cyclone Yasi, but I had very strong links to both. I was in Brisbane during the floods and helped with the cleanup, and I grew up in Innisfail and went through cyclone Winifred (a pale imitation of Yasi).
  • Movember: I participated in this a few years ago, and if I have a friend doing it, I donate to their effort. If not, I donate generally - prostate cancer and depression are good causes, and I reckon Movember has been effective at involving in charity people who might not otherwise pay attention.
  • Oxfam: Although I like Oxfam's mission, and I have donated to them in the past, I am sometimes sceptical about some of their publicity. This donation was to Meg's team doing the Trailwalker in Brisbane.
  • Salvation Army: The Salvos are probably the most visible social charity in Australia (for me, anyway). In the past I've donated to them through some sporting events, this year it was through their general appeal.
  • Heart Foundation: The Heart Foundation are one of the more important community health charities, and becoming more so with changes in our lifestyles. I often donate to them through sports appeals, but this year it was through the general appeal.
  • UNICEF: International Children's charity. This year was the first time I've donated to them, on Lee's recommendation.
  • Kidney Foundation: I know someone who's life was extended through a kidney transplant, and in the past I've donated through their barbeques, but this year I donated through the general fund.
  • Fred Hollows Foundation: Eye care in Australia's remote communities and abroad. This was the first year I've donated, on Mum's recommendation.
  • Endeavour Foundation: Disabled service group. We used to donate clothes and things when we were in Innisfail. I know their CEO.
  • Cancer Council Australia: I donated to these guys because they are the supported charity for the half-marathon I'm doing in August. I recognise the name through sun protection advertising, I think.
This list will no doubt change next year. Some of the change will be for silly reasons. Charities that send me unnecessary or excessive mail or gifts, for example, won't be looked upon kindly. I am giving money in order that the charities use it to do good, not that they use it to make me feel good - for me, that comes with the act of donating. Some of the change will be for better reasons. I would like to donate more to charities working closer to my field (Engineers Without Borders might be a candidate, but I was underwhelmed with the material on their website; another possibility would be something to do with education or literacy), or in areas that have meaning to me (something in the Solomon Islands perhaps). If you're reading this and you want to recommend a charity, add a comment or send me an email.

EDIT: Added National Breast Cancer Foundation (Steve's half-marathon) and MS Society (Paul's bike ride)

Monday, 20 June 2011


I just signed up for the Brisbane Half Marathon on August 7th. I have been making noises about doing this for a while, but having paid my registration, now I'm committed (doubly so once I've blogged about it). In doing so, I've taken inspiration from various people - Lee, Chad, Andy and Meg among them - who have either done or made noises about doing a half marathon. I've been running fairly regularly for about 6 months now, and over the last month or two I've been increasing my distances up over 10km, and feeling the benefits both in fitness and in my enjoyment of running. On Saturday morning, I ran 14km, part of it along the actual route for the half marathon. Although this is still well short of the half-marathon distance, I'm confident that I'll be able to get through the 21.1km, even if I won't be setting any land speed records in doing it.

Like so many other running/cycling/hiking events, this do is linked to a charity. Specifically, they're calling for sheckles on behalf of the Queensland Cancer Council, who I understand do yeoman work in providing research and support for the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer in the state. In the past I've set up a page at everydayhero, but I'm not going to do that this time. They sting both donor and charity for a slice, and although I'm sure their service does help to attract donors, I'm not 100% convinced that's effective. However, if you would like to encourage me, or if you are just feeling charitable, I would encourage you to donate. And if you want to email me or leave a comment to say that I've helped prompt you to do so, I promise to feel warm and fuzzy inside and run just that little bit harder.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Chasing the White Whale

I managed to slay the lesser of my figurative reading white whales this weekend, and to resume combat with the other.

I had commented to someone during the week that it had been a while since I had finished a novel, and they had pointed out that a three week break (it might have been four) was hardly a drought, especially given that the material in question was far from the easiest.

Anyway, I finished Moby Dick this week. I'm glad to now be able to say I've read it, given its significance in the western canon, but I can't say its one of my favourite books. The first sentence, "Call me Ishmael", is grossly misleading in its simplicity. The writing style thereafter gets quite overwrought. Still, I didn't mind that so much while the narrative was advancing. Unfortunately for me, the book spends quite a significant portion of its length in discourse on the nature and history of the whale and those who hunt it. I can't say I was fascinated by this, and often wished we could get back to the story. Indeed, our protagonists don't actually sight the storied white whale until about 90% into the book, from which point everything happens in a very great rush before finishing. I suspect a contemporary editor would have very stern things to say about Melville's pacing.

Having finished with cetaceans for the time being, I've returned to weightier prey, in the form Le Comte de Monte Cristo (en francais). I made good progress on this before heading overseas, finishing off tome 1 (of 4), and resuming it yesterday reminded me that it isn't nearly as daunting as the first chapters, or its impressive size, would suggest. I'll say this, too: being such a long book, the narrative structure is much less predictable to the reader. With other books I get an idea of how, or at least at what pace, things are going to progress, but I really don't have that feeling with this book. With so many pages left, I really don't have a grasp of where the story arcs will go, and that's kind of pleasant. I don't pretend that this burst of activity will go right through to the end of the book (I had to take a break yesterday when I tired, to read some bush poetry), but I do maintain my hopes of getting through it some time this year.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Valley Jazz

This past weekend saw the Valley Jazz Festival roll around. I have at times been known to bemoan the lack of a jazz scene in Brisbane, but despite that I had been very lax about planning to get along to a festival within a half hour walk of my apartment. Fortunately, on Wednesday Paul got me interested in a gig, which resparked my enthusiasm and got me more into the proper spirit of things. In the end, over the course of the festival I managed 5 gigs - all at the Judith Wright Centre, 2 wednesday night and 3 Saturday night.

The first gig Wednesday night was the Mark Isaacs Resurgence band, a 5 piece lead by Isaacs on piano. Their stuff was pretty good - I was particularly impressed by James Muller on guitar - amazing chops - and the drummer, whose name I don't recall, but who really had a good groove going, and did interesting things with his solos.

After that, there was a free gig in the Centre's Shopfront Centre by the Marialy Pacheco Trio. I had seen her play a gig last December, mostly solo then a couple of tunes with a percussionist, but I'd been looking forward to seeing her trio, with Pat and Joe Marchisella, both really good players who I've met and seen play through Paul. The format works pretty well, too - despite not being quite as invested in his music as he has been, Pat is still such a great and tasteful player. They had a really nice, and unexpected, adaptation of Sounds of Silence, just before we called it a night.

The first Saturday night gig was Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra with Kristin Berardi. Paul studied with Kristin, and used to gig with her when I lived with him at Ironside St in St Lucia - she has a wonderful voice, and has done some great things since that time, winning some competitions and generally becoming a better singer. The band itself was OK, a 17-piece (all male, strange!), but perhaps not quite up to the standard I had expected (Paul had hyped them up a bit) - probably only 4 or 5 of the soloists impressed me.

After that gig I had planned to see Misinterprotato's free set in the shopfront area, but it was full, so I had to wait for some people to leave before I could get in. I have an album or two of theirs - all 3 of them were at the con with Paul, and used to show up from time to time at Ironside St, although that was a long time ago. They're great players - Pat Marchisella, in particular, is one of my favourite bass players - but at times they can tend to be a bit atmospheric and not get as much of a groove going as I'd like. This concert was probably the best of theirs I'd seen though - Sean's composition has improved, I think, and they really got some nice stuff going - still very much at the quiet end, but not too lost in soundscape-y stuff.

The third gig, the Aaron Goldberg Trio, was far and away the best. Goldberg is such an amazing pianist, and Paul's forewarnings about his sidemen, Greg Hutchison on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, being pretty famous, were well-justified. They played a mix of stuff off Goldberg's two most recent albums, plus a couple of blues bits, with a range of fast stuff that really let them show off - especially Goldberg and Hutchison - and some slower, often latin stuff, where Rogers really, really impressed me with his solo-ing. Overall, they really were a cut above, and I was glad that I didn't miss this.

I have some hopes of getting along to see Ron Carter in a couple of weeks, but if not, I can be happy that I've gotten a fill of good jazz to tide me over for a while.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Holiday Reading

Holidays are the best time to read. Even though this has already been a fairly fruitful year for me for reading, I still think that my recent four-week sejour in Europe saw a bit of an increase. It didn't start with departure, though. A couple of weeks before leaving, emboldened by my reimmersion into francophonie, I started reading Le Comte de Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas Père. This is my second attempt at what is a pretty voluminous work, but my last only managed a couple of chapters, and those with great difficulty. This time around seems much better - I finished off the first of four tomes not long after arriving in Europe, and am a couple of chapters into the second. I hope to continue and perhaps finish the whole thing by the end of the year.

Having finished the first tome, I decided that I needed some diversity, and decided to allow myself the luxury of reading an English-language book in parallel with Le Comte. My first effort was a short one. Some time ago I decided that having read very little poetry represented a gap in my greater education, and grabbed a bunch of "big name" poetical works from project gutenberg. So, looking for something short to fill a gap, I read Lamia, by John Keats. I quite enjoyed it, too - there's something very nice about the carefully chosen words necessary for the form, and I enjoyed the occasional side-quest to fill in context regarding Greek gods or the layout of Corinth.

Satisfied by my expedition into poetry, I next picked up a copy of Animal Farm that Em had lying around. I think I've said in the past how much of a fan I am of the novella as a form, and I wolfed this one down in about a day. I always think of Animal Farm in the context of 1984 (also Orwell), and Brave New World (Huxley), both of which I've read (although 1984 not as an adult), so it was high time that I completed the set. Its a good little analogy, pretty transparent but still a good yarn. I won't pretend I can summarize it better than it has been analyzed elsewhere - just go read it for yourself :)

After Animal Farm, I browsed through my collection and settled on The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. I'd been vaguely familiar with Wilde's stuff through plays (The Importance of Being Ernest) and general witticisms, but I was keen to see what he did with a more weighty medium. The book starts out fairly lightly, a fairly loosely connected collection of witticisms around a couple of characters which seemed to represent the different aspects of Wilde's character. As the story develops, though, the trite sayings are fewer, and the subject matter gets darker. Wilde never actually reveals much of the depravity that he implies about Dorian (other than opium), but the drama builds nonetheless, and generally the thing works well as a narrative arc.

The last book I finished on the holiday was A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens. I read my first Dickens, Great Expectations, a little while back, and enjoyed more than I had expected to, and AToTC had been recommended to me as perhaps his best book, so it was next on my list. Like Expectations, Dickens doesn't content himself with a study of a few characters - he makes a quite deliberate effort to paint the period as bigger than the characters of the story, to flesh out what is happening in the place and time in which the story takes place. I felt like he let himself explore his prose style more than Expectations too, with parts being quite ambitious. The story is good too, following the characters as they dodge across the channel between the titular towns, fighting off the threat of Madame Guillotine.

Although Cities was the last book I finished, it wasn't the last I started. I am presently about a third of the way through Moby Dick, by Melville. I'm not enjoying the prose style particularly, but following Orwell, Wilde and Dickens is a tough ask, I

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Travel Planning is hard

In a few weeks I'm off to Europe for a 4-week holiday (mid-April to mid-May). Its tempting to say that 4 weeks is a lot, but it really isn't. Living in Rennes for more than 3 years means I've got a lot of friends I'd like to to visit, and in the years since I've left, they've been inconsiderate enough to scatter themselves across the continent (or so it seems, anyway). The last few weeks I've been wracking my brains to work out how I can get around to visit 20 or so people scattered over 5 or 6 countries (France, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway). The additional complication is having other people travelling around concurrently, and trying seeing to what extent we might join forces.

Its all a bit hard. Every time I think I have a plan, something changes and everything goes up for renegotiation. I'm getting to the point where I have to start booking transport within Europe, and accommodation, at which point changing requirements will have to be ignored.

Friday, 25 March 2011

back to books

This year is proving to be extremely eventful. The end of March is not yet here, but already the year has brought me floods, a change of jobs, a couple of papers being accepted, the achievement of a long-held goal, a family wedding, a bunch of concerts and just a generally more active social life. Nonetheless, one of the things I enjoyed more and more towards the end of last year was getting back into reading, and I've managed to keep that up pretty well.

Since the start of the year, I've read 7 books, across a nice variety of genres. In a less busy time I probably would have blogged about each individually, but in lieu of that, and with more busy times ahead of me, I'll just summarize them here:
  • The Code of the Woosters (Wodehouse): This was the second of three (see below) in an anthology of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. I hadn't read any Wodehouse before, and they're nice little stories, very well written and very easy to read. They reminded me in time and tone a little of The Importance of Being Ernest, light-hearted and bouncy. To be honest, I can't precisely remember what this one was about - the three I read tended to follow a fairly similar pattern of interwoven personal intrigues - but its the tone and style and movement that matters more than the story.
  • A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters (Barnes): I didn't know what to expect of this book, although Michael L recommended it, which made me optimistic. I wasn't disappointed. The book is a series of occasionally and very loosely related parables about, well, the world, I guess. Its hard to pull out more specific themes - certainly religion is prominent, and the way that it influences people's outlooks on the world. I got the feeling that there might have been deeper analogies going on than I was understanding, but that didn't adversely affect my appreciation of the book.
  • Right Ho, Jeeves (Wodehouse): See above, more Jeeves, reliable and fun.
  • The Breaks of the Game (Halberstam): This was an impulse buy based on repeated passing praise of this book by the FreeDarko guys and probably other basketball blogs that I've read over the years. Set around the 1980 Portland Trailblazers, its a really very well written insight into basketball people, from players to coaches and administrators, how they got to where they are and how they relate to the larger changes that were going through basketball, be the implications of race, the role of television, the growing professionalism and salaries, or the onset of injury. I can see why the book has the status it does among basketball pundits.
  • Claudius The God (Graves): After finishing I, Claudius a couple of years ago, I had started on the sequel, but for one reason or another, be it needing a change of style, or because my copy was so fragile I wasn't comfortable carrying it around, I kept putting it aside. Finally this year I started again, and read it through within a few weeks. Like the first book, it treads a fine line between sacrificing narrative form for historical detail, but on the whole it manages it pretty well. I can't help but feel that the first instalment was better, just because it had more going on in terms of having 3 emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, with snippets of Julius at the start and Claudius at the end) rather than one (Claudius). I also felt that Livia, for all that I read she might have been hardly done by, made for a better villain than Messalina. Still, a good book.
  • Notes From Old Nanking (Hamilton): This was a nice little book about observations made by an Australian diplomatic aid in China in the years between 1947-1949. This was the time when the communists overthrew the nationalists, but to be honest, most of the book is vignettes about the lifestyle at the time, and the revolution itself gets relatively little treatment. This surprised me, but changed rather than diminished my enjoyment of the book, in that it made for more of a historical portrait rather than a war story.
  • Holden's Performance (Bail): Murray Bail is one of those Australian authors who I have been remiss not to have read before now. I can see why. This is the story of Holden Shadbolt, and his life between growing up in Adelaide in the years after WWII, before moving to Manly and Canberra in the 50s and 60s. He falls in with a bunch of delightful and delightfully named characters along the way - his stepfather McBee, his uncle Vern and friends Flies & Wheelright, the eccentric theatre owner Alex Screech, his love affair Harriet, the womanising politician Hoadsley, and the collection of bodyguards like Colonel Light and Irving Polaroid. The book is frequently funny and delightfully written, and when Bail extends himself he can be really quite adventurous with his prose. The characters border on caricatures at times, but all are treated with love and respect, and come across as very real. Its also really nice the way he taunts us with historical fact, references to the PM R.G. Amen, to the "one syllable PM" who follows him, enough to give us some context, but steering well clear of historical fiction.
So there you go, 7 books in 3 months. Last year it took me until at least September to get to that point, and so far I've been really enjoying the books, and their variety.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The IMDB Top 250

Its a bit strong to call it a quest, or even a resolution, but over the last 5 or 6 years, when I've been looking for a movie to watch, my first port of call has been the IMDB's Top 250, a list of films ranked by an adjusted average rating of all the users of the IMDB site. It has been a moving target, obviously - there are probably well over fifty films that have entered and departed the list since I started following it, so I've ended up seeing a lot more than what is currently in the list. This has been to my great profit - some of these I had never heard of, but now count among my favourite films.

On Saturday, I went down to Palace Centro and watched True Grit, the Coen Brothers' latest western, a good film with very strong characters and performances, even if the denouement was disappointing (note to self: if I start a film review blog, consider "disappointing denouement" as a name - its an epidemic). At the time I saw it, this was the last remaining film I hadn't seen on the list, so as of March 5, I have completed the list. I expect this will only last a few weeks at the most, but its something that, for no particularly good reason, I'm a little bit proud of.

I've had a wonderful time going through the list. There are so many films, directors and genres that I had never really watched, and would not necessarily have expected to like. I loved the westerns, from Sergio Leone to John Wayne, Butch and Sundance to Unforgiven, and new ones like 3:10 to Yuma (the remake) and the Coen Brothers' latest. I was surprised by how much I liked the silent films I saw, especially Chaplin and Keaton (especially Keaton), but also films like M, Metropolis and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I saw more Asian films because of the 250 list than I had seen previously, and really enjoyed Kurosawa, Old Boy, Infernal Affairs, and In The Mood for Love. Some of the films were "tough" to watch - Bergman and Fellini come to mind - but there was always something to take away from them. The worst film I saw from the list was without question A Christmas Story, which has no place in the list, but its the only one that springs to mind that really disappointed me.

In some ways, its a little sad that I've finished the list, in that I no longer have it as a reference to go to when I want to find a film to watch. On the other hand, I have a much fuller appreciation now of different filmmakers, and I know there are a bunch who I really haven't explored as much as I'd like - Truffaut and Godard, and the French new wave (having really liked Les 400 Coups and Au bout de souffle, and La Salaire de la Peur), and some filmmakers who didn't make the list, like Fassbinder. I also feel a little more comfortable now going back and rewatching some of the films, especially those I haven't seen for a long time now. Also, its only a matter of time before there are new entries to check out :)

Friday, 4 March 2011

up the creek

Some people who follow me on twitter and had some inside connections already knew this was happening, but it probably warrants a proper announcement for anyone else who's still subscribed here or elsewhere.

A couple of weeks ago I tendered my official resignation to QUT. In just over a week I will be starting a new position as lecturer in the School of ITEE at the University of Queensland.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Sudanese Australians and sport

Gee, I hope I can get the tone of this OK.

I don't know when Australia started seeing increasing populations of Sudanese immigrants. I guess it was probably in the last 10 years or so. I started noticing them more when I arrived back, and among my first thoughts were, "my goodness, I can't wait until these folk start playing the sports I follow". The physiques of the immigrants I've seen are just remarkable, fit and long and lean and lithe. The dominant sport in Sudan is probably soccer, but I just reckon they are so physically well-suited to sports like basketball, cricket, netball (which I don't enjoy much, but whose position I respect) and australian rules.

The first Sudanese-Australian sportsperson I have seen in the news is the basketballer, Ater Majok. He was a high-profile recruit to a major US college, UConn, but declared for the NBA draft prematurely, without ever having made any real impact in the college game. He wasn't drafted, and has recently been playing a couple of short stints in the NBL here in Australia. He hasn't set the world on fire, and I've heard worries about his fundamentals and his attitude, so time will tell how far he goes.

This weekend also saw the first appearance by a Sudanese-Australian in the AFL, with Majak Daw playing in a preseason game with North Melbourne. Early reports are good, and personally I really want to see him succeed. The Kangaroos aren't my team, but I really hope if nothing else that Majak can serve as a role model to people in his community.

Here's hoping we see more and more Sudanese Australians breaking into top-level sport in Australia. I really think they have a great contribution to offer to our sporting landscape.

Monday, 14 February 2011


About 18 months or so ago, I posted about my experience playing Age of Conan. At that time I'd played for just over a year, and this week will see me finish playing after just a shade over 2 and a half years of being subscribed.

When I posted last time, I had fairly recently joined my third guild, Primal Fury. Not long after posting, PF almost fell apart, as a number of the senior players in the guild lost interest and left to play other games. I was one of a few players, and along with Vic, I'd like to think one of the main ones, who stepped up and rebuilt the guild, going back to lower level raids and introducing new players until we were able to get back to where we had been. It took a few months, but PF became a very powerful guild. At our peak, we were running 2 raids in parallel through tier 2, and we were the first guild on the server to craft an Ibis blade.

About a year ago, the guild had begun to fade slightly, focussing more on PvP (which doesn't interest me) and less on PvE (which does), and the game's expansion pack was released. I wasn't excited by the prospect of playing the xpac on a PvP server, so I rolled an assassin on the PvE server (Wiccana), and joined the Third Time Lucky guild, which my friend Misaki played with. I was fortunate that I came in playing a class in which TTL were undermanned, and I was able to quickly get gear and become a regular raider. I raided with TTL as we progressed through T3, where they have now downed Thoth-Amon.

I wasn't there for that kill, though. My interest in the game started fading about 3 months ago, and in the last 2 months I've probably only played 3 or 4 times. Given that, I've cancelled my subscription. It was difficult to do, simply because there are a lot of people in the game whose company I have enjoyed for a long time, some of them, like Misaki, going back more than 2 years. Its been very interesting to see just how solid a social group can be formed over a voice chat server, when everyone is working together to achieve a collective aim. I hope I'll be able to meet up with some of the people I've played with if I play another online game.

For now, though, "serious" gaming has somewhat lost its appeal, and I'm devoting more of my time to some activities that I've let lapse in recent years, particularly books and movies.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Reading, 2010

At the beginning of last year I set myself a very vague, non-binding and unambitious target of reading 12 books. I think I'd set the same target the previous year and only achieved it courtesy of a burst of 3 or 4 books in the last 2 weeks of the year (coinciding, not surprisingly, with the only leave I took that year). Not one to break with tradition, I did a similar thing this year, excepting only that the burst period was more like 6 weeks, and coincided instead with some discussions about books.

So, the books I read in 2010 (with links, were appropriate, to what I wrote about them) were:
My favourites were probably two of the Australian entries - Breath and The Tree of Man -although Cold Comfort Farm was also very good.

As to this year, I would like to think I'll read more, and have in my mind a vague, non-binding and unambitious target of 15 books. Last year was better in terms of having more Australian entries than previous years, so I'd quite like to continue that, and I wouldn't mind if I saw a couple of non-fiction entries this year. I haven't finished any books yet this year, but I'm probably 75% of the way through two.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

rising waters

My last blog post was about getting a close look at Australia's propensity for natural disaster, and specifically flooding. At the end of that post, I commented that I hadn't been directly affected. That remains true, I guess, but in the last couple of weeks I've come closer.

Two weeks ago today, I was at my second day back at work. The previous day we had been confronted by quite dramatic images of flash-flooding at Toowoomba, which claimed a number of lives (2, I believe) and produced youtube videos of cars being tossed like so many rubber ducks down the erstwhile main street, now raging torrent, of Toowoomba's commercial district. The spectacular images were followed by images that were less spectacular, but to me more troubling, of a great inland sea that had descended down into the Lockyer valley, sweeping homes off their stumps and destroying entire towns. In the week that followed, the death count in that area has risen to, I think, 15 or so. The stories are horrible.

So, on Tuesday, the Bremer River (which flows through Ipswich) and the Brisbane River (which, strangely enough, flows through Brisbane) began to rise. By lunchtime, some low-lying suburbs like Rocklea and West End had begun to be evacuated. Fearing that the bus would cease to run to New Farm, I headed home. As the afternoon progressed, the predictions escalated, until by the end of the afternoon, Anna Bligh announced that waters were predicted to reach levels comparable and even beyond those of the 1974 flood (which stands as "the" Brisbane flood).

My apartment was and is at no risk of flooding, as became increasingly apparent in the subsequent days. Parts of Newstead, the suburb in which I live, are low-lying - Teneriffe Ferry had flooded from king tides in the days leading up to Christmas, though - so I was concerned that I would lose electricity, so I stocked up on bread, grabbed some supplies (batteries, tinned food, UHT milk), and bunkered in. At the behest of my mother/brewer, I also filled my freezer with ice and my fridge with beer. I'm telling people the reason was because a full fridge keeps cold longer, but to be honest, who needs a reason to fill their fridge with beer, right?

I followed the flood news assiduously, through the 2-hourly press conferences with Anna Bligh, the deputy police commissioner and the rotating cast of related higher-ups, through the excellent QPS updates over facebook, and through the dramatic images posted by people on twitter under #qldfloods. In the meantime, I sat at home, alternately transfixed by the news, and bored, unable to focus on work or reading. Although I never lost power, and I was never physically isolated, after a few days sitting in my apartment essentially doing nothing, I was feeling a bit socially isolated, and welcomed the weekend and the opportunity to get out of the apartment and help clean up.

On Saturday I joined my friends Ted & Meg on a trek over to Fairfield to help clean the house of one of Meg's colleagues. The volunteer effort following the flood has been quite spectacular and very moving, with many tens of thousands of people venturing out into the streets with whatever gear they could muster, as well as others wandering the streets giving food and cold drinks to anyone affected or working. As for me, I spent most of the first Saturday after the flood shovelling silty, sloppy mud out of the garden at Fairfield. On Monday I caught a bus out to St Lucia, where I spent the morning moving huge piles of mud-soaked kerbside garbage into trucks. In the afternoon, as it became increasingly a job for bobcats rather than willing hands, a group of us moved to Milton. There we helped with the Sisyphean task of sweeping out the bottom floor of a house that had been flooding every day at high tide (and that would be swept again 12 hours later). We also helped clean the house of a guy who had been evacuated with dysentry after his house had flooded a metre deep on the upper floor. The stories told by residents and second-hand by other volunteers were just amazing.

In the interim, when not volunteering, I was working from home. Our office building in the city had had its power shut off on the Wednesday morning, and the basement had flooded. We are now told that it won't be accessible for another month, and we are in temporary offices on the main university campus. We were allowed into the building for an hour on Friday, without power, during which time we climbed the 12 storeys up the lamplit fire stairs, and retrieved what we could (mostly laptops) from the foetid air of our office.

We live in interesting times.