Tonight Again

Guy Sebastian rocking Vienna at Eurovision 2015

Guy Sebastian rocking Vienna at Eurovision 2015

So Australia has had its first official foray into the weird and wonderful world of Eurovision! Not that we needed any encouragement — Eurovision (and the drinking games that inevitably accompany the broadcast here in the Antipodes) has been part of our national consciousness for years. Seriously: wind machines, leather pants, glittery capes, big hair, bigger vocals, throw in the obligatory key change at the end of a song and what’s not to like? Raise your glass — it’s a winner in any Australian living room.

When it comes to Eurovision, Australians might even claim to be early adopters. Or maybe just a nation of immigrants, shamelessly trading on their (increasingly distant) European heritage.  At our haus — sorry, “house” — we always barrack for Germany purely because our last name is of German origin. Never mind the fact that our ancestors migrated from Bavaria prior to the First World War, and that the last person on either side of our family who wasn’t born in Australia was my Welsh grandmother who moved here before the Second. When Eurovision is on, that’s all irrelevant — Deutschland über alles! “Black Smoke” — awesome song! Someone give them another twelve points!

Stig Rästa: he probably should have woken her up...

Stig Rästa: he probably should have woken her up…

That said, we’re always keen to point out any kind of Australian link — no matter how tenuous — to anyone performing at Eurovision.  Didn’t you know? An Australian was responsible for designing the glittery beadwork on the Estonian back up dancer’s costumes. Yes, just that shiny little lightning bolt section, an Aussie did that.  Oi! Oi! Oi! (Not true of course…Estonia didn’t even have back up dancers this year — they didn’t want to distract anyone from Stig Rästa’s smoulder).

But this year, thanks to the generosity of the Austrians we are so often confused with, Australians didn’t have to search for questionable connections to the performers gracing the stage: we got to compete. And while quite a large part of me suspects that an auto-correct error might still be responsible for Guy Sebastian rocking out in Vienna over the weekend, Australians love a wildcard entry into just about anything. Eurovision 2015? Why not? I haven’t been to Austria since that Contiki tour back in…whenever…and besides, it’s only been two months since Mardi Gras, so I still know where my feather boa is! Eurovision 2015! Bring it on!

Guy Sebastian, it must be said, did Australians proud. What a song! What a legend! Our very own Australian Idol took the weight of a nation’s hopes on his shoulders and shot us straight into fifth place. And Aussies everywhere are now patting each other on the back, telling each other that we clearly had the best song and probably should have won outright, but we wouldn’t want to embarrass our hosts or show up an entire continent, now, would we?

Or course, coming fifth means that we did not win the right to host Eurovision next year, which is probably the only way we would have been allowed to compete in the contest again. At least we used our one and only wildcard entry to remind the world once and for all that despite our unusual accent and tendency to refer to our country as “Straya”, there is actually an “L” in “Australia”, and our country is not a landlocked state squeezed in between Switzerland and Slovenia, but is an island nation occupying our very own continent instead.

The inimitable Conchita Wurst...who would fit right in on Oxford Street. Yet another reason why Australia should be admitted to the Council of Europe...

The inimitable Conchita Wurst, green room host of Eurovision 2015. She’d fit right in on Sydney’s Oxford Street. Surely that’s another reason why Australia should be admitted to the Council of Europe…

And so, thanks to heroic (sorry, couldn’t resist) efforts of Måns Zelmerlöw, Eurovision will be heading to Sweden in 2016. I say that gives us twelve months to scour the contest rules to find some loophole that will allow Australia to become an active member of the European Broadcasting Union or the Council of Europe. In fact, the federal government should probably provide SBS with the funding to establish a whole new department (based in, say, Malmö…can’t think why…) to ensure Australia’s admission into Eurovision forever after. If Israel pulled it off, surely we can too?

Meanwhile, in Vienna, it’s time to pack away the smoke machines and send the capes off to the dry cleaners. Eurovision 2015 has been one for Australians to remember. And as Guy sang, this is one tough act to follow.

Forget tomorrow, we can do tonight again.

The Literary Apothecary

Heart bookNot so long ago, I bared my evidently somewhat miserly soul and wrote the Confession of the Thrifty Fictionista. Those of you who have read it will know that allowing myself to wander into a bookstore is a dangerous business, particularly if I am in possession of a credit card (not necessarily mine), cash (even the most trifling amount), or anything that could be used (appropriately or otherwise) to barter for new books.

Even to say that I “wander” in bookstores is not entirely accurate. In truth, it’s a lot more like stalking. I don’t prowl around suburban bookstores disguised in a ghillie suit fashioned from torn out pages of old paperbacks and the occasionally well-placed bookmark, but I do take the mission of tracking down exactly the right book very seriously. It requires rigorous discipline, a keen eye and excellent aim to capture such a book, and this pursuit gives me nearly as much pleasure as devouring the whole volume when I return to my lair…er…my home.

But every now and then, a book creeps up on me, instead — in the best possible way.

Such books do not stalk me the way I stalk them. No. they’re far more flirtatious. Enticing. Alluring. They call me with their covers and beckon with their blurbs until I am sufficiently charmed to forget my usual thrift and self-restraint, and submit to purchasing them, no matter the price. Paris Bookshop

The most recent tome whose wiles proved utterly irresistible to me was Nina George’s beautiful novel The Little Paris Bookshop, the tale of a man named Jean Perdu who runs a bookshop from a barge on the River Seine. Instead of being just a bookseller, however, the main character is a “literary apothecary” whose gift is matching his customers with books that ease their minds and soothe their souls. Rather than allowing them to purchase the books they want, he sells them the books they need. As it says in the novel:

Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see it purely in terms of a story, retail price and an essential balm for the soul; he saw freedom on wings of paper.

But Jean Perdu — his name, of course, translates as John Lost — is unable to heal his own wounds, inflicted more than two decades before, until he has the courage to cast off the book barge, Lulu, from the Champs-Élysées harbour and journey south towards Avignon and beyond in search of his long lost Provençal love.

George’s novel is, quite simply, a lovely read: amusing, heartfelt, and poignant.  Rather than being nosebleeingly highbrow literature, it is what I think of as the best sort of book — the kind that you can’t wait to keep reading, but that you don’t want to finish either. It’s well written but eminently accessible, and Simon Pare’s translation from George’s original German is so elegant and lyrical that I was completely unaware that I was not reading the book in its original form.

I was, and remain, grateful that The Little Paris Bookshop crept up on me, and I’m looking forward to the next book that tempts me and works its wondrous magic.  Because reading, as Jean Perdu says, is “an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that [makes] one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.”

Ahhh….books.  Long may they seduce us.

What a Piece of Work is Man

RememberWhat a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, lines 303-307

Today marks the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

I have lived more than half my life without him, but there are days when I feel his loss as acutely as I did all those years ago.

My grandfather’s passing is, for me, inextricably linked with Shakespeare, specifically with Hamlet, which I first saw performed the day he died. So much of what the play explores resonates with me, then and now — the grief, the family torn apart, the musings on life and how to live it, or indeed whether to live it at all.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are among Shakespeare’s most famous. More than four centuries after he wrote them they are known the world over, often quoted and occasionally parodied. Keenly observant of the mind’s workings, Shakespeare never allows Hamlet to shy away from confronting his inner demons, and his words provide insights that are surprisingly fresh and relevant today. And yet, when life — or life’s sudden, unexpected end — overlays these monologues with memory, embroiders them with poignant and painful detail, Hamlet’s orations become imbued, for me, with much deeper meaning.

Who was my grandfather, the quintessence of dust I lost more than two decades ago?

He was but a man.

He was of average stature, but with a presence so immense that its absence left a gaping hole. His smile lit up any room, his laughter filled any void.

He was a passionate sailor, a successful businessman, an avid tennis fan, and a hopeful punter.

He valued honesty, loyalty, persistence and discipline.

He believed wholeheartedly in the capacity of a decent cup of tea to solve any problem.

He enjoyed words — reading them, writing them, hearing them. He was a prolific and witty correspondent; his handwriting was simultaneously elegant and bold. He gave me my first dictionary, my first thesaurus. He taught me to appreciate brevity.

Grief TolkeinHe served his country in the Royal Australian Navy as a Petty Officer Writer. He survived the bombing of Darwin, he was present at the Japanese surrender in Toyko Bay. He seldom spoke of the war.

He was handsome, charming and dapper.

He was twice divorced and thrice married. He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, many of them aimed (understandably) by my grandmother and many more, I suspect, directed by himself.

Above all, he was a man of love. His hugs were like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a winter’s day. He was bighearted. He was generous to a fault. He was a blazing sun, full of love and light.

During his life he was not an angel, but I’d like to think that he is one now.