Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I’m an ill-disciplined fellow, which is not a good thing to be if you work mostly from home. Maybe that’s why I do work from home. The freelancer – let’s call me that – has to be a self-starter, wily and adept at avoiding the many pitfalls that will keep him from the task at hand: chewing toenails, gentleman’s websites, destroying wasp nests with an aerosol flame-thrower. These are just a few of the distractions that are hard to pull off in an office, but will pull your nose from the grindstone at home. Then there’s YouTube, an endlessly reductive maze that’ll suck you in and swallow you like Poe’s Maelstrom.

You know the drill, you’ll need to do some serious academic research for a piece you’re writing, and so turn to the highest scholarly authority available - Wiki. You’ll be browsing some details on, say, Mussolini’s death, which will then necessitate some further scholarly delving into whether there’s any footage of IL Duce and his squeeze being strung up by the legs in a service station forecourt (a foretaste of poor Silvio’s fate?). It’s all legitimate research, of course, in the name of nailing the story. But lo, by some weird process of YouTube osmosis you find yourself, three hours later, viewing chucklesome footage of a couple of Norwegian toddlers beating each other to death with rakes. How did this happen?

DMR, or Discipline, Motivation and Routine, are apparently what you need, and the things they keep banging on about in writer’s advice manuals: “Grahame Green said write five-hundred words a day … blah, blah, blah.” There’s rarely a good time to write and a thousand excuses why you can’t stick to a schedule. Taking out the garbage, scrubbing shower recesses and plucking nostril hairs all become appealing alternatives to going snowblind in front of a blank page or screen. Apparently Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or another of those cheery Ruskies said “I don’t like writing, but I like having written”. I suppose in that respect writing’s a bit like doing the washing up.

Norman Mailer said “if you wanna write, don’t drink the night before”. I say if you wanna write, don’t have kids the night before. Of course I love my tykes and wouldn’t trade them for Vegas, but they do cramp my style. They make demands, they don’t understand me. “Ok”, you say, “so write at night when they’re asleep. There are lots of good hours going begging then”. But what if there’s an Everybody Loves Raymond marathon on the box? I’d be a fool not to enjoy that with a glass of wine or two. Plus, night is when I have to read. To be a good writer you have to read, right? So I try and read a page or two of writer’s advice manuals before falling asleep from too much wine, promptly forgetting what I’ve just read. It’s like this: out of three things - Writing, Drinking, Kids - I can successfully maintain two, but not all three. I could have kids and drink and elect not to write, or I could drink with no kids and manage to write during the day. Or I could have kids and write at night so long as I didn’t drink. Kids, I hate to break this to you …

But nah, much as I’d like to, I can’t just blame my kids. They’re imprisoned in daycare and school for great chunks of the week. Also, I realise that wasting time writing a blog about not having enough time to write really puts the iron in irony. But still, some solution to my lack of discipline needs to be found, and I think I may have hit upon it in Rent-a-Boss. Rent-a-Boss is an agency that hires out a boss to come to your home to supervise and structure your day. He’ll keep you chained to the desk and make sure you’re not skiving off by timing your tea, toilet, lunch and ciggie breaks. He’ll crack down hard on personal phone calls and eBay browsing, keep the keys to the liquor cabinet and guard the wine rack like a junk yard dog. Rent-a-Bosses would come in all makes and models, tailored to suit your profession. Thus, a patched-elbow academic for your writers, besuited white-collar boss for your IT bods, a fluro-vested, big-gutted site-foreman for your home renovation and landscaping projects, and a domestic dominatrix to keep you cooking and dustbusting. If you want to get adventurous feel free to mix and match. Perhaps an abattoir overseer in a hardhat and offal stained coat would be the ticket to keep your Reiki Massage or home manicure business on an even keel.

If you were nostalgic like me, you might go retro and opt for a good old-fashioned public-service boss, like George. Ah, how fondly I remember George and my time working as a lowly shit-kicker at the Tax Office. These were the days when blue uniformed tea-ladies with names like Betty and Dot brought round urns and pastries on clattering trollies at break time; a golden age of punching on and off on Bundy clocks, when ashtrays overflowed on desks and a blue Peter Jackson fug hung in the air like a Somme gas attack. These were the days of George. With his burnt Spanish features, dead eyes and bad greasy comb-over George was not a dynamic man. He was in his forties and still lived at home with his mum and dad. He wasn’t all that high up the tax office food chain, but I was the mercury-laden mud at the very bottom and so that made him my boss. I can’t remember exactly what I did, apart from doing as little as possible, which was impossibly little, apart from write poems that I’d hide as George approached. Then I’d pretend to get back to inputting whatever data it was I was supposed to be inputting. If George queried the seemingly untouched pile of files I could always claim a computer malfunction. The machines, like George, were slow, bulky and primitive, except George didn’t come with a blipping green Pac-man font. To distract him from my slackness, I’d try and humour him by faking interest in his weekend’s fishing exploits. Along with Lotto, fishing was George’s hobby.

George’s other hobby was smoking. George smoked a lot. Everyone in the Tax Office did. If you never saw George smoke you’d know he smoked from the smell, which was handy as you could get wind of him approaching. It wasn’t just his breath, but his clothes and body, right down to the very fibre of his being, the ashtray of his soul. George smoked for six, which was good, as around this time the OH&S Nazis decided that, rather than turn the eight floors of the tax office into a blackened lung, it might be wise to encourage smokers to smoke outside. So between his supervising duties, George spent a fair amount of time either outside smoking, or in transit to or from another smoking engagement, which gave me a decent amount of time to work on my poems and flirt with the tea ladies. Even so, George caught me skiving off enough times to occasionally have to threaten and reprimand me. All in all, just the kind of balance I need these days in a hired Home-Boss. I could stick a Bundy clock on the wall to punch on and off, and George could keep a lazy eye on me from a desk in the dining room while I wrote. He’d still have to pop out to top up the tar, and I could use the time productively to conduct vital YouTube research into an Otter attacking a Pitbull. Now, if only I could afford a tea lady …

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Eleventh Hour" - a book proposal

There’s a line in Pulp Fiction that really slugged me in the gut when I first heard it. It’s simple but effective, and happens when the big black mobster Marsellus Wallace is trying to convince Bruce Willis’s washed-up boxer character, Butch, to take a fall in a fight. He says “Butch, if you were gonna make it, you would have made it by now.” I was about 30 when I first saw the film. I’m now 45, and the line no longer slugs me in the gut. No, it injects me with an ice enema. I mean Jeeze, am I still an ‘emerging artist?’ Or a submerged artist? Have I emerged and re-submerged without my brief emergence being noted?

Hence The Eleventh Hour – an inspirational book of potted biographies of people who’ve ‘made it’ late in the arts, like Geoffrey Rush, who at the ripe ole filmic age of 45 scooped an Oscar and global recognition for his first film Shine. Later editions of the book might take in other fields of endeavour, like science, business or sport, but for now we’ll focus on creative types – actors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, accountants …

Think about it. The world is disproportionately burdened with millions of quietly desperate people nurturing long unfulfilled artistic ambitions. They know the clock is ticking, and has, in fact, probably ticked too far for them to ever make serious waves in their chosen field. What constitutes ‘making it’ is debatable, but let’s start with a little income, recognition and acclaim. And maybe groupies. For our purposes, making it means being able to take out a crippling mortgage on a ramshackle shoebox, nee ‘renovator’s dream’, in my inner-city suburb of Darlington, Sydney.

If you’re an actor, making it means being occasionally recognised, and not just from police line-ups or an erectile dysfunction infomercial that airs at 3am. No, you’d want to be known for a reasonably fat role in a moderately successful Australian film. Or even a bit part in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of Citizen Kane. Making it as an author means you can live for six months on the advance for your second novel, which will hit the critical sweetspot and be reviewed with rolled gold lines like “major new Australian voice”. As a painter, making it means your first major exhibition garners the phrase “shades of early Whiteley”. (Shades of late Whiteley being a little smelly).

Yep, there’s a whole planet of arty aspirants just out your window, fretting, sweating and mouldering away in crap life-sentence jobs, dreaming of swapping the drudgery of writing bitter post-it notes on the office fridge for the drudgery of writing books. They think their hour has passed and that their talents are doomed to join them unlamented in the grave; that their great artistic gift, unwrapped and unwanted by a race of pig-ignorant philistines, will do nothing but languish and rot (good name for a law firm, that, Languish and Rot). It’s all too cruel. If you’re not dancing Swan Lake at the Opera House by the time you’re 22, forget it. If you’ve not published/recorded/exhibited by at least 35, default to dream number two and become a junkie windscreen washer, or loon who stands on street corners sandwiched between cardboard placards that proclaim the second coming of Anthony Robbins, or L. Ron. Hubbard, or UFO’s. Because, of course, most of these artsy wannabes are deluded, many of them mad. Most are talentless dabblers who couldn’t conceive with a whole sperm bank, let alone conceive a decent novel. But that’s not your problem, in fact that’s your meal-ticket: these poor saps are the ones who’ll buy your book!

In spotlighting artists who made it late, The Eleventh Hour will give heart to the artistically disabled and inspire in them the unreasonable expectation that ‘yes, it’s not too late! If they can do it, so can I!’ Design-wise, I envisage a smallish front-of-counter at the bookshop book, something that sits next to that bloody Blue Day Book right up beside cash register; a book bought at the last minute on impulse to cheer up your poor old mate Terry, who’s peddled his tattered manuscript to every publisher and his dog for years only to suffer repetitive rejection syndrome. He’s just been knocked back again and this is the book to buck him up. (Though rather than bucking him up, Terry may well snarl ‘fuck off’ as he shoves the book up your arse). The fact that you’ve read Terry’s manuscript, Portaloo Sunset, and know it to be derivative, illiterate tripe that stinks worse than said Portaloo after a three-day rock fest, is beside the point. It’s the thought that counts, and it might just cheer Terry up. (Although at 87 he really is starring down the barrel, and a Euthanasia for Dummies handbook might be a better bet).

Okay, some random examples of folks who’ve made late arrivals? Joining young Rush on stage we have Anthony Hopkins (30, first film), DBC Pierre (42, Booker Prize for first book Vernon God Little), Tug Dumbly (45, first … err, let’s move on), Kev Carmody (49, first album), Charles Bukowski (49, first book), Stan Lee (in his 40’s when he cooked up Spider-Man and a bunch of other superheroes), Raymond Chandler (45, first short story, 51 The Big Sleep), Elizabeth Jollie (53, first book), Laura Ingalls Wilder (65, first book in Little House on the Prairie series). But taking the cake the late, great Emily Kngwarreye, an aboriginal painter who held her first exhibition at 80, and whose work now sells for squillions. The list goes on, but for simplicity’s sake let’s focus on the small picture and keep the first edition Australian – Geoffrey, Kev, Liz, Emily, et al. (Later on you can franchise localised versions to other countries).

The format’s a snack. A snappy introductory essay, followed by two pages on each subject, one being a nice full-page photo of them at work, and on the facing page a potted bio and history of the artist’s trials and tribulations on the corpse-strewn road to glory. List their breakthrough moment and life philosophy, showing that with work, determination, commitment, dedication, single-minded focus and burning self-belief (Phew, I’m buggered!) anyone can make it to pursue their dreams and live to the hilt the truly authentic life they were destined to live. (We wouldn’t have to broach the pesky idea that talent too might be a pre-requisite). The subjects could be living or dead (preferably at a decent age) and interviews/séances would have to be conducted, permissions sought, backgrounds sourced and researched. It’s a little bit of work, but not too taxing. If you’re really lazy employ a research assistant, like I have for this synopsis. (My sweet Gini helped me Google up the above list of candidates. Thanks a ton, hun!) The subjects wouldn’t necessarily have to be outrageously famous, and in fact it’d probably be good to highlight a couple of more obscure late bloomers so as to make the punter’s dreams seem more achievable.

If you could be bothered doing it the project’s a sure-fire hit. How do I know? I once told a publisher with Penguin about the idea at a party. I was under the influence of ego at the time, officer, and promptly failed to remember the conversation. But a couple of weeks later he emailed me out of the blue to say he’d put the idea to a meeting of his fellow Penguins and they liked it and wanted me to send a fleshed-out proposal. I emailed back saying I hadn’t actually been pitching the idea to him at the party, just chewing the fat, and I couldn’t actually be arsed doing the thing myself. He emailed back in perplexity and annoyance that I’d been wasting his time. I emailed back a pitch for an idea to publish my Book of Ideas. I’m yet to hear back.

So, there you have it, The Eleventh Hour (or possibly Bloomin’ Late?). It’s yours for the taking, served up on a platter. All I ask is a small acknowledgement and cut of the loot. Get researching!

Friday, February 4, 2011

"One of our Parking Officers is Missing"

– idea for a sketch, short film or feature.

Everyone hates parking cops, even their spouses and pets. That’s why they usually roam in pairs, so they don’t get punched out by irate motorists. A while back in the news there were concerned reports of attacks on parking officers. I was puzzled. Parking officers? Being beaten up? Is there a problem? And not to seem shallow, but why are they all so bloody unattractive? Are ugly people attracted to the job, or does the job turn them ugly? I mean they are uniformly, without exception, to a man and woman, as ugly as a hatful of arseholes – waddling dumpsters with faces like a panful of burnt bacon. With all the walking they do you’d think they might lose a bit of lard. Then again, these days if their prey is parked more than a block away they’ll drive. No point sweating off good calories.

But somebody’s gotta do the job, right? I mean just imagine if these zealous tyre chalkers weren’t taking their daily quota of scalps. What would the poor council do without all those millions milked from parking-meter miscreants topping their coffers? The Mayor would be reduced to busking in train tunnels. Look, I know it’s not rational to shoot the messenger. Someone’s gotta be the hangman. Someone’s gotta burn dogs at the pound. But it doesn’t mean you’d want to invite them around for a foot massage.

I should be able to empathise with parking cops. In another life I worked for Centrelink, deep in Dodge City at their Redfern branch, so I know what it is to be hated. Part of the job was manning the desk at reception (“deception”, I called it). With a security guard hovering close, I fielded flack and foam-flecked fury from the glowering queue of “customers”, who frequently felt they’d been screwed by some bureaucratic bungle, cut to, or cancellation of their dole. Frequently they had been screwed, and had kids and grievous ice habits to feed. Only not in that order. I also did time in Centrelink’s call centre, dispensing bad advice and trying to patch up what few blunders I could. People rarely rang to wish me a good day. A good many wished me dead. Even protected by the anonymity of a phone line, their rancour made me cringe.

Years later - and on the other side of the dole counter - my shortest job was as a telemarketer. It lasted fifteen minutes. I didn’t even have to sell stuff, just ask a questionnaire. (Mind you, the questionnaire was on “in vitro fertilisation”, a tricky concept to explain to an eighty-year-old Albanian pensioner). I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand bothering people, plaguing them like a malarial mosquito right when they were in the middle of dinner, or tv, or chucking crockery at each other. After a few fruitless calls I hung up the headset and said “I quit”. The supervisor, haunted eyes packed with heavy black bags, nodded his understanding. I walked out and celebrated by blowing my dole on cigars and Veuve Clicquot.

I found those jobs tough. How much more impossible then would it be to pull on that parking officer rig each morning and walk out to face a hating world? You might as well stick a leper bell around your neck. Though who knows, maybe they’re proud of their job. Maybe they’re brave, or insane, or maybe they’re sadists. Who knows, out of uniform they might be kind, loving, charitable human beings, crossbreeds of Ghandi and St Francis. But I don’t care. I just can’t wring any pity from my shrivelled black heart for a creature that would stoop to ticket my car with a $200.00 fine early on a Sunday morning in a deserted back lane where I’d stopped for five minutes to drop my kid off for a playdate. Bastard! No, like all my fellow victims, I hate ‘em, which is why a film serving up some vicarious revenge would chime with a big audience. Here’s the idea:

“One of Our Parking Officers is Missing”. A parking officer disappears off the streets, and the next day another. Then, before panic sets in and security can be upped, dozens of parking cops go missing in the one day, just spirited off the beat and off the street into thin air. Their cars are found undisturbed, ala the Mary Celeste, with engines still running, radios set to Alan Jones and half-eaten buckets of Kentucky Fried inside. Where are they? They’ve being kidnapped by a gang of aggrieved motorists who’ve banded together to exact revenge after being slugged with a ticket for some triviality once too often - maybe their car was a few millimetres too far from the kerb, or they were ambushed in a no-parking zone right outside their house, where they’d stopped for two minutes to unload a car of groceries.

So, the captive cops are transported in a lorry to a secret prison farm in the country, where they are forced to conform to a severely rigid set of rules. The camp is festooned with warning signs that detail all kinds of prohibited behaviour, and denote zones where certain things must be strictly complied with. For example “PRISONERS MUST BOOTSCOOT BETWEEN BARACKS AND TOILET BLOCK. SEVERE PENALTIES FOR NON-COMPLIANCE APPLY”.

Even the slightest infringement attracts a ticket from the guards, which they stick, in its manila envelope, into the perp’s top pocket – say, $125 for a messy bed, $175 for slovenly uniform, $200 for anything-less-than-spotless washing-up in the mess hall (where, cruelly, the inmates are fed nothing but salad and forced to listen to Radio National). Tickets are issued for walking too fast. Or too slow. Or too close or too far away from boundaries. Loiterers and malingerers are ankle-clamped to the spot. The toilets have parking meters that expire every minute, and if not re-fed with coins auto-issue a ticket from the toilet paper dispenser. The bunks also have meters attached, which if not re-fed every two hours trigger a violent mechanical shaking of the mattress.

Obviously the inmates would soon run out of cash to pay all their mounting fines, so the tickets get forwarded to the particular council that employs that parking cop, along with a demand for settlement: “ … OR ELSE MR RAMAREZ GETS IT!” What Mr Ramarez gets wouldn’t be specified, but we can assume some cruel and unusual punishment, like being strapped to a chair and smell-boarded with the aroma of deep-fried chicken. But the system would have to be fair. If they wished, prisoners could elect to dispute the fine and have the matter heard before a court – a court convened via live video linkup with a jury of aggrieved motorists.

How to end? There could be a mass escape, like the Cowra breakout. The bush swarms with desperado parking officers on the run, waddling towards freedom. But the very sight of them, in parking officer uniforms and with the words “I AM A PARKING COP” crudely tattooed across their foreheads, makes farmers set dogs onto them. Drivers not only won’t pick them up, but swerve to try and run them down. Hunters mistake them for feral pigs …

… Or, try a nicer ending …

The parking officers are re-educated, ala Alex in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of being forced to watch footage of cruelty, horror and violence, they are subjected to unrelenting scenes of charity, sweetness and kindness – gambolling lambs, laughing children at play, newborn babes, Kristina Keneally being euthanased ….

Or just give them a good old fashioned brainwashing, ala The Manchurian Candidate. After they’ve been programmed, drug and deposit them back to the location from which they were abducted. They wake with no recollection of anything that has occurred between their kidnapping and now – no inkling of who took them, where they were taken, or even that they were taken at all. Of course they undergo an intense barrage of questioning and speculation – where the hell have they been all these weeks, these months? But it’s a mystery, no one knows, least of all the cops themselves. As far as they’re concerned they just had a bloody good sleep on the job. (A sleep in which, oddly, they dropped twenty kilos).

Things eventually settle down and the cops return to the beat (replete with homemade salads and a Pavlovian repugnance for fast food). Only now, the act of lifting a wiper to slap a ticket on a windscreen triggers a sudden compulsion to screw up the ticket and replace it with a flower and card, worded something like “Dearest driver, please, if you wouldn’t mind awfully, at some stage in the near-ish future, might you perhaps kindly consider relocating your car? I mean, only at your convenience, of course! Thanks a million. Have a really, really special day!”