Confessions of a Petrolhead Wannabe

The Batmobile

It’s not that I want to be a petrolhead; it just looks like I do, if you consider my recent vehicular history. Actually, I am far more into history than cars but the reality is that if you want to get around a big city like Melbourne safely and efficiently at all hours, you have to drive. Perhaps a more honest title for this would be: Motoring Mistakes I Have Made – grand errors and regrettable lapses, just trying to get from point A to B.

I learnt the word “petrolhead” at The State Theatre when a fellow dance reviewer called me that as we were milling about before the ballet. I was bemoaning the departure of Bill Tuckey, former motoring editor from his newspaper, a rival broadsheet. “You’re a petrolhead!” my colleague declared without telling me exactly what happened to Bill Tuckey, who had a very funny turn of phrase. I had ample opportunity to familiarise myself with Tuckey terminology because at the time, I was also working, in a most lowly capacity, on a trade publication for the motor industry. Trade publications are the cannibals of the press and live by stewing up information quoted from other published sources. Often quoted, Bill Tuckey was funny and funny is good, always. If I thought there were any jokes in Tuckey’s 1987 classic, “The Rise and Fall of Peter Brock” I would track down a copy and sink my fangs into it.

When Brocky died, I pretended to care, deeply. I was driving my white manual Barina City, 1996, known as the Batmobile. I was on Glenfern Rd, Upwey, with the densely verdant foothills of the Dandenongs on my right and the rolling grazing fields of Lysterfield on my left, when I got a call from Bill Allan, my octagenarian tenant at whose place I had just been ten minutes before. “Peter Brock’s dead!” he announced.

No way!” I exclaimed right back, top of my voice because my hearing is not good and my handsfree mobile phone technique is even worse. The undulating road rose and fell beneath the Batmobile’s small but nimble wheels, as Bill filled in the bare details.

Brocky had wrapped himself around a tree during a rally. As I was in a simulated rally terrain, I drove with even more care. The legendary champion, by then over sixty, was now retired for good. Bill said all drivers on the road were turning on their headlights. I joined the throng. Maybe I had never seen a car race. Maybe I was opposed to having the Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake reserve and had made a protest sign, which I taped to the rear window of my white, manual Suzuki Swift sedan,1992 : “Ducks can’t wear earplugs,” but the death of a legend is serious. Likewise, Bill Allan was a Ford driver while Brock was Holden, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. I was transfixed by the irony of Brock having such an exemplary fit body – and not just for his age – at the time of his death. Also, I couldn’t believe it was an “accident”, especially since the rally passenger escaped, not just alive, but relatively unharmed. I only formed my suicide theory later. I also firmly believe that Princess Diana was definitely murdered.

In fact, it was my inappropriate reaction to the latter’s death that made me treat the deaths of celebrities with sensitivity. Normally, I don’t listen to the car radio but at the time of Diana’s car crash I had just done a live radio ballet review, so, driving home, I listened to the Sunday arts show for which I worked. The news of Diana’s car crash came through. “Wouldn’t it be good if she died!” I said, wide-eyed about the press feeding frenzy this would inspire. Then, Diana died and my daughter accusingly reminded me of my terrible words. She did this more than a few times. It was pretty hard to explain that when I said what I had said, I wasn’t thinking about Diana, the mother of two young children etc, but rather of the soap opera character that she had created in collusion with the press. That was the last time I would fall into such callousness.

Brocky’s death was no joke. Crocodile cuddler Steve Irwin had only died just before, so it was two legends in a rapid row. I immediately rang my sister Marta. Her husband answered the phone. I warned him not to do anything dangerous because we were now two legends down and there was bound to be a third. When my sister took the phone, I told her the news – no, she hadn’t heard and she was almost as hard hit by it as me. Actually, she’s not much into sport. For instance, I might say something about Ricky Ponting captain of the Australian cricket team – in whom I started taking a wary interest after I heard him declared, “the most dangerous man in cricket” which made me ask, why haven’t the police picked him up? – and Marta says, “Who’s Ricky Ponting?” to which I can say, “My point, exactly.”

Marta’s real soft spot is football. Her love of the Collingwood football club goes way back to when she was in her late teens and studying cello at the Victorian College of the Arts, when it was a proper performing arts academy focused on the arts as practice rather than essay topics about arts pracitce. We had gone to The Club in Smith St Collingwood to see a band called INXS because a former English student of mine was going out with the lead singer. As nightclubs were the only places you could get an alcoholic drink after 10 pm, they often attracted a seedy drunken element among the desirably well-heeled, young patrons. If the drunks caused no trouble, they were welcome to spend as much at the bar as their guts and bladders could hold. We were waiting for the band to come on, when a drunk siddled up to Marta. He wore a shabby, brown overcoat, was unshaven and had some grey through his messy hair. Today he would pass for the new, high disposable income inner-bayside residents who are only distinguishable from the homeless by their Audis/BMWs and pricey joggers.

The chat-up went like this:

Collingwood did good today,” he began, balancing himself by the beer glass he was clutching.

I wouldn’t know,” replied Marta coldly, as the rest of her party moved away, laughing politely.

Doncha follow the Vee-eF-L?” he asked, stunned that he had wasted such a gem of a pick-up line on a non-believer. We were in Collingwood territory and the Magpies had won that Saturday!

No. I think football is for morons.”

Was the gentleman admirer an idiot savant who opened Marta’s eyes to the aesthetics of football or it a cosmic irony that nowadays, when the Victorian Football League has stretched itself across the nation as the AFL, most of Marta’s pets are in the Collingwood club colours of black and white?

When I passed on the news of Brocky’s demise, I was driving a Holden. They had come a long way since my first driving lesson when a Mr Dowd from Ronald’s Driving School made me sit on two phone books so that I could work the pedals of his Holden sedan, which fortunately had dual controls. My Batmobile can transport six saddleback timber chairs in one trip but I bought it because it looked nice. So, although I passed for a petrolhead at the ballet, I clearly didn’t think like one. Colour is very important, too, and I can really only drive white cars. And that’s probably why I can’t drive my red Mustang much, if at all. It also partly explains why I have even more difficulty with my Subaru Impreza, which is called “white”, but the metallic, gold underlights make it a very pale pinky cream.

Of all colours, white is the most controversial and colour experts will tell you that it isn’t a “colour” at all, nevertheless, it happens to be my favourite colour and my panacea for all grief. Nothing is more therapeutic for me than an hour spent in my totally white laundry, washing “whites”. So how do I come to own a red Mustang or even a Mustang at all? Aside from the name and my strong identification with horses – unlike most people, in former lives I wasn’t a queen or Julius Caesar or even a human, judging by my incompetence at being one currently, but I do believe I was a horse, perhaps a mustang, but definitely a wild horse – I also think it looks nice. My first mistake, aside from buying the car at all, was being honest about this when sourcing insurance for the car.

I learned quickly that only a specialist insurer would underwrite a fully imported car, so I rang Shannons “Specialist Insurance for Motoring Enthusiasts.” I was asked questions that I can’t remember now and then couldn’t answer. No, I wasn’t in any car club, had no affiliations with any motoring apart from private commuting and when I had a flat tyre, I called the rescue service (or RACV road assist, as it’s known in the trade). My interrogator finally asked, “WHY did you buy the car?” Sensing his exasperation, I attempted to be as pleasant as possible. “Because it looks nice.” This was not enough for Shannons, as I had failed to demonstrate that I was an enthusiast. Lucky for him that I had refrained from demonstrating my no nonsense, “Jeez, you don’t muck about” side, which actually would have ticked all his boxes and gone something like this:

Listen,” I would begin in a tone that implied, “Listen, shitbag, I’m the customer here!”

… if you can’t help me, could you please put me through to your manager or someone of enough seniority to handle my request. Correct me, if I’m wrong, but yours is an insurance company for imported cars, which my car is. It is a Ford Mustang, 1994, 3.8 lt V 6 automatic red coupé righthand drive converted with 61,000 km on the clock. The kilometers are genuine, it has never been in an accident, it came into Australia from Japan in 1997. Obviously you have no idea how hard it is to find a Mustang 3.8 lt V6 auto in Australia. Everyone wants the 5 lt V8 manuals but have you ever tried the clutch on those? I normally don’t drive autos because I use the clutch to work my abdominal muscles and keep my gut flat.

And yes, it’s true, if I could have bought a 2 lt 4cyl manual version of the same Mustang made smaller but retaining the same proportions as the 1994-1998 model, I would have. That model was 4610mm long and 1884 wide and I believe one of the shortest Mustangs ever. The shorter the car, the better for parking, the easier to manoeuvre and I don’t have to tell you about the importance of avoiding damage to your car. You’re in insurance, I am a RATINGS 1 FOR LIFE driver. When I get my insurance renewal notices, I get an “AAMI Award for Excellence in Driving” sticker, which I normally toss but I have now put on my Barina to let everyone (“shitbags like you,” – implied) know that my driving is praised in some quarters.

But it’s not just the length of this Mustang. It’s also the proportions. The model is part of the Fourth Generation design, which took the look back to the classic 60s coupé – don’t start me on the fastbacks (fancy term for a hatch), I think they are really ugly like deformed slugs – and was produced from 1994 to 2004, however by 1999, the car became longer by 42 mm(4653) and narrower by 27mm (1857). That might not sound much different to you, but it is to me because I bought the car “because it looks nice.”

I wouldn’t have even bothered to start on the pony badge on the car’s front – a magical silver silhouette of a stylized horse, all hooves off the ground, tail flying, my idealized self-portrait. After many years of reviewing dance and bonsaiing my intellectual property for the unfiltered readership of the daily press, I’m very careful with whom I discuss aesthetics on an equal footing. So, luckily, I didn’t say any of the above because Shannons are very expensive insurers and ponce about with all sorts of demands, according to a woman I know who likes and has owned big American classic cars from the 1950s.

Then I rang Torque Insurance and found that, indeed, Torque is cheap. The man there was so nice that I let him look at my car via email and he said it looked really nice. There’s too much nasty in the world these days. I loved everything about Torque. When the soothing man asked how many kilometers I intended to drive the Mustang per year, I volunteered “100 a week?” Being innumerate, I had no idea but have since leaned that it’s not even 50 a month. I know this because Torque was taken over by Lumley Special Vehicles and they want an annual odometer reading.

When you buy a car because “it looks nice,” it should be obvious that you mainly want to “look” at it. Is that so wrong, even if it is surprisingly fuel efficient and inexpensive to maintain? But my Mustang isn’t just beautiful on the outside. The horse logo is repeated on the steering wheel. On the rare occasions when I drive the car, and I’m putting lanolin on my hands, I rub a little on the pony and make him shine even more. I love that little pony.

I discovered the cosmetic benefits of lanolin after running my hands through a sheep’s fleece while the sheep was still wearing it. My genuine fondness for sheep has not lured me into buying a Jumbuck ute “the toughest little half-tonner in town,” cute as they are, because they are front wheel drive and, since I even get bogged in rearwheel drives, for a proper workmobile, I need an all-wheel drive. If I was a real petrolhead, I would be able to take off at traffic lights on slippery wet roads without spinning the wheels and freaking out about some hotfooter ramming it right up my exhaust. Nor would I be getting bogged on rough roads that the towtruck driver assures me would be no problem for an all-wheel drive. You only need to be bogged a few times to accept that you genuinely need an all-wheel drive car and that’s why I have one. It’s an Impreza, a word that has become my synonym for anything that gives me a headache, which the Impreza literally does.

This car, the 2007 hatch – not the old sportswagon style that I had gone to buy two months too late – but the new super safe model that has so many air bags stuffed into it, you cannot see out of the car because the front pillars are so wide and the doors and the dashboard are so high. Even when I jack up the seat high enough to see a little better, making my legs bang against the steering column, visibility out of the car is still so poor, it strains my eyes and leads to headaches.

The front seats are designed for slouching and if you have a strong straight spine that will not be distorted to fit the curvature of the seat, the headrest bangs into the pressure points on the back of your head. This also leads to bad headaches. I have addressed this problem by swapping the front headrest for one of the smaller straighter ones from the rear.

Pity I can’t swap the clutch, which is oddly sensitive and does not release until about half way out. Don’t try fiddley reverse parking in busy city streets. Take extreme care at the lights or you’ll get rammed up the exhaust. And speaking of exhausts, the cabin ventillation is abysmal except for the mysterious draught that still blows on your feet from under the driver’s dash even when you have the heater on. The first time I froze like this, I took it well and instead of selling the car, which had been my first impulse, I went straight to a shoe shop and bought three pairs of different types of boots to cover different occasions and different degrees of cold. “Turn a negative into a positive,” is one of my motos. Two winters later, I still love and wear all those boots and I still hate the car because, although I have warm feet, I can’t get enough air for breathing. Unless I open the window at least half way, the slope of the window glass scoops the outside air up over my head while all that comes from the air vents is the stench of plastic and some feeble puffs of warm air. Maybe you are supposed to use the air-conditioning, which I can’t because all air-cond gives me a headache.

The car’s factory-fitted battery was a mega-problem. If you didn’t drive the car for two weeks, it would go flat. Trying to discuss the problem with the Subaru service people was impossible because the service phone number is not linked to any service department, it is merely a service appointment booking line. If you only want to ask a technical question, you have to take the car in for a service because the telephonists know nothing about cars and can’t let you speak to anyone who does. As I had already been through this whole process after a dashboard light played up, I couldn’t bear to be mucked about so painfully again. The light in question is one that shows the car in a wobbling position; according to the manual, if this light comes on, you have to contact the service department immediately, which I did. When I took the car in, they tested it at length, found nothing wrong and sent me off, saying that the next time it happened, they would have to keep the car for a whole day. As the faulty light would eventually switch itself off, I saw no point in having more of my time wasted by the endless number of Subaru employees you had to deal with to organise any kind of assistance, let alone actually get anything done.

(The faulty dashboard light was due to a software problem that Subaru addressed by issuing a warranty recall. A letter, dated 5 February, 2010, informed:

Subaru (Aust) Pty Limited (“Subaru Australia”) has been advised by Fuji Heavy Industries (the manufacturer of Subaru Vehicles) that certain 2008 to 2009 model year Subaru Impreza vehicles without turbocharger can unnecessarily log an engine operation fault code. This is due to a “software bug” within the engine control unit (ECU) that causes illumination of a warning light, indicating incorrectly, that there is a performance concern with the exhaust catalytic converter.”

They fixed it by re-programming the ECU.)

The battery problem was eventually sorted after we strolled into a suburban Subaru dealership, where, unlike at the fancy city one from which I bought the car, employees who know something about cars also do their own reception. They talk the talk, walk the walk and fix the car. A new battery, supplied on warranty solved the problem.

To be fair to the Impreza, it cannot be faulted on wet slippery roads. The ventilation is not a problem then because I am so tense that I barely breathe. The visibility remains a blight but since I smashed the car’s front righthand panel on an obstruction just below my sightline, I have been triply cautions. It’s nerve racking and slower, but much cheaper. The dogs quite like the Impreza and for them it would be much more comfortable than the back of the mighty Toyota Hilux Workmate ute, the only vehicle my husband has ever owned. However, open the Mustang door and our Barry will be right behind you in the hope of getting into the back seat. They say that the back of the Mustang is not really for passngers but they haven’t run that one past Barry Boxer.

How I came to get the Mustang is a rollicking story involving the maxim ‘famous last words/careful what you wish for,’ eccentric car dealers, a sign from Elvis and a belief that I wouldn’t get pushed around on the roads if I had a tough car. But that’s another story.

Blazenka Brysha

Interview with Colin Peasley OAM

Colin Peasley OAM is regarded as one of the great character dancers on the world ballet stage of the last 50 years. In this archival interview from 2004, he gives a unique insight into the art for which he is internationally celebrated. Originally published at  30/03/2004.

Colin Peasley (Photo: Blazenka Brysha)

“I have never believed that character roles weren’t important. These days they tend to be devalued and I can understand that because if you spend ten years learning to point your foot and to jump up ten feet and turn in the air, then somebody says, ‘I want you to stand here, make two faces and walk off.’ – that doesn’t seem to be what you’ve been working for. I can understand why dancers don’t like it…” Colin Peasley

Colin Peasley’s forty year career on the ballet stage is a unique achievement not only for its longevity but for the sheer magnitude of its phenomenal creative output. Peasley is blessed with a genius for characterization that has enabled him to tackle an extreme range of roles from over-the-top to minutely understated – fops, friars, diplomats and witches. Whether he is an actor who became a dancer or a dancer who transformed himself into an actor is a moot point. The facts are that he is most definitely a dancer and, without question, also an actor. This interview focuses on Colin’s approach to characterization and performance in general, speaking candidly of his many experiences, including working with Nureyev, Bruhn, Helpmann and Graeme Murphy.

My primary interest in theatre has always been performance, and if I can borrow Graeme Murphy’s notion that “every life must have a theme song”, at the back of my mind, the late Bon Scott struts through the ACDC anthem Show Business on an endless loop.

While Bon Scott was involuntarily retrenched by the Grim Reaper, regrettably, in most instances, the ballet dancer tends to choose retirement from the stage just as his or her expressive powers start to develop along strongly individual lines.

Ironically, however, it is the story ballet – the art’s most traditional form – that has allowed the older dancer to have a presence on stage and accounted for some of the best dance performances I have ever seen. This, of course, is in the capacity of the “character” role, a part requiring stronger acting skills than acrobatic ability but, because the performance communicates through movement only, I have come to regard this facet of ballet performance as the subtlest form of dance.

My interest in “character” roles goes back several decades to when I fell in with a group of ballet goers who were rabid Ken Whitmore fans. Whitmore, who was a member of The Australian Ballet (1977-84) and is now deceased, was doing character roles exclusively by that stage though he was still a relatively young man. His interpretation of Friar Laurence (Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet) filled the fans with reverential worship. His Widow Simone (Ashton’s Fille mal gardée) delighted them with its campy cheek and I still remember the season when Whitmore sent a quiver of excitement through his following by doing his make-up for this part to look like the new artistic director Maina Gielgud. It was as the foppishly brittle King of France in Prokovsky’s The Three Musketeers that Whitmore impressed me most and it was through his work that I became interested in “character”. If Ken Whitmore was the tutor of my undergraduate experience of “character”, it is by watching Colin Peasley that I have reached postdoctoral fellowship.

The following interview took place on Tuesday, March 16, 2004, in Colin Peasley’s office at The Australian Ballet Centre, where he is Education Programme Manager.

In The Australian Ballet’s early days, you danced your fair share of corps roles – peasants, gentlemen, czardas and pavanes – but you also appeared as Drosselmeyer in Casse Noisette (after Lichine, 1963) and as the Master of Ceremonies in Aurora’s Wedding (van Praagh after Petipa, 1964). Were these your first forays into character, how did you get the parts and what do you remember of the experience?

They weren’t my first character parts. I’d been doing character parts with Valerine Tweedie’s little amateur group in Sydney and when I was learning, I danced with a lot of amateur companies, which is the only thing that was around in those days. So, I tended to do works for the Halliday sisters – they had a group called the Sydney Ballet Company; something run over in North Shore, which was called Sydney Youth Ballet and I played the wolf in Peter and the Wolf for that and various roles like that. And even on television, for instance, I did Kastchei in The Firebird on ABC television. I’ve always had a penchent for acting and I think this is probably what Peggy van Praagh saw in ’63 when she was casting Nutcracker and possibly I was the oldest corps de ballet dancer there (Colin was born in 1934) and that may have influenced her, too.

The roles were wonderful and they were very fulfilling and and I have been very lucky in my entire time that I have never believed that character roles weren’t important. These days they tend to be devalued and I can understand that because if you spend ten years learning to point your foot and to jump up ten feet and turn in the air, then somebody says, “I want you to stand here, make two faces and walk off,” – that doesn’t seem to be what you’ve been working for. I can understand why dancers don’t like it but it worries me that artistic directors and reproducers of ballet don’t always give character work full credit.

Can you tell us more about the ABC production of The Firebird – who mounted it?

It was done by Valrene Tweedie in Sydney and at that stage I was working for the ABC as one of the ABC permanent dancers. We worked for Light Variety, it was called something like that and the producer was James Upshaw. We did all of those Dick Bentley shows, Make My Music and a hundred different shows. Occasionally, we did a serious work and Firebird was one of them.

Who danced the Firebird role?

It was probably Ruth Galene because she was ballerina at the time and did a lot of those things.

I always think of you as having “started” with Bodenwieser. How did you get into dance and how did you get to Bodenwieser?

Dance was a very big problem. In the 1950s. when I wanted to dance, it was looked upon as very strange if a fellow wanted to dance. I’ll go back on that: if I had said to my father that I wanted to be a violinist, or an easel artist or anybody in the arts, I would have been looked upon as strange. Artists were seen as long-hairs, as a bit weird. To ask to be a dancer was something that was not allowed. So, one: it hadn’t crossed my mind because it was taboo, and two: if it had, I wouldn’t have been allowed to do it anyway.

However, my sister wanted to do her début – it was a time when people “made their début” – and she needed someone to partner her in the formation waltzes and things you had to do to make your début and so, I took up ballroom dancing and caught the bug from that.

While I was ballroom dancing, I went through all those medals: gold bars, gold stars, every award possible, because I’m obsessive in all I do and then I started exhibition dancing. Well, in exhibition dancing you have to pick the girls up and throw them around and put them down; I was picking them up all right but I couldn’t put them down without falling over, so, I went to an adagio teacher, and the adagio teacher was on the floor above the Bodenwieser studio. One day when I was coming down, the studio door was open. I looked in and saw real dancing for the first time. Real dancing because the whole body was being used. They were throwing themselves to the floor and doing all sorts of wonderful things. It was a time when there were some really interesting women in there and I was amazed as I stood in the door. That was a stupid thing to do because boys were like hen’s teeth, so, any boy who stood in the door and looked like he might be interested, was about to be dragged in and inducted. And I was dragged in by Gertrud and I was told I must join the group instantly and I did. And I loved every minute of it because it’s expressive; ballroom dancing is not expressive. So, it probably gets back to me wanting to be an actor all the time.

Can you put a year to that encounter?

Yes it was probably 1958, maybe’57.

Can you name some of the women in the company at the time?

One person was Moira Claux, whose father opened the first nudist colony in Australia and I remember her because there was always a flash of breast around, which I thought was absolutely wonderful and kept me there even more than what dancing did. Others were Coralie Hinkley, Eva Nadas, Margaret Chappel and Anita Ardell. Keith Bain was the only male dancer who kept on going.

What is the legacy you took from Bodenwieser?

The fact that it was true dancing, that it involved the whole body. It brought out the fact that dance is a communication. Ballroom dance isn’t really a communication; it’s nice to do and it’s a social way of getting around but it’s not a communication like modern dance. I thought Bodenwieser’s approach to the teaching of dance was amazing, mainly because she was a woman who had a Graeme Murphy approach to creation. It just flowed out. I’ve never seen things flow out of a person as fast as this. She was a funny little woman, who was always in mourning. She used to always wear black in mourning for her husband who died in a German concentration camp. She would wear what was called “summer suits”, with little slackey-type trousers and a little veil over her eyes. And, if you fell over – I thought this was the best thing ever – she would immediately take you into the office and give you a little sip of sherry. I kept falling over all the time and that’s why my mind’s gone now, from her helping me on falling over!

It was theatre, really good theatre.

How would you describe Bodenwieser as an artist?

Being a middle European, being Austrian, Bodenwieser’s modern dance was entirely different to American – which I didn’t know at the time. It wasn’t about everybody becoming clones of Martha Graham, or clones of some other choreographer. Martha Graham built her technique on her own body. The middle Europeans tried to bring out your movement qualities and they did this through improvisation, not only single improvisation but group improvisation. Every Bodenwieser class finished with some improvisation. It may have been just Bela Dolesko (Bodenwieser’s musical associate) playing something on the piano while we interpreted the music, or, it may have been a story like the Three Wise Virgins, which we did regularly. I don’t know what a “wise virgin” is but we would do these biblical tales and we would make up dance to it. I found this liberating.

And what would you say about her as a person – after all she was instrumental to your serious start in dance?

I got to her very late in life, because you know she died in ’59, so she probably wasn’t a very well woman. But I still marvel at the way she had been able to transpose modern dance from Europe into the colonies – can you imagine coming from such cultured places, firstly to New Zealand and then over to Sydney, then starting from scratch, her group going around on the Tivoli circuit – it must have been horrendous for her. And she had enough impetus, enough strength and enough drive to get this going and to start a modern dance group in a really foreign soil.

But you could also turn that around and say that it must have been very inspiring and even exhilarating for her to come to a place where she was clearly so welcomed. Consider the people who gravitated towards her and the fact that she left such an enormous legacy, it must have somehow been rewarding for her, too?

Yes, that she was the sole perpetrator of all this meant that she had nobody competing but then that’s also a problem because half the thing about modern dance or any art form is that you need other input, you need to digest other sources to find out whether you are going right, or wrong, or just regurgitating what you’ve done. These days you can see videos and things; she never saw anything like that.

It’s an unimaginable leap from Bodenwieser – modern dance pioneer, avant garde artist – to custodian of character interpretation for a major classical ballet company – or is it? Can you explain?

Yes, but I think people misunderstand what modern dance was like in the ’50s – it was still based on stories. Even Martha Graham’s early works were all stories and Doris Humphrey’s and all of those people’s. So I did The Imaginary Invalid for Bodenwieser, we did Errand into a Maze. They were basically stories, they may not have been a Dr Coppelius story but they were still places where you had to define the character and portray that character to make that work sensible. So it wasn’t such a big trip at all.

In fact, I would say it gave me better insight into what character work was. Bodenwieser didn’t have a corps de ballet; you didn’t stand at the back, in fifth position with your arms in a demi-seconde looking beautiful – everybody was contributing so that even when you were a crowd you were focusing towards the centre. So, to come into a ballet company where people just stand in lines and look mindless, I found unbelievable. So, too, the fact that people actually had to come around and say, “in this part, when Giselle comes on, everybody’s got to focus on Giselle…”.

What about the fact that the style of technique you would have used with Bodenwieser was not as regimented as that of ballet? How much freedom did that allow?

She did start with a ballet barre. Her classes started at the barre, not accenting turnout as much as classical ballet does but we did a barre to start the work on an ordinary day. As soon as we left the barre, her center work was always inventive; she could make an entire class out of one step: you’d do the step in different ways, with different accents, with different rhythms, with a jump in it, with a turn in it, you could do it as a progression, as a group thing. It’s amazing how she could develop one movement into all of these things. Although, I know what you’re talking about – classical dance is terribly regimented – her approach, I think, was nowhere near as regimented. Since then, I’ve done Martha Graham classes and they’re as regimented as possible, very codified. And, it’s a problem.

Classical ballet is a step system and by that I mean “we call this a glissade, we call this an assemblé, that a jeté. That’s a strength but it’s also a great weakness because words don’t mean the same to everyone. For instance, old to a ten year-old is an 18 years-old; old to me is someone 118. So, if I say to somebody, “I want you to do a glissade assemblé,” they’re drawing on their knowledge of what this is and it may not be what I think it is. This is where modern dance triumphs – except for Graham – because they don’t give the steps names. They say, “I want you to slide out your foot and to join that leg to the other and I want you to jump up in the air and join the legs together and come down.” We just say, do a glissade assemblé – good shorthand but not always what you want. Modern dance has the advantage over this and luckily I was able to bring some of this intellectual concept to my classical dance.

When you are first cast in a role, how do you go about creating it – do you have an approach, a method?

I don’t, unfortunately. I wish I did and that I had been to NIDA, or one of those places where they teach you all those clever things. I certainly bought all the books and read them because I’m a reader. Possibly that’s the clue because when I want to get into a role, I read about it. These days you can also look at a video, but I prefer to read, and strangely I prefer to read crits about it rather than what somebody says about doing it.

Going back to James Upshaw, I remember when we were doing those ABC shows, they were straight to air, there was no video tape then, in fact they would use a thing called a kineoscope, where they would take a film of a TV set and that would go around as a film to be shown in other places. It meant that any mistakes are out there. And James Upshaw did a hideous thing – on Thursday morning the whole cast and crew would assemble in the viewing room and we would watch the film of last week’s show. Then we’d go out and rehearse the next show straight after. That’s devastating because suddenly you realized that what you think looks like a young man in love with a girl, reaching across the table looking at her lovingly – we did a lot of those things with hands across the table while she’d be singing – actually makes you look like a sick cow. And you realize that what you think you’re doing is not being transmitted to an audience.

So, what a crit says they see in a performance is sometimes very good. When they say: “When Tom came on here, he doesn’t have the same sort of strength that so-and-so has but the softness he brought to the role blah, blah, blah…” and you think, I rather like that idea, I like the role being soft rather than hard and so you get ideas on how to develop things from what other people say about other people’s portrayal of roles. Or, from pinching other people’s ideas! I can’t tell you the number of things that I’ve pinched off Ray Powell or Sir Robert Helpmann that I think are good and I developed it to suit my body, my way. If I think it works, I take it! And I change things that don’t.

Do you ever incorporate things you see outside of theatre? For instance, I know that playwrights and poets may go to a public place and listen to the way people talk…

Yes, I’m an imitator of people’s walks. I look at how people walk and carry themselves, how movement manifests itself in different things. We all talk with body language and when you look at somebody who’s really upset at a party, they’ve just had a fight with their boyfriend or whatever and you see it happening and you see how the people group around, you think: “That’s really good” and I’m being a real bastard divorcing myself from the whole affair but analyzing it, which holds you in good stead. Some of the great stars of the past, who overdid it are also a great resource…

So, you’ve got an almost infinite resource in the world around you?

Of course, but only if you’re willing to use it. A lot of people don’t put the two things together.

The question I have wanted to ask for many years is about Gamache, that pampered, perfumed, satin-clad fop who wants to buy the young Kitri’s hand in Don Quixote – how did you learn the role, or, indeed how much of the character did you create from scratch when you first worked on it with Nureyev? Was it 1970?

We first started it in 1965 when we were overseas in Nice. Nureyev’s rival in Russia, I think (Yuri) Soloviev was having a great success with Basil and Nureyev wanted to dance Basil in the West, so he decided to do it. But we’d already committed to costumes, sets and learning all of Raymonda, so, in a pique, he went away and gave Don Q to Vienna (State Opera) when we said we couldn’t do two major works in one overseas tour. We didn’t get it until 1970.

When Nureyev first began teaching it to us, the role of Gamache was on Karl Welander. When he came back in 1970, he suddenly picked me. I’d seen Karl running round looking like I don’t know what – some sort of a twit and hating it – and I thought I can’t wait to get in there and do it because it’s a good role, for godssake!

Most of it was Nureyev. He was a wonderful mimic, a very clever choreographer and probably the only genius I’ve ever worked with. I think a lot of the things he did, he did out of spite, he didn’t like me that much. He used to call me “the black witch” for a story we won’t go into. When the costume came out, he fell about – he felt I was gift-wrapped. He kept saying, “More ribbons, make him bigger, make him larger!” But the costume really defines the character. When you put the costume on and that wig and that hat on and you’ve got the bloody sword and the gloves, there’s nothing else you can do but be a fop of that particular time. I think that was very successful. I loved working with him and the role. And, I’ve fought to do the bloody thing ever since!

You made Gamache somehow aged beyond the years you must have been when you did it for the movie…


How did you come up with that?

The first thing was that he had no hair under the wig – there’s a point where the wig comes off and you see the bald head. Originally, Nureyev wanted to have syphallitic sores all over the head because in those days that was one of the reasons they wore wigs. All these dreadful things were on their heads and rather than wash or cure it, they just covered it up. So, obviously if I was syphilitic and aged and wearing rice powder to attract this young girl, it meant that I was an older person.

Why did they not have the syphilitic sores?

Dear Peggy thought it may have been going too far and I thought it may have been going too far, too, don’t you think?

Colin Peasley as Gamache in Rudolf Nureyev's Don Quixote, 1993. (Photo: Jim McFarlane, courtesy of The Australian Ballet)

How did you find Nureyev, the choreographer, to work with?

The man knew more about dance than anybody I’ve ever met. He was able to create female and male roles, and dance female roles incidentally better than most of the females. He was able to show them what was important in the step and how to bring this out. This was a clever quality.

I can’t imagine how any of our principals ever could achieve this, and this is not being rude to our principals mainly because when you’re on stage for your pas de deux and you come off, you go backstage to change or to rest. But he must have stayed in the wings all of those times in Russia, because how did he come out here and reproduce all those bloody ballets with 500 different people doing things all over the place – corps de ballet people that he probably didn’t give a stuff about but he knew all their steps, knew how it all went together. This is amazing. Kelvin Coe was another one. Kelvin Coe could dance everybody’s role in every ballet.

What is your most vivid, publicly admissible memory of Nureyev?

The stories are always good stories but they’re not what I remember him for. I remember him for being a superb artist on stage, for the times with Fonteyn doing performances that had the audience standing and cheering for longer than anybody’s ever had since. In Sydney, when he first came out, he did Corsaire in the old Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown and the 12-13 minute pas de deux would get 15 minutes of curtain calls. I’ve seen him come back and do the whole coda again. When was the last time you saw that?


This is a period we’re never going to see again. They’d say to him, “Are we going to do the coda again?” and he would say, “They’re not breaking chairs!” meaning they hadn’t stood up and jumped and yelled long enough. To be a part of that, to see the magic of these people – and you’ve got to remember we toured Europe with them as their backing group for three months, as well as the other times; for us this was a crash course in how to develop into an artist. It taught us all the good things.

At the same time we had people like Helpmann. During the filming of Don Q I would complain about having to come on to the set at six in the morning for make-up because I was too young-looking, I’ll repeat that “too young-looking”, and they had decided to spray me with latex, which wrinkles when it dries. Then on top of the wrinkled face they’d put this white make-up so that on camera you couldn’t see the latex and by the time I took it off at night, my face was like a prune. But it did make me feel old. So while I was bitching about that, Helpmann said, “What you’ve got to remember, Colin, is that we’re the ones getting the close-ups. Everytime they take Nureyev and Lucette, they’ve got to take their whole bodies and they’re way back. Who do you think they’re going to remember at the end of the film?”

Nureyev always got the publicity in the press. Once the dazzle of his initial appearance had been pushed into the background, he got the publicity for being a bastard: for slapping the ballerina, for throwing a tantrum, for making demands. But, if you say that all publicity is good publicity, could dance use a few more Nureyevs?

I think dance needs another Nureyev. I don’t think it’s going to get one for a while. And I say that because both Nureyev and Baryshnikov came out when there weren’t such good male dancers around so it was really easy to see the difference between Nureyev and everybody else even though, for instance, Garth Welch could dance almost as well but didn’t have the charisma and didn’t have all that publicity backing, which is part of this machine that makes you into a star.

Nureyev was treated like a rock star and acted like a rock star – all that thing of drugs and going to the clubs and the stories about him out at three o’clock in the morning with six or seven people on his arm. It was grist for the mill. Being over-the-top helped greatly but he couldn’t have been a star if he hadn’t been able to come up with the goods in dance. And very few people have the ability to walk on the stage and to attract your attention like that.

He’d walk on stage and some poor woman over here could be doing 32 fouettés and all eyes would instantly go to this man who just walked! Oh, come on! That’s wonderful, that’s charisma. That’s the star quality and today, even in film it’s gone. Where are those stars, the Bette Davises? It was a different time and in dance it was able to be done because the general standard of dancing wasn’t as high. For somebody to come out of The Australian Ballet and make you all go, “Wow!” is very difficult because all those principals are “Wows!” And there’s even a few corps de ballet that are “Wow!”

Yes, but I think there’s a difference in certain individuals. For example, you look at film of Baryshnikov doing something like the Albrecht solo from Giselle, in Dancers, which he does three times in succession in front of a mirrior and each version is identical and he’s consciously striving after that. There are not many dancers who have that level of control. So, you’re talking about unique genius and that flowers only rarely. Nureyev was quite the opposite, he would do it three times and do it completely differently and wow you again because of the variety…

Nureyev was amazing because he pushed the boundaries. He would hold the curtain between acts, while he went over and over things. He danced on second breath. I don’t know anybody other than Eric Bruhn, who did the same thing. By that I mean that most dancers will hold themselves back in class so they’d be fresh for the evening performance. But Nureyev would do a solo maybe six, seven times with the conductor on stage and things weren’t working. You’d think, oh God, what’s going to happen when the curtain goes up because no-one knew if it would work. It was like a circus with the excitement. Eric Bruhn would do the same thing but if it wasn’t working, he’d change it. So, if his double saut de basque around the room weren’t working, they’d become double assemblés! Or he’d change it so that when he went on stage, he was absolutely sure everything was going to work perfectly.

There are the camps of people who feel that Baryshnikov is superior or that Nureyev is superior, or, I know people who swear by Eric Bruhn as the ultimate dancer. Would you single out Nureyev?

Actually, Eric Bruhn’s the one that appeals to me because of his pure classicism and there was never anything that he did which didn’t look like it should have been photographed and put into a book on technique. Nureyev was interesting because of his personality and because he took huge risks. And Baryshnikov because he’s got this wonderful, easy jump and turning ability but, unfortunately, I didn’t think Baryshnikov had the intelligence of Nureyev. For instance, I think Baryshnikov does things in Giselle that no prince, real or imaginary, would do. I don’t think he has the integrity that Nureyev had but he’s still an amazing dancer, by God, I’m not taking anything away from him.

While there is no doubt that an interpretive artist evolves and improves over time, your Gamache has not altered radically over the years (comparing the 1972 film of Don Q with the most recent revival performance in 1999). Why is that?

When you do some roles, you’re not comfortable with them. There’s something that doesn’t click, you really haven’t discovered the person. So, you want to fiddle with it and experiment. With Gamache, firstly I was coached very well by Nureyev and I felt that the person who came out of that coaching is exactly the way Gamache should be. And, in spite of the fact that I’ve seen other people do it, I always felt our version was better. I think my character was more three dimensional, more rational that he was the sort of person who would have done those things, that he wasn’t camp, he wasn’t a figure of fun in himself, he was a figure of fun because he stood out against all the other people. He was an outcaste in that group. So, because I thought my interpretation was a good one, I’ve maintained it.

So the character becomes a personage, like Dame Edna Everage is a personage so that whatever the character does is automatically “ in character”?

I find the best character creation is the one that you’re not acting but the one you’ve taken and put on. So, when you go on stage, I could have had a really bad day rehearsing people or a really good day and part of that personality is reflected in the person you see on stage. I don’t try to divorce the way I’m feeling from the person, so he changes slightly in that way but the person himself is Gamache. It is a person, I know him, I could show you exactly who Gamache is right now.

When you play parts like Friar Laurence and Cardinal Richelieu (The Three Musketeers), both clerics but at the opposite ends of the moral spectrum, what in each instance do you focus on?

The first one, because of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has a hell of a lot of things written about him but he is a peasant priest. He is not an educated priest. He makes dreadful decisions in what he does for Romeo and Juliet. I mean why did he marry them? Why did he let that happen when he knew it was going to cause all that trouble. Why did he make the vial of sleeping potion? These are dreadful things. Compare this with Richelieu, who is noble by birth and not only a cardinal but First Minister of the state, he was Louis XIII’s Prime Minister and he was a very powerful, very intelligent man but absolutely ruthless to the point of evil – destroying the Huguenots, basically starting the 30 Years War, making it so that Louis XIV can become the first absolute monarch. Richelieu is pushing towards that, doing dreadful things to those nobles, with spies everywhere!

They’re two wonderful characters. The first one because he’s a bit ditsy and the second because he’s got so much power.

Your Friar Laurence has a kind of naivety that is very absolving. Like you, I’ve wondered about why he does the things he does but he has a kind of innocence that drives him…

Exactly. Because he’s illiterate and because he’s a man of faith, and faith is very strong in him, he believes that God will handle all these problems. God will be on the side of right but God isn’t always on the side of right, unfortunately. Because these people should be together, doesn’t mean they will be and that’s where a lot of these religious people fall down. It’s not a rationally explicable God up there.

Your interpretation of Madge the Witch in La Sylphide is very subtle. How do you see this character and how did you arrive at your interpretation? I ask especially because you’ve already talked about Eric Bruhn, who was also such a famous Madge himself.

He actually did it here. It was the last performance before he died, which was a few months later.

Sylphide wasn’t taught to us by Eric. It was taught to us by Constantin Patsalas, who was a choreographer and a close friend of Eric. Madge was taught first on Paul De Masson, I think.

As the role of Madge developed over time, it turned into a caricature ( as Colin says this, he raises his hands like twitching claws, tilts his head to the side and distorts his face with a maniacal scary cackle ) and I can’t see how this could have happened in Denmark because they’re so famous for their actors and I can’t see how it could have happened when some who played Madge were women. I can’t see a woman doing this send up. So, when Eric started demonstrating things, my whole concept changed because I was angling towards that way anyway. When I saw Eric do it – he only did it on the Saturday night (premier season, 1984) – there was more power, more validity in this person being a pathetic old woman who has secret powers that she can use but she doesn’t go round throwing it out. She only does it when you tread on her. She is a mirror; if you’re nice to her, she’s nice to you and that’s why she says to those girls, “Oh, you’ll be married, you’ll be happy!” and all this. Then, when other people start to do things, she says, “No, you won’t marry her but you will…” The only thing that doesn’t really work there is in the witch scene when they are all going, “Agrh, agrh…” (Colin mimics the dancing demons), which seems a mocking of the whole thing. I’ve never been able to relate how I can do that less while everyone around you is doing all that grotesque dancing. Otherwise, I think the way I’m doing it works.

What is your favourite role?

I think my favourite role is the Baron in The Merry Widow ( This role was created on Colin in 1975). I love the Baron; I think he’s such a nice person. I love the way he won’t believe he’s being cuckolded, even though everybody is saying, “She’s doing things behind your back.” And he doesn’t believe it right up to the last act when he actually sees it happen. He is really brokenhearted but then when he goes out he says, “Come on, you’re young and he is young and I understand…” That’s really nice, I like him.

Do you have a favourite ballet?

No. And it’s because ballets are so varied and your moods are varied. I’ve seen this (current) performance of Mr B four times. I’ve always loved Serenade and if I was a female dancer, this is a work I would really love to do. Then, last night when I saw the show, I thought, no, Symphony in C would be the best one to do – it’s brash, it’s out there. If you feel romantic or soft, Serenade would be the one, or you feel dominant, like I normally feel, then Symphony in C. It depends on how you feel. But I love Giselle, which is a master work; Les Sylphides, which we don’t do anymore – please God, let it come back Raymonda, which has a stupid story but the most beautiful dancing. And I don’t want someone else to do it; I don’t want them to ask a contemporary choreographer to put on a new production. I want the Nureyev steps, based on the Petipa because it’s the dancing that I loved.

Would it be possible to restage it?

Well, yes. We have the notation, even though Nureyev is dead.

As a performer, do you stew before or after performances, if ever?

I do both and I still get very nervous before a performance and the dancers in the company find that amazing. A dancer gets nervous because they realize they might fall over in their pirouette or their jump may not be as clean as they want it; they think because you’re doing an acting role, there’s nothing to get nervous about.

Acting roles always have a lot of props. You’re always handling a lot of things and, quite honestly, if you muck something up, then you’ve made the story ridiculous. So, I still get nervous and while I don’t stew, sometimes at the end of performances, I think, “Oh that should have been done and why did she look at me at that stage, the timing of that is really out…” Acting on stage isn’t really acting, it’s reacting and if the person you rely upon to do something – so that you can react to that something – mistimes, or does it wrongly, it makes your reaction stupid.

Again, this is something not all artistic directors realize. We had one director who would take one of the principals into a room and rehearse the entire Giselle mime scenes just with this girl, without an Albrecht, without Hilarion or anybody else around. So, when the dancer went into a full call, she would be curtseying on the count two and a half, and be running away laughing on the count of three, no matter what Albrecht did. A nonsense! The curtesy has nothing to do with the count of two and a half; the curtsey has to do with “Thank you, sir,” for whatever he’s done.

As an artist, what is your principal inspiration?

My principal inspiration, in the beginning, as a dancer, was Eric Bruhn and Nureyev. To me, they were the epitome of what classical dancing was all about. I was also lucky in The Australian Ballet because we had Ray Powell and Sir Robert Helpmann – and Algeranoff at one stage, too – all great character actors who could do amazing things on stage. The classical standard was set by the fact that we performed with Bruhn and Nureyev for two or three years and the value of our character work was set because we had these great artists with us. It’s wonderful to have the luck to do that and it’s a while since any of our dancers have had the luck to be around great character dancers and to see this sort of thing happening.

I’ve never believed that character work isn’t of value. I believe that if you’re telling a story ballet, then the most important thing is the story, not the dancing even though we use the dancing to tell the story. Because of this I’ve always been very comfortable in what I do.

Inspiration for roles comes from a variety of places. And these days you can get video of any bloody film in the entire world. The other day I went into a place which had more DVDs than I’ve seen in my life! There’s no reason why we can’t look up any actor; in my day, we had to remember them. We had to remember ballets. We hardly ever saw a dance company out here and if we did, that had to remain in your memory and, of course, memory enhances and makes you believe that they were doing it better than they were. Now we can just pick up a video and it’s so much easier.

In Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker (created in 1992) you play one of the Russian émigré friends of the elderly Clara. Tell me about the process of that creation.

Well, it wasn’t only Graeme but Kristian Fredrikson, who designed it, who was also very active in the way the ballet was put together. In the first rehearsals, we also had all of those wonderful Borovansky dancers and other dancers from the early age, around us – Maggie Scott, Valrene Tweedie, Athol Willoughby, Harry Haythorne. In the ballet, the old dancers are part of the Russian émigré community, which was only small. So, every Christmas they would go to Clara’s place, bringing their little gifts and this year they knew that it would be her last Christmas because she was starting to fade. They’re all worried about her because she’s living alone, with her memories. And my goodness, when you reach my age, you understand those things. I’ve visited people and thought that might be the last time I visit them.

The range of those characters plus the fact that we (the cast) were so different in our own personalities and lifestyles, meant that we all came out so distinctly different: the part that Harry played, that Paul de Masson played, I think even Stephen Baynes was in the first one. We had all these different old men and you could see them as that. They’ve got the camaraderie of being expatriots and having a common interest in Clara. I found it very easy to start that character.

Graeme allowed us to have some input and that always makes tha character better because it fits you better. If you’ve got to walk into someone else’s shoes it takes you a while to work out what those shoes are like and how that person walked in those shoes. I pity anybody who’s trying to get into my roles because they are so personal, so based on my body and my way of moving.

When you did the group dance at the party in Nutcracker, how much instruction did you get from Graeme on how to do it?

A lot. Graeme was very determined about how it should happen, what the steps were and he kept encouraging us to do more. He was like a cook: he’d put in the ingredients but then as the ingredients either came up or down, he added a bit more salt or flour or whatever. It wasn’t ad libbed.

Did he make you go harder or slower?

He did. He would say to people, “I think this doesn’t work, I think this should happen.” I think that’s the way most theatre producers work these days. They do a reading of a play, then work out what these characters should be doing and whether it’s coming across and whether it’s readable to an audience. Graeme was the person doing that. But he had all the gimmicks of bringing out the photos, which makes the scene work so well. And the fact when she (Clara) was going to have a heartattack and the bit where she has too much vodka and dances, thinking she can do more than she actually can; and the lovely bit with the doctor coming in with the film.

How strenuous did you find it?

Not at all. Graeme has the greatest flow of ideas of anyone I’ve ever worked with. The man is so amazing, so amazing that I’ll give you a small anecdote. When I was Ballet Master here and he was doing an early ballet, he spent time on a lift with a girl that wasn’t working. He could get her up there and do things but it was not coming out the way he wanted and they weren’t getting it. He tried for about two days then the next day he said, “That’s not working, Colin.” And he not only cut that but about 32 bars going into it because that was part of the build-up and he started from scratch. I thought, why would you do that, I loved all that! But then two or three years later, it appears in another ballet. It’s mulled around, and he’s worked out how to get in and out of that lift so that it looks effective and it’s gone in somewhere else. I love this man, I mean, this is really great stuff. And it’s sensible, why waste all that time?

You are the only foundation member of The Australian Ballet who still performs with the company on a regular basis. What does the foreseeable future hold in this area?

Death! I think I’m very lucky at the moment in two ways: the company still uses me, and I think they like me, and there are not too many of my era who are willing to get up and make an idiot of themselves. I hope that as I go into my nth year, they’ll still continue to use me.

Many interpreters of character roles tend to have a speciality that distinguishes their approach, for example: the late Ray Powell was, at his best, a benevolent bumbler; The Royal Ballet’s Derek Rencher always maintains a dignified distance; Ken Whitmore camped it up. You completely defy categorization, which in ballet terms, at least, puts you in league with the likes of, say, a Geoffrey Rush, on screen. His output, for example, includes the comical entrepneur in Shakespeare in Love and the evil political figure in Elizabeth, to name two roles from the same historical period and about the same time in his acting career. How have you managed such variety?

Going back to movies, which you just brought up, the one type of actor I don’t like is the John Wayne. John Wayne was John Wayne in every movie he did. Why people said he was good, I have no idea. I don’t think that’s acting. I think acting is when you get somebody like Geoffrey Rush who tries to delve into the character and brings out what that character should be. And I think that’s fun, don’t you?

Yes, but to be able to do it?

Well, the one thing I don’t want to be on stage is Colin Peasley. I’ve never been tempted to be myself; I don’t like myself so much that I want to replicate myself all over the place. An important part of theatre is the preparation time: when you’re in your dressingroom. Martha Graham phrased it beautifully: as she was putting all this hot black on her eyelashes, she said, “When you look in the mirror, you don’t look back at yourself but Cytemnestra does!”and with that, she upped and out the door. That’s exactly what it’s all about. Going into the dressingroom and putting on rock music while you’re slapping on a little bit of face, isn’t preparing for a role at all. Preparing for a role is thinking about it and getting your face to look like you think that person should look. Then when you put on the costume you are that character, not in the Nijinsky way – they say he used to be in character for an hour after the performance, which I think is a bit overdone but I understand what he was doing. Look at those photos of Nijinsky – in every photo he looks different.

You just said you don’t want to be Colin Peasley. Tell us a little bit about Colin Peasley. I know you’re fussy about ironing, so you’re big on costume, even in everyday life; you like it just right…

I think Colin Peasley’s biggest regret in life is that he didn’t discover dance earlier. Although I was a ballroom dancer from the age of 16, I didn’t start doing classical dance until I was about 21. That was obviously too late to be a dancer, even in my day. I’ve had this huge love of dance ever since but not the capacity to fulfil it. That’s a regret in my life.

The joy in my life, is that when you come to a thing late in life, the love continues longer but also you come to it with more knowledge, more understanding of what you’re doing. It’s not monkey see, monkey do like it is with a five or six year-old kid, so, I think I’ve approached dance more intellectually, which is probably the wrong way to approach it. But, it’s meant that I’ve had a huge joy in teaching and I love teaching. It’s not just saying, “Point your foot here!” it’s trying to work out why you point your foot here. That’s a part of learning, asking more questions than you know the answers to. Colin Peasley loves all that.

And, he loves to be on stage. They could ask me to walk on as a butler and I’d say, “Yes, please!” I don’t have to be a star, I just like being there.

And why?

Because it’s a drug. The excitement of being on stage, the buzz of people around you, the old thing about the smell of grease paint and the roar of the crowd is all there. And at the end of a performance when they’re all yelling and screaming, even if you’re in the back row, you imagine it’s for you. Nobody stood in the back row thinking it’s all for Fonteyn and Nureyev but for them, because they did such a lovely peasant – and I do, too.

In recent years you’ve become very adept at handling computers and technology, partly in your work as Education Program Manager. You’re not just a performer, there’s a lot more to your life…

Yes and this is partly to do with my upbringing and the way my family approached education. They thought it was very important and I do, too. They allowed me to question and I’m a questioner, I want to know how things work. That’s the reason why I cook and I enjoy cooking. I’m a voracious reader, I’m a collector of books; I have more books in my house than I have house to put them in.

What sort?

I’m a very catholic reader, when I’m on planes I read detective stories, which can be the biggest load of trash and it’s relaxing not to have to think. But then, I would say I’ve got the largest collection of ballet books in Australia outside the Australian Ballet School. I’ve been collecting since I discovered ballet. All this has kept me with what I think is most important for life and that is an interest. I’ve got an interest and my basic interest is dance but now there is a lot of other things, too.

Tell me a little bit more about your family background?

I grew up in Sydney, I have a sister who is seven years younger than me, which meant that we were both treated as only children, which was a disaster. I’m not close to any of my relations. I went to Sydney Technical High School. At that stage, I imagined I wanted to be an architect. I studied German at school and that’s strange because this is just after the war (WWII) and they were still teaching it. I got my qualification certificate to go into university and I never went. We didn’t have the money and I couldn’t afford to do things like that so I worked in a shop during the day and I did some night school courses. Then ballroom came into my life, I rushed off to ballroom classes and became a teacher of ballroom.

When I was at Bodenwieser’s and doing ballroom, I had a very good friend, Alan, an Asian, who said to me that he wanted to do acrobatic dancing and I said I’d always wanted to do tap. We’d taken our girlfriends to the Tivoli for one Saturday evening – when you’re doing ballroom, your partners are always your girlfriends because you don’t want to loose them – it’s the truth! Even if you’re not really compatible, they’re your girlfriend. On the back of the program was an ad for the Tivoli acrobatic and tap school; it was like God talking to us. So we went to Tibor Rudas and Sugar Baba. And we tapped and acrobatted ourselves away there, while I was still doing ballroom and modern dance and working during the day. Across the way, we saw a jazz class that was absolutely wonderful. I said to Alan, we’ve got to join that class, thinking of Fred Astaire and all those people. The woman there said you’ve got to do one classical class to do one jazz class. I said, “No, thank you,” went back up and did shuffle, step, shuffle, step and kept looking. Eventually I went back, talking for both of us, “We will do it, on the understanding it’s a private lesson and we don’t have to wear tights.” So, we did our first classical ballet lesson – I was 21 – in shorts at ten o’clock at night with Valrene Tweedie. That’s how it all started.

What did your forebears do, what were some of their occupations?

My father was a printer and my mother was a housewife. My grandfather on my father’s side was a baker. I don’t know what my grandfather on my mother’s side did, but that’s where the German side of me comes in, their name was Waghorn.

I’m still intrigued by your ability with computers because it tends to be a generational thing. Everyone under 20 lives on the internet and computers are an integral part of their lives but many middle aged people and even some younger ones, whom I know, are completely lost with that technology, yet you’ve taken to it so easily…

I think this is part of my nature. I’ve got this dreadful streak that I must be self-sufficient. For instance, I must be able to sew up trousers on a machine, I must know how to bake a cake, wash a floor and do all those things. I live by myself, so I’m entirely self-sufficient. And if I’m going to work with one of these things (he indicates his computer), I want to know exactly how it works and how much I can do with it. That’s why I play the piano. I thought, if I’m going to be a dancer, and you read that all these great choreographers and dancers are always musicians, I thought I’ve got to learn music, too.

Do you still play, do you practise?

I play but I don’t practise. And I only play pop; I don’t play classical any more.

When you say “pop”, what do you mean?

I mean (bursting into song) “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do.”

On that cheerful note, I think we will wrap it up. Thank you Colin.

My pleasure.

Blazenka Brysha

Futher information about Colin Peasley may be accessed via the National Library of Australia web site

Open Letter to St Kilda Historical Society

This is to register my deepest concern about the proposal, put forward in the December issue of St Kilda Times, that the Society’s name be changed to (a) St Kilda Heritage Society or (b) St Kilda Heritage Group.

First, the concept and study of history is an ancient discipline, a recognition of the continuity of the present as springing from the past. It is about connection and recognition of what has gone before. It is a word that says much, that is in turn, commonly understood and accepted. Although the Society has had a name change in the past, neither the words nor the concept were altered in any meaningful way because Historical Society of St Kilda and St Kilda Historical Society mean the same thing. This sort of word shuffling is lampooned in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian (1979) in regard to different liberation front organisations of ancient Palestine, which are essentially the same regardless of how they shuffle the words in their titles. It is no coincidence that most of the Python team came from a scholarly background and brought a fine appreciation of both language and history to their work as comedians.

Heritage is a much softer word than history, it is such a broad word that it means little and suggests no particular discipline. In 1990 a group of Elwood residents in the Shelley-Ruskin-Addison Street area formed the Elwood Heritage Group. We did this in a bid to stop the replacement of two houses in an intact Between-the-Wars streetscape with a multi-unit development. The group was an ad hoc community effort, organised overnight and having no official status. It was a wonderful thing and achieved a good result because that streetscape is still intact. Nobody questioned our formal status as an organisation because the name doesn’t suggest anything more than an informal assortment of individuals concerned in some unspecific way with preservation of an unspecific past or something handed down.

Historical societies are recognised as serious, worthwhile, formal organisations of often shared affiliations and broad community significance. All the other historical societies, especially the big players, won’t be racing to change their names. To abandon the concept of ‘historical’ is to abandon our own heritage as a society. The word ‘group’ suggests a loose affiliation, whereas ‘society’ suggests a body to be reckoned with. Societies are usually incorporated bodies with formal affiliations and recognition.

What concerns me most is the attitude manifest behind the name change proposal. At a time when the architectural/building fabric of Melbourne is being eaten up by rampant destruction and overdevelopment, when “old” has become synonymous with worthless and undesirable, when ‘new, new, new’ is the war cry of the assault on anything not produced last week, do we really want to throw away our own history in this attempt at rebranding and repackaging? Is the product so down on sales that we need to give it a makeover? Maybe the product is no longer wanted, maybe no-one cares any more about history – maybe they no longer know what it is, because those of us who do have done such a poor job of peddling our interest – but whatever the case, changing a name does not solve a problem.

Name changes of organisations/businesses usually signal the end of what has gone before. If the members of the St Kilda Historical Society want to wind it up, so be it. The Society’s charter is on the web, why was it not included alongside all the spruiking for the notion of heritage as a concept of dealing with ‘now’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘forward-looking’? A significant name change represents a significant change, in this case abandoning the past. The very reason I joined the Society was because I believe in the importance of knowing, understanding and preserving ‘history’ and ‘history’ is many things, all of them with ‘heritage’ value. ‘Heritage’ on the other hand, is an amorphous term, equally signifying the bad things we have been left with by the follies, misfortunes and wrongs of the past. The greed of our present consumer society will leave a heritage of waste and destruction and because it will be our heritage to have no historical societies, we will have no understanding of what happened and how we all ended up where we did.

Why even keep the name St Kilda? The municipality no longer exists. Call it the Port Phillip Heritage Group and really plant a stake in the future, a future in which the St Kilda Historical Society can be a quaint footnote on the fusty page dealing with the past. If you are going to kill it off, could you please give it a fallen hero’s burial, some respect and a chance for all of us to move on in our different directions. I do not want to be a member of the new ‘group’ and shall refocus my interest on the National Trust, which values history and heritage without compromise or embarrassment in the face of the newfangled and marketing groove-meisters peddling their throw-away philosophies.

Blazenka Brysha
Life Member, St Kilda Historical Society

Our heritage: In Barkly St, St Kilda, a new multi-unit development is squeezed onto a small block of land, until recently occupied by a very old, locally unique, weatherboard house. The plane tree in front was illegally mutilated, before the house was demolished. The pot plants were attached by someone to indicate that there should be growth on the now-dead limbs.

Crowning Glory Blindly Assassinated

In 2009, I finally got around to two novels, from this decade, that I had been putting off reading. One justified my tardy reluctance while the other astounded with its depth and originality.

When Karen van Ulzen’s novel, Crowning Glory (Harper Collins, 2002), was billed as ‘revenge fiction,’ and promoted as he done her wrong, she gonna get the bastard back, I had no intention of reading it because genre fiction is not for me. The fact that the author is a colleague, who has been editor of Dance Australia magazine for many years, was not enough to induce me to read the book, billed on its cover as: ‘A quirky tale of love, revenge and hairdressing.’

Then, by chance, I came across an old review of the novel, which referred to the inclusion of ‘unnecessary asides’ about hairdressing history and the author’s ‘spare style.’ From this I deduced that the novel was more than a story about hairdressing and revenge, despite the pair of scissors depicted on the cover, and that it was cleanly written. Straight away I knew I had to read Crowning Glory.

According to the back cover blurb, Crowning Glory was about the ill-fated romantic attachment that the central character, Kathleen Lindley, a hairdresser, forms with a chef who lives in the flat next door. At 32, she has finally left home although she cannot escape her mother’s overbearing selfishness or the pall that her father’s death cast over their lives while she was still only a schoolgirl.

When I read the novel, I found, above all, a moving account of a mother-daughter relationship. That is at the centre of Kathleen’s tale, colouring her relationships with both her boyfriend and the memory of her father. The narrative, set in early 1990s Melbourne, is a present tense, first-person account with memories of the past streaked through it, like a complex, subtle, multi-tone single colour hair-dye job. It is serious, literary fiction, in style, content and broader artistic and critical ramifications. It is also a gripping read.

Recounting a terrible fight between her parents, while her mother was plaiting her hair with crooked results because of the volatile situation, Kathleen states:

That same evening I cut my hair…My mother kept one of those plaits – the best, straight one – in the same wicker basket with my baby curls. The plait is noticeably darker than the curls. Though still fair, it has definitely lost that inner sunlight, that untarnished sheen, that distinguishes the really blond from the merely light brown – Hazelnut Haze, say, compared with Purely Platinum. The plait is bristling now, like old soft twine. The baby hair curls around my finger like a child’s trusting hand.

She has a lock of Dad’s hair in the basket, too. It seems laughable, given how little he had of it. The lock is short and brown. It’s not a brown you would give a name.

It might seem odd, even ghoulish, keeping hair as tokens of others. Yet as a custom it has long existed…Hair is both a part of the body and an ornament; it can be severed without pain or harm and lasts for thousands of years without decaying, still in good condition long after the body has rotted into the earth…

Kathleen knows many facts because she found comfort in books at the State Library after her father died:

The library was my escape from the shop. I would tell Mum that I had some research to do for a school project. I’d inform her in the morning, just before I left for school, so it was too late for her to raise any objections…I could never look her in the face, knowing I was leaving her to an extra hour’s imprisonment. Sometimes she would begin to protest, but would usually stop herself. ‘Of course you must go. I’ll be fine, she’d say. ‘You must do your study.’ The thrill of my freedom was always soured by the memory of her brave face.

Kathleen responds to her mother’s domineering ways with passive aggression, mostly expressed only in her thoughts. Describing her mother’s favourite cookbook, she says: Mum likes this book not because the recipes are particularly good but because of its war-time frugality. Sometimes I think she regrets the war is over. She was born before the Second World War and, though she was only a young child then, the deprivation she briefly experienced seems to have a nostalgic pull on her. At the mention of war-time hardship her face softens and she gives a shiver of pleasure, as if at the sound of rain on a tin roof.

When Kathleen and her mother try to move an old washing copper, the mother suggests they need a man:

What about your boyfriend?” she asks. ‘Couldn’t you have asked him?’
‘He’s busy.’
‘I’ll bet. Lazy, more like it’
‘Yes that’s right. A lazy pig.’
‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ She looks at me more closely. ‘Don ‘t tell me it’s over already.’
I try to turn away but she grabs my face and holds it still, as she has ever since I was a child trying to hide my lies from her. There’s no way to avoid her penetrating gaze. I pull myself free and stand with my back to her.
‘I knew it,’ she says.
‘What do you know?’
‘I knew it wouldn’t last. I could tell from the beginning.’
‘How?’ My voice is sarcastic.
It was obvious. For one thing, you never introduced him. What sort of behaviour is that. It’s unnatural.’
I say nothing.
‘Anyway, men will never be interested in you. You’re too much of a mouse.’
‘Glad you think so highly of me.’
I have my back to her but I can tell she’s folded her arms in that I-told-you-so way. ‘You’ve got no gumption,’ she adds. ‘Look at you.’

This is the relationship at its most brittle and destructive but through the self-contained universe of Kathleen’s inner life, we are also allowed to see the outer reality and learn why things are as they are, not just with her mother but all the other people impacting on her life. In an era when people are still living with their parents and staying single longer than ever before in history, the novel also reflects one face of that social phenomenon. Kathleen is very different to the Biff and Happys of Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the Olives of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She belongs to our world and that interests me. The fact that it’s local is a big bonus; yes, there’s a big world out there but some fascinating things are going on in our immediate surroundings and I’d hate to miss them.

I have quoted at length, to give a taste of the novel’s quality. The work was published after van Ulzen submitted a portion to the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development and won, a fact also acknowledged in a gold seal on the novel’s cover. So, its publication genesis was in the realm of literary fiction and it bothers me deeply to think that with today’s publishing modus operandi of print, profit and pulp, works like Crowning Glory, which managed to sell 4,000 copies, possibly to annoyed and disappointed readers who expected those scissors on the cover to be used for cutting more than hair, just vanish. But, thanks to the internet, not entirely without a trace, and for that I’m grateful. It certainly raises many big questions that the literary community should be addressing in an era ruled by that ruthless overlord, the marketing monster.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 and has gathered dust on my shelf since it was a hot best seller. The multi award-winning novel was passed on to me by a reader who was not familiar with Atwood’s poetry, just as I was not acquainted with her prose, which, for me, is tarred by science fiction genre associations. Furthermore, the tome’s 650 page thickness, together with the back cover blurb describing a mysterious death and “an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal” covering 50 years, set against “the backdrop of twentieth-century history,” spelt potboiler to me. That smothered some of my curiosity about the quality of Atwood’s prose, because content has always been more important than form, to me, both in art and in life.

The novel is structured as two parallel narratives. One is the first-person account of her life’s story by the main character, Iris Chase, whose sister killed herself by driving her car of a bridge, just after World War II ended, leaving a manuscript of a novel that she had secretly penned. Iris has the work, called The Blind Assassin, published and it becomes a bestseller thanks to the fact that the family is from a socially-prominent Toronto background. This narrative also includes extracts of journalism, some real, some fabricated, both intended to support the story’s chronology and historic background.

The other narrative is portions of the sister’s novel. This reads like a diary in which yet other narratives, offered as fiction that could be categorised as fantasy/science fiction, are embedded. The layering is that of a story within a story within a story.

You are never in doubt that you are reading the writing of a master. It’s all clever enough and mildly intriguing because there is so much elaborately and obviously concocted story-line. Furthermore, you want to know what the plot upshot will be, since you have invested so much time wading through the clutter of distracting detail, as Atwood piles on the paragraphs as if the book will be sold by weight and she needs the money to pay off a massive debt to an underworld financier. You do find out, among other revelations, why the sister killed herself and even why the real novel is also called The Blind Assassin. It was, in the end, only a potboiler and in hindsight, for me, the most fascinating revelation came after the novel’s conclusion, where Atwood acknowledges the help of 17 researchers, apart from her “invaluable assistant”, and five “early readers”, among others.

The work is far removed from Atwood’s collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto OUP 1970), which was my introduction to her writing. This 64-page book, also offers a life story, set against a historic backdrop but it is produced by the poet on her own, not only writing the poems, but also designing the cover and making the collage illustrations. Aside from the poems, the only other text, an afterword, is a detailed account by Atwood of how the poems were ‘generated by a dream. I dreamt I was watching an opera I had written about Susanna Moodie…’ Atwood had heard of this 19th C Canadian pioneer but had never read her books; subsequently, when she did, they disappointed with their ‘discursive, ornamental’ anecdotal style.

Atwood connects with Moodie’s personality and creates a new account of her life and experiences, charting them through the speaker’s observations. We follow Moodie’s troubled relationship with the harsh frontier landscape, more menacing to the European immigrants than the bear that frightens their cattle. Moodie, the omni-sentient oracle, leads us through her history:

I, who had been erased

by fire, was crept in

upon by green


lucid a season)

In time the animals

arrived to inhabit me…
(from Departure from the Bush)

Atwood’s Moodie absorbs her physical environment, finally merging with it as an interred corps. Moodie reflects on her impending death:


I will prowl and slink

in crystal darkness among the stalactite roots, with new

formed plumage


gold and

Fiery green, my fingers

curved and scaled, my



eyes glowing
(from Wish: Metamorphosis to Heraldic Emblem)

Moodie’s cosmology of a powerful, all-embracing fecundity is offered as plainly as possible in poetry (perhaps it is possible because it is poetry?) in the concluding two poems:

god is not

the voice in the whirlwind

god is the whirlwind

at the last

judgement we will all be trees
(from Resurrection)

I am the old woman

sitting across from you on the bus,

Her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;

out of her eyes come secret

hatpins, destroying

the walls, the ceiling

Turn, look down:

there is no city;

this is the centre of a forest

your place is empty
(from A Bus Along St Clair: December)

The Journals of Susanna Moodie can be read in one easy sitting but gives you something to mull over for 35 years. The Blind Assassin takes days to read but it leaves you after 35 minutes. Only one snippet of the novel has stayed with me and that is the description of a woman’s garment frothing like billowing steam on hot tomato soup. The fabric must have been a warm-red chiffon. There were other bon mots moments, but most of them contrived aside from some pleasing descriptions of nature. The most engaging thing for me was the realism of Atwood’s depiction of her central character’s elderly self. It was old-age as felt from the inside. Atwood’s Moodie talks about the pull of gravity, about ‘balancing’ herself inside her ‘shrinking body.’ Her Iris Chase knows she is the shrinking body:

I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect – a stink of stale flesh and clouded, ageing pee. /Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step of a cliff. Each time I put a foot out, I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way under me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place./ Getting my clothes on helped. I am not at my best without scaffolding.

If only Atwood would write a novel about old age, that is something I would love to read.

Blazenka Brysha

Review of Crowning Glory: An old rock pig and a prim hairdresser grow up Rachel Buchanan

Something special from the master – Atwood reflects on the nature of being a literary writer today. A must read.

Coming Clean

In our time-poor, electronic entertainment era, not many people have hobbies any more. It’s true, if you don’t count craft, that fiddley pursuit of turning bits of stuff into other stuff, which you don’t need and your friends dread receiving as gifts. My hobby has always been cleaning and although I don’t have as much time for it these days as I would like, it is never far from my thoughts. Recently I read that toothpaste is good for cleaning gold. I’m keen to try it.

And that brings me to the increasingly vexed question of cleaning products. While it is transparently obvious that the world of craft is manipulated by nefarious economic interests wanting to profit from (mostly) women’s weaknesses for the sensual delight of manipulating texture and colour into more texture and colour, it is equally true that corporate ogres lurk everywhere, ready to capitalise on (mostly) women’s weakness for a clean home. You can get into a lot of psychology at this point but I would say to the psychologists, when is the last time you wet-dusted the tops of your architraves, turned out your kitchen cupboards and thoroughly cleaned the corners of every room in your home?

Cleanliness is a virtue and with the flux of all absolutes in our post-post-modernist intellectual climate, we need to hold on to some standards. And just when you want to say, a bit of dirt never killed anyone and that many cleaning chemicals are potentially very harmful, I would say, exactly! Freshening up your rubbish bin with a spray can remains a problem, although ozone-depleting CFCs have been banned and the temptation to reach for a can is quite understandable. How many times has the family pet done such a good job of licking clean your dinner plate that you only needed to give it a spray of Australia’s favourite surface disinfectant to put it straight back into the cupboard? Very energy saving because you use less water and other chemicals like dishwashing products, not to mention power, be it electricity for the dishwasher or just that unfashionable animal product, elbow grease.

Like many people, I am seriously concerned about the damage we consumers do to our planet. Actually, just the other day, a friend sent me an email showing astronaut Sunita William’s photos of the world from space and the night shots showed the electric light glow from major cities, which means we are now also spreading light pollution into space.

The photos are from 2007 and the picture would be more lurid today, for Melbourne at least, if you consider all the development that has been taking place recently. We have a thing called “Melbourne 2030” that aims to dramatically increase the number of dwellings in areas known as “activity centres”, which is roughly anywhere within cooee of a shop or a public transport route. Closest to the city, you get the huge glass towers but there are even “apartments” – stacked, multi-storey flats – going up as far afield as Boronia, 30kms from the CBD. Then we also have all the new estates spreading on the outskirts of our megatropilis. That’s a lot of new light beaming up but that’s OK because much of it is from fluoros and they are energy saving.

Still, I can’t help worrying about the light streaming from concrete box extensions that are filling up every backyard where I live in Elwood, 10 km from the city. Being architect-designed “masterpieces” costing more to build than the much-vilified estate McMansions, they also feature the “smart block” mentality of reducing the outdoor size of the home environment. Since land is at a premium, many dwellings have done away with all outdoor washing lines, not just that aesthetic abomination, the clothes hoist. You don’t need them thanks to the clothes driers, which stack so neatly on top of your European 6 star rated front loader washing machine. That’s the way to live now and all the new residential towers and multi-dwellings are leading the way. And how could we forget the air-conditioned, year round comfort of 22° temperatures that you can set and forget? I don’t think that can be seen from space, yet.

Everyone agrees we need to clean up our act; getting consensus is the trickier bit and as long as we are bewitched by tough ducks tackling the filth in our toilet bowls, this won’t happen. As long as we are willing to believe that smearing toxic chemicals on the hard surfaces in our homes is the way to clean, we can’t whinge too much about all those corporations destroying our world and now, outer space. Nothing sends a message to the Big Boys like not letting your bucks pad the banana in their pockets.

You can still be spotlessly clean while saving both money and the environment but you need to do more than put a copy of “Barbara Lord’s Green Cleaner” (Bas Publishing, Melbourne) next to your six copies of the Tao Te Ching. You need to change the products you use for cleaning. Shock! Bi-carb soda, vinegar and soap actually work.

I’ve known about the power of soap since I was at school, when our geography teacher, Sister Theresia went on and on about “poll-you-tion” and how you only needed soap instead of all those detergents constantly advertised. She also used to say, “Girls, two things you don’t have to tell your husband: who you vote for and how much you’ve got in the bank.” That nun rocked.

Vinegar and bi-carb have only become my cleaning captains in recent times. But mea maxima culpa. Among other toxins, I’m still trying to use up a squirtey cleaner I bought more than six years ago in an effort to inspire my teenage daughter in her assigned household chore of bathroom cleaning. This product’s catch cry is “Shock” and its claim is that it actually works. The real shock is that it requires the same amount of work as any other product, including vinegar. Oh, also that I believed its claim and also that in the intervening years it has chewed through two other plastic containers but not lost any of its very pungent smell, which caused my daughter to refuse using it in the first place. There’s only about 100mls left and I’m slowly releasing it into the environment by cleaning with it, which is preferable to dumping it into landfill.

As a special surprise for my daughter for Christmas, her present includes, “Vinegar 1001 Practical Uses” (Abbeydale Press, 2009). For myself, I’m getting a new “wow chamois” that can suck up half of Port Phillip Bay. I need it to replace my super soaker that has worn out thanks to repeated flooding resulting from my water saving efforts in the laundry. The wow cloths come in a pack of eight, so, I’ll be able to give away a few as Christmas presents. For Tony Abbott, our newly-elected leader of the federal opposition, I’ve got one of my homemade shaker packs of bi-carb so that he can clean up his act and stop people being mean to him.

Blazenka Brysha


Correction. The following quote is from a note sent to me by my friend Dave Burton, who has a background in engineering/science and is an air transport professional: “What constitutes light pollution in space? I understand the concept as it applies to your backyard in Elwood, but space really doesn’t mind at all about a little bit of light. The light put out by the earth would not even register compared to the light put out from the sun. You said “we are now spreading light pollution..” Ever since there has been light in cities (late 1800s) light has been going into outer space, so is this a case of “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it..”? One last thing on the space angle, the Space Shuttle and space station, where the photo would have been taken, orbit at a height of about 330 km – Melbourne to Albury type distance so the fact that light from the cities can be seen from that distance with an uninterrupted overhead line of sight doesn’t seem particularly surprising.”

I am delighted to be 100% wrong in this case and I confess my concern about “light pollution” is principally to do with the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels in generating electricity that is used needlessly. But even if the power was generated by all the wind harnessed from Question Time in our state and federal parliaments, I would still be negatively critical of anyone’s desire to light up suburban backyards like a sports stadium for a night game. Humanity’s lack of respect for nature is nothing new but never before have we had the means to do so much damage to our environment.

Despite that, there is so much we can do as individuals in our own spending and living patterns. Business will always be business and its raison d’être is to make money but you can choose to withhold your money. You can also use your intelligence when shopping. Recently, at the local supermarket, in the cleaning isle, I found “Cleaning Vinegar”, costing just under $3.00. Reading the label, I learned that it was just vinegar. Generic white vinegar in the condiments isle costs about $1.20 for the same quantity. Perhaps the “cleaning” vinegar was really what is called “industrial vinegar”, which is incredibly strong and I believe quite nasty to ingest or get on your skin. Because it carried no warnings, I presumed this “cleaning” vinegar was similar to edible vinegar – either way you’d be foolish to use it because the ordinary, edible white vinegar is, in fact, what the green cleaning literature recommends.

an excellent Australian site for cleaning up our environment:

A Sick Fantasy


Every time I am sick, I have a fantasy. It involves having other people do my work for me and that could only happen in a life far from the one I live as a hands-on, do-everything-for-myself, ordinary person. Illness does not suit a restless body like mine.

In my fantasy, I live in a gothic manor house built of stone and sitting in its own rolling acreage. The boundaries are so distant that no fencing is necessary. The air is always fresh and nature is respectfully soto voce because I’m sick.

The house has a central hall in which a great oak staircase rises to a mysterious upper floor. I have never been there yet because that is where the bedrooms are and people sleep. My fantasy is about what you do when your active life is impeded, when it is a struggle to do the everyday things like walking the dogs, feeding the cats, all the cleaning and cooking – the inescapable obligations of mundane minutiae. Ah, the tedium.

This is where my fantasy staff step in. Meet Jenkins, the butler, Sam, the groundsman, Mrs Dibbs, the cook (known as “Cook”) and Nelly, my ladies maid. They are the core staff required by my fantasy. The rest of the service personnel, like the rooms upstairs have not yet been required even though they are in the background. In my illness-addled state, it gives me comfort to know that the laundry has been steaming away, that all the linen is drying quietly and that my crisp bedding has already been turned down by the upstairs maid. I think my bed might be a heavily carved, half-tester in meticulously vacuumed and buffed surroundings, with not a spec of dust riding the golden shafts of late afternoon light streaming through the leadlight mullions. I’m not yet well enough to go to bed.

I am in the hall, considering walking the dogs but it is too much. I ask Jenkins to open the front door, which is very heavy.

“Go find Sam!” I tell the dogs. They run off. Sam lives around the back in the service quarters and he will bring the dogs back, exercised. He will let them in through the kitchen.

I tell Jenkins that tonight we will be having dinner in the library and to ask Cook to make soup. Even though my husband is not sick, he has to have dinner with me in the library. Cook knows that when I ask for soup, it means she also has to prepare a full dinner for my husband. She knows exactly what sort of vegetable soup I want and, no doubt will produce that required full dinner as well. However, as I am the one who is ill and this is my fantasy, the full dinner bit is another mystery detail.

The library is the best bit. It is lined with bookcases and softly lit by a lamp or two. There are winged armchairs to cradle your aching head and handy bits of furniture to hold piles of books and your laptop. There would be a small TV on one of the shelves so that you could watch The Beverley Hillbillies when you had your soup. It would be so relaxing. The cats would have been put to bed, the dogs fed and when you were well enough to climb the stairs, you only had to give the word for Nelly to run you a bath. There are no droughts and water restrictions in fantasies.

The only better fantasy would be one in which I am well but if I was well, I wouldn’t need a fantasy, except for the one in which time stops and I do all those countless things that I want to do when I’m well…

Blazenka Brysha


Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, the home of Horace Walpole, painted by Johann Heinrich Müntz, in the 1750s. Walpole thrilled genteel 18th C English readers with his gothic novel, The Castle of Ontranto, which can be downloaded free from


REVIEW with bonus contents list


Here we go again! Another compendium raiding trad lit for cheap laughs & hefty profits. Well, EMOE (eat my own eyeballs). Need a few lines.

Actually, I needed a birthday present for my mother-in-law, so I picked up a copy of Twitterature “The World’s Greatest Books Retold through Twitter” (Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, Penguin Books, 2009).

The book is crap but I bought it anyway because although it knows sweet FA about literature, it is an excellent introduction for old people to tweeting. “Old” in my definition, is not just anyone over 25 but anyone who has not, for whatever reason, gazed into cyberspace, yearning to be transported to its magical centre and there attain the godly powers of net-navigating nerds.

A stupid “old” person can learn a lot from Twitterature because it has a glossary and an explanation of Twitter format. LOL, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how moronically one-dimensional and trite this internet development is. Very LCD (an “old” way of saying lowest common denominator, the historic phenomenon of tweeters who lived before tweeting was invented and therefore had to keep their ignorant, inarticulate opinions to themselves). Once you’ve got a handle on the jargon, u r ready to take on the text.

The work begins with a breathy introduction that functions as an apologia for the work’s existence. By wading through overwritten, florid sentences awash with the effluent of metaphors drawn from nature, you learn that the authors want to bring literature to the level of the modern moron, who has neither the time nor the language skills required to read: Paradise Lost (Milton), The Metamorphosis (Kafka), Oedipus the King (Sophocles), Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Byron), The Red and the Black (Stendhal), Macbeth (Shakespeare), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), The Illiad (Homer), Hamlet (him again), The Overcoat (Gogol), The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), The Inferno (Dante), A Hero of our Time (Lermontov), Beowulf, Candide (Voltaire), Doctor Faustus (Marlowe), Emma (Austen), Great Expectations (Dickens), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), King Lear (yes), Lysistrata (Aristophanes), In Cold Blood (Capote), Medea (Euripides), Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell), On the Road (Kerouac), Notes from Underground (Dostoyevsky), Robinson Crusoe (Defoe), Romeo and Juliet (ditto), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Eugene Onegin (Pushkin), The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey (Homer), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde), The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Sterne), Venus in Furs (Sacher-Masoch), Mrs Dalloway (Woolf), Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Gulliver’s Travels (Swift), Pride and Prejudice (her, again), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain), Frankenstein (Shelley), Swann’s Way (Proust), The Aeneid (Virgil), The Devil in the Flesh (Radiguet), Dracula (Stoker), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Lawrence), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll), The Tempest (correct), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Death in Venice (Mann), The Three Musketeers (Dumas), Moby-Dick (Melville), Don Quixote (Cervantes), The Canterbury Tales (Chaucer).

Just before you get excited, you need to know that it is only the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. Although various periods and genres of Western literary history are covered, it is open to debate whether these are “the world’s greatest books,” especially when you consider the inclusion of two Dostoyevskys and not one James Joyce. More likely, they were chosen on the basis of what our authors, undergraduates at the University of Chicago, have read so far. Nothing to be ashamed of here.

Nor is it surprising that every book is turned into a first-person narrative since that is the nature of tweeting. The disappointment lies in the assumption that the book is the content of the storyline, so the treatment leaves you with something bearing mostly only a cursory resemblance to its source. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think along these lines, if I hadn’t recently come across 80 Classic Books for People in a Hurry, illustrated by Henrik Lange and written by Thomas Wengelewski (Nicotext, 2009), which goes straight for the jugular with a delightfully subjective attempt to interpret a book as a whole and what it might be about. The more familiar you are with the books, the more amusing it is, even when dealing with some serious stuff.

90 classic books pic

Either way, both works in question are not intended to introduce people to literature. Their purpose is to entertain and to that end, I quote the following from Twitterature(or Twitrature, as I think of it):

I realise now that women should submit, and make me a sandwich while you’re down there.”

My husband won’t give me a divorce. I would go Lorena Bobbitt on him if he had any use of his dick.”

He thinks I don’t love my husband because of him. The secret is, I don’t love my husband because I dig chicks.”

I’ve got it! Rather than accept financial aid from my friend, I’ll murder an elderly money-lender in cold blood. Why? I’m not telling.”

For TWITTERATURE of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, see On the Road by Jack Kerouac.”

After a time I’ve become very rich and successful, and very good-looking. This ought to mess with their heads back home.”

Uh oh. This cave is a giant’s lair. He has a taste for cheese and my companions. He also has only one eye. Trying to keep from laughing.”

We stripped off. I did lines off her tits. Couldn’t get it up and know not why. Smoked an entire pouch of tobacco instead.”

Incredible. Everything you might ever need to survive on an island was in that ship. Guns, food, bread, books, you name it.”

Before I cut off Grendel’s head my men sodomized him and I shat in his face. We used to do that in school, remember? (Is that messed up?)”

Not sure I should give this to my mother-in-law. She’s never read Beowulf. Might give her the wrong idea. I wonder how many men call their dicks Moby? Peace, bitches.

Blazenka Brysha

Blackest Saturday

They call it Black Saturday but that is not particularly accurate. I call it Inferno Saturday because it was the day that the gates of Hell opened and in one blazing breath, a great spinning fire burst upon us, consuming everything in its way.

It was only as the horror of it unfolded in the following days, that people, mute with shock, struggling with that knowledge, attempted to find words to deal with the unspeakable.

There had been bush fires before. Ash Wednesday of 1983, stood out eerily in most recent memory: the aptly named first day of Lent was the very day of the catastrophe, which left huge welts of cinder on the outskirts of Melbourne and in the Adelaide Hills.

Then there was the Black Saturday of the 1930s, when big fires did big damage, taking a big toll on life and land. The old could remember this dimly, but it was in another time and in another world. Today it was a different planet, sporting bullet-proof jackets, anti-terrorist strategies, extreme safety consciousness enshrined in tomes of laws, tricked-up emergency services and more ingenious technology than any science fiction writer of the past could have imagined.

Large-scale incineration and mass carnage are just not what anyone could have expected because we had so many fire management and safety strategies in place. We knew what to do and how to do it. We were ready.

It had been a very hot summer: days over 40, total fire bans, the long, long drought that had reduced vegetation to tinder and the earth to dust.

Despite these extreme conditions, daily life went on, working its way around them. Months before, I had contracted house painters to do the gables and fascias on our house and it was late January by the time they got around to it.

How could they work in such blistering conditions, I asked, serving cold drinks to the father and son team.

We follow the shade,” explained the father, who was tanned and had swirling biker tattoos, providing perhaps 40% cover to his arms. The son was pinky-fair, a textbook perfect potential skin cancer case.

The Anti-cancer Council had done its work well and many of us had to take vitamin D tablets because, thanks to the constant wearing of sun hats and sunblock, we were severely deficient of the vitamin dispensed free by the sun in one of the sunniest lands on the globe. At about the time that I contracted the painters, I had been diagnosed with an alarming D-deficiency and was put on a massive daily dose. By rights, my bones should have been as brittle as the drought-parched bush litter. So, we really did need the sun, though it did not feel good for you in the highly magnified circumstances we were experiencing.

Hard to believe in all that heat, but the temperatures were set to really rise towards the end of the last week of January and mid-40s were predicted. As luck would have it, the painters had to interrupt my job to go to Puckapunyal, where they were to paint a new auditorium at the army barracks. It was air-conditioned, indoor work and they would stay three days.

The Thursday and Friday boiled. The garden singed. It was as if a giant magnifying glass had been put between the foliage and the sun. Shrubs over a meter high shrivelled. Leaves that had been green at dawn were burnt to brown. The west side of the radiata pine in our front yard turned a mellow, autumnal red, only it wasn’t autumn and this was an evergreen tree. Because of the painting, I had moved the pot plants on the back deck away from the house and into the shade of a big native tree growing by the fence. I hadn’t thought to put the sun-loving plants right into the shade. By the evening of that first day, they were burnt crisp, like herbs dried in an oven but left too long at too high a temperature. The parsley was unrecognisable.

The Saturday was predicted to boil as well. As I had enrolled in a Tai Chi course that was commencing that day in Hoppers Crossing, on the western outskirts of the city, I had no choice but to go. Although it was a good distance in kilometres from my home, the trip was an easy 40-minute drive over the Westgate Bridge and down the sprawling freeway. The sky was overcast and kept the lid on the heat. After class, I dropped in at a friend’s, nearby. She had the air-conditioner frostily whirring away and told me that her grandparents, who lived locally, had spent the last two nights in her lounge because their house was too hot.

Sitting there in the cool, we chatted about the heat. We talked about the recent spate of bush fires and while we knew there would be more before the summer was over, surely the worst of the heat was behind us. My friend said that if I cut the dead parsley back, maybe it would return.

It was the middle of the day as I drove home along Marine Parade. It was only 39 degrees and the sun was blanketed by cloud. At the St Kilda beach traffic lights, two teenage boys crossed the road. They had bare feet and carried their expensive thongs. The ground must have been very hot but they weren’t even hopping.

Over the following days, the temperatures subsided, the painters returned and life went on again. When skyrocketing temperatures were predicted for the coming weekend, I prepared for it. Old shade cloth was draped over the pot plants and smaller shrubs. Multiple thicknesses went over the fishpond. Gold fish need more food in warm weather than in cold and this summer they were fed daily.

A temperature of 46 degrees was predicted for Saturday, the seventh of February. Having survived the previous week’s heat wave, I again set off for my Tai Chi class. This time, there was no cloud cover and at 9 am, the pale sky shimmered with early heat. The roads were quiet and only a few people took their exercise along the foreshore, usually a scene of pumping action: joggers, bike riders and walkers, with and without dogs, all powering along, oblivious to their backdrop of sand, sea and sky.

On arrival at the community centre where the class was held, I soaked a bath towel in cold water and draped it inside the car by securing it with a window. Leaving the window opposite slightly open for airflow, made a primitive air-cooling system. I did not want to return to a molten vehicle. Later, it was only when I removed the concertina sunshield from the dashboard and felt the heat radiating from the windshield that I knew the wet towel had worked.

It wasn’t yet 11 am and the temperature was already over 40. The air pulsated. There was no one on foot in the streets and the traffic was thin. As I drove along the freeway, the sun bored through the windscreen, which was now too hot to touch. I pulled the still-wet towel across my chest and shoulders. This was heat so thick, you could see it settling its massive weight over the land and pushing the blue of the sky further and further up.

The bayside was deserted. I had never seen this before in my decades of life by the sea and it made me more anxious to get out of the heat and take shelter.

The house was dark and still with all the curtains and doors shut against the heat. The dog stretched out on the floorboards under the dining table, which had become his personal verandah over the hot summer.

As the elderly are said to be most severely affected by the heat, I phoned to check on my oldest tenant, Bill, who is in his eighties and lives in one of our weatherboards in Belgrave, an old township in the Dandenong Ranges. After a life of moving around the country, he had returned to this holiday destination of his youth, which although still a tourist destination, is now considered a part of suburban Melbourne.

He was cool, having recently bought an air-conditioner from Bunnings. He’d been up the street early and was not worried about the heat. I listened to his confident prattle.

What’s wrong with you?” he asked, “You’re not your usual bright self.”

I just mentioned the heat.

Bill was very dismissive. He had lived through the Great Depression, gone without food and footwear, survived industrial accidents and cancer. Clearly he was not set to cark it, despite the conditions.

That was one less worry but not enough to dampen my anxiety, fuelled by the creeping heat. I spent the afternoon in the dining room, reading. It was getting hotter and hotter. The darkness unsettled me. I went to the back door to check how the world of light was going. Radiant heat passed straight through the glass. I opened the door onto a solid wall of heat. It hummed and throbbed with its own intensity. The sky was milky white. The shade cloths were just palls. From the doorway, I cast my eyes around for the cats, neither of which was inside the house. If a fire broke out now, half of Melbourne would burn. That’s how it felt in the 50-degree heat.

The previous summer, I had walked on melting asphalt in Parkes, NSW and my first reaction was, “Yuck, I’ve just stood in chewing gum!” The real explanation was on the sign at the entrance to the public library, asking you to wipe the tar off your shoes before entering. Parkes was hot but this was so much hotter that it didn’t even occur to me to go out the front and check how the roadway was holding up.

By 5 pm the sun could cause no further harm, so I opened all the curtains. The dog still wanted his dinner and the cats reappeared, cool, unfazed. The worst was over, I believed, although it was still very hot. Later, we took the dog for a walk to the foreshore on the rocks, where there is no summertime prohibition against anyone or anything. It was nowhere near as hot as it had been earlier and the air was moving a bit. There were other people about.

Then we got fish and chips, as usual, and watched something on TV that we had recorded earlier in the week but hadn’t had time to watch.

We had no idea that a fire – bigger, faster and hotter than anything ever seen in the country’s recorded history – was at this very time incinerating whole settlements just outside the city. Houses exploded, cars melted.

Many died: in houses, in cars, in open paddocks. The count of charred, scattered bodies, some never to be identified, just grew and grew. The same sad story, retold over and over, counterpointed by the silence of the countless dead animals and a razed black landscape. In the days that followed, we could hear them calling to us.

The survivors told their own stories of a fire alive with its all-consuming intensity: sometimes devouring everything in its path, sometimes leaving a house or a shed standing as if it was picking over a tasty dish of which it had had too much, and sometimes, having passed through, turning back to swallow a whole house that it had missed in its first, frenzied visitation.

Day after day, I kept reading and rereading Byron’s The Darkness, which contained the information that newspapers could never reveal.

It seems everybody knew somebody who was directly affected. My martial arts teacher’s brother-in-law lost his house at Chum Creek. A neighbour, who had strong connections out Marysville way, spent much time working at an emergency centre in that vicinity. My sister had only recently lived and worked in Kinglake West. Her former street, Coombes Rd perished and most of the neighbours were dead. A girl she had worked with, died, along with her sister, trying to save their horses.

The friend, who advised me to cut back the dead parsley, told me how her immediate boss was sacked by the big boss from Western Australia, for being “a heartless shit.” It turns out that some of my friend’s co-workers wanted time off to go help with bushfire relief but their superior flatly refused. When the big boss came to Melbourne, partly to see a close friend who had just been burned out, he wasn’t too happy to learn about this.

The butcher, who supplies the tastiest portion of our dog’s dinner, told me he wasn’t affected because, although his sister lived in one of the bushfire areas, she escaped untouched.

The summer raged on, though not as hotly as on that infernal Saturday. There were more fires, some closer to home: in Upper Ferntree Gully, Belgrave and Ferny Creek. We received SMSs from the police, warning us not to go to the Dandenongs on certain days. If those heavily populated hills had caught fire, the death toll would be in the thousands. This time, we were spared.

After the cinders settled, came the bleak tedium of cleaning up the mess. This included the official Royal Commission into the whole situation, from the thermal science behind it to the human management of the carnage. One man told his story of how no rescue officials would help him cover charred bodies because “it wasn’t their job.” There were people convicted of stealing donation tins collecting money for the fire victims and there were even problems with administering the massive sums raised for bushfire relief. Suspicions of arson had to be addressed and added enormity to the ramifications of the devastation.

Lately, I have seen real estate ads for blocks of land in Marysville. “Privacy and Location,” they exclaim, under photos of freshly levelled blocks, edged by blackened trunks. Having been totally destroyed, the place would be very private. The hopeful conclusion states, “The ideal time to purchase any real estate in Marysville and help establish the town to its former glory.”

But from the safety of Melbourne’s cold winter drizzle, I think of next summer with dread. My fear sits inside me like a large bird, trapped in a cage so small, it can only sit quietly, its wings folded, hopeless.

Of all my dead plants, only the parsley returned.

Blazenka Brysha, June 2009


Twelve months on from the devastation of Black Saturday, the stories behind the statistics are still filtering through. In Vale Reg, Blue Mountains writer, Larry Buttrose remembers actor Reg Evans for his sagacity, wit and helpfulness to others.

Also published in Group Mag2


The September Issue

Fashion is evil. But I’m a very bad girl, so I went to see The September Issue and just wasted 90 minutes of my life. This documentary, about the making of the 2007 edition of the American Vogue’s annual big issue, gives no insight into the magazine’s real workings, offering instead a few personality sketches, ranging form the ludicrous to the tragic. Everyone working on the magazine is about 76 years old but looks only 67 because most of their facial muscles don’t work, the effect, I presume, of botox. The vapid comments wafting from their rigid lips are, I presume, the result of what goes on in their heads – not much worth repeating, except maybe, “September is the Jhhhan-you-ary of fashion .” As parody it may be perfect but as a documentary, the movie was boring. If I had watched it at home, I would have fallen asleep.

I came away in disgust. Off came my tailored, fully-lined, flocked-denim jacket and the check, pale neutral-grey, fine wool pencil skirt with a high waist band and back slit. On went the ancient mens trackie dacks and ugh boots. If I was going to get to work on this post, I needed to tog out in some proper working clothes. Life is an endless costume opportunity and I have always loved to dress up. Only in the grips of serious illness do I not wear earrings for a whole day. Appropriate dress has always been the hallmark of my sartorial style. When working on property refurbishment/maintenance, I am mistaken for a cleaning woman. When I entered the Parkes Elvis Festival Priscilla Contest in 2005, I won. American Vogue is the only recreational magazine I ever buy, although never more than twice a year – September and December are the bumper months. Last year, I oohed over September’s 796 pages of divine looks; this year, the same month’s 584 pages were too dull to warrant more than a quick flick-through at Balaclava News Agency.

Americans are the richest people on earth and most of the other richest people of this earth also shop in America. The US Vogue can feature the most glamorous, outrageously expensive things without batting a tinted eyelash. Forget Tiffany, a loyalVogue advertiser, when you can buy “statement” acrylic (yes, real plastic) jewellery costing thousands of $US, as featured in the December issue in 2007. The model wears a cocktail dress and several of these big “jewels” around her neck and wrists but she is also wearing rubber gloves and is on her hands and knees swishing a scrubbing brush around a sudsy floor, in broad daylight. Never has housework been more glamorous. It just makes you want to put on your most fabulous evening gear and start spring cleaning the house, top to bottom. Or, it makes you laugh at the ridiculous fantasy. The models are gorgeous and the magazine is very careful to feature many very affordable items but the truth behind it is very ugly and The September Issue really points to that. The 2007 effort was a bumper 840 pages and had a print run in excess of 13 million copies.

Given that the real work of any commercial enterprise is to sell, be it your new novel or my nephew’s new Go-Green Computers business, we do need to ask what it is that we are being sold. Vogue’s business is to sell us a magazine that in turn sells clothing fashion but it is not as simple as it sounds because Vogue itself is a critical cog in the insidious process of manipulating fashion consumption. The September Issue says nothing about what Vogue really is or what it is doing, aside from acknowledging that editor Anna Wintour is the most important single person in the global fashion industry.

Any suggestion that this film will have one intelligent thing to say about the fashion industry is quashed at the very opening with some twaddle from editor Anna Wintour trying to dismiss negative criticism of dress fashion by saying that fashion makes people feel insecure because they are not part of the “in group”. In other words, people who don’t drool over fashion are misfits and failures. We are quickly filled in on Wintour’s true stature in the fashion industry as she is shown in one fur-trimmed garment after another and we are told how she single-handedly resurrected the fur industry by putting it on the 1992 September cover. The gloating over this proud achievement really stroked my “real people wear fake fur” pelt backwards.

Aside from all the furry trims, Wintour always wears only boxy, short jackets or short cardigans, printed, waisted dresses with high necklines and mostly with very full skirts. She favours a full boot or a sling-back shoe with a low to medium heel. A short string of chunky beads is colour varied to go with the different outfits. She doesn’t like black but the film doesn’t explain that in many colour circles, black is not regarded as a colour. Stylistically, Wintour has only one look and it depends entirely on her scrawny form. Stalking about with her snub features and reptilian skin, she resembles an emaciated dinosaur looking for a kill. She spends a lot of her time with her arms folded, glowering her displeasure at everyone and everything. The publisher acknowledges that she is a cold person. What he doesn’t add is how warmed he and his cronies are by the rewards they reap through her arrogance and hired- assassin efficacy.

Wintour is said to have been the inspiration for Miranda Priestly, the fashion editor inThe Devil Wears Prada, which was written by her former personal assistant, Lauren Weisberger and made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. While autocratic disregard for others and bullying is a shared characteristic, Wintour, as seen in The September Issue, has none of the colour and brittle verve of Streep’s creation.

When the camera is not on Wintour, it focuses on creative director, Grace Coddington, who brings 45-years of fashion savvy to the magazine’s photoshoots and themed spreads. It is her task to sate the finicky Wintour’s desire for the ineffable. Coddington , with her crinkly red mane, imposing height, choice of black, knee-length sack dresses and comfort sandals is exactly what you would expect from someone in her job. Youth, beauty, fantasy and luxury can only be sold by the ugly reality of harrowing hard work by seasoned veterans. Coddington is also able to distinguish between “perfect models” and “real” people. Looking at the spreads that Coddington prepares, you can see her mark on Vogue signature looks: airborne kinetics, faded-pastel fairytale fantasies, opulent old-masters artifice and whacky juxtapositions.

Aside from Wintour’s passing acknowledgement of Coddington’s “genius”, there is not much dignity for anyone at Vogue. We never see the fleets of personnel involved in every aspect of producing the issue. The film also doesn’t explain the first thing about how this major publication is put together and what human and technical resources are harnessed in the production. There is no truth here and definitely no glimpse of Wintour’s three personal assistants although we do catch sight of the hired domestic help, a black woman, at Wintour’s New York townhouse.

The only time The September Issue reaches a level of mild psychological interest is when we are presented with Wintour’s young adult daughter, who thinks she’d like to do some serious work, perhaps in law; and when Wintour reveals that her siblings have a low-regard for her work. It is not surprising that they should feel this, given that, according to her, one brother is working in community housing, another as a political editor and a sister is helping farmers in South America. Wintour’s condescending description of their jobs seriously understates the level of their professional ranking.

Ironically, I had intended to see Coco Avant Chanel but decided against it on philosophical grounds. As the film’s title means Coco, Before Chanel, it amused me to come across warnings that it only deals with Chanel’s early life, not because I expect people to understand French but because I would think that you would bother to find out what a film’s title means if you were going to see it. While it seems obvious to me that the most interesting aspect of Chanel’s story would be in how she got started, on reflection and a bit of reading, I was reminded of Chanel’s close association with Nazis during the second World War. Problematic material, to say the least, and for me as off-putting as Wintour’s support for the bloody fur industry and the taking of life for pleasure. It is a case of ugly,ugly, ugly, inside and out.

Blazenka Brysha 17/9/2009

The Real September Issue

After writing the above, the newshound in me just kept digging up the dirt on Anna Wintour, of which there is a landfill quantity on the net. It came as no surprise, given that her trade is the press and that her Jimmy Choos have reportedly trod on many a face en route to power, money and fame. Live by the press and die by the press. In fact, had I known anything more about Wintour than her reputation as a draconian power-wielder, I would have realised that no genuine documentary crew could get within 50 meters of her.

It is said that Wintour allowed the documentary in order to raise her profile and perhaps it worked. After seeing The September Issue, my mother-in-law commented that Wintour was not as hard as she had expected, so, clearly my mother-in-law knew more about Wintour than I did at the time. My friend Vicki Steer admitted to seeing the film and observed that she found Wintour’s power “mystifying”. But what Wintour is like as a person – and I came away from The September Issue with the impression of chilling ruthlessness – is not necessarily directly related to her ability as a marketer of fashion, which is what she is ultimately.

The secret of her power/success is graphically exposed, indeed splashed across the pages of the 2009 September issue of US Vogue. If you count the covers, both sides, it has 588 pages, of which 388 are bought advertising. There is much other product promotion, complete with price tags and where you can buy it, in the editorial pages, including 5 pages called Index that feature masses of products under $US500. There’s even a Kmart cashback offer in an advertorial. Most, but not all the promoted products are from brands advertised in the magazine.

The essence of Wintour is her ability to get advertising money out of Valentino and Kmart, Blahnik and Payless Shoes, Target and Nordstrom, Chanel and Covergirl. Of the 388 pages of ads, 103 are for mass market consumer goods – including the 8 pages from UGG Australia – costing relatively little as units but generating billions for the fashion/beauty industry. The 103 pages do not even include Rolex or Tiffany, staple brands of middle class must-haves. Nor do they include any of the stuff I didn’t automatically recognise as available everywhere, so there would be a percentage in that, too.

The first story in the magazine is on page 278 and it’s about and written by a self-made woman film producer, who had to reinvent herself at the age of 21 when her father lost his $US50m stockmarket fortune in 1997. I am reminded of the bit in My Brother Jack when David, having listened to whinings about the hardships of being the younger son of a British lord, makes the point that it’s tougher being the younger son of a Melbourne tram driver.

After 382 pages of ads, you arrive at the guts of the magazine. First comes Grace Coddington’s Into the Woods, a 13-page spread with a Red Riding Hood theme. Then there are 10 pages on the cover celebrity, Charlize Theron, 4 pages on the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, a 10 page spread on coats and 16 pages of 1940s looks. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel gets 4 pages before we get back to business with 4 pages on Fashion’s Night Out, a global shopping event promoted by Vogue International and spearheaded by the US edition. Retailers put on special events for one day, featuring fashion celebrities appearing at stores like Bloomingdales (Target for the rich). This is important because, “If we don’t shop, people lose their jobs.” That would be especially terrible for Anna because where would she be without her work?

Then come 4 pages on Roger Federer, on whom Anna is said to have a “crush”. Indeed, in her editorial she declares, “Roger Federer is now established as the greatest tennis player of all time.” I do not follow tennis, so I don’t know how true this is but there is ample indication that Federer is Wintour’s pet human. While on the home front, this is followed by 8 pages on British fashion tycoon Gela Nash-Taylor, showing all the splendour of her Tudor manor. Then 4 pages on Jenny Sanford, about whom I learned all I need to know from my colleague Adair Jones in her piece at

After all that you might need a drink so there are 4 pages explaining why bars are more hip than restaurants and which bars are it in New York (just in case you go). Apparently, “a proper bar has hooks in front of each stool” for your handbag. Hot places lead to hot people, so we get 2 pages on Hugh Jackman, then 2 on supermodel Karli Kloss, followed by 18 pages of fashion to keep you warm if not hot: gloves, boots, suits etc.

If you overlook that every fashion item featured in this editorial section is being plugged, there are no ads at all. This is quickly corrected by the above-mentioned Index spread and a few more ad pages, bringing the issue to a thumping close. And that is the real September issue, which is how Vogue was promoting it.

In it there is even an ad for the movie, and in her editorial, Wintour confides, “It is difficult to speak about a film that scrutinises one self but at Vogue, we were happy with the result.” She may speak like the Queen and she may not be able to “write” – having left school at 16 – but she sure knows her business and when she was photographed queuing to see the film, it wasn’t because she couldn’t see it any other way. She was keeping her nose to the ground and doing some first hand market research, because she is a marketer and that is what she is paid a said $US2m plus a year to do.

ENDS 25/09/09

FABULOUS FASHIONISTAS The Brysha sisters seen at Tijuana Party, l-r Marta, as Carmen Miranda, Mihaela as Frida Kahlo, sporting monobrow and monkey and Blazenka, in her award-winning Priscilla Presley costume. (Detailing: dodgyen's wig-Toyworld, Werribee; damask cotton shift - McCalls pattern, Lincraft fabric; headband - $2 shop, Balaclava; huge ring that swayed the judges - heirloom paste glass brooch on bandaid; spenser - old, not worn at Parkes. 
FABULOUS FASHIONISTAS The Brysha sisters seen at Tijuana Party, l-r Marta, as Carmen Miranda, Mihaela as Frida Kahlo, sporting monobrow and monkey and Blazenka, in her award-winning Priscilla Presley costume. (Detailing: dodgy childrens wig-Toyworld, Werribee; damask cotton shift – McCalls pattern, Lincraft fabric; headband – $2 shop, Balaclava; huge ring that swayed the judges – heirloom paste glass brooch on bandaid; spenser – old, not worn at Parkes.