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.

Pride and Prejudice and Profit$


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a publisher in search of profits must be in want of a most marketable text. Indeed, if one were to maximise the margins, one could do no better than prey on a much-loved and globally recognised testament of the Western Canon.

And that is how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Classics, 2009) came to be. At the suggestion of an editor, Grahame-Smith hacked his way through Austen’s most popular text, inserting zombie action into the storyline and rewriting Austen’s characters to deal with these new plot twists. Zombies are the living dead, the walking corpses that wander roboticly in search of the living, on whose brains they feed after cracking open their skulls. Zombiism is an infectious state transmitted through biting, as we learn when Charlotte Lucas confides in Elizabeth Bennet that she has been bitten by a zombie and therefore, as her days are numbered, she will marry Mr Collins because he can fulfil her modest expectations of the marital state and give her a proper beheading and Christian burial after her transformation into a zombie is complete. Charlotte’s descent into decomposing housewife oozing pus and talking in what sounds like Sambo-speak, awh mah lawd, it do make me laff.

In Grahame-Smith’s version of Austen’s England, the country is in the throes of a zombie plague and as zombies can only be dispatched by beheadings, their violent destruction is the responsibility of the military but citizens with a serious interest in survival also require deadly fighting skills because they might be needed as zombies are likely to gatecrash balls, eat the kitchen staff of a grand estate as they prepare to serve desert, which is ruined by the bloody splatter, and interrupt just about any genteel activity found in an Austen novel. So, Grahame-Smith’s Bennet sisters are Shaolin-trained warriors, Wickham, D’Arcy and Lady Catherine de Burgh are initiates of the Japanese fighting arts and the zombies are just freestyle cannibals, giving everyone ample opportunity for frequent, lethal encounters and buckets of yuckky viscera.

But I’m making the work sound a lot better than it reads. While blood, gore and guts, with a supernatural twist – staple fodder of late 20thC youth entertainment – have been added by the hospital biohazard skipful, Grahame-Smith does a poor job of marrying his contribution to Austen’s archaic, and by modern standards of informality, delightfully pompous language.

Clearly, the popularity enjoyed by Pride and Prejudice in recent years has more to do with its treatment on screen than Austen’s skill with language. Filmed versions of the book have abounded, most notably the BBC’s 1995 TV production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the leads, capturing the essence of Austen’s opus in 6 easy episodes without anyone but writer Andrew Davies, an award-winning screen adaptor of classic novels, having to read a word of the novel. Nevertheless, Austen, as the teller of the story, is given full credit for her creation, which is, more or less, a love story for teenagers, featuring a number of mateable virgins and their suitors, an assortment of problematic relatives, and throbbing with unresolved sexual tension more volatile than an industrial accident in a pharmaceutical laboratory manufacturing hormones for the treatment of flagging libidos.

The virgins cover all types: sexy and sweet (Jane), sexy and sharp (Elizabeth), sexy, buxom and bawdy (Lydia), sexy and silly (Kitty), sexy and juvenile (Miss D’Arcy), sexless and intellectual (Mary), sexless and dowdy (Charlotte), sexless and sickly (Miss de Bourgh), and last but not least that great archetype, sexless and shrewish (Miss Bingley). Zip up your pants, boys! Speaking of which, the bachelors offer varying degrees of eligibility, covering the 19thC desirable job wishlist. Among them we have the landed gentry in D’Arcy, the fantastically rich, impossibly handsome and scandalously arrogant alpha male/bad boy, and his friend, Bingley, a beagle reincarnated as a good-natured, rich, upper class twit; the clergy in Mr Collins, a drivelling slimeball, next to whom it is agony to sit let alone contemplate physical contact with; and, of course, the military in Wickham, the mendacious reprobate slipping as easily into virgins’ confidence as into their vaginas, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is without any glaring faults apart from being “a younger son” whose consequent lack of fortune prevents him from marrying where he might like. But Austen does not spoil everyone’s fun by dwelling too long on anything remotely serious here; she saves that for Persuasion.

The relatives are as easily dispatched as zombies milling on a busy helicopter landing pad. Mrs Bennet who talks too much and thinks too little is a constant embarrassment to her children. Mr Bennet, who speaks in cutting sarcasms, spends all his time hiding in his library. Best of all is Lady Catherine de Burgh, the aunt from hell who proves that social status, riches and genetic pedigree are no guarantee of good breeding, personal quality and effectualness.

When you take a close look at Austen’s story and characters there are many ways to improve on it and Seth Grahame-Smith tries his best to fix it.

Aside from the poetic treatment of Charlotte and giving Lady Catherine a troupe of ninjas, Grahame-Smith disappoints.

His feeling for Asian martial arts is as fake as Charlotte Collins’s orgasms would have been. The Bennets are Shaolin (Temple in China) Chinese boxing followers so they would never set foot in dojos (Japanese karate training halls) except to vanquish a karate opponent (see – literally – Fist of Fury, 1972, Lo Wei). Elizabeth Bennet would never use a Katana – a Samurai sword – when she could use a dragon pole, which would give her better reach until she could get in with her butterfly swords, one for each hand, spun in continuous figure 8 motion, dismembering anything in reach. If Grahame-Smith tackled a religious subject he would have a Methodist minister say Mass in a mosque. A little bit of credibility, please.

The reworked novel’s conclusion is more horrifying than any zombie-wreaked havoc: “the sisters Bennet – servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death – were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by that only force more powerful than any warrior.” It’s not just the secrets of Shaolin about which Seth doesn’t have a clue.

But it is Grahame-Smith’s crime against language that is heinous beyond censure. It includes Mr Bennet referring to his wife as a “silly woman” and other lazy modernisms where period detailing of form and content may have been vastly more amusing and indeed the very palliative to make so odd a concoction as Mr Grahame-Smith’s endeavour bearable for those with highly-attuned cultural sensitivities. Worst of all, it features the mutilation of a pronoun, “…as for my sisters and I, our father thought it best that we give less of our time to books…”(p34). Here Seth is not alone and a plague of this is upon “us”, that’s “you and me”, babe, not YOU AND I! A plague is upon me and upon you but you will still be you whether you are the subject or the object, whereas I will be me when I am the object. Why do you do this to us, the other readers and me? On the back cover blurb of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it states, “Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature” so, he can consider this his class in English language.

Seth, all I can say is,”You have offended me, my (literary/literate)family and the Shaolin Temple.” Well done, old chap!

Blazenka Brysha took many classes in English literature and language, on both sides of the desk. She devours books with all the greedy, lip-smacking relish of a zombie cracking open a toddler’s soft skull and sucking out the warm brain, which is probably why her daughter gave her a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a birthday gift.

Also published in The Group Online Magazine, Issue 5.