The Opening Sentence: Airport Dialogue

This is the third post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. As with yesterday’s example, the opening line is a real fragment of conversation I overheard.

“Don’t drop it. There’s a PlayStation in there, for fuck’s sake.”

“I didn’t drop it. It just fell over.”

“Well, why can’t you hold onto it? The queue isn’t that long.”

“Fuck that. I don’t know why we have to bring it anyway.”

“Because I’m not paying the hotel thirty bucks a day just so I can play games.”

“Because you never get to do that, do you? It’s a bloody holiday. Why do we have to drag the fucking console along?”

“Because there is no way that I am watching Indonesian TV. No fucking way.”

“You’ll be lucky if it arrives in one piece. Those baggage handlers always treat luggage like shit.”

“It’s well-padded.”

“Well, if it’s well-padded, it shouldn’t matter if I drop it, should it?”

“Whatever. Do you want me to carry it instead?”

“No way. You can carry the other suitcase. That weighs a ton.”

“Well, that’s hardly my fault is it? I’m not the one packing a PlayStation for a beach trip.”

“Well, hold on to it ya mong.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you, ya cunt.”

It was going to be a good holiday.

The Opening Sentence: Platform 3

This is the second post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

The voice boomed across Platform 3. “Would London Transport Police please come to the Piccadilly Line platforms to remove a beggar?”

I knew that was the opportunity I needed. The station was already crowded with commuters on their weary way home, but everyone stepped away from where the resting figure, huddled in a blanket, was cursing huskily under his breath, a handwritten cardboard sign in front of him. He wouldn’t move until the police arrived, and that would take a few moments, even if they used the staff exits and avoided some of the corridors teeming with passengers.

I was standing directly behind Rebecca Blake. I was sure she hadn’t seen me. Even if she noticed me in passing, the scarf around my neck and the beanie on my head made my features hard to discern .And she had only met me briefly that one time, when I guided her into Leonard Johnson’s office. Numbers were her passion; it seemed unlikely she would have much of a memory for faces.

Even so, I waited on the platform until the police finally arrived to remove the beggar. The crowd was forced even closer together as the three coppers (two male, one female) leaned in and reminded the poor wretch that he had to leave. This was my chance. As everyone squeezed in tighter, I slipped the device into Rebecca Blake’s handbag.

She didn’t notice. She might not have realised even without the distraction, but I couldn’t see the point in taking the risk. By now the beggar had reluctantly agreed to move on, and a train was pulling in, bound for Heathrow. Rebecca Blake boarded, along with most of the crowd. I hung back. Let everyone think I was waiting for a service to Uxbridge. I loitered for a few seconds, then headed for the escalators.

Bruce met me in a pub a block away from the station. Our guess had been correct; once the police had escorted him out of the Tube station, they weren’t interested in taking matters further. The distraction had worked. But we’d have to wait three days to find out if the rest of the plan was as successful. If everything worked, Rebecca Blake would be dead.

The Opening Sentence: Hallowed

This is the first post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

Sunday School seemed old-fashioned. Ryan vaguely knew that. It wasn’t properly modern. Modern was important. His father was always saying so. “Old-fashioned rubbish!” Rob Tarrant would mutter, switching channels on the television set. The family was never allowed to watch old-fashioned rubbish. But Ryan still had to go to Sunday School.

Ryan’s mother and father did not attend the church service while the children were receiving their Sunday education, unlike most of the other parents. His father would drop him off when the class began and was waiting outside for him when he emerged. Ryan assumed he went back home. The church was only two minutes’ drive away from their house in Brown Street. Ryan imagined his father read the newspaper.

Sometimes his mother would drop him off, but not often. There was usually housework to be done and a Sunday dinner to prepare, tasks which didn’t brook interruption. Ryan vaguely thought Sunday dinner was old-fashioned too, but he liked roast lamb so he didn’t say anything about it. Gravy matters when you are eight years old.

He didn’t like Sunday School as much but he had been sent along since he was five. He hadn’t thought to protest when he went to ordinary school and he didn’t think to protest on Sundays either. It was old-fashioned and boring, but Ryan was not the kind of boy who minded anything much. At least not until Mr Jenkins came along.

What Ryan always remembered and feared was the sound of Mr Jenkins’ keys. You could hear them jangling in his pocket even before he entered the church hall where the lessons were held. Mrs Jenkins was the teacher. Mr Jenkins came to collect her at the end of each lesson.

Unlike Ryan’s father, Mr Jenkins only came to accompany his wife back to the main church building. And unlike Ryan’s father, he didn’t wait outside. No matter how early he was, no matter what the class were doing, he came inside, the solid door slamming shut hard as he entered and setting the lock rattling.

Mrs Jenkins didn’t seem to notice. If anyone else came into the hall during lessons, she would react, chastising or greeting as the occasion demanded. “You’re late, Maria.” (This to a perennially tardy girl with badly-organised plaits.) “Sorry, Mrs Prentice, we’ll only be another five minutes.” (This to the head of the Church social committee, anxious to remove the pupils and prepare for other activities.)

But Mr Jenkins simply walked in, and the verse reading or singing or colouring in continued. Apparently no-one else was supposed to notice either. And that was why Ryan found it impossible to tell anyone why he was so afraid.

Introducing my new project: The Opening Sentence

This blog has been sorely neglected over the last six months: just four posts since January 2012. I blame my full-time job as editor of Lifehacker Australia. I love the work but it’s a lot of words to craft each day, and what energy I might have once had for blogging often ends up as either narky posts on my Twitter feed or in Lifehacker posts which might once have easily run here.

I’m not saying random pop culture and travel stuff won’t continue to appear on the blog if I suddenly get the urge, but I’m going to test a different approach over the next few weeks. Ever since first taking part in NaNoWriMo in 2010, I’ve been keen on writing fiction. (You can read the opening chapter of my 2010 effort and the pitch for my 2011 project right here on the blog.)

I already have a plan for my 2012 NaNoWriMo creation, but I figure my writing muscles need more regular exercise before November. I remember Helen Garner arguing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival a few years ago that doing some form of creative writing every day was excellent discipline, even if you didn’t end up using it. I write thousands of words of journalism every day, but my skills in fiction writing aren’t developed to the same level. So I need to practise outside the context of a planned 50,000+ word work.

Hence The Opening Sentence. In my fiction ideas list, I have dozens of half-sketched concepts and possible opening lines for stories. I’m going to grab a different one of these each day and spend at least 15 minutes developing it. If I’m enthused and want to write for a bit longer, I can, but whatever the length and the quality, I will publish the result right here on this blog.

How long will this last? Either until I run out of opening sentences, an idea grabs me so strongly that I decide to keep working on it, or I collapse with exhaustion. I hope it’s not the last, as that will be dispiriting. Comments, as always, will be welcome.

Who won at the 2012 Lizzies?

Last night saw the 10th Annual Microsoft IT Journalism Awards, invariably known as the Lizzies, which acknowledge the best technology publications and writers in Australia. I was a nominee in five categories, and Lifehacker was up for two awards. I was thrilled hugely that Lifehacker won Best Website against some very tough competition, and that I scored a Highly Commended (HC) in Best Technical Writer. It was also a huge night for my fabulous Allure colleagues. Elly Hart won Best Reviewer, Kotaku won Best Gaming Coverage, and Tracey Lien won Best Gaming Journalist and Best Journalist.

Here’s a list of the winners on the night. (Corrections welcome: this is based on notes scrawled with my IKEA pencil in a noisy, alcohol-filled room.) Publisher-wise, the big scorers on the night were my own employers, Allure Media (5 winners and 1 highly commended); Fairfax (4 winners and 2 highly commended); CBS (3 winners and 3 highly commended); and News Ltd (2 winners).

Best Technology Industry Journalist: David Ramli, AFR (HC: Paul Smith, AFR)

Best Columnist: John Davidson, AFR (HC: Adam Turner, freelancer)

Best Consumer Technology Journalist: Jennifer Dudley-Nicolson, News (HC: Asher Moses, SMH; Nick Ross, ABC)

Best Personal Technology Coverage: CNET

Best Reviewer: Elly Hart, Gizmodo (HC: Darren Yates, PC User)

Best Technology Magazine: PC & Tech Authority (HC: Choice Computer, Game Informer)

Best Business Technology Journalist: Fran Foo, AustralianIT (HC: David Braue, freelancer)

Best Business Technology Coverage: Communications Day (HC: Information Age)

Best New Journalist: Jessica Gardner, BRW (HC: Josh Taylor, ZDNet; Andrew McMillen, Freelancer)

Best Website: Lifehacker (HC: CNet)

Best Technical Journalist: Chris Duckett, Tech Republic (HC: Angus Kidman, Lifehacker)

Best Video Program: 5 Inch Floppy (HC: Good Game)

Best Audio Program: Risky Business (HC: Your Tech Life)

Best Gaming Journalist: Tracey Lien, Kotaku (HC: Laura Parker, Gamespot)

Best Gaming Coverage: Kotaku (HC: 5 Inch Floppy, IGN)

Best Media Relations: Jenny Crowcroft (HC: Renato Catalan, Snezana Stojanovska)

Best News Journalist: Andrew Colley, AustralianIT

Best News Coverage: SMH

Best Journalist: Tracey Lien, Kotaku

Best Publication: CNET

Redefining cloud computing as a vegetable

One of the sessions today at the Kickstart Media Forum was about cloud computing, and journalists had the opportunity to question vendors in the space about trends and issues. But I’m mean and weird, so instead I asked them: If cloud computing was a vegetable, what vegetable would it be?

Remarkably, they all answered. Here’s what they said.

Reuben Bennett, Riverbed national sales manager: “I’d go with potato because it can be dull or uninteresting or it can be dressed up and be very satisfying.”

Duncan Bennet, VMware vice president and managing director: “I’d say fruit salad, lots of stuff mixed up in it, but that’s not a vegetable.”

Damien Murphy, Riverbed systems engineer: Riverbed: “Something that’s a little over-hyped or misunderstood; I’d go with Brussels sprouts.”

Peter James, Ninefold managing director: “It’s got to be fast and powerful and simple and scalable, so I’m thinking broccoli.”

Carl Terrantroy, CA Technologies CTO: “If it was a fruit, it would be easier. I have to do something I like, so I’ll go a baked potato.”

Suhas Kelkar, BMC chief technology officer APC: “It’s the same old vegetable, maybe a carrot, but it’s organically produced.”

Oscar Trimboli, Microsoft Office Lead: “Can it be a fruit? Broccoli, because it’s an amazing self-healing system.”

Gary Mitchell, BMC Australia MD: “Does it have to be a vegetable? Can it be a marshmallow? It’s light and fluffy and it can be satisfying, but if you have too much and you’re not ready it can be a problem.”

So what have we learned? Apparently cloud computing is easier to compare to a fruit. Apparently broccoli is scalable and self-healing. And apparently, people will answer pointless questions if you nag them enough.

The Internet proves my grandfather was a hoon

I love random Google searches sometimes. I did a search on Malcolm Esau (my grandfather, second husband of my paternal grandmother if you want to be pedantic) and found this extract from the Advertiser of Tuesday October 22 1940:

Frankly, this comes as no surprise. My grandfather Malcolm often boasted about how he learned to drive (on a farm property) before the age of ten, and later in life he joyously embraced an alleged South Australian loophole which said that laws regarding compulsory seat belts did not apply to those over seventy.

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that he was shocked/digusted by my own inability to drive. In 1987, he attempted to teach me to manipulate a car, and the result was appalling to everyone involved. He was a charter example of the kind of person for whom driving is entirely instinctual and who as a result cannot pass that knowledge on to anyone else. But despite that and his in-no-way-latent racism, I always enjoyed his company.

Random searching also reveals that Malcolm was the best man at a wedding in September 1941. There are a stack of related social and birth notices I need to dig into properly.

Pedant note: I’m not obsessive about blood; people in my family are family. As far as I’m concerned, I had five grandfathers (Fin, Bill, Malcolm, Jack and Eric) and four grandmothers (Bobby, Elvira, Freddie, Joyce), and I’m very grateful for all of them. Since the post is about him, here’s a picture of Malcolm in December 1986:

Footpath fails and teenage kicks: Shopping in Dearborn

I’m not surprised that there are no footpaths near my hotel in Detroit. This is a city still clinging, however improbably, to the notion that manufacturing cars is the only road to economic salvation. Why encourage people to walk?

Actually, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the US: finding yourself in a hotel where there’s essentially no way of leaving unless you’re in a vehicle. Add in the fact that I’m in Dearborn, near Ford’s Detroit HQ — every second building is the Henry Ford something-or-other, and I’m here to check out Ford’s design facilities — and I should perhaps be grateful the roads aren’t fenced off with barbed wire.

Not being able to walk isn’t an issue in my favourite US cities (San Francisco, Boston, New York, even Vegas), but you can’t keep going back to the same old places. Even though my principle aim today in visiting the Fairlane Town Center is something I’ve done several times before: heading to Macy’s and buying some cheap-by-Australian-standards Levis.

So while the mall is right opposite my hotel in Dearborn, no-one seems to have considered that visitors might want to stroll on over and spend some money. I have to wander through a half-empty car park, up a grass verge, across a four-lane road and through another two empty car parks to get to the stores. The traffic on a Sunday makes this feasible, but I suspect it would be impossible during rush hour.

The mall itself is bleak and largely empty, which I attribute partly to the early hour and partly to the depressed state of US retail in general and the Detroit economy in particular. The cheapest Levis turn out to be in JCPenney rather than Macy’s, but with that chore done there’s nothing that keeps me wanting to shop.

But at least I’m allowed to shop whenever I want. While grabbing some lunch in the food court (cheaper than hotel room service), I’m struck by the huge sign and leaflets promoting the ‘Adult Supervision Policy’ at the mall:

This actually turns out to be an anti-teenager policy: if you’re under 18, you’re not allowed in the mall after 5pm at night unless you’re accompanied by an adult. Apparently, before this policy was put in, the place was filled with gangs of marauding teenagers and sales suffered. What I’m wondering is: how did the teenagers who didn’t have cars ever get here in the first place?

Gough Road: My 2011 #NaNoWriMo novel is done!

For the second year running, I’ve taken part in and finished the NaNoWriMo challenge — writing a completed novel of at least 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30. I didn’t finish quite as early this year and I wrote a little bit less, but I’m really pleased with the result. For those of you who are curious, here’s the blurb:

Gough Road
Lonely people live between 40 and 44 Gough Road. At 40a Ricki Smith is a nymphomaniac with an unpleasant mother. Simon and Stephanie Benning compulsively renovate 40b while dreaming of a life outside London. Mike Gage in 44a is an Australian bank executive obsessed with a railway line that was never built. Karim Napur watches immigrant workers come and go from the crowded flat at 44b, while Sandra Bellfall’s house at 42 is getting emptier all the time. But which of them will be the first to die?

And yes, I’m still exploring options for what to do with last year’s novel. I re-read it recently and enjoyed it, which is good. Now I should let other people do that.

Here & Now 10th Anniversary Tour: Opening Night, LG Arena, Birmingham

I delude myself about many things, but I have no illusions about 80s retro concerts these days. The audience will be pushing 40 from both sides and growing fat, because that’s the category I fit in myself. On the upside, I’m in Birmingham, so I’ll still be skinnier than 93% of the crowd.

Obesity aside, who could resist this lineup if, like me, you unexpectedly ended up in England at the last minute? The initial attraction for me was Pepsi & Shirlie (‘Heartache’, Wham! backing singers), who have essentially done nothing since 1990 and thus compelled me with their rarity value alone. I also own both their albums on original CD versions. To quote Daniel Johns: yeah, I’m a freak.

The other acts on this bill I’ve never seen before (no mean feat given my retro tourism dedication) are Jimmy Somerville, Midge Ure and A Flock Of Seagulls. I have witnessed three others previously:

  • I’ve seen headliner Boy George on stage in Taboo, playing the role of Leigh Bowery after Matt Lucas gave it up (I saw that production too). Never seen him live as a concert performer though.
  • I’ve seen second-ranked Jason Donovan on stage in Sweeney Todd in Bromley, a performance that was way more impressive than you might deduce from that description. Never seen him live as a concert performer either.
  • Belinda Carlisle: this will be the eighth time I’ve seen her (five Australian Here & Now performances, once in the London production of Hairspray, plus the Doncaster Shoppingtown Hotel this year, a performance I was too slack to blog about, slap me if you must).

It’s an odd mix of acts. The Seagulls belong in the early new Romantic period. Pepsi & Shirlie scored their hits in the latter part of the decade, but had a presence much earlier with Wham! Midge Ure arguably has the most diverse range of hits. Belinda and George run close behind. Jimmy has a compressed range of success, and Jason doubly so. But I’m looking forward to it all. Here’s a blow-by-blow description with hideous photos:

A Flock Of Seagulls
Setlist: The More You Live The More You Love, Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You), Space Age Love Song

A Flock Of Seagulls being nothing more than lead singer Mike Score is no shock, but there are two other shocks to come. He does not have that hairstyle, itself a lazy shorthand for the 80s these days; instead, he has an age-making ponytail. Yes, that was 30 years ago. On the other hand, we have advanced wig technology. He refers jokingly to this — “Does anybody out there miss my hairdo? Yeah, I do too” — but it’s not enough.

Even more annoyingly, he goes nowhere near the band’s biggest Australian success, “I Ran”. I was half-expecting this — the song was only a minor UK hit — but that doesn’t make it right, dammit.

Pepsi & Shirlie
Setlist: Goodbye Stranger, All Right Now, Heartache

22 years after their last gig (as Shirley points out), the ladies are looking good and working hard. The audience definitely perks up when ‘Heartache’, easily their most recognisable track, closes the set, and is perhaps a tad restive otherwise. But that’s about familiarity, not competence.

Outfit-wise, there’s a lot of glitter and sparkles and black (all popular choices for retro ladies of a certain decade). I honestly half-expected a Wham! medley, so it’s good to see the pair mining their first album for the hits. In a modern twist, Shirley also thanks their tweeters.

Midge Ure
Setlist: If I Was, Fade To Grey, Vienna, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes

Midge was, in a word, majestic. ‘Vienna’ was the first track which got most of the audience standing. Midge introduced it by noting that it was “the nearest we’ll get to opera tonight”, a wry reference to his recent brief stint on the TV talent show Popstar To Operastar. Being in a crowd of a few thousand people all singing the last line was well cool.

Remarkably, this was the first time Midge had actually performed ‘Fade To Grey’ (which he wrote and produced for Visage) live in concert. The result was impressive, though I suspect the crowd would have reacted better with a more synth-heavy arrangement mimicking the original, rather than the rockier approach we got here.

Belinda Carlisle
Setlist: Live Your Life Be Free, I Get Weak, Circle In The Sand, We Want The Same Thing, Leave A Light On, Heaven Is A Place On Earth

No surprises here: Belinda is a consistently enthusiastic live performer and always delivers the hits. In her UK career, the Go-Gos really are a footnote, so no songs from them. I would have liked ‘Always Breaking My Heart’ to show up — it was a major UK hit and I’ve never seen her do it live — but you can’t have everything.

Belinda did her typical arrangement of ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’, with a slow version of the first verse before kicking into the familiar version. Quite a few of the crowd took several lines to recognise it. I note in passing that former Bucks Fizz singer Shelley Preston is no longer serving as Belinda’s backing vocalist/musical director. Ah well.

Jimmy Somerville
Setlist: You Make Me Feel Mighty Real, Why, Never Can Say Goodbye, To Love Somebody, Smalltown Boy, Don’t Leave Me This Way

Wee Jimmy was easily the most enthusiastic performer this evening, keeping the crowd enthused the entire time and bouncing from one side of the stage to the other. His falsetto remains impressive too.

Despite having two backing singers, Jimmy didn’t perform ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ in the familiar Communards duet version, taking on all the lead vocals himself. Still sounded great. The ending of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ incorporated a few phrases of ‘Turn The Beat Around’, and Jimmy noted that he was going to sing ‘To Love Somebody’ with “some bitterness” because “I haven’t got a husband”. The Bronski Beat material is just as impactful as it was 25-odd years ago. While I enjoyed everyone, I’ll single out Jimmy as the highlight of the night.

Jason Donovan
Setlist: Nothing Can Divide Us, When You Come Back To Me, Every Day, Hang On To Your Love, Sealed With A Kiss, Especially For You, Any Dream Will Do, Too Many Broken Hearts

For some reason, it took a long while for Jason’s set to fire up. In the first few numbers, he gave the distinct impression he was singing from an autocue. It wasn’t until ‘Sealed With A Kiss’, performed only with acoustic guitar accompaniment, that the crowd got really into it and Jason responded in turn. From then on, things were fine.

It pains me to admit it, but I think this was because of the material. I’m a product of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman era and I love their classics, but there’s no denying that the identikit approach they took to songwriting meant that for every classic, there were a lot of indistinct mid-tempo songs, and Jason seemed to get more of them than any other SAW act. ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ and ‘Especially For You’ are good; the rest simply aren’t the greatest moments in the SAW catalogue, chart success notwithstanding.

‘Especially For You’ was performed as a duet with backing singer Sarah Fearnley ( or “Fern” as Jason called her). No, she’s not Kylie, but he could hardly leave it out, could he? I reckon the whole thing would work better if ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ got moved up top and he closed with ‘Any Dream Will Do’. When it doubt, save your biggest hit for last.

Boy George
Setlist: Church Of The Poison Mind, It’s A Miracle, Everything I Own, Always On My Mind, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?, Karma Chameleon, That’s The Way, Victims, Bow Down Mister

Resplendent in a glitter bowler and with much better vocals than you’d expect if you’ve ever watched Culture Club’s ‘A Kiss Across The Ocean’ concert video, George delivered most of the hits you’d imagine, but still managed a few surprises. By far the oddest inclusion was a torch-song rendition of ‘Always On My Mind’ (modelled on Elvis, not the Pet Shop Boys). George sang this well, but I can’t help thinking it was an odd inclusion in a nostalgia show where everyone does their own material. He got the chance to demonstrate his ballad range by singing ‘That’s The Way’ (with singer Lizzie Deane giving her very best Helen Terry) and ‘Victims’, so it wasn’t needed for that.

During ‘Karma Chameleon’, George did manage to forget the words at one point, but everyone was having such a good time that no major panic ensued. The finishing number ‘Bow Down Mister’ is one of his lesser solo hits, but has lots of singalong
George claimed that he would have done more numbers but for the LG Arena curfew (it was 11pm when the show finished, 15 minutes behind schedule). I’m a bit sceptical, as it’s hard to see what else he might have added: ‘Time’ and ‘I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’ are the most obvious contenders, I guess. I’d have liked to hear ‘The War Song’, but that seems even less likely. That said, and despite ‘Bow Down Mister’ being his conventional big finish (it serves the same role in Taboo), I think ‘Karma Chameleon’ should get the closing spot. But I’m nitpicking. It was a great performance all round.

Additional random notes:

  • I have to stop getting to concerts early. I was on the arena floor an hour before A Flock Of Seagulls were scheduled to appear. On the other hand, people were showing up halfway through Midge Ure. What is this, Melbourne?
  • “Anyone found smoking in the building will be subject to our ejection policy.” Eject! Eject!
  • There’s a relatively long gap between acts; given everyone is using the house band, I expected faster transits. There was also an interval between Belinda and Jimmy, which frankly I think was a mistake; better to maintain the momentum. Also, no video screens, alas.
  • The program for the event lists the biggest hits for each performer, but mistakenly claims Belinda Carlisle sang “I Go Weak”.
  • Building posters inform me that the mega-fabulous Kim Wilde is touring third-billed with Status Quo, ranked under Roy Wood. Frankly, that’s depressing.