Monday, January 31, 2011

A surprise from the past

I just went away for the weekend and stayed with my Aunt and Uncle and younger cousins. While I was there I was quite astonished, and a little moved, when I walked out on the back patio of their nice new house and spied this, curled up at the base of some pot plants:


You can be forgiven for wondering what on earth it is, but that, folks, is a pottery dingo that I made at school.


When I exclaimed my surprise about this finding my uncle responded wryly with “yes, we bring a lot of stuff with us” (he’s long-suffering of my Aunt’s hoarding tendencies). I then told my Aunt she was free to dispose of this object (it even has a chipped ear), but she assured me that she actually likes it. It’s not like I even gave it to her as a gift. I suspect what must have happened is that when my Mum was leaving Tamworth, where it used to reside under a bush in the garden, she was getting rid of it and my Aunt took possession of it (and until now I didn't know she had it). It would seem my Aunt has a little more enduring regard for my childhood creations. If I remember rightly most of the things I made at school went straight to the back-yard cubby, without quite the same sentiment as “that’s going straight to the pool room”.

(I’ve polaroided the photos to make them look all old and nostalgic, and not just like the daggy old piece of pottery that this is.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

What I think of Angus Stone

There's one of two things I'd like to say to Angus Stone:

1. Now sing it again like you mean it.
2. Once more with feeling.

I do prefer male vocalists with a little more verve.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A farewell poem

My friend in real space as well as blogdom, and fellow poetry appreciator, Soph, is leaving Sydney to go to work for Cross Cultures in Melbourne, a branch of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Yesterday she had a farewell partay, blending nicely with an Australia Day BBQ. So, I thought it only fitting to send her off with a poem, and that being one of my favourites by my favourite Christina Rossetti. So here are a few segments from Monna Innominata, a beautiful poem written by Christina after she ended a marriage engagement over spiritual differences (from what I can ascertain of the story), so there is a romantic context (and also perhaps a finality to the parting that I hope doesn't exist in this case) but also much that speaks magnificently of true friendship and life in this world.


5

                                  ... God be with you,
Keep you in strong obedience leal and true
To Him whose noble service setteth free,
Give you all good we see or can foresee,
Make your joys many and your sorrows few,
Bless you in what you bear and what you do,
Yea, perfect you as He would have you be.
So much for you; but what for me, dear friend?
To love you without stint and all I can
Today, tomorrow, world without an end;
To love you much and yet to love you more
As Jordan at his flood sweeps either shore ...
...

10

Time flies, hope flags, life plies a wearied wing;
Death following hard on life gains ground apace;
Faith runs with each and rears an eager face,
Outruns the rest, makes light of everything,
Spurns earth, and still finds breath to pray and sing;
While love ahead of all uplifts his praise,
Still asks for grace and still gives thanks for grace,
Content with all day brings and night will bring.
Life wanes; and when love folds his wings above
Tired hope, and less we feel his conscious pulse,
Let us go fall asleep, dear friend, in peace:
A little while, and age and sorrow cease;
A little while, and life reborn annuls
Loss and decay and death, and all is love.
...

13

If I could trust mine own self with your fate,
Shall I not rather trust it in God's hand?
Without Whose Will one lily doth not stand,
Nor sparrow fall at his appointed date;
Who numbereth the innumerable sand,
Who weighs the wind and water with a weight,
To Whom the world is neither small nor great,
Whose knowledge foreknew every plan we plann'd.
Searching my heart for all that touches you,
I find there only love and love's goodwill
Helpless to help and impotent to do,
Of understanding dull, of sight most dim;
And therefore I commend you back to Him
Whose love your love's capacity can fill.

Christina Rossetti

Picture from here.

One way of coping with the floods

This is priceless. Made by a farmer and his mates to cheer up the locals in the aftermath of the devastating November floods that hit their farms during the harvest, it "premiered" in the local pub. H/T Ally's blog.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My belated one and a half cents worth

I saw The King’s Speech a couple of weeks ago now, with Soph. I thought it was a superb film. I’ve totally missed the wave on web reviews but Nicole and Mikey have written things about it I nod my head to, and Ben has written a review as a stutterer himself. So, I won’t go on, but mostly, I do just like best films about people and their stories and I thought this one was beautiful. I also like a little subtlety and stoicism in cinema on occasion and so I appreciated and admired the King’s character, the way he persevered in doing his duty and the good despite the personal cost and humiliation to himself. I found tears rolling quietly down my face for most of the film, starting with the King’s first speech, when the camera pans out to his wife and her eyes are all watery as she watches the man she loves struggle to do what’s been asked of him, knowing how difficult it was for him. Very moving.

Helena Bonham-Carter is also one of my all-time favourite actresses, and if you haven’t seen her in Lady Jane, a film about Jane Grey, who was the Queen of England for nine days, then you must (she’s also the reason I have watched and own A Hazard of Hearts, a Barbara Cartland film – yes I own it! – which is good for a laugh at the outrageous melodrama).

How's your soul?

On Sunday night we had another great sermon on Psalm 63, called How's your soul?. I've loved these two sermons. They've been teaching on your personal relationship with God. One of the things I most appreciate about our minister, Paul Dale, is that he exudes a rare depth of personal relationship with God that is both encouraging and exhorting (which is not to say that others don't have the same depth, but it is not always so evident, and Paul does us a service by making it so in his own life and being such an example). In the introduction he talked about why "how's your soul?" is a good question to ask others. I'm going to try it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Poetry Day - What if I wept?

Today I have another poem by Albert Goldbarth. It's a little different, a self-conscious poem that would seem almost to be protesting the rules and arguing the case of "sentimental" in poetry, as a jaded teacher to a classroom of cynics. I particularly like it when he gets to this line: 'What if I wept? What if I simply put the page down, rocked my head in my own folded elbows, forgot the rest of it all, and wept?' Poem from here.


Sentimental

BY ALBERT GOLDBARTH

The light has traveled unthinkable thousands of miles to be
condensed, recharged, and poured off the white white pages
of an open Bible the country parson holds in front of this couple
in a field, in July, in the sap and the flyswirl of July
in upper Wisconsin, where their vows buzz in a ring in the air
like the flies, and are as sweet as the sap, in these rich and ritual minutes.
Is it sentimental? Oops. And out of that Bible the light continues
to rush as if from a faucet. There will be a piecrust cooling
out of its own few x’ed-out cuts. And will it make us run
for the picklier taste of irony rolled around protectively on our tongues
like a grab of Greek olives? My students and I discuss this
slippery phenomenon. Does “context” matter? Does
“earned” count? If a balled-up fidget of snakes
in the underbrush dies in a freeze is it sentimental? No,
yes, maybe. What if a litter of cocker spaniels? What
if we called them “puppydogs” in the same poem in that same hard,
hammering winter? When my father was buried,
the gray snow in the cemetery was sheet tin. If I said
that? Yes, no, what does “tone” or “history” do
to the Hollywood hack violinists who patiently wait to play
the taut nerves of the closest human body until from that
lush cue alone, the eyes swell moistly, and the griefs
we warehouse daily take advantage of this thinning
of our systems, then the first sloppy gushes begin . . .
Is that “wrong”? Did I tell you the breaths
of the gravediggers puffed out like factorysmoke
as they bent and straightened, bent and straightened,
mechanically? Are wise old (toothless) Black blues singers
sentimental?—“gran’ma”? “country cookin’”? But
they have their validity, don't they, yes? their
sweat-in-the-creases, picking up the lighting
in a fine-lined mesh of what it means to have gone through time
alive a little bit on this planet. Hands shoot up . . . opinions . . .
questions . . . What if the sun wept? the moon? Why, in the face
of those open faces, are we so squeamish? Call out
the crippled girl and her only friend the up-for-sale foal,
and let her tootle her woeful pennywhistle musics.
What if some chichi streetwise junkass from the demimonde
gave forth with the story of orphans forced through howling storm
to the workhouse, letting it swing between the icy-blue
quotation marks of cynicism—then? What if
I wept? What if I simply put the page down,
rocked my head in my own folded elbows, forgot
the rest of it all, and wept? What if I stepped into
the light of that page, a burnished and uncompromising
light, and walked back up to his stone a final time,
just that, no drama, and it was so cold,
and the air was so brittle, metal buckled
out song like a bandsaw, and there, from inside me,
where they’d been lost in shame and sophistry
all these years now, every last one of my childhood’s
heartwormed puppydogs found its natural voice.

Picture from here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Community and the guitar

Since I've mentioned community doings, I’ve just enrolled myself in a Community College course in learning guitar. I have more or less let the guitar slide recently, after realising that I was learning the wrong method and didn’t have the right books, then went away for Christmas and all of that. So I figure this might push-start me in the right direction. And it might be nice to do it semi-with other people, rather than it being another thing I do at home by myself. I’m quite looking forward to it. I’ve never done a community college course (I had to stop and think about that, but I don’t think so) and haven’t had a music lesson since high school.

Trust in God Alone

We had what was for me an excellent sermon on Sunday night, on Psalm 62. Simple but good. The title was Trust in God Alone. It was so comforting and encouraging and timely. I’ve been looking at my notes every night since. There really is nowhere else to find your security, no-one else to trust, and no other love to depend on. You can listen here, and the talk refers to this blog post from Matt Chandler. (This recording is from a different service to the one I heard, and sometimes it's curious to see what's different and I prefer one delivery to the other, but the points are the same.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Creation, community and the woolly arts

One of the blogs I have started reading more recently (compared to some) is called Transpositions, a blog on Theology, Imagination and the Arts. It’s been stimulating ever since. This week they are actually having a week of featuring the 'domestic arts' and first up was a lady by the very suitably artsy name of Cosette Cornelius-Bates – a knitter. And would you believe she has a Masters in Christian Studies in Christianity and the Arts – in knitting! I never. You can see Cosette’s own blog and read about this here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t think knitting can qualify as “art”, though for me and the way I do things with wool it leans a little more towards “paint-by-numbers” (but they do still sell paint-by-numbers in “art” shops don’t they), but I have never heard of anyone with such a degree. So I was quite intrigued to explore this.

Cosette has also written a post at Transpositions on Creation, Community and Knitting, which I enjoyed (and is along the lines of a post from the last time I linked to Transpositions on Reflections on the Practical Art of Quilt-making). I particularly liked her first point about knitting being a 'centering pursuit' (though I don't quite see how it's akin to prayer). One of the reasons I do and enjoy crochet (and crochet that’s actually not too complex and distracting also) is because my personality type is one that needs time to process things and sort and work them through, and so if I have had some kind of emotional turbulence I need to be able to think about it for a while (and possibly over-analyse it to the death) – and I can do this while I crochet, without just sitting staring into space.

Further, while Cosette talks all about knitting, this picture, taken from her latest post, is most decidedly crochet, so I think that validates me letting crochet be in on this knitting territory!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Poetry Day - Stationed in this world

I have another poem by Albert Goldbarth today, which I was going to post already, but which has gained aptness in the last week (from here). I pray that people do weep over the devastation in Queensland, and through that come to know their salvation. And then I read some entertaining things around the world wide web in relation to the myth referred to at the end of this poem.


Stationed

BY ALBERT GOLDBARTH

It's the other ones, who soon enough return
to being happy after the funeral, that are nearest
to their own deaths—in their gaiety
and everyday distraction, they're so open

and unguarded . . . anything could enter them;
could claim them. It's the ones who weep
incessantly that are saved for now, the ones
who have taken a little of it

into their systems: this is how
inoculation works. And sorrow is difficult,
a job: it requires time to complete.
And the tears?—the salt

of the folk saying,
that gets sprinkled over the tail feathers
and keeps a bird from flying;
keeps it stationed in this world.

Picture from here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

More flood reporting

I'm reading such strange things on facebook at the moment, like this:

C: Finally Milk has arrived to Toowoomba - just ran down to Betros Bros with Kids - cereal for breakfast all round!

S: We have absolutely none here in Rocky! Supplies are very limited for most things. Most shops are closing as they have no stock to sell. They are saying trucks maybe able to get through on the weekend but it will depend on the conditions of the roads.
Yesterday my brother-in-law, who was called in from leave, was flying around in a helicopter looking for people, who'd most likely be dead. (There's not really much other way to say it - they were particularly trying to spot vehicles that had been swept away so they could check them. (He wasn't called in earlier for rescues, because the helicopters he flies are smaller and not fitted with winches, but they are good for reconnaisance and low-level flying.)) My Mum is in one of those isolated suburbs in Western Brisbane on food rations, where people are now running out of essentials, particularly because their power went off. She said she went to have a look at the local shops, which went under, and it stinks. It all just sounds so weird.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Flood update

My Mum is quite fine today too. Her house wasn't flooded. She's stuck in her suburb and has no power (so I haven't talked to her much today because she is trying not to run out of credit on her prepaid mobile), which is no fun state of affairs, but is comparatively comfortable.

In the end, she wasn't all that concerned about her "stuff". I asked her if she had things in the car ready to go, and she replied that when you stop and think about it, there just isn't that much that you desperately want to save (though she didn't stand to lose the whole house, structure and all, which would be slightly more inconvenient I imagine, because you would have to find an alternative one).

Blinks

I've been slowly working at my google reader since coming back to work (and making New Year's resolutions along the way about subscribing to so many things I can't keep up with) but here are two interesting articles I dug out of Opinionator along the way:

Narrative and the Grace of God, by Stanley Fish, about the Coen brothers' movie version of True Grit. (I know nothing about True Grit, but this was worth reading all the same.)

On Forgiveness, by Charles L Griswold, which was so long I started skimming it, but reflects perhaps prevailing philosophical thought on what forgiveness is. He concludes with:
While religious and secular perspectives on forgiveness are not necessarily consistent with each other, however, they agree in their attempt to address the painful fact of the pervasiveness of moral wrong in human life. They also agree on this: few of us are altogether innocent of the need for forgiveness.
And this was actually just amusing, on The True Meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The water is rising

Call me the news service, but this is what is happening down around the bend from Mum's place. The water is still rising (this morning it wasn't in these houses), and, as you can see, it's still raining.


Brisbane floods this time

Well the flood situation in Brisbane has broken the river banks in my Mum's suburb, flooded the local shopping centre (just as well she raided the supermarket, along with everybody else, yesterday after being sent home from work), and is halfway up the street that runs into her street, but at this stage they don't think it will reach her house (thankfully her house is on something of a rise on the higher side of the street). This scenario is fairly much as expected, even though her suburb isn't yet listed as one likely to flood - which is a bit ridiculous really when it is now totally cut off and the only supermarket is under water. (The Brisbane City Council website is down but you can still see the individual suburb flood maps here, though it would seem the water has exceeded predictions already in some places.) So, she is now stuck at home, because all roads out are flooded, but provided her house doesn't go under should be able to wait it out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Toowoomba again

Someone managed to get this on film, which is quite extraordinary (but note, I reckon the guy being discussed is locking his hubs to engage 4WD, not letting air out of his tyres - don't try letting air out of your tyres at home, and don't attempt any such thing without a 4WD either). I'm especially interested in all of this because I used to work for Toowoomba City Council on catchment management of the water supply dams, and I sat next to the guy who worked on catchment management for Gowrie Creek (which is what flows through the middle of Toowoomba) and the stormwater people etc, so I can just imagine a day in the office today!

Pictures of Queensland

You've probably all seen it on the news, but it's unbelievable what happened in Toowoomba yesterday afternoon, when a wall of water eight metres high came through town unexpectedly. During the time that I was up there I stayed home one night with the kids while my sister and brother-in-law went out. They ended up this cafe (you don't have so many options for a coffee later in the evening up there).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Queensland town goes under

This is what has become of Toowoomba since I was there, and it's on top of an escarpment! We went to the shopping centre pictured one day and parked down on the lowest level - I shudder to think about being in there when this came by. I have an Aunt and Uncle in Gatton, which is where the water is headed next. (The first picture is from Brig and Lehmo's facebook, the rest from friends.)



We all want to be housewives

Here’s an interesting article, and you can even pretend you’re in a Jane Austen novel and vote for whether you’d marry for love or money (like we're ever presented with that sort of choice!). One thing that's silly about it is that almost everyone who'll read that article can afford to care for their own children – we don’t need to “marry up”, we just need to adjust our lifestyle expectations.

Our Christmas story

It was my sister’s birthday yesterday, and that was a much happier occasion than it might otherwise have been.

To tell you a little of the story that unfolded over Christmas, as I wrote earlier, she went into hospital before Christmas with some abdominal pain, and a few other sympathetic symptoms, which were initially more of a concern given other conditions that she has. But then they started using the word “tumour” in relation to a large cyst-like thing they found and becoming all very grim, suggesting a type of cancer which by the time you have symptoms makes it all a little bit too late. She had surgeons patting her on the arm saying things like “it’s not fair in one so young is it” and so forth, giving us all cause to think something very serious was upon us.

So we started praying, and other people started praying. About a week later she had another blood test, and the tumour count had come right down from somewhere up in the thousands. She also had another ultrasound, which looked very different to the first one, and the outlook started to turn around, such that by the time she got to the appointment with the specialist oncologist, it was looking less and less like that “c” word. On the 29th she went in for surgery, which by this point was going to be laproscopic to do some further tests. Unfortunately they couldn’t finish it laproscopically, so she was opened up, then she spent about a day in ICU with very low haemoglobin which resulted in a blood transfusion. But she is now home recovering, the results are back and all is clear and what they actually removed was a cyst that was bleeding in on it itself.

So, make of that what you will, but we’re very thankful to God – and hope she has many more birthdays!

(And, incidentally, I won’t say ‘God answered our prayers’ at just this point, because I believe ‘no’ is still an answer and that phrase is not to be reserved for positive outcomes – I do believe in the power of prayer, but that God ‘answered’ our prayers no matter which way it went.)

As everything kept changing I just hung on to the original plane ticket I had for Brisbane, which I booked ages ago. So I went up there, thinking I’d wait to see what happened on the 29th. But Mum then went to Melbourne on Boxing Day, so I ended up going to Toowoomba with my other sister and family. It was really nice to spend some time with them and the sweet little people (except that those little people get up at five in the morning! – which wasn’t on my original holiday plan).

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Presents

Some wrist warmers I made as gifts (totally copied from here, where the font she uses on her labels is actually a little like my normal handwriting! - and I have just used a Kikki-K stamp).



I got this impressive line up of crochet hooks for Christmas. I snapped a 5.5 mm plastic hook, so looked on ebay for metal ones and found this going cheap and ordered it. Then Mum asked me what I'd like for Christmas and I said 'well you can give me this' and handed it over (then got a big surprise on Christmas morning :)). There's more hooks in there than I'll probably ever use, especially down the wincy end, but I like my little zip-up cache of them anyway.


I scored when I ducked into Vinnies the other day while waiting for a bus, finding this bag of Patons bluebell pure wool for the sum total of $3. It even has a David Jones sticker on it (it must be years and years since David Jones sold wool!). The only problem is the colour, which I am calling "maize", but I am sure I will think of something to make with it.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Poetry Day - The Corner of Misapprehension and Marvel

I did so like that last poem I posted by Albert Goldbarth, and so I have been looking into his poetry. And so I might post a couple. Don't be deterred by the beginning of this one, it's worth reading further in, at least until you get to "The truth is, even among ourselves we often can’t distinguish pain from pleasure ...". Taken from here.


The Poem of the Little House at the Corner of Misapprehension and Marvel
by Albert Goldbarth

During Napoleon iii’s coup d’état one of his officers, Count de Saint-Arnaud, on being informed that a mob was approaching the Imperial Guard, coughed and exclaimed, with his hand across his throat, “Ma sacrée toux! (my damned cough).” But his lieutenant, understanding him to say “Massacrez tous! (massacre them all),” gave the order to fire, killing thousands—needlessly.
—Guy Murchie

“He was mortared to death.”
A pity, how we misspeak and mishear.

—Or “martyred”? Not that/coin-flip/either
makes a difference to the increasingly cooler

downtick of a corpse’s cells. “We heard the crazy mating joy
of the loon across the water.” Yes, but what

do we know, amateurs that we are? Loon, shmoon.
It might have been dying, announcing

its pain in those trilling pennants. It might
have been the girl who was lost in these woods last week

and never found by the volunteer searchers,
it might have been her ghost

with an admonishment. The truth is,
even among ourselves we often can’t distinguish pain

from pleasure, not in our beds, our hearts, the tone
of a poem on the final exam (a coin-toss). A pity, because

we know the urgency of some utterance;
and the intended goodwill of our listening; and

the marvelous basic mechanics of speech,
of lung: 300 million alveoli that, “if spread out flat,”

as my eighth-grade science teacher preened, “would come to
750 square feet, the entire floor space of an average house,”

and she added that tired magic about how atoms
of Julius Caesar and Napoleon and Beethoven did

their fleet anachronistic dance in every inhalation
of ours, although at thirteen I preferred to think

that the atoms of Cleopatra’s body—my Cleopatra,
inflating her see-through empresswear

with husky breaths—commingled with my blood, and also
realized in my own dim way it wasn’t only Einstein,

Shakespeare, Madame Curie populating my oxygen,
but also the smelly and scabby old man

from across the street who’d died last year
when the late-shift ward nurse heard (as she said in her testimony)
“med injection” instead of (as the outgoing
ward nurse told her) “bed inspection”—altogether

an unfortunate example of my theme . . . although
exempla abound, misapprehension

also dancing inside us at the atomic level.
Someone thought the gate was locked, she always locked

the gate in the late afternoon when the haze set down
and the sun for a moment seemed to carmelize the lake top,

so the gate was locked; except that it wasn’t,
and seven days into it nobody’s found the girl

or a scraggle of hair or a single ribbon. I tell you
we’re amateurs, we’re sometimes bungling amateurs,

of the minutiae of our own lives. When I heard the sounds
that gurgled from my chest as my wife was leaving

into the dense, conspiratorial Austin, Texas night,
I couldn’t have said if it was defeat

or relief. She couldn’t have said which one
she’d have been happiest to cause. We only knew

that I’d been wrong at times, and she’d been wrong at times,
and that our total errors, if spread out flat,

become the house we live in. They’re another system
inside us, along with the cardiac and the pulmonary,

they’re moving us toward the horizon line. And when
enough errors accumulate there, that’s what

we call the future. Even now, as you read this,
someone in that unknowable distance

is breathing you in.

Picture from here.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Eli's rug finale

During the holidays I did finish the rug for my nephew (thank goodness!). Here it is.



How I discovered my sister had arranged it on the end of his bed.


With the Paddington Bear and Raggedy Ann and Andy some indulgent Aunt he has bought him.


The new and superlatively cute owner of the rug.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

On biographing an ordinary life

So I am back, and feeling like I should begin again with profound reflections on times past and goodly resolutions for the future. Instead I have a quote. I received Kiss and Tell by Alain de Botton for Christmas, and my confession is that I very much enjoyed it. It’s a novel, of sorts, but one in which de Botton writes a pseudo-biography of an ordinary life. The preface, from which I have quoted below, sucked me in. Interestingly, the book was written in 1995, before the advent of facebook and twitter, and before the prevalence of blogs, and it’s curious to think on how many are now seemingly engaged in biographing their own life (and how many are reading it) – and why.

Being a person who errs on the side of reserve, and so doesn’t tend to naturally probe too much into the swampy areas of others lives (not because I am not interested, but more because I don’t wish to be nosey), I have learnt something in recent years to combat this, which is that most people will actually read the probing as caring, and that there is something very compelling in someone taking an interest in the details and history of your life (possibly more compelling for single people, who must accept the reality that no-one is actually all that interested in their minutiae and history). But we all know that there are dangers that run both ways in a sharing of lives, and often pain involved when others either don't appreciate our attempts or care for our own story, and as I have looked back on the past year and areas where I feel like I’ve made errors in this respect I appreciated Duncan's post on why it's wrong to be other-person centred.

But without further ado, here is the quote from Alain de Botton. It’s rather long, but it’s the last few paragraphs that I found most worth reading. As de Botton writes in a section I haven’t included, many are the times we fail to truly listen to others and silently yawn and wonder what we have planned for tomorrow while mini-biographies unfold in front of us.

One might of course rejoin that never before have so many people devoted so much time to the minutiae of others. The lives of poets and astronauts, generals and ministers, mountaineers and manufacturers all lie before us on the tables of elegant bookshops. They herald the mythic age prophesied by Andy Warhol where everyone would be famous [that is, biographed] for fifteen minutes.

Yet there has always been some complexity in the fulfillment of this noble Warholian wish [the fact that it would take no less than 1,711 centuries to give all those currently breathing fifteen minutes of attention].

And whatever the practical difficulties, in a sombre though unplanned Warholian parallel, the philosopher Cioran once wrote of the impossibility of one person being truly interested in another for longer that quarter of an hour [don’t scoff, try it and see]. And even Freud, who one might have expected to cherish hopes for human understanding and communication, told an interviewer at the end of his life that he really had nothing to complain about: ‘I have lived over seventy years. I had enough to eat. I enjoyed many things. Once or twice I met a human being who almost understood me. What more can I ask?’

Once or twice in a lifetime. What a solitary sum, though what haunting paucity, provoking us to doubt the depth of our relations with those we sentimentally call our friends.

... If, as Warhol had implied, there was going to be a traffic jam of 1,711 centuries simply to accommodate everyone living, there was something selfish in the way certain characters had persistently hogged the biographical field: Hitler, Buddy Holly, Napoleon, Verdi [he included Jesus here, but I am leaving him out as someone who warrants the attention], Stalin, Stendhal, Churchill, Balzac, Goethe, Marilyn Monroe, Caesar, W.H. Auden. It wasn’t hard to see why, for these figures had exercised enormous power, artistic or political, beneficial or not, over their fellow men and women. Their lives were what might lazily have been called larger than life, they expressed the outer limits of human possibility, something one might gasp at and be thrilled by on the morning commuter train.

However, on a closer look, it appeared that biographers were not primarily concerned with highlighting the difference between the great and mortals consigned to using public transport, but rather were keen to show how their charges had [despite conquering Russia, subduing the Indians, writing La Traviata and inventing the steam engine] been much the same as you and me. The pleasure of reading biographies arose in part from a reminder of flesh and blood in creatures one imagined to have been fashioned of sterner stuff; personality was of interest, the humanity which arose from a telling detail and history had airbrushed from its solemn portrait.

There was a thrill in learning that Napoleon [invincible Bonaparte whose body lay in glory beneath ten feet of marble in the gilded Invalides] had a fondness for grilled chicken and jacket potatoes. With his love of this humble fare, what we might pick up at the supermarket on a weekday evening, he could become a tangible human being, a figure with whom one could identify. He came alive in the degree to which he partook in everyday activities, in so far as he wept and had messy affairs, bit his nails and was jealous of his friends, liked honey but reviled marmalade – anything to melt the stony heroism of the official statue.
...
Nevertheless, an assumption remained that only the great were fit fodder for biographies.

A couple of centuries before, a dissenting voice had briefly shattered this puzzling unanimity, only then to be ignored amidst the growing mountain of biographies amassing over it’s owners grave. That voice had belonged to Dr Johnson, and it had mused that, ‘There has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only has every man great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind’ ...

What biography disguised, in its concern for unusual lives, was the extraordinariness of any life ...

In dwelling on the actions of those we can never share drinks with, biographies shield us from our universal involvement, explicit or not, in biographical projects. Every acquaintance requires us to understand a life, a process in which the conventions of biography play a privileged role. Its narrative traditions govern the course of the stories we may tell ourselves about those we meet, it shapes our perceptions of their anecdotes, the criteria according to which we arrange their divorces and holidays, the way we select, as if the choice were natural, certain of their memories but not others.

... [I]t suggested that there was no reason why the next person to walk into my life should warrant less than the empathetic effort one could expect from the most banal of biographers. It seemed that unusual value might lie in exploring the hidden role of biographical convention in our most ubiquitous but complex pastime – understanding other people.