A Rendezvous with Red

What’s your favourite Movie one-liner? Quickly now. Always be prepared. I threw this question at two staff colleagues a few weeks ago. I knew they were out there somewhere. Chewing on popcorn in the darkness of the front stalls of the Capitol Theatre.  They were expecting a show on the stage. Instead, there was I – and the entertainingly estimable Andrew Mac – asking THEM questions. Lisa was first to respond: a fabulous gutsy line from The Dressmaker. Kate Winslet steps gracefully from the carriage, turns to the ramshackle town she’d left years ago, and utters the memorable line: ”I’m back. [Pause for maximum effect] You bastards.” Need I say that the film came from the book written by fabulous RMIT alumnae Rosalie Ham, and the producer was none other than the equally fabulous RMIT alumnae Sue Maslin, who was one of my guests as I found myself a few Monday’s ago hosting a live RMITV show for Channel 31.

RMIT Alive is created, contrived, and produced almost entirely by our students. Dozens of them. Behind cameras, in front of cameras. Directing, messaging, editing, streaming, vision mixing, making tea, and the myriad technical trickery that’s needed in this modern age. ‘Have you ever done live television?’ I enquired, slightly incredulously, of the small team of final year Media and Comms students who sat in my office oozing youthful confidence a few days earlier. ‘A bit’, said one. ‘Enough’, said the other. ‘It’ll be fine’ assured yet another, ‘We’ve heard you’ve done plenty of telly in the past.’  Dear reader, should you have time spare you can watch it. The students were just brilliant. The floor manager was a legend. Without him, I’d still be there squinting at the autocue and doing my best to follow the talkback being whispered so expertly and firmly down my earpiece: “I repeat ‘Turn to Camera Two’. Please!’

From RMIT Live to Red Symons. An old adversary [and yet another RMIT alumnus!] whom I’ve encountered three times in the past 18 months. Somewhat surprisingly I’ve escape unscathed.  This time face to face in the studio, talking about the Founder’s Day gig in New Academic Street. I was up before the roosters. Live on air at some unearthly hour around dawn. Who listens to this stuff? Just before my turn, some guy from Sunbury rang in with a joke about the difference between a trampoline and a ukulele (though it might have been a banjo). So, who listens? Well, lo and behold, hundreds of you do, nay, thousands. People rang me up, sent me texts, stopped me in the street (well, not quite) to marvel at how I’d mentioned – in one 5 minute 11 seconds interview – ‘RMIT’ 21 times, ‘130th birthday party’ 18 times, and ‘our wonderful students’ at least 13 times. Red is famous for going off-piste, and sometimes taking it as well. His favourite line with me, once he’d stopped scoffing at my endlessly long official title, is ‘So tell me. Professor. Why is RMIT called RMIT and RMIT University? Why both. Isn’t one good enough?’ I employ the same reply I did last time; we’re so good we mention it twice. By this time though he’d moved on: ‘library, founder’s day, new academic street, yeah, yeah, keep going, you’re doing a good job …’. My briefing notes were perfect. My cues word perfect. Then I stuffed up the ending. I invited him along to the party. Even tried to sell him a ticket. Then in a slip of the tongue, I think I invited the entire population of the CBD. I said something garbled about ‘Sure, you can all join in. Come and have a Hot dog!’ A hot dog. Please. Rather retro? I know I’m getting on a bit, but a ‘Hot Dog’?. Not one of my best one-liners.

Back in the extraordinary interior of The Capitol Theatre, Andrew Mac had the best one-liners. He often does. ‘Why don’t you take off those wet clothes and slip into a dry martini’ is from an obscure Mae West film, and has been repeated by lesser starlets ad nauseam ever since. Mine was plucked from a list of the best 100 one-liners from the inimitable Woody Allen: ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films, I want to achieve immortality through not dying’. A classic – rather like Red Symons really.

PS : For those of an enquiring mind, the following link may offer some escape from the everyday. Not for long though.

 

 

Yeah, Green and Purple got me going in circles….

Salutations from Strategy Week! I’m guaranteed to go stir crazy by all this time spent in the Storey Hall and the Green Brain. Getting from level 3 to level 7 I’m like a ferret up a drainpipe, up and down those strange stairs that run diagonally up the middle of the building. You know those stairs? A vertical corridor of emerald green: it’s like gliding up a runner bean. As you puff to the top, it dawns on you that the escape door may not actually open from your side. You realise this just as the door at the foot of the vast stairwell slams closed and you resign yourself to a life trapped in the dimmed heart of a shapeless space. Unheard, unreachable, unmissed. Like living in Canberra. Strategy Week passing by, and nothing but a flaky canapé between you and oblivion.

 

I think my sensory system can only cope with a certain amount of green and purple, purple and green. Don’t get me wrong; the architecture is remarkable, it leaves a lasting impression, like a lingering bruise. It puts the Radical in RMIT. But I’ve always found the combo of green and purple, purple and green a tad confronting. One of my creative colleagues described it as like living inside a pancreas, which I found a harsh if somewhat obscure reference. But certainly one to remember.

It must be the fine artist in me but you’ll not find the two colours side by side in many memorable paintings. Mondrian loathed the colour green, never used it. Not once. Heavy on primaries was Piet. Edgar Degas was equally disdainful. Apparently nurtured a habit of turning his back on trees. Had a reputation for closing the curtains in train carriages so as not to upset his equilibrium by the sight of fields, forests, and the occasional passing Storey Hall. Sensitive souls these post-impressionists. Quite what our Edgar would make of the Green Brain glimpsed from the Number 2 tram is anyone’s guess.

So yes, Strategy Week. Off to a flying start in a benighted debating hall, which nicely muted the green and purple, purple and green. Followed by some inspirational sessions with people in armchairs, people on coloured stools, people sitting in circles, people sat in long lines, many of them awake. Who could not have been deeply touched by Ian’s guest speaker Omar, a refugee with an astonishing past. He reminded us about what is truly important in life and work. He reminded us not to be distracted by trivialities. It was a privilege to hear him speak.

And who could not have been knocked out by the selective use of pink Boa’s by Gael and Rachel in a lively session on ‘passion’. Purple and pink: a bit like my graduation robes.

 

Meanwhile, I’m kept busy delving into the pile of stationery that is supplied with such liberal abandon at these events – coloured biros, felt tips, great globules of blu-tack, paper by the ream load, reams by the paper load, and, glory be, crates of those funny little sticky note pads. Who’d ever have thought that you could create a global brand with sticky squares of paper that don’t actually stick? And the colour range available to young people today! My, when I was a lad there were nowt but a pale yellow if you were lucky: now they come in every colour invented by humankind, including an uncanny jade hue which the cognoscenti amongst us described as ‘tint of teal’. More green you see. More serious stuff tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here’s a recent picture of me, back in the Storey Hall with some very clever and happy award-winning students. A fine figure composition in green and purple, purple and green.

 

 

 

‘The Dream Team’. A daily account of strategy week

Strategy week kicked off with a formal debate that argued that the future was too uncertain, our strategy as a university was doomed, why bother trying. The VC was convenor. Stakes were high. My team was up against 2 outstanding comedians and a futurist AKA futurologist. Game on! I had the dream team. Rachel and Renee. Rachel Wilson, a stellar member of our teaching staff who is leading the Belonging Project, and Renee Peterson, a master’s student who has had a career as a TV and radio presenter. She could have regaled the 300 people in the Strategy Week audience with fascinating tales of interviewing film stars – Tom (Cruise, and Hanks), Russell (Crowe, and Brand), but also Cameron (Diaz not David) and the venerable Nicole Kidman – but she led with a brilliant anecdote about falling flat on her face when about to interview Sir Ben Kingsley in London. With only 4 minutes allotted to her interview and working to a tight deadline to get the film back for national broadcast, she picked herself up (literally), adjusted her hair and drew on everything she’d learned as a student and did the interview with a charming Sir Ben.

We won the debate hands down, or actually hands together, as it was done by a rather unscientific (but of course entirely accurate) survey of audience applause. First time I’ve ever been on the ‘Negative Team’ though! More on this blog from the trenches of Strategy Week every day….

Making my face up

When did you last take a selfie? Within the past 7 days I imagine, in fact, I can almost guarantee it. 24 billion selfies were uploaded to google last year alone; a mere 200 million a month. I know this from that paragon of precision Daily Mail Online or was it Wikipedia (citation required).  I’ve no idea who counts these mugshots. All that pouting and posturing. Apparently, 13.4 petabytes were chewed up by that self-styled sovereign of selfies, Kim Kardashian. (Question: what’s a petabyte? Is that when you’re bitten by your own labradoodle?) And did you know there’s a sub-species of selfies taken by librarians standing in front of rows of books? They’re known in the trade as ‘shelfies’.

I resist the urge to take ‘selfies’ of any sort. Clothed or otherwise. After all, it’s such a vulgar word. Just as I try to desist from bellowing into a hands-free ‘phone or using the word ‘got’ (isn’t ‘fetch’ a much finer phrase?). But I’ve no objection at all to having a photograph taken or portrait painted of my features, my ‘physiog’ – the ‘face’, as it was termed by 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who definitely used a walking stick, but never ever would have been seen with a ‘selfie stick’.

I had two portraits taken last month. Not one but two. Instructions for the first were somewhat specific, if a tad severe: no glasses (tick), no averted gaze (check ‘averted’ in dictionary, tick); eyes at the required height (adjust eyebrows, tick); no nudity (put clothes back on, tick); no smiling (assume rictus grin, tick), place five gold coins in the little slot…. Tick, tack, flash. But then, alas, a strong winter wind wafted the curtain in front of my gurning physiog. The final result looked like a still from the shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

I had to be very still for the other portrait. There I was sat sitting on a rather low stool in the middle of a sun-blessed green park in some foreign field. Forty minutes with my knees up by my chin. It was like being in the naughty chair.

I had chosen my artist at complete random. He looked pleasant, attentive even. He even wore a beret (the hallmark of a true artist). He displayed his completed portraits with confidence: clearly, Paul Newman, Raquel Welch and even M and M had passed by and sat in the very same stool earlier that afternoon. Why they had not purchased their fine charcoal portrait? Dissatisfied perhaps? Tight fisted even? Surely the master of white rap has a spare 20 dollars? Anyway, he’d kept the seat nice and warm for me.

It took a fulsome forty-five minutes. Me in a fixed grin: him in a focussed stare. Passers-by would stop, look at the drawing, then they’d look at me, then back to the drawing, then at me, then they’d pull an inscrutable impression. Some would laugh, some even holding their sides (which was concerning). Others (a few) would put up their thumb in reassuring affirmation.  I sat there in a paroxysm of doubt and anticipation, my knees bent, my wallet emptying, my jaw aching from holding my most fetching expression.

I can now share the result. Most portrait painters start with the telling triangle of the eyes and the tip of the nose. Get that right and the rest falls into place. My man started with the tip of my hair and worked his way methodically down to my Adam’s  apple, like someone painting emulsion onto a kitchen wall. No complaints though. As you can see, the eyes are above the nose: my lips face forward; the ears protrude sideways from the skull as is the norm.

Do I recognise myself in these studious scribbles and cheapish charcoal smudges? Not sure. Jury still out. All I can tell you is that the rather serious Border Guard in the oversize uniform, festooned with baubles, badges, and buttons, was impressed. I had to fold it up to fit it into my new passport but it did the trick. I’m back in the country.

Have you heard the one about the librarian…?

As Heidegger might have said, it’s a well-known fact that there are only three decent jokes about libraries. Well four if you count the feeble play on words about the frog (see * below) and Heidegger may have struggled with that one because it’s just anthropomorphic phonetics.

But incredibly, I discovered another joke about a library, and a good one at that, last week. It’s visual. So being a fine artist imbued with the core tenets of critical theory I’ll describe it in words. A man approaches the counter of a library; the shelves behind are empty and bereft of books; he’s obviously just asked the librarian a question, because she’s answering him: ‘I’m sorry the kindle is out on loan at the moment’. There is a nonplussed, slightly resigned look to the man’s face.

Well it made me laugh. Or to be true, grin a little. Not for long, but just a little. It neatly augments the other three jokes which, for the price of an overdue book fine, I can share with you. You see I still take books out the library. Even if it does take one helpful librarian in the vast mansion-like halls of the new Swanston Library to show me how to take it out [pin number, swipe card, print receipt… take the exit over there … actually I think it’s over there…] and then another helpful librarian to point to the hole in the wall where I insert the book that I’ve taken out – and may have even read. So sparkling, so spanking new is our lovely library,  that the letterbox in the wall is still a mere dotted line yet to be cut away. There was even a symbol of a pair of scissors pasted there to remind the sub-contractors that it had yet to be done.

You simply can’t get enough of books. Especially those colouring-in ones. I’m becoming a dab hand at keeping within the lines. But I like book launches even better. I’ve had a brace of them lately. Perhaps I’ve become one of those ‘lads that launches’, as distinct from those ‘ladies that lunch’. Six of my brilliant new media staff invited me to the wonderful Brunswick bookshop to launch their new book on screen ecologies – what a title! It was fab. I even wore the wrong jacket with the wrong trousers, or it could have been the wrong trousers with the wrong jacket.

Last month I launched a couple of my very own books. Yes, books full of words, texts, even footnotes on some pages, and lots of pictures, sometimes bought at exorbitant and extortionate cost from copyright houses, whom I fear will drive arts publishing out of business.

There’s a picture of me launching a book on the 20th century British painter Sir Stanley Spencer. It tells the vexatious tales of three intrepid people in the 1920s – a patron who put the money up to house Spencer’s war memorial murals; an architect who tried in vain to build the right building for the paintings; and the artist who more often than not disagreed with them both. It’s the stuff of Shakespeare. Without the rhyming couplets. Both Spencer’s daughters were there, now aged 90 and 85 – what an honour. Five years in the making, the event was simply wonderful. The book may have been a labour of love, but after five years hard graft it felt at times more like hard bloody labour than love.

Then onto the deepest reaches of Cornwall, that obscure but sublimely inspirational tip of olde England.  It is said that the UK is shaped like some gigantic sock, actually like one of those Christmas stockings in which all the nuts fall down to the very end. Cornwall can be a bit like that. All the nuts tumbling to the very end. I think it’s meant light-heartedly. Hope so. In the cathedral city of Truro I launched a different book with the brilliantly talented painter Paul Lewin. He painted the pictures: I wrote the text. We both felt rather pleased to bring back into the English language a word not used often enough, I’ll leave you to look it up – it’s at the end of the dictionary – Zawn.

And sadly, or maybe gladly, it’s not yet, nor likely ever, to be on kindle.

*Frog flicking through a pile of books, says after discarding each one: ‘Reditt, reditt, reditt….’ Gettit?

 

Head in the Clouds

So, answer me this: what happens when the language of citizen science collides with the edicts of senior management? You guessed it. We look to the heavens for inspiration.

Top of the clichés is ‘blue sky thinking’ – or BST to those in the know (or is that something to do with Mad Cow Disease?). After a few moments of ‘research’ – i.e. skimming through the Ladybird Book of Cognitive Enquiry – it transpires that not long ago BST was actually understood as ‘not grounded or in touch with the realities of the present’. However, through overuse, misuse and executive-usage it has been fundamentally reframed to mean a ‘creative activity for trying to find completely new ideas’. Knock me down with a cirrus stratus. It may not surprise you to hear that BST was recently ranked as the 5th most irritating phrase used by business leaders. I’ll leave you to guess the other four.

My favourite senior management leadership phrase at present is ‘sky to ground’. I use it at the drop of a parachute. I think it means taking an idea from strategy to tactics, from vision to implementation, from the nebulous to the now.

So while riffing on the imagery of fluffy cumulus and beribboned contrails you’ll be pleased to know that a new addition has been added to the already voluminous International Cloud Atlas. What’s that? You mean you didn’t know there was such an atlas? To be honest, me neither. But all your favourites are there – nimbus stratus, alto cumulus, muchas gracias, and so on. The most recent addition is the rather inelegantly termed Volutus – a ‘tube-shaped mass that rotates slowly around a horizontal axis’. If you are struggling to visualise this phenomenon, just think of the miracle that is candy floss, the extraordinary way it is coiled and whisked into shape around those rather feeble but essential wooden sticks.

While Volutus is a newcomer, Asperitas was identified as long ago as 1896 and is a rather fetching cloud formation with a richly rough-ish rounded bottom. Though incredibly, it has only just found its way into the Atlas. I hear you gasp with surprise and, dear reader, I share your incredulity. Happily, its acceptance into the elite typology of cloud forms has been celebrated by the British Cloud Appreciation Society who have been earnestly campaigning on its behalf for decades. Yes, really. A Cloud Appreciation Society. It could only be an institution created in Britain.

According to my impeccable scientific source, the venerable Clive Cookson, Volutus is a perfect example of ‘an undular bore’, which surely must be the point where clouds, management and academia come together in perfect aerial alignment?

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Witness Littering or Witless Twittering?

What’s not to enjoy about driving along the arrow-straight roads of rural Victoria. There may not be much to look at but there’s so much to read. Indeed, some of the signage is rather helpful, even instructional – ‘Drinking. Driving. They’re better a part!’ (D’you think they got the letter spacing wrong there?) Other signs are a little more puzzling – ‘Water Over Road!’ or ‘Animal Help Line’. On the other hand some are handily topical, if somewhat time-limited: ‘Don’t Drive and Pokemon!’ But my favourite is a paradigm of concision, indeed Trumpian in its double-barrelled impact: ‘Witness Littering?’ it exclaimed, followed by a long mobile number that I singularly failed to hold in my memory as I tossed another coke can out of the car window. (Not really, I only said that for dramatic effect).

On the other hand, it may indeed have been Trumpian. Perhaps it really said: ‘Witless Twittering?’ Who knows. Should we care? Reality has gone make-believe. Life, as Woody Allen once said, doesn’t just imitate art, it now imitates bad television. And bad daytime television at that. The novelist Lionel Shriver recently confessed that the new Resident President could never appear in one of her novels, as he would read as too far-fetched, a farce. She agreed with the writer Malcolm Gladwell that we are locked in an era of the lowest common denominator, a time of broken language, senseless repetition, (I said senseless repetition!), and stuttering incomplete phrases that makes previous incumbents such as Dubya Bush seem, by comparison, almost Shakespearian.

Gladwell offers another angle by suggesting that not only should one retain a sense of humour amidst the slow car crash meant to resemble emerging US policy, but trust the future. Play the long game, he suggests. Surely the Chinese will do so. Indeed, he compares the feverish pace and frenzied excitement around the White House today with the McCarthy anti-Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s. Sure, there will be crazy short-term followers, zealots and addicts but – like McCarthyism – the whole artifice will be rumbled, exposed and then roundly ridiculed. Trump’s rhetorical strategy (if it can be termed such), argues double Pulitzer prize-winner Marilynne Robinson, has a limited lifespan. Best to let its inherent contradictions, its off-the-cuff, on-the-hoof ‘thinking’, spiral out of control and be revealed for what it really is.

Meanwhile, we can just stare agog at the witless twittering, or perhaps that’s twitless wittering:

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Chinese total losers! Who’d name their country after a dinner service?

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Just tried watching Sound of Music. Weak! Julie Andrews doesn’t do it for me. Sack that hair stylist, fashion adviser!

Donald J.Trump @realDonaldTrump
Of course that goatherd is lonely! Quit that horrid yodelling! Total loser! Get a  life!” *

(Note: I am grateful for various quotes and ideas borrowed here with appreciation from Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver, Robert McCrum, Craig Brown*, and I’d like to give a call out to the student representatives, and to M&C colleague Alex Wake, whose statements at Academic Board were an important contribution in the first of two timely debates about academic freedom. She argues for openness, civility and a shared awareness of the welfare of others especially our students and fellow staff. Well said Alex! Firm leadership!)