A sad passing ….

In my northern mind, February begins to mark the passing from one season to another. It is so, so gradual, incremental, barely perceived, sensed in the shift in the lightness of a morning, an almost imperceptible degree of coolness that only sensitive skin can detect.

How shocking then to have had the sudden passing of two greatly loved colleagues in a single school in the same 24 hours. Shocking, sad and deeply tragic. Dr Ed Montano was a greatly respected lecturer who taught in music production and had been gravely ill for many months, yet he was in work on the Friday before the semester began, attending to timetables, creating content for his courses, and doing the myriad tasks that is the lot of every Program Manager. Spend time with your family his colleagues urged, there is so little time left. But I do that too, said Ed, after work, on holidays and at weekends, that’s all fine, but remember that the school, my students, my colleagues, these are also my family. It was so very typical of Ed – generous, caring, and professional. He was so deeply valued. He died in the first week of February.

Only hours later Associate Professor Adrian Miles, until recently the Deputy Dean for Learning and Teaching in Ed’s School of Media and Communications, passed away suddenly and without warning, leaving behind distraught friends, relatives and college colleagues. Ten days later we gathered for a deeply moving memorial service in the Storey Hall, many hundreds of us, standing room only, the place filled with flowers, trees, foliage. The ambience of the bush, which Adrian so loved, filling our senses. One of Adrian’s colleagues talked of how irreplaceable he was, no one would ever fill his boots, just as no one could ever quite match the colourful exuberance of his richly patterned shirts. A well-published academic, an innovative leader of learning and teaching, an inspirational and deeply fair-minded individual, Adrian was an extraordinary asset to the university. He was 57 when he left us, and like Ed, his loss is being deeply mourned.

‘Tit fer Tat’: What I’ll mostly be wearing at the wedding of the year….

 

As you can see I’ve bought my hat. It’s a little bit too flash really, more of a summer bonnet for keeping the flies off but it’ll be perfect. I’m nearly ready. I’ll dust down my old Jack London two-tone whistle and flute (‘suit’ to those of you not familiar with Cockney rhyming slang); clip on the stripy regimental tie with a louche Windsor knot, and polish my Savile Row brown brogues (the artfully faded ones from an Op Shop in Smith Street). Very nice. Very fitting. All I need now is the embossed card from the Palace with the hand-written invitation, the crisp stationery, the generous calligraphy customary on such posh occasions.

I’m sure it’s in the post. I can afford to wait. After all, it’s a fair distance from St James to St Kilda. I’m not over-concerned. You see, I do meet all the criteria: father served for decades in a Royal military corps, uncle was a warrant officer in the Royal Artillery; I studied at the Royal College of Art, am an elected member of the Royal West of England Academy, commissioned by the Royal Marines; I shook hands (twice) with the grand Old Duke of York on his recent visit to RMIT, and I’ve even got a loyalty card with the RACV. What further credentials might one possibly need? In fact, I’ve probably more claim to royal lineage than Megan M. her good self! And what of the potential marriage – an American divorcee marrying an English heir to the throne – what could possibly go wrong?

I pondered this prospect while wandering with family the vast sun-bleached beaches of Southern Australia last month. Christmas in 30 plus degrees is, and will remain, a novelty for anyone born north of the Tropic of Cancer. Beaches at Christmas are normally rain-sodden, wind-lashed dispiriting places under skies the colour of unpolished pewter. Not always, however. They can be places of unexpected surprise and delight, especially when strewn with unusual treasure trove. In 1997 a container filled with millions of Lego pieces was swept off a cargo vessel in heavy seas twenty miles from Land’s End on the far SW tip of England. 4.8 million pieces of the plastic building brick bound for New York ended up in beaches and coves. In a quirk of maritime fate all the pieces had a nautical theme: divers, aquanauts, fish of all shapes, and vast numbers of scuba kit, spear guns, life preservers, and flippers. There were also 33, 941 dragons – in black and green, please note – and 353,264 ‘Daisy Flowers in packs of four coloured white, red and yellow’ (You have to give it to the stock control folk at Lego; their data management is refreshingly specific).

Despite many hours of earnest rooting around on all fours, despite sifting through tonnes of sand I’ve yet to find one piece, not even a bloody ‘Daisy Flower’ in white, red or yellow. For some odd reason the most sought after piece is the black octopus: of the 4,200 that were swallowed by the waves only three have emerged from the sea after 18 years. Surely that’s some sort of conspiracy? Incredibly, a Melbourne local is reputed to have stumbled across a flipper that came from the same spillage! Nautical drifts of 100,000 km are not unknown. The mind simply boggles.

What’s worse than not dredging up a single piece, is that the entire episode is an environmental disaster. On land Lego may be fun (if you’re keen on that kind of ‘break and build-build and break’ play); in the ocean it’s a deadly poison for wildlife. The plastic does not decompose easily and merely adds to the grotesque gyres of marine debris that are clogging up and contaminating vast tracts of our oceans.

So, should my crisply embossed invitation card fail to make it from the Palace of St James I will dedicate the occasion to a spot of beach cleaning. However, I’m staying hopeful.

Even better I’ve made a cake, a fine upstanding vanilla-coloured creamy concoction modelled on a magnificent mound in Mungo National Park, which I had the unique pleasure of visiting last month. And as you can see my fine Titfer did its job of keeping the southern sun from bleaching my Barnet – there’s more cockney slang for you: ‘Barnet fair’ = hair.

Photo-bombing and the instagramization of the world

Apologies for my absence. 40 days (and 40 nights) without a posting. Inexcusable. But as Vincent Van Gogh once said ‘Absinthe makes the heart grow stronger’. Actually, I met a chap once who was convinced that Van Gogh was a red wine from Bordeaux. So, what would the venerable Vincent have made of the picture that accompanies this blog:

I think he’d have appreciated a good selfie. After all, in a hyper-productive stint between 1886-1889, the Dutchman painted and drew himself no fewer than 43 times.  There are though no known photos of the man, just one frustrating snap of the back of his head.

Yet, for all his inexhaustible energy, Vincent was way off the pace. Today, the average millennial is expected to take 25,700 selfies during a lifetime. At least one every 24 hours. Ninety-three million selfies are loaded every day. Not sure who’s counting, but Instagram now has 800 million users, that’s a tenth of the world population. Most cunningly, shops and stores, restaurants and retail are creating whimsical furniture, cut-out clothing, and fetching silhouettes to attract would-be self-snappers as incentives to push their spaces and their products on to social media. According to an article in the Smithsonian, we are seeing the  ‘Instagramization’ of the world or at least clever commercial positioning which contests the idea that social media is killing retail; in fact, they seem to be doing all they can to harness its power. We are perhaps seeing a virtual version of product placement.

And what of Van Gogh? There is now a hand-painted animation feature film, which is quite an extraordinary blend of the digital and the painterly. And I hear there are now so many books about his self-portraiture that good bookshops have set aside an entire display of them. Apparently, it’s called a shelfy….

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.