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.

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!)