Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Mitford Sisters

It is not that long ago I wrote about he Mitford sisters but if you weren't a devoted reader of my blog back in September last year, then here is link back to it and also a story from The Age. A book of Decca's (Jessica) letters has just been published. A truly fascinating family and in the tv series Love in a Cold Climate, Judi Dench was wonderfully cast as their mother

THE MITFORD sisters, like the Bloomsbury Group, have become a literary industry. After a cluster of novels, memoirs, biographies and films, and even a musical, The Mitford Girls, it might seem time to stop.

Yet Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford is a wonderfully rich and varied collection. Far better than her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, it brings together the extremes of her two worlds: the English aristocracy of her birth and postwar American radical politics.

Conflict and displacement, strong family affections and an even stronger urge to rebel against her class and upbringing are recurring themes. Her passionate commitment to social causes, especially the civil rights movement in the US, make Decca (as Jessica was known) the most sympathetic member of the famously eccentric Mitford family.

She shared the comic sense of her novelist sister Nancy. Both were brilliant letter writers, open, direct, funny, sharply satirical. But because Decca's life was more varied, more open to experience, than Nancy's, her letters are more satisfying.

Born in 1917, Decca Mitford was the fifth of the six daughters of Lord Redesdale, an English peer of no distinction and small means. His hatred of foreigners and intellectuals, combined with a dottiness that not even P. G. Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth could match, gave his daughters ample cause to escape their narrow upbringing.

Not allowed to go to school, the Mitford girls had a skimpy education from a series of governesses in their father's country house. Outdoors it was hunting and shooting for the men; squelching about in gumboots for the women. This was not enough for Decca, who was saving her running-away money from the age of 11.

The sisters escaped in spectacularly diverse ways. Unity Mitford, who became an intimate friend of Hitler, shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany. The beautiful Diana left her rich husband, Bryan Guinness, to marry Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, with whom she was jailed for treason in 1942.

Nancy, also divorced, lived in Paris, devoting herself to writing and to one of de Gaulle's generals, who would not marry her. Deborah's choice was happier and more conventional but was in accord with the Mitford habit of going to the top: she married the Duke of Devonshire.

At 19, Decca chose her causes: the communist party, the Spanish Republicans and her runaway schoolboy cousin Esmond Romilly, whom she married in Spain against her parents' wishes. "Whenever I see 'Peer's Daughter Scandal' in the newspapers," her mother said plaintively, "I know it is one of you children."

When Romilly was killed while serving with the Canadian Air Force in 1941, Decca made her permanent home in the US. She learned typing and shorthand and worked in badly paid repetitive jobs. Self-trained, with much charm, confidence, curiosity and persistence, she became a successful investigative journalist.

After her second marriage, to lawyer Bob Treuhaft, she moved to California, where both were active in the civil rights movement and the communist party.

Muckraking in a good cause, as author of the bestseller The American Way of Death, Mitford made a great deal of money and won a reputation for fearless questioning. She documented the emotional and financial exploitation of the funeral industry and its grotesqueries. Cushioned shoes for that last journey? A burial brunch coat?

Some publishers thought her gruesome chapter on embalming made the book unreadable, but Mitford's wit carried it through. Her one-liners were hard to resist. On seeing the pyramids she said: "Now there's a society where the funeral industry really got out of hand."

Mitford's other targets included the Famous Writers' School, which offered correspondence lessons at high cost to the manifestly untalented. She is credited with having bankrupted this dodgy enterprise. Going undercover, she endured a penitential week at Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance, where wealthy women paid vast sums for health and beauty treatment. Her work on the US prison system, Kind and Usual Punishment, put her on collision course with state governors and prison officials.

Mitford's letters include glimpses of the Kennedys, LBJ and Ladybird Johnson, the Clintons, Princess Margaret, Gore Vidal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Julian Huxley. Never a name-dropper, she mentioned them only when there was a good story to tell. Novelist Maya Angelou and Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of The Washington Post, were her close friends.

Yet even after 50 years of American life, Mitford retained the detachment of a spectator. An avid collector of oddities on both sides of the Atlantic, she was not nostalgic for England.

The mixture of the personal and political enlivens the Mitford letters, especially those between the sisters. Decca deplored Nancy's admiration for de Gaulle and was sharply critical of the class system that enthroned Deborah in her stately home. They, in turn, could point to inconsistencies in Decca's breach with the American Communist Party, which she left in 1958. She found it easier to say that she was bored than that she was mistaken.

A refusal to admit defeat goes with a stoic denial of pain. Decca was never able to write about her desolation at the death of her first husband, or the accident in which her 10-year-old son was killed. Anger surfaces in her abiding fury at having been denied an education, but on the whole the comic spirit prevails in this large, well-edited and generous volume of her letters.

David Hicks again

It just go from bad to worse to farce.

The US has held one of our citizens for over five years in an isolated prison camp without charge. As an Australian, he should be entitled to efforts by Australia to have him returned home, as would any other Australian citizen would be if illegally held.

Has he been tortured in this prison, well most likely, even if the definition of torture is used very flexibly by both our and the US government.

Now what are they doing now? Well, for 'intellectual stimulation' they have been showing the prisoners pictures of Saddam Hussein's hanging.

When will this nightmare ever end?

Cancer of the Nose

It turns out that I do not have cancer of the nose and I won't need a disfiguring operation. Nor have been so drunk that I cannot recall walking nose first into a door.

After suffering a strangely sore and slightly swollen nose for a couple of days in silence, I mentioned it to my in house Doctor R and he diagnosed a pimple on the inside of my nose. As he is unqualified, I asked him how he knew and he has had one too.

I concurred with his diagnosis but also added that it could be an ingrown hair on the inside of my nose.

Whatever. After five days the nose is now back to normal and once again I can tilt my head back and disdainfully sniff at one and all.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Fine old mood

Let me see, I have had a go at trains, media, trams. Who or what next. Some people think I am a whinger.

Yeesss, let me have a go at Lexmark, maker of our printer. When it works, I like our printer. It is simple to use and does what I want. It scans and photocopies too.

There have been some issues over the couple of years we have owned it, usually ink related. If the ink cartridge level indicators were more reliable, I would have been much less troubled. It is not keen on a single sheet of paper on paper rest when it takes in a sheet either. But quirks, I can live with.

The first sign of trouble came when it started printing multicoloured addresses on envelopes. Uninstalling drivers and software did not rectify the problem, so serious business letters now get a printed label and not a printed envelope. Multi coloured is quite good for birthday cards.

It could even been a Microsoft Word problem, maybe.

Now it is really cantakerous. It will print half a page and then say there is a problem with the ink cartridge. By unplugging the power and plugging it back in, it may then print the whole page, or make a couple of errors in the middle of the page. Sometimes it will print fine, mostly not.

Now it has in it two half full cartridges, plus we have a spare colour cartridge. Total value around eighty dollars.

The printer cost $170, friends later bought a slightly upgraded one for $80 and now the same basic all in one can be had for $40. The cartridges can still be used in the new model, so you can see my temptation.

But, the new model is white, not dark grey and would stand out, like the proverbial dog's accoutrements, among our decor.

But a couple of years is not long for a printer to last and I have never bothered Lexmark before, but my request for technical assistance via email has gone unanswered for a week, so maybe I will buy another brand.

Promise to be more cheerful tomorrow.

Dear Colin Tyrus

(this is one I will actually send by snail mail, and of course there is plenty of self interest about it)

Dear Colin, excuse the informality, but I feel I already know you back from your ABC days.

I note in this week's local paper that you are quoted as saying you have not had reports of overcrowding on route 16 and 96 trams.

Here is one:

There are trams due at my stop in St Kilda Road on Sunday mornings to travel to St Kilda at 8.12, 8.42, 9.12, 9.44, 10.15, 10.55 and 11.15. After this the service improves to 12 minutes and all is then well, busy though, but people can get on.

Up to the 9.12 tram, things are ok, but the subsequent trams are impossible for me to board. The trams are just full! No more people can get on! Physically full! Chockers! This is not an occasional occurrence. It happens every Sunday, even in winter if the weather is mild.

The only circumstance where I can get on, is if it is an extra long tram. But their scheduling seems irregular and erratic and even if it is a long tram, it is still very full with standing room only.

So Colin, I am somewhat incensed by your reported remark in the local paper urging people to validate their tickets so that you know the number of travellers. Should I manage to squash on a Sunday morning route 16 tram, can I get anywhere near a ticket machine or a validator? Am I in the mood to be co-operative with Yarra Trams about validating tickets?

This is not a new problem but it has been getting worse and Yarra Trams does nothing about it. No doubt you are running the service prescribed by the government. What is the point of a private company running Melbourne's trams if it is not responsive to needs? I feel embarrassed as a Melbournian when obvious tourists cannot get on already full trams.

May I suggest a ten minute service on route 16 from 9.00am to 8.00pm on Sunday.

And Colin, you really need to get out more on Sundays or refrain from making such incendiary comments.

The other government broadcaster

One government funded broadcaster is not allowed to receive funds by commercial advertising and the other broadcaster is permitted to receive commercial funds and show advertisments.

The other broadcaster, SBS, started as a multi cultural broadcaster and mostly showed foreign programs in languages other than English, but it has come a long way since then. Many of its programs are very interesting and or entertaining and I can't say that I was very worried when they introduced ads. They were tastefully inserted before and after a program.

When I heard that they would be inserted into programs, I was a bit troubled, but I thought it would be in a tasteful way, like an intermission at the theatre, say midway through.

I have watched a couple of shows on SBS lately, Blue eyes, a challenging show about racism and a show R likes to watch, Shameless. But for me, the pleasure of watching tv without ads was ruined. Ads were inserted any old where and there seemed to be many of them. I may as well have been watching pure commercial tv.

So when a government minister decides to axe SBS (note the very appropriate .com and not .org or .net), I won't be at barricades supporting its retention. I may never watch it again.

Stop that train somebody

It would seem some of Melbourne's trains are failing to stop at platforms and sail right on past. Sometimes the passengers have just been taken on to the next station and sometimes the driver reverses the train.

It is only the Siemens manufactured trains, the nicest ones in the fleet of four types by my reckoning.

That is a fact, the rest is less reliable.

Now they seem to be of a standard design with some adaptions for Melbourne's system and no one has heard of this brake failure before. Also, they are built more for underground systems, not predominately above ground systems like ours.

It seems that they can readily slip when the rail track is greasy and the train computer thinks that as the wheels have locked and stopped turning, the train is stationary and isolates the normal brake and the emergency brake from the driver, as the driver would not need them if the train is stationary. So it is purely a software problem then.

No, there is more. Why has it suddenly started happening? I have also heard that the trains computer software was recently changed and some changes were made but the drivers were not told of the alterations. Perhaps that is why?

Even if the trains were designed for underground use, it is not inconceivable that the tracks could still be slippery underground as well.

I am also sure remedies have been delayed because management did not take the matter seriously in the beginning, just as tram management did not believe that there was a problem with old W trams when the braking system was altered.

Now trains have been around for a century or more and have being stopping quite reliably. Yet the newest train Melbourne has can simply stop when it is supposed to.

We need someone to blame. Siemens? The brake manufacturers? The private public transport company Connex? Computer software writers? The government's public transport ministry? The Department of Infrastructure? I don't know, but that so many people have been, and continue to be incovenienced by having thirty plus trains, with more to come, off the rails is outrageous.

Of course our ABC is not doing so well either when a well known regular spokesperson on public transport has his name changed, twice, to Bowden by our national broadcaster. I am surrounded by incompetence and imcompetents.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I suppose it was after this sundial was placed in Malvern's Central Park that a commemorative tree was also planted, right behind the sundial.

The tree has been removed now and it is again possible to tell the time as the sundial is no longer shaded by the tree. Some people just don't think ahead a bit.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Picture

For my last birthday, my mother gave me a picture of myself in a very nice metal frame. It is a rather good picture of myself taken maybe three years ago and I can see why she chose it.

What happened to my nice black suede jacket I cried?

It disappeared with your waist line, R spat back.

R does not like photos in frames around the house. He has this thing about family photos. I did not know what to do with the most excellent photo of myself. Like, you can't put your own photo in your bedrooom, but that is what I did. It was temporary and although I quite like looking at my photo, it really wasn't right for my bedroom.

As a joke, night before last night I placed it on R's bedside table. It is still there, without comment.

Monday, January 29, 2007


You Melbourne people know what I am talking about and so do you Sydneysiders. Except we have a slightly different language. I recall being puzzled by a Sydney friend's reference to cockies and how he was killing them en masse. How cruel I thought and why would you kill such entertaining birds when he lived in concrete and not red cedar?

We in Melbourne know cockies as cockatoos, a bird, but filthy Sydneysiders know them as cockroaches, or roaches or cockies.

It has come to pass that we cross over. DB has cockies and R does at his work place too. R's invasion sound like they are of the native variety, not sure about DB's.

The mighty Diamantina

I am excited. The mighty Diamantina River in parched and arid central Australia is flowing, well actually flooded. The water is making it's way to the below sea level Lake Eyre which has been an empty salt pan for a few years. Many rivers in the area only flow some years and they all empty in Lake Eyre, that is if their water does not disappear for it reaches the lake.

Lake Eyre full of water will see a hive of creature breeding activity, both land based and water based. It will also bring forth green and colour across the land. Within a short time the water will evaporate and soak into the ground and for perhaps many subsequent years, the lake won't receive water again. Perhaps you can liken it to a camel that can go for long periods without water, but here we could be talking nearly a decade.

The last filling I can establish was 1989, but figures are flaky. There are actually two lakes, north and south and sometimes one fills and overflows into the other and vice a versa, depending where the rain has fallen.

Populate inland Australia, I don't think so.

And it will rain again here kiddies, don't fret. You will once again hear Victorian flood warnings. Trust me.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Highriser has nothing to report, has not done anything interesting, has not been anywhere except work, has not eaten anything interesting, has no pictures to share and has no opinion on anything much at the moment, so there is no post.

Although, we did have dinner at one our fave Indian restaurants last night in company of the brother friends. Bali Da Dhaba in Ripponlea was excellent and as busy as usual but I refuse to to ever order a banquet again. On the way home we called into the Balaclava Hotel to say hello to Dame M, her boarder and his hairdresser friend. They were just about to eat and Dame M was having drinks trouble. Only she gets table service for drinks. She had ordered a Bloody Mary but the waitress got confused and brought her a double strength Bloody Mary and asked Dame M for ten dollars. Dame M refused and the lass brought her the correct drink. I suggested to Dame M that she should have split the difference at say seven dollars and accepted the first drink. Dame M said she would have passed out with that much to drink (no doubt on top of what she had already had over the day). She then said, to my amusement, you could have just pushed me under the table until I regained conciousness.

The hairdresser friend of Dame M's boarder has just bought a portable aircon unit. She said it struggles when it is hot and almost needs to be used like a fan, pointed directly onto yourself. I asked did she put the hose out the window and she said no, she has a hole in the bathroom wall and the air goes into the wall cavity. I told her it is more economical and cools better if the unit goes on early before the room gets too hot.

Edited SMS from a friend:

I am on a tram going to East Coburg and there all these idiots going to Big Day Out who have no idea where they should get off the tram. For a start they should be a Royal Parade tram and they are getting off the tram all over the place to go to Big Day Out and they have absolutely no idea where they are supposed to be in relation to the the tram line. Like lemmings one group got off at Lygon and Elgin Street because a lot of people got off there. I tried to help, but it just got too hard. The worst was the one who asked around when the tram reached Moreland Road. I thought the event was sold out. They were smart enough to buy tickets, but not smart enough to see where it actually was being held and how to get there. Idiot youth. Suppose they will work it out eventually and get there. PS. You are a hot sexy f***er, hope we can meet up soon.

Well, I did say it was edited.