“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





18 October 2008

Ring Any Bells?


by PHILIP WHITE – This appeared in The Advertiser on Sunday 22 December 1990

The fiend did it again this morning. There I was lost in that dreamy twilight zone between deep slumber and whatever else there is, listening to the local blackbird work his way through some difficult Frank Zappa riffs when the jerk next door suddenly shattered everything with his hammer. Bango. Eight sharp. Ack emma.

I’m sure this bloke’s preparing me for the horror of his Christmas and New Year’s parties. I can feel the pressure building. He just simply adores Christmas, because every time one goes by he gets another power tool. This has helped him develop his pathological obsession with industriousness, and his manic commitment to proving it superior over whatever he imagines the rest of us have in its place. Now he’s really winding it up for Jesus’ birthday. By the 25th he’ll be frothing at the mouth.

And so, I’m sure, will I.

The style of cacophany he’s selected this morning, this Sunday, this day of rest, shows an unusual preference for the traditional instruments: the hammer-and-nail, and the hand saw. He’s usually into the more modern stuff, rapping along to the buzz-saw, the percussive masonry drill, and the electric jack hammer, sounding much more like a visit to some gargantuan dentist than this morning’s woody performance. Perhaps, out of deference to Our Lord and his carpenter Dad, he’d trying to get more Bethlehem into it.

No joking. I wouldn’t blink an eye if he started work on a manger next. There can be little else he needs.

He built an outdoor spa last week, each day attracting a new gaggle of power-tool worshippers. They wear those psychedelic Bombay bloomers and the electric blue mirror sunglasses that hang on cords around their necks. Once this mob finally got their spa finished they all up and off with their clothes and into it, saying things like “Jeez mate let’s pick the scab off a few beers”, and talked loudly about The Boongs. They have to talk loud in order to be heard above the roar and whine of the machinery that drives the volcano or whatever it is beneath them, and they must have those strings on their sunglasses to save them from falling into the cauldron full of tinea and toejam they’re sitting in.

No sooner had the terra cotta tiles dried and they started building another gadget. A sort of industrial-strength barbecue, more or less along the lines of a Tower of Babel. I remember Mick Young once saying that when he was a kid they used to eat in the house and shit outside and now that we’ve all come so far with this cosmopolitan stuff we eat in the yard and shit in the house. I think Mick got thrown outa the chamber for a session on the strength of that.

They were halfway through the world’s loudest complete set of outdoor furniture when I bunged on some Maria Callas at about number seven to show them another type of sound. They all jumped back in the spa and yodelled along so hideously I was inclined to duck across and beg them to put the chainsaw back on.

And so I lay there, struggling to conjure up the shape of the object under construction from the rhythm of the hammer and saw, grieving for our whole bilious community. We’re sick of recession and depression and little Arab kids being gassed and poor bloody businessmen committing suicide and George Bush making dates. We lie abed, whimpering into the Tontine, too frightened to face the shopping. We sit in silent rows in front bars, knuckles slowly whitening on the butchers, wishing someone warm would wander in to share a slow, cool one and offer some reassurance and a smoke with some flavour.

Then I came over really sicko nasty, and wondered he we could get all the sorts of blokes I’ve got next door to head off to the Gulf War. It’s always the nice kids who go to the slaughter, generation after generation. But they’d lie there in the sand in their rubber suits dreaming of that spa at home and I’d feel guilty and nobody’d be any better off.

I lunched with a psychiatrist mate last week and we talked about some of these things and he advised me that if I wanted quiet rest in the Big House for Christmas I’d have to be quick or hang a particularly rococo fruity, because the best clinics are all full and the rest are filling fast. That came as no surprise, but I did shock myself when I went to call my friend a shrink and the word stuck like a fishbone in my gullet because this bloke, the Brain Farmer we joke about, suddenly turned into a nice soft doctor I might soon need to visit.

I tried reading this morning, to alleviate the The Fear and The Hammering, and after skipping over the bit about what a terrible freezing squalor of a Christmas the poor old Ruskies are bogged in, I read that this year the Tokyo Stock Exchange collapsed to the tune of twice the total outstanding debt of the Third World.

It took a passing siren to take my mind off that, and I don’t mean the saucy sort who slop about singing on rocks but the nasty types with people dying inside them, or the ones which indicate someone’s been naughty enough to drag the cops away from their automatic radar cameras, or the ones which tell you someone’s personal stuff is all afire and their teddy and their snapshot collection is crinkling up and coming apart. Always a growth period for sirens, Christmas.

The last year I bought presents, speaking of growth, I was staggering up Rundle Street like a burro laden with expensive stuff for folks who probably wouldn’t like it, savoring thoughts of all the better ways of showing love, when a madman with a knife knocked me and all my fancy goods flying. A nice young chap chased him, brought him down with a flying tackle, and set about the careful gouging of his eyes, so I gathered up my burdens and wobbled on, straight into the mess of bleeding people this nutter had just chopped up.

The sirens sang then, too, and they gassed and soothed and bandaged and they threw the luny into a cage. When I got safely down to The Exeter for a few quiet triples, I decided there and then never to buy presents for the love of God because it’s like offering burnt sacrifices and all that went out with the Old Testament. I’ve felt a lot better since. Now I buy presents when people need something, or a mate or lover makes me so runny in the middle I can’t resist.

I was going to suggest you should all buy yourselves and any kids you can get your hands on a ticket to Circus Oz and call that your present, but you know what? These awful sad days of bread and circuses and central nervous system collapse have even infested life under the big top. The poor bloody circus hasn’t got the cash to perform in Sydney, and we showed up in such dribs and drabs they can’t afford to play here any longer either. It was such a beautiful circus.

I’d worked out a way to sell my neighbour to the ringmaster, somehow getting him into a drugged haze and the white gorilla suit, but I’ve got a much better idea now they’re off down the road. I’m going instead. And I’m taking the blackbird. Season’s greetings.


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