things take wing


It’s funny how when someone dies, things they treasured turn out to be just that … things,” my father observes.

Four months on from the death of his wife, my mother, we have started the job of clearing the house of redundant items.

We started in the kitchen, among the late housewife’s hardware, believing somehow that pots would be less painful than coats, scarves, shoes, lace-edged handkerchiefs and stockings.

Stupid really, as more than any other room, this was her domain.

Yet, there was an element of necessity about tackling the pantry.

In the five and a half years between the stroke that prevented her ever coming home and her death, the pantry was much as she left it: provisioned to whip up a batch of biscuits, cake, tray of slice or pie at any moment.

It seemed like too much of an invasion of her turf, too much of an admission of defeat, to toss ingredients from which she conjured Anzacs, chocolate chip cookies, ginger cake, apple pie and apricot bread.

But now it wasn’t the stale ingredients and out-of-date packages that worried me as much as the … things.

Unless you know their stories how would you know that the chipped tea cup she left in the flour bin as a measure belonged to her mother.

Or that in the cutlery drawer the rusted ancient Foster’s bottle opener belonged to her father, and the vicious looking ancient bone-handled carving fork to her grandparents.

Perhaps this is where people start to become hoarders; when the line between things and memories becomes blurred and objects take on a life of their own.

In my own kitchen for example there is this one cheap white plate with a thin silver band worn to almost nothing by constant washing.

The plate in itself is entirely unremarkable, but I know its secret; how it actually belongs to a mime and a clown named Anthony Verity who lives in an orange straw-bale house and works as a living statue known as Albert Stone.

Many readers will have seen him dressed in a suit covered with rubber, grey paint and foam, with hands and face coated in grey make-up as he works the streets of Melbourne with gentle humour, chipping away at even the hardest of hearts.

The plate, crowned by chocolate cake fresh from Anthony’s informal coffee shop of a kitchen, returned to the office with a photographer one day by way of thanks for a story.

After the cake was demolished I fully intended to return it. Washed and dried it even rattled around in the car boot for a while, but I never seemed to be in the owner’s neighbourhood.

Eventually the orphaned plate insinuated itself among my crockery and being a very handy three-quarter size soon found itself adopted.

That was eight years ago.

To me it’s a magic pudding of a plate, never entirely empty because it resonates with the story of a character made of stone.

It shares something of Albert’s inscrutable stillness amid the frantic city bustle and the beyond-words-feeling of connection with another time and place.

One – hopefully far distant day – the duty will befall others to look after my estate and no doubt the plate will be trashed as mismatched junk.

Things are not always what they seem.




ET phone Rome


Forty-five years after man first set foot on the Moon seems as good a time as any for NASA to admit what many of us raised on a televisual diet of Dr Who have dreamed.

Last month, the head of NASA no less proclaimed himself not only to be a member of the pro alien camp, but predicted their existence may be confirmed within as little as 20 years.

It’s highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone,” said NASA adminstrator Charles Bolden – flanked by a host of concurring boffins.

This was immediately rejected by fundamentalist creationists who argue that aliens cannot exist and therefore it’s a pointless waste of money to keep looking for them.

But while they might be dang sure about that in Clarksville, Kentucky, NASA has a powerful ally in the Catholic Church which seems not only willing to entertain the idea of aliens, but is actively scouring the cosmos for new congregants.

Earlier this year the Vatican Observatory co-sponsored a major powwow on extraterrestrial life involving 200 of the world’s leading astrobiologists.

While the Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature & Instruments conference drew no firm conclusions, Pope Francis I is light years ahead in reception planning.

The Pontiff recently generated intergalactic headlines during a mass dedicated to the conversion of the first pagans by saying he would be like totally prepared to baptise an alien if one knocked at the door of the papal apartment.

If – for example – tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here … Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them … And one says, ‘But I want to be baptised!’ What would happen? …Who are we to close doors?”

The director of the Vatican Observatory The Reverend Jose Gabriel Funes has previously said it would cramp God’s style to suggest there were no aliens.

Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom. Why can’t we speak of a ‘brother extraterrestrial’? It would still be part of creation.”

Or as fellow Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno put it, he would surely baptise an alien upon request because “any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.”

I’m not quite sure where that leaves calamari, but it’s always seemed counter-productive to me for any religious leader – whether they subscribe to a single supreme being or multiple deities – to deny the existence of aliens.

The widely worshipped Hindu deity Ganesha for example has the head of an elephant and four arms and would not look out of place to Star Wars fans in the Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina on Tatooine.

And the Christian God?

Hello! Who lives in Heaven and is not of Earth, has supernatural powers and is all seeing and all knowing.

Isn’t this the common ground between God, Ganesha and even little green men – that faith is about believing or at least accepting the possibility of something we cannot prove exists.

So will ET phone Rome?

Herself only knows, but as the Vatican generously allows, the truth is out there.



not my type


So the new computer is great.

It’s not clogged up with a million pieces of grime, the desktop tower no longer wheezes like an asthmatic cat, and the letters on the new keyboard are nice and clicky, offering reassurance to all and sundry that work is in progress.

There’s really just one problem. My favourite font has gone AWOL.

Scrolling through the pull-down menu to change the default setting, I went from Aharoni to Wingdings three times before the shocking truth sunk in – welcome to uncharted typographical terrain.

Now, I stopped using Times New Roman last century because it looked like it should stay there: hunched, crabbed thing that it is.

A serif typeface with fussy little feet and tips on the letters, it was so-called because it was first commissioned by the UK Times newspaper back in 1931.

For a long while I flirted with Arial, before settling on Calibri Light.

While a typeface can never achieve the intimacy of human handwriting, Calibri (and specifically my preferred Light variant, which is the one that’s vanished) has a rounder, cleaner, more open, friendly look.

This week in a hunt for a replacement I tested Batang but the serifs could be windsocks; Gulim was good but the gaps too big; more than three lines and DejaVu Sans Light looked like it had been drawn against a ruler by a school kid with his tongue hanging out in concentration. So now I’m trialling Segoe UI Light.

Beyond the very limited offerings of Open Office free software there are now more than 150,000 families of typestyle and 300,000 fonts available.

Some of them sound more like bad punk bands or horror movies, with names like Girls Are Weird, Lilac Malaria, Burning Wrath, Mrs. Strange, Dead Secretary, Poilet Taper and Girl Scout Bitch which comes in three weights Sarcastic, Sadistic and Just Plain Mean.

But dubious names aside there is a lot riding on the fonts people use to communicate in every form from huge roadside billboards to text messages.

The body copy of The Weekly Review, for example, is set in Minion Pro.

It’s no coincidence that a book often called the typographer’s bible, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in the same.

Designed originally for Adobe systems it’s incredibly flexible, features lovely ligatures and extra flair applications, but at the same time is reader friendly and classically familiar.

I’m not saying empires have been won and lost on typeface, but studies have shown some fonts are more convincing, to the point that more people will believe a statement written in Baskerville than in Georgia and Trebuchet.

And, in a world where the number of clicks can determine whether you live or die, even a 2 per cent margin can make a huge difference.

Just like handwriting, typefaces have personalities which leave a subtle impression on the reader. Woe betide the political candidate or job aspirant who mails out in Comic Sans.

Like writing an email all in CAPITAL LETTERS, some fonts say ‘warning, warning, danger, danger’– not a great message if it’s issuing from your bank, superannuation fund or gynaecologist.

This then is why Google recently spent 18 months tweaking its user-interface typeface Roboto – spending heaven knows how much to make changes imperceptible to most.

You could call it … em, em … the new fontier.

Does it matter?

Helvetica, yes!