Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Nice Moments in Life - Part 13756

Sitting in the cafe twenty minutes ago eating toast reading Michael Toliver Lives (Armistead Maupin's latest in the Tales of the City series) and Fake Tales of San Francisco by the Arctic Monkeys came on the stereo. South Yorkshire and California in perfect harmony.

For anyone interested in the Mint Custard Book Club (membership of one) I finished Oscar and Lucinda last night but am far too traumatised to write about it...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

In a Pickle

Scenes of disbelief in our house this week at the frankly astonishing news that after almost ten years looking Mrs Custard finally found someone who sells pickled eggs in Australia. She's been laughed out of more delis and markets than I care to mention for trying to find me something to go with my fish and chips, so it seems appropriate that I publicly recognise her efforts and also provide some clearly much-needed publicity to Elfred's (their apostrophe, not mine) of the Peninsula, the brave souls selling Australia's only pickled egg. I'm pleased to report that they are delicious so if you're in Victoria and want to get hold of some try visiting their website here. If you're in some other egg-free corner of the globe you can try your hand at my recipe here.

Whilst we're on the topic of pickling, a quick mention of Emelia's of Kyneton in Victoria who claim to have created "the World's Greatest Pickled Onion." Whilst their onions are very tasty, with some nice bitey peppercorn and chilli tang, they don't beat my Grandpa's whose pickled onions were strong enough to clear out your ears. Keep going Emelia's; everyone loves a tryer.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Antici....... pation

In March last year I posted this rambling piece, in which I professed an unexpectedly deep love for Mad Men and Dexter, given my generally shallow knowledge of non-comedy related television. A year on and – five rapid-fire seasons of Lost aside - little has changed. Mad Men is still the best damn show since Twin Peaks - casting a spell over every magazine and style supplement in the western world despite reportedly low audience figures. Meanwhile, I remain compelled to watch Dexter going about his grisly business, even though every single episode reduces me to a nervous, quivering mess.

The reason for this is simple; I do not, if you’ll pardon the phrase, like having the willies put up me. Not, as is known, that there is anything wrong with that, but still the act of being unnecessarily scared is not something I seek.

I have no problem doing things that are scary if there is something to be gained. I have asked pretty girls to dance, learned to drive a car, hitched for lifts on dark country roads; all things that set the heart racing to differing degrees. Several years combating vertigo also saw me jump from an aeroplane, off a very high bridge and – with the aid of an insane French hang-glider enthusiast – off a 2000 metre mountain top. Still, with a skewed logic informing this madness it was something I felt able to justify on pseudo-scientific grounds. In short, there was a point.

What I cannot embrace is the idea of deliberately terrifying yourself for fun; fear as an end goal rather than something unpleasant to be endured. In practice this has added to my own deep uncool, meaning as it has a lifetime avoiding fairground rides, theme parks, non-vertigo related extreme sports and – most of all - the entire oeuvre of horror cinema.

I should clarify that when I say horror I mean all films designed to make you go “arrrrrrgggh!”; whether in surprise, fear or genuine revulsion. I include 1980s schlock-horror (your Freddies and Jasons as nicely deconstructed by the Scream franchise), splatter, gore, vampires, anything with zombies ( living, dead and/or undead), anything with a one word title and basic premise of ‘coming to get her’ (Jaws, Saw, Poltergeist, Deliverance, Predator, Piranha, Swarm, Anaconda, Arachnophobia… erm … Snakes on a Plane
etc) and all films about brutally violent psychopaths, murderers and serial killers. Especially ones with saws and knives…

It’s possible that this is an enduring legacy of watching two of the very best of these films too young. I distinctly remember being terrified by Jaws aged seven as well as my horror as I watched the Alien alone in the dark at midnight on my tenth birthday, slowly realising that this space adventure was not much like Star Wars at all. From then on I understood that I had enough of an imagination to terrify myself without adding to it with warped visions of Hollywood directors.

I dabbled here and there to try and keep in with the cool kids. Consequently I have seen the likes of Chucky, Aliens (to impress a girl), an Evil Dead (more comedy than horror I was surprised to find), Scream (ditto), Silence of the Lambs (but not Hannibal after I accidentally saw the brain eating bit), Jacob’s Ladder, Starship Troopers and The Blair Witch Project (its power lessened by adverts provided every five minutes by Channel 7). Whilst these filled some pop culture gaps (and the better the film the harder it is to say no - I’ll gladly put myself through anything creepy David Lynch has to offer) they mostly reaffirmed that for me enjoyment and fear are not good bedfellows.

All of which I found myself considering recently, half-way through my fourth season of Dexter, after spending yet another 50 minutes pale, sick to the stomach, worried half to death, hoping - praying – that Dexter Morgan’s murderous dark passenger would stay hidden away for another episode. ’Look out Dexter... no, don’t kill her... oh, you... no... but someone will see... oh... but what if someone finds that and... Dexter (in my best
Joyce Grenfell voice) oh Dexter... don’t do that...’ It was only as the credits rolled, when anticipation had no more grip over me and with a pavlovian slackening of the tightness in my stomach that I realised the folly in watching a show about a serial killer... and hoping no one gets killed.

So whilst Mad Men may be the coolest show around, and Lost is the one that appeals to my post-Lynchian need for interpretation and clue-gathering, I feel I should salute the cast and crew of Dexter for being the only ones ever who could get me to endure and enjoy at the same time. I may be watching from behind hands and cushions - immobilised by anticipation of the worst, like one of Dexter’s victims cellophaned onto his butcher’s table – but at least, for once, for now, I am watching.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Release the Clowns

After weeks of giddy anticipation the program for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is finally out. Some shows have been advertised on Ticketmaster for a while, but it’s nice to have a gander at the full program. The MICF was one of my favourite parts of my first year in Melbourne and I’ve been looking forward to climbing back onto the live comedy horse. For reasons of fiscal limitation I only went to four or five shows last year, but am hoping to double that this year. The question now though is what do I see?

Some choices are obvious. There’s no way I’m missing out on
Good Evening, a night of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches performed by Shaun Micallef and Steven Curry. I was equally Quick Draw McGraw for tickets to see Rich Fulcher, one of the finest loons on the planet, best known for Snuffbox, his show with Matt Berry, and for being the oddly shaped body of Bob Fossil in The Mighty Boosh.

I really wanted to see Josie Long last year but ran out of money, so her new show
Be Honourable is high on my list for 2010. I’m also keen to see 50% of 3RRR’s Lime Champions with Josh Earl taking on the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book at the Swiss Club in Flinders Lane, whilst Justin Heazelwood returns as the Bedroom Philosopher after last year’s worst-timing-for-a-broken-arm-since-John-Squire-at-Glastonbury-1995. Justin will be singing his Songs from the 86 Tram at the Victoria Hotel on Little Collins Street.

I find myself in the strange position of actually knowing someone with their own show at the festival, and so even without seeing it I will encourage you to go and see Russell McGilton’s
Accidents are Prohibited on the Road at the Softbelly Bar, Little Bourke Street. Russell once travelled from Bombay to Beijing on a bicycle so his promise of a ‘not-so-Lonely Planet guide of missed adventures, wrong turns, broken thongs and sex in different time zones’ is likely to be (mostly) true.

Beyond these few and totally unrepresentative shows my diary is ready, open and very willing, so if you have any recommendations feel free to comment below. A cursory glance through these Custardy pages should be enough to let you know what floats my comedy catamaran, so let me know if there’s something I need to see. Equally if you’re performing and would like to spread your word to at least two - maybe three - more people then email me at and – like Terry Gilliam’s coconut wielding Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - I’ll do my best to aid you in your quest.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs from 24th March to 18th April 2010. Go - it’s ace.

Amphibirobot Alert

The thing with secret robot army invasions is you never know where they'll attack next. Take this seemingly innocent water cooler spotted in Geelong last week...

You say refreshing hydration centre for thirsty students...

... I say mono-eared cheeky faced winking mechanoid assassin.

Stay vigilant. Sleep on the left side; keep your sword arm free.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

How to Cook... Pancakes!

Ah Pancake Day, prince amongst special days in the public calendar. How I love thee. Unlike Roy Wood and Wizard I wish it could be Pancake Day everyday... Sadly Pancake Day doesn't seem to be quite as celebrated here in Australia as in the UK where each year local television stations would broadcast live from some local park or scout hut where a semi-famous local chef would teach half-wit news reporters and weather people how to toss pancakes whilst game members of the public would engage in pancake races, armed with comedy frying pans. At least they did back when I was a lad and this advert was telling us not to forget the pancakes on Jif Lemon day.

There are two magnificent things about pancakes. One - you can eat them with absolutely anything, sweet or savoury; and two - they are piss easy to make. Let it be proved thusly:
You will need

  • 100g or 3/4 cup of plain flour
  • an egg, beaten up
  • a bit of salt
  • 300 ml or 1 1/4 cups of milk
  • some butter (for cooking in)
  • a small frying pan (non stick)
  • plus: whatever takes your pancakey filling fancy

Step 1: mix the flour, salt, egg and milk in a big bowl until it's a liquid. You should have enough for about 8-10 pancakes which should serve 4 but really you could eat them all yourself

Step 2: melt some butter in your frying pan on a medium heat. Swish it around the pan til there's a bit of grease everywhere. Remember, Grease is the word...

Step 3: ladle out a thin layer (better to go thin than fat or else they take ages to cook and are harder to fold) of mixture, making a pancake about 20cms across. If you get some holes in your pancake just swish the mixture about a bit and it should run into the gaps. Cook for about a minute then flip over. Don't try any funny stuff - you'll just made a tit of yourself... a spatula will do, thanks.

Step 4: Add your filling of choice to one side of the pancake. The above is a bog standard melty cheese, tomato mushroom and onion which isn't as exciting as it was tasty although when it came to dessert...

... this Chocolate Monkey was pretty awesome. I used Rolos for eyes because not only do you get melty chocolate goodness with your banana but the caramel middle goes all gooey too

Step 5: fold over the other half on top of your ingredients and seal it all in. Cook for another 30 seconds or so, checking to make sure both sides are done and your chocolate/cheese has melted.

Step 6: serve and enjoy. The key here is in tag teaming WWF-style so you can eat whilst someone else cooks and then vice versa to keep the pan in use and the food flowing. This adds a frisson of excitement akin to the stop clock in chess although it can lead to the very serious medical condition known as burny mouth. Beware.

OK, hope you all had a great Pancake Day and got what you wanted. If you didn't at least now you know how to do it yourself... and there's only your own lazy bum to blame. Tata!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Goodie Goodie Yum Yum

Despite my public campaigning for recognition for the less celebrated aspects of British cuisine I do appreciate that I’m lucky to live in a place where genuinely good food is readily available. Apart from one day in Queensland where the only thing I could eat was dry chips, Australia has in general provided well for me when I’ve ventured away from my favoured cheese sandwich diet. 2010 has been very kind so far for eating, so before I forget I thought I’d share some of the nicer gutbusters I’ve had this year:

Slow Living, Piper Street, Kyneton
If you’re heading off for a day in the Victorian countryside I’d suggest a stop for a Ploughman’s Lunch at
Slow Living in Piper Street, Kyneton. For $16.90 you’ll get several chunky slices of fresh sour dough olive bread, a moist serve of pumpkin and hazelnut frittata, several slices of cheddar cheese, tangy fruit chutney, fresh tomatoes, olives and cucumber. This being a ploughman’s fresh farm ham is also included, but I swapped that for another piece of frittata and all was very well. Coffee – as with most things in Slow Living – is organic, fair trade and delicious. All in all $20 well spent in a light and airy space with lots of room outdoors for paws and noisy kids.

Mrs Parma’s, Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
Parmas are a bit of a Melbourne staple but I hadn’t really gone there until recently. I’m pleased to report that my first experience was surprisingly delicious. It may look like an RSL but
Mrs Parmas (25 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne) has a good stock of boutique beers and offers a range of parma toppings for vegies and meat eaters alike. I had a Mexican Eggplant Parma (tomato salsa, sour cream, guacamole and jalapenos - $18.90) served up with chunky chips and a refreshing but pretty basic salad. A minor grumble was the sneaky use of chicken salt on chips which had to go back, but it wasn’t enough to put me off my jalapenos.

Caph’s, Manuka Terrace, Canberra
There was little that drew me into Caph’s in Manuka on New Year’s night other than the fact it was open and my belly was hungry. The
menu was a little uninspired and whilst I’m no snob, a woman who might have been the head waiter was chewing gum open-mouthed as she worked in a way that came to sum up the type of service we received. Still as someone who reluctantly worked public holidays in the past I was happy to overlook Violet Beauregarde because of the surprisingly delicious smoked salmon risotto ($16.50 entrée or $19.50 main) I eventually ate. The salmon was fall-apart tender whilst the cashews and roast pumpkin worked well in the white wine and cream sauce. The entrée size was plenty enough too when eaten with the mixed leaf lemon / olive oil salad and finished off with one of the house specials - homemade waffles with vanilla ice cream onto which I drowned in chocolate syrup. I’m sure there are better places to eat in Manuka but under the circumstances Caph’s was surprisingly good enough.

Denn’s Bar Restaurant, Northcote
For the best bruschetta I’ve ever tasted try
Denn’s Bar Restaurant at 113 High Street Northcote (at the Westgarth end). Purists might suggest the round base strays away from traditional bruschetta into pizza territory but you’ll get a very generous helping of fresh tomato, Spanish onion, basil and sun-dried tomato tapenade topped with goat’s cheese and olives for a very dignified $12.50, which makes an ideal pre-cinema meal. On hungrier nights we have been known to pair it up with the Vegetarian Platter ($24) which offers vine leaves, garlic mushrooms, ripe and tangy marinated olives, haloumi and crisp bread which is more than enough for two. One of those meals that we enjoy so much we’ve never bought anything else, but the rest of the menu looks equally delicious.

Noodle Hut, 136 Station Street, Fairfield
Noodle emporia spring up in Australian cities like Fenella the witch in Chorlton and The Wheelies – anywhere, any time and with supernatural speed. The problem is less one of finding one open than finding out which are the good ones. We discovered Noodle Hut on New Year’s Day 2008 and pretty much went every fortnight until we moved out of the area. Even then we’ve been back a couple of times. There are few surprises on the menu, with most of the standard Western-defined Asian meals you’d expect, averaging between $9 and $13. What you eat will depend upon your taste. Mrs Custard swears by the vegetarian fried rice whilst I oscillate between the seafood Nasi Goreng and a hokkien noodle version of Pad Thai. It’s all served deliciously fresh - from fridge to wok to box in less than five minutes – even when there’s a queue. Also, as observed by my mum and even my dustbin of a dad when they were here on holiday, the little boxes have a TARDIS-like capacity to contain more than you’d believe possible.

Small Block, 130 Lygon Street, Brunswick East
And finally, going about this arse up as usual, let’s finish with breakfast. Not just any old breakfast mind you, but Small Block’s Summer Breakfast, my favourite egg-related belly-filler in Melbourne. I found Small Block by accident one Tuesday not long after we moved here and spent a happy afternoon with the paper, a couple of coffees and the first of many Summer Breakfasts. Built on a functional poached eggs-on-toast base, the key is in the accompanying cubes of Persian fetta and beetroot relish which each possess enough taste-bud tickling prowess to bring your eggs to life. A peeled avocado, spinach and wedge of lemon all add to the freshness and make you think that you’ve eaten something healthier than it probably is. Yum. One word of warning: pick your times well. Small Block is often busy, especially at obvious peak hours and getting the eye of a member of staff can be hard. Especially recommended for those flying solo or lucky enough to have a week day off…

If you’ve eaten in any of these places and agree or disagree, let me know. Equally, if you are the owner of one of these establishments feel free to contact me for a sponsorship deal. I’m very cheap and happy to prostitute myself in exchange for tasty snacks.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Over and Over and Over

Interesting article by Peter Roebuck in The Age today about declining interest in One Day cricket, as demonstrated by yesterday’s 25,463 crowd at the MCG for the first knock between Australia and the West Indies. It’s likely the biggest factor for the low(ish) crowd was the 60,000+ who watched the Twenty 20 match at the MCG between Australia and Pakistan just two days earlier. Still as Roebuck notes, all the sporting factors were there yesterday for a good day out, but people - me included - voted with their feet.

This is not news; Roebuck’s piece is another in a long line of similar articles about the inevitable death of the 50-over game in favour of 20/20 cricket. He offers a few suggestions to refresh the format created by Kerry Packer et al in the 1970s but there is another bigger issue that he doesn’t mention: people like to see Australia lose.

Obviously I like to see the Australian cricket team lose – for me it’s akin to finding a dancing penguin in my fridge with a surprise cheese platter - but let me share a secret: I’m not alone. Aside from the many Kiwis, Indians and Sri Lankans who call Australia home, there are a great many cricket-loving natal Australians who like nothing better than to see Ricky Ponting with a grumpy face and the Aussies put to the sword.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from the all-conquering all-sledging-’bowled-Shaiiiine’-years of unfettered arrogance; maybe a reaction to the mindless Oi! Oi! Oi! support of the flag-waving-Southern-Cross-tattooed hoards, or maybe just Schumacher Syndrome - acute ennui caused by year after year of watching the same smug fuckers win. Whatever their reasons, each summer we all join forces like an unofficial and covert branch of the United Nations called People Who Hate the Baggy Green and cheer for whoever is playing Australia.

Whilst we approach each summer with a weary understanding that Australia will ultimately triumph, we are occasionally treated to scenes of unexpected delirium. Back-to-back visits by India and South Africa in recent summers were exquisite and even England’s 5-0 whitewash loss in the Ashes was unexpectedly followed by a bizarre yet welcome ODI Tri-Series win which left Ponting speechless.

Sadly this summer we have been sorely underprovided for. We’ve seen a decent but by-no-means brilliant Australian team win a test series 2-0 against the Windies before winning three tests, five ODIs and a 20/20 game against a Pakistan team who in the space of one month have choked more times than a British tennis player. The memory of five almost-perfect days in Adelaide in early December has been obliterated by a woeful Pakistan who haven’t recovered from the moment they allowed Michael Hussey to save the Sydney test.

Despite the media hype before every game, it’s inevitable that two and a half months of Australian dominance would result in reluctance to fork out money to watch more of the same. The ranks of the People Who Hate the Baggy Green have been artificially swelled by temporary members keen for a bit of competition before summer is out.

I still think talk of the death of ODI is a bit premature. Despite what the media likes to tell us, many of us haven’t embraced Twenty 20 as a natural replacement. I’d also suggest that 25,000 paying spectators is better than the tiers of empty seats in a 100,000+ seater stadium makes it look. Further, instead of silly ideas like giving 8 runs for a 6 to make the 50-over game more exciting, I believe this summer might have been more interesting had the two ODI series been played as a Tri-Series. As we saw with the England–NZ-Australia competition in 2007, even a team which has been resoundingly thrashed by Australia can recover confidence if given the opportunity to do so.

It could be that Cricket Australia doesn’t want that to happen. They may be so bloody minded that they want their team to win at any cost, even if it means the death of the one-day game. However one thing is increasingly clear: the Australian public - wherever we come from, whoever we barrack for - does not.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Oh! Mr Songwriter

There was much kerfuffle this week about the decision by an Australian judge to side with Larrikin Music in their fight with the pop group Men at Work over whether the band plagiarised from the children’s song Kookaburra (Sits in the Old Gum Tree). In a long running case, Justice Peter Jacobson decided that the flute riff from Men at Work’s biggest hit Down Under (you know the one… yes, that one) "...reproduce[d] a substantial part of Kookaburra".

This means Larrikin are entitled to a percentage of Down Under’s current and past royalties. How much do they want? “Obviously, the more the better but it depends - … between 40% and 60%, and what they've suggested which is considerably less."

Despite any outward appearance of a David and Goliath case (small publishing company representing the interests of wronged songwriter versus multi-million selling rock stars and Sony BMG/EMI) Larrikin are no David. I’ll admit straight up that I don’t have a nuanced knowledge of the ins and outs of copyright law but I find a few things very wrong about this whole shemozzle which I’d like to inarticulately and self-contradictingly share…

Firstly, as can be deduced from Larrikin’s reaction to the judge’s decision this is solely about money. Marion Sinclair, who wrote
the lyrics to Kookaburra, died in 1988. There has been no mention that this is a fight on behalf of her family or in her name. It is about nothing more than opportunistically cashing in on something that Larrkin have no understanding of or emotional investment in, as proved by the fact it took a joke reference to the flute riff on the quiz show Spicks and Specks before they realised there might be money to be made.

Secondly the decision is harsh because technically (though the courts disagree) Larrkin only own the rights to the words to Kookaburra. The tune – of which only a small part was used in Down Under – is a traditional Welsh children’s song adapted by Sinclair for the Girl Guides and out of copyright for many years. That the case is geared around the music they don’t own and not the words they do makes Justice Jacobson’s decision hard to swallow.

Thirdly the shadow-boxing around the idea whether plagiarism occurred has helped no one but Larrikin. Of course the flute bit in Down Under sounds like Kookaburra; it’s meant to! It’s a song about Australia for buggery’s sake. It’s a cheeky reference to Australian childhood just as the line ‘she just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich’ is about Aussie breakfast. It’s like the KLF using
Jerusalem in It’s Grim up North to evoke Englishness. It’s a song that deals in broad brush stereotypes; that’s why people like it! I’m sure Men at Work will never be able admit that it’s deliberate in public since they have based their defence around denial of the similarity but in the hip hop world it would be considered a very clever bit of sampling… which brings me on to the fact that…

…fourthly, Down Under was written at a time when songwriters just did that kind of thing. Applying 2010 laws to something that happened in 1984 is plain silly. In days of yore you could, for example, be a publically open Beatle-worshipper like Paul Weller, write a song like
Start! which brilliantly rips off the bass line to George Harrison’s Taxman and have no one blink an eyelid. It was only when sampling went mainstream with tracks like MARRS’ Pump up the Volume that songwriters started objecting to use of their music and went looking for payment (for more on wilfully subversive sampling in this period check out the antics of the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – later the KLF – who stirred up a hornet’s nest by sampling Abba, Queen, Whitney Houston and the Beatles).

Anyway, rights and wrongs of sampling put to one side, and even accepting that the world revolves around money, surely royalties need to be commensurate. The importance of the flute riff has been a bit overstated, which has lead to the ridiculous claims of 40-60% by Larrkin. Whilst it is only a pop song, there is far more to Down Under than that riff. I hope that when the decision on royalty splits is made later this month they avoid the fate of the Verve who were forced to credit the Rolling Stones as the writers of Bitter Sweet Symphony and hand over 100% royalties to Jagger and Richards for something they had precious little to do with.

Finally, this is not about sticking it to the man; Men at Work are not Sting. They’re a bunch of blokes who struck it lucky with one (admittedly huge) moment in the spotlight by writing a funny song that the Australian people took to their collective sun-burnt leathery bosom. No doubt some of them then had to go back to their day jobs; I doubt they live in mansions drinking imported beers from golden goblets. They may make a bit of money from FM radio stations, but you know what, they deserve it. When I write a multi-million selling international hit record I’ll deserve it too. Larrikin, whoever they are, have written nothing and deserve nothing.

Were Marion Sinclair was still around I could understand some moral reasoning for looking out for her interests – after all she too partly wrote a song equally embraced by the world as a symbol of Australia – but since that particular bird has flown this mortal tree this latest court action boils down to one thing - Larrikin wanting all the gum drops for themselves. Laugh Larrikin laugh, while you can.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A Sore Loser Writes...

Ah, Roger Federer. You are to tennis as Michael Schumacher was to Formula One; as Ricky Ponting is to cricket. And I can think of no greater insult than that.