My next piece for the Brisbane Line was to be Is Life Sacred? but somehow another article thrust itself forward, diverting me from my intended course and I found myself writing Grumpy Old Men and Women. It was timed to appear in the February issue, the first of the year, but the editor felt it was too frivolous or polemical and declined it. Well, what’s the point of having a blog if you don’t publish your own writing. So now you can read here, what the Brisbane Line turned down. I still want to write Is Life Sacred?


If I speak from my resentment to yours we will get on like a house on fire. It is the negative side of the coin of which the positive side is sharing one’s enthusiasms, and it is a formula which can be devastatingly successful in politics, as John Howard demonstrated at various times when he was Prime Minister of Australia. Speaking to the electorate’s resentment on populist issues is not the sign of good leadership. On the contrary, political leadership lies in carrying people on an issue by appealing to their better nature.
In entertainment it is a harmless enough formula, which has worked well in the British television series Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women, which are regularly shown on the ABC. What is surprising about both series is that most of the grumpies are middle-aged, not old. I am closer to seventy than sixty years of age, but I admit to having only embarked on middle-age since turning sixty. What is the popular definition of old? — certainly not forty or fifty, which many of the grumpies appear to be, or even sixty.  Not many grumpies are over 70. So I find it ludicrous to see a succession of forty or fifty year old grumpy old men and women banging on about whatever.

Apart from their lack of age, the grumpies, in my view, are rank amateurs. In their rantings, they appear to have ignored two of the great scourges of contemporary life. The first is one of the major cons and iniquities of modern times, as bad if not as widespread as the recorded telephone menu, namely the fact that people pay a lot of money to stay in hotels, only to have to serve themselves with a breakfast of indifferently cooked food languishing in a bain-marie.  Even before getting at the food, which can entail a fair amount of leg work to find what one wants, one has to discover where the glasses, plates and cutlery are and they have a nasty habit of not readily revealing themselves. And once you locate the cutlery, say, you find that all the teaspoons have gone. Hotel managements the world over make the basic mistake of assuming that serving yourself breakfast is a simple task. How can it be, if one is in a totally unfamiliar room and the things you want are in a layout reflecting the inscrutable logic of the hotel’s restaurant manager? Then the element of greed creeps in, the determination of people to get their money’s worth.  Many take it on themselves to eat for their country. I find all this annoying and not the way I want to start my day.

To add injury to insult, I stayed at a hotel in Prague last northern summer, where someone had managed to cover with food, the handle of a serving spoon hidden beneath the lid of a dish. It proved impossible to rouse the staff to provide me with the means of cleaning my hands or a replacement spoon. But I digress: the behaviour of the staff was more to do with the surliness of workers in the Czech Republic’s hospitality industry.

People are so inured to this, to me, unrelaxing start to the day, that they don’t even register the fact that they are paying good money for being so shabbily exploited. Over breakfast in a hotel in China, I thought I would help some American ladies by pointing out what was really happening to them and far from being outraged, one replied that people serving themselves was the only way for hotels to deal with a rush of guests and for tour operators to maintain their schedules. This is probably true, but it’s no excuse.

It wasn’t always thus, although I recall having to serve myself breakfast at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem as long ago as 1974. On recent trips to the UK, I have stayed at a modest hotel in Yorkshire, at the bottom of the street where I lived when I went to school. The hotel did not exist then. During the off-season, for thirty pounds a night, I had a comfortable twin-bedded room with bathroom and an excellent  freshly cooked breakfast. I was only required to help myself to juice and cereals. But I remember a time staying in hotels when one did not even have to do that.

The second scourge on which the grumpies seem to have remained silent is the increasingly intrusive presence of digital still cameras. I used to stop to let people take photographs before crossing their path, but now I just keep on walking, otherwise I would never get to where I want to go.  Everyone seems to have a camera and the technology is so user-friendly that people have become trigger happy, simply pointing and pressing at every conceivable opportunity. Gone are the days when people had to think about what they were photographing, if only because of the number of shots remaining on their roll of film. Nowadays, either the shots are no good or the subjects are no good.

Woe-betide you if you are a sightseer without a camera. You will be pushed out of the way by the camera wielding hordes, whether Chinese in Yunnan’s Stone Forest, or Europeans and Americans in Prague. I now have a strategy guaranteed to annoy them. First I get to the best vantage point and hold my ground. I take my time to look around. After all, I don’t have a camera with which to photograph the scene. Next, if I am being jostled by a camera wielding thug, I baffle him or her by explaining that I am taking a photograph with my eyes, which invariably I am. Finally I buy postcards. The postcard photographer has a greater knowledge of the subject than I and the opportunity and need to do it justice.
Call it my wilful ignorance, or my stubborn or independent streak, but I have an aversion to being part of a guided tour. As for the taped guides to museum collections, I avoid them like the plague, good as they evidently are. I prefer to linger or not as the case may be. I don’t want to be rooted to the spot while the guide finishes what it has to say about a particular item. It appears the grumpies have nothing to say on this topic too. Istanbul was one of the places I visited during my last overseas trip. I happened to be travelling with my son Simon. At the Topkapi there was a brisk trade in taped guides and Simon wondered whether to hire one. I certainly wasn’t going to pay, so that may have decided the issue. How right I was. The palace was suffocatingly crowded. Some of the daggers and jewels were dimly lit, so one would have had difficulty in seeing their details had one been able to get close enough to look. A taped guide in these conditions would have been worse than useless, not only as a waste of money, but as an unnecessary object to lug around.

I have alluded to the crowds in the Topkapi. I can’t think of anything worse than being in an iconic museum as crowded as a railway terminus in the rush hour, and trying to see a masterpiece, say a portrait of a Doge by Bellini, from six rows back. This happened to me shortly after London’s National Gallery extension opened. It simply can’t be done. The painting is too small and delicate. Then there are the museums which rope off paintings so that you can’t get near them, presumably for security reasons. It is impossible to properly view a painting without being able to go right up to it. The security argument does not seem to apply to masterpieces in the Mauritshaus in the Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In both these marvellous places it is possible to closely approach paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt and study their brushstrokes and use of colour in detail.

Nothing reveals their amateur status more than the grumpies having one of their regular goes at the softest of targets, teenagers and young adults.  Some of them may look weird, they may talk an alien language and do inexplicable things, but that doesn’t stop them from becoming politicians, judges, and captains of industry later in life. Some may accomplish supreme deeds in sport. No, the grumpies should spend more time taking on old folk, who can be unbelievably selfish, intolerant, demanding and, well, grumpy. Thank god most old folk no longer have the strength or desire to do physical harm.
Peter Kuttner
January 2009